[I just put this up at Bobballs, thought it would be useful to cross-post here too.]
It’s in the DUP’s best interests to keep PR where he is. If the DUP are not careful, they could take a story of personal weakness (which can yet be quarantined around Iris) and turn it into a Party-wide political and policy maelstrom.
Yes, the DUP are facing considerable problems. But they must ensure that their reaction does not make things worse for the Party.
1. If PR is forced out without having had the chance to clear his name the public will assume guilt. The Party should not connive in promoting that impression. PR has denied any wrongdoing – the Party cannot act prior to the conclusion of due process. If they do it will seem injudicious and somewhat insensitive to the position of a man who at present is the primary victim in this scandal.
2. What is the alternative to Peter? If PR resigns from the FM job, his replacement must be agreed upon by both SF and the DUP (due to the joint nature of that office). As Gerry Moriarty correctly points out, it is likely that SF would only accept the DUP nomination for FM if they in turn agree a date for P&J.
This would be intolerable. The test was always community confidence – to agree to P&J under any other circumstance is to be seen to be rolled over by republicans. The TUV would have a field day. So how do you actually replace PR?
3. Consider that PR’s replacement at FM and as leader (could be an individual or a Wilson / Foster combo). Given the likely SF quid pro quo on P&J, who among the DUP’s senior people would really like the first act of their leadership to be signing up to P&J / acquiescence to SF? How would this be ‘leadership that’s working’?
As we stand now, it would seem reasonable to expect the voting public to punish the DUP over Iris Robinson’s personal conduct. If P&J is agreed early, the DUP may also face a backlash over its political conduct.
4. The problem identified by Spotlight must be contained around Iris. Peter seems happy to allow for that to continue. If the DUP take PR out, they lose the best possible guarantee that the crisis around Iris can be controlled.
For example, who’s is the most sellable story in NI at the moment? Erm, Iris Robinson’s. A woman who has shown such an interest in, ahem, entrepreneurialism, will no doubt appreciate the value of her story to newspapers. Right now, it is in PR’s best interest to control his wife. If PR is dumped he will neither control his wife nor defend the interests of the Party with quite the same vigour.
With Peter outside the Party, who’s to say how and in what direction the scandal could develop?
5. If Peter goes, the next tier of DUP people beneath him are not strong devolutionists. The widespread fear is that if PR goes, then Dodds, Campbell, Simpson, McCrea etc will let devolution fizzle out and instead opt for Westminster.
If the DUP allow Direct Rule to emerge they will allow the UUP to play their best card. If Direct Rule emerges after May (and after a Tory win), the UUP will likely be able to claim that they are a coalition partner in the administration of government in NI. If the DUP turns their back on devolution, the UCUNF deal ensures that the leadership of Unionism passes from the DUP back to the Ulster Unionist Party.
Having invested so much in achieving their present position, it would seem implausible to voluntarily hand the UUP (and TUV) electoral pay dirt. Why work to marginalise the UUP and then unilaterally make them relevant again?
6. Yes, there is a cost to keeping PR where he is. This notoriously strong figure has been diminished by all this new information. Being led by someone so diminished damages the DUP’s reputation for strong leadership. This has been a desperate blow to the party. But that blow has been delivered, it cannot be undone by anyone. Peter’s ability, and the abilities of his reputedly excellent press and political advisers, can mitigate this problem. If they are all removed by some precipitous act then the DUP will lose the best crisis management people they have.
7. With PR in place the DUP can begin to clear this mess up. The effect of taking PR out could transform the personal misadventure of Iris Robinson into a broader political conflagration. Sammy Wilson is about the only face I’ve seen out backing Robinson – more of his colleagues need to get out there as it may be in their own best interest to do so.
Peter, like Gordon Brown, needs the maximum amount of time to sort out his leadership and his party before the election. I doubt the situation would be improved if there were a coup / resignation now – the result would be not a clean, new, united party. Without PR tying all the disparate elements together, the Party would become disordered and disunited – policy on fundamentals like devolution would be less clear. The outcome of all that would be a less electable Party than is there at the minute. There isn’t the time to build afresh before May. Peter must survive… for the DUP’s sake.