Analysis: Is honesty really the best policy for Gavin Robinson?

The pivoting DUP leader has conceded that the Donaldson Deal was oversold

John Manley

John Manley, Politics Correspondent

A relative late comer to journalism, John has been with The Irish News for close to 25 years and has been the paper’s Political Correspondent since 2012.

DUP leadEr Gavin Robinson. PICTURE: KELVIN BOYES/PRESS EYE (Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye/Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye )

It’s perhaps understandable that Gavin Robinson wishes to distance himself from his predecessor, especially with a difficult election looming, but ditching the so-called Donaldson Deal may not be the smartest tactic.

The East Belfast MP was among the strongest advocates of the Safeguarding the Union command paper, the deal his party agreed with the Tories that led to the restoration of the Stormont institutions.

As DUP deputy leader he arguably wasn’t as enthusiastic as Sir Jeffrey Donaldson in selling the merits of the deal, which the latter claimed removed the Irish Sea border, but he certainly wasn’t echoing the sentiments of Sammy Wilson, Ian Paisley, Carla Lockhart and Nigel Dodds, who publicly voiced concerns.

Now Mr Robinson has conceded that the deal was oversold and that more work needs to be done to mitigate the impact of the protocol.

The pivot, as it has been characterised, is clearly designed to fend off a challenge at the polls next month from the TUV, a political one-man band, albeit one bankrolled by Reform UK billionaire benefactors Ben Habib and Richard Tice.

TUV MLA Jim Allister
TUV leader Jim Allister. PICTURE: LIAM MCBURNEY/PA (Liam McBurney/PA)

A seemingly vindicated Jim Allister has maintained all along that EU law still applies in the north and that he was right to call out the DUP leadership’s misrepresentation of what had been achieved as a result of its Stormont boycott.

The TUV leader is nothing if not consistent and his message on the doors will remain the same. It’ll be the DUP that now has to modify its narrative and explain to voters why it misled them.

There was clearly a strong desire among the DUP’s Stormont team to get the institutions up and running again, and this perhaps blinded many to what they would have ordinarily identified as the deal’s flaws. Many MLAs didn’t like sitting on their hands, while they also suspected that the boycott could damage them electorally.

Yet spooked by recent polling which showed support for DUP had slumped 7 points since February, the freshly ratified leader has gambled on winning back disgruntled voters by being upfront. However, this is a short-term tactic, the success of which rests on Labour moving quickly to align Britain with the EU, therefore preventing another potential Stormont walk out.

The difficulties created by the protocol are relatively minor yet the principle attached the Irish Sea border has shown the capacity to fracture unionism. It’s likely a similar fork in the road will appear again, when the pragmatists will again go one way, the purists the other.

What’s clear is that every time such a choice arises and is tactically overcome, somebody loses credibility and support. The hubris and subsequent mess caused by Brexit looks destined to haunt its cheerleaders for ever more.