Peter Robinson: the end of Mr Untouchable
Without doubt the most significant result of the general election in Northern Ireland was the defeat in East Belfast of , leader of the Democratic Unionist party. His conqueror was Naomi Long, deputy leader of the Alliance party and currently lord mayor of Belfast. Robinson was seen as the most powerful politician in Northern Ireland. In addition to being successor to Ian Paisley within the DUP, he was also his successor as first minister of Northern Ireland.
Robinson has been a constant in for more than 30 years. Indeed, Long was an eight-year-old primary school pupil when Robinson captured the seat from the Ulster Unionists. Since that time he has controlled Castlereagh council as well as the constituency. He saw himself as untouchable.
Having cultivated a hard-man image, flaunting a red beret and marching in front of Paisley's movements, he appeared to be safe as houses. But things started to unravel for him in the last year with the MPs' expenses scandal. His wife had spent over as well as £800 for a briefcase and £1,600 for a bed. These extravagances, coupled with of his close links to a number of key developers/builders, started to erode his image.
A few weeks before the election it was discovered that a multimillionaire developer had sold Robinson a piece of key development land for £5. Other rumours abounded although little has yet been proven. The Robinsons looked after one another. Both husband and wife were councillors, members of the Northern Ireland assembly, and MPs. One of his sons is now also a councillor, and there were jobs for two other siblings. With their immaculate turnout they became known as "The Swish Family Robinson".
These personal difficulties were matched by political problems. After the signing of the the DUP, in particular Robinson, went on the offensive. He attacked the Ulster Unionists and promised never to allow Sinn Féin into government. Unionist voters believed him, deserted the UUP and awaited developments. What they got was a U-turn from Paisley,Robinson and the DUP and Sinn Féin at the heart of government. He would henceforth be susceptible to an attack from the right.
Nevertheless, Robinson faced the electorate with confidence. There had been a boundary change which brought a number of large working-class estates into the constituency. They were traditional DUP areas and might cushion the blow from more traditional unionists who had deserted the DUP. But in fact the hardline opponent from the Traditional Unionist Voice polled only 1,856 votes. There was no threat from that quarter.
To understand what happened it is important to understand that there has always been an anti-Robinson element within the constituency that more or les equalled the DUP vote. The difficulty for moderates was that their forces were split between the UUP and the Alliance. However, there was a new factor in the equation. This was the overall public impression of sleaze that had infected all of Westminster. The political class, in particular the Robinsons, were under scrutiny.
One DUP canvasser reported that when he approached a house and asked for support for Robinson the householder replied: "What? Has he not been arrested yet?" The have-nots were starting to question their allegiance to the haves. The middle classes were likely to hold firm for both the DUP and its two rivals. The wild card was the working-class vote, especially in the outlying districts. There the Alliance, that most middle-class of parties and linked to the Liberal Democrats, achieved something it had never managed before: it attracted large numbers of working-class voters from loyalist areas. It proved to be a winning formula. Whereas in North Antrim lost 7.2% of his vote, a fairly typical figure for this election, Robinson's vote tumbled. He lost 19.6%, almost entirely to the Alliance, augmented by tactical voting from UUP supporters – the UUP lost 8.3% and this helped push the Alliance share of the vote up by 29%. Robinson was finished.
Losing the seat he had held for 31 years was a massive blow, but is there more to come? Rumours of further alleged misdemeanours abound and his whole political future is now in question. Will the DUP now remove him, just as his predecessor, Ian Paisley Sr, was dumped by Robinson et al? There are certainly a number of prospective candidates to take over the reins including Paisley Jr. But can he remain as first minister? What moral authority can he command having just been dumped by his constituents? It is altogether possible that life on the assembly's backbenches beckons for .
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