The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock - handles that provoke a click of recognition in the brain. Maybe they stick because they encapsulate a much wider story. A new one emerged in the past week - The Misinterpretation of Peter Robinson.

The tag has attractive ambiguity because it offers two possibilities. Robinson as the person responsible for the misinterpreting. Or Robinson as the one who is being misinterpreted.

Within hours of the former DUP leader and the PSNI security team that accompanied him making their way back across the border to Belfast last weekend, the word was out that he had 'dropped the ball' or 'gone too far' on the issue of a united Ireland.

Reg Empey, a former leader of the Ulster Unionist party, now a member of the House of Lords, was among the first to issue a statement, criticising some of the Robinson remarks made at the MacGill School in Glenties.

Jim Allister, who resigned from his DUP role as Ian Paisley’s successor in the European Parliament to form his Traditional Unionist Voice party, was out of the traps too. And then from within the DUP camp emerged Sammy Wilson, accusing his former colleague and former party boss, of uttering "disturbing, dangerous" remarks that were out of kilter with the mindset of most unionists.

I chaired the Friday evening session (27 July) in the Glenties Highlands Hotel where Peter Robinson was the guest speaker. The references to a united Ireland were in response to one of many questions from an audience of around 200 people.

Peter Robinson
Peter Robinson was the guest speaker at the MacGill Summer School in Glenties, Co Donegal

As someone who has covered Northern Ireland politics for the past 17 years, to me the remarks were entirely consistent with Peter The Pragmatist. Life has taught him - and sometimes it has been a harsh lesson - that the unexpected, the implausible, the unwanted, sometimes happen. And it makes sense, indeed it is a form of self-protection and wisdom, to be prepared for it.

Years ago, The Simpsons floated the idea of Donald Trump becoming US President and that seemed far-fetched. It was inconceivable that the citizens of 'Have A Nice Day' land would vote for the businessman. It just couldn’t happen.

Who could have imagined that months after a surprise general election victory, a British Conservative Party leader would call an EU membership referendum victory that would bury him, and that as the Tories replayed their civil war of the 1990s, the successor to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, would be hiding under the table, unable to articulate an alternative vision?

The late Martin McGuinness had a great interest in Irish culture but wasn’t fluent in Irish. The successor he championed, Michelle O’Neill, doesn’t speak Irish. Who would have predicted that the Irish-language lobby could become such a lightning conductor in Northern Ireland politics and that a row over a Language Act would have a significant role in the collapse of power-sharing and keep Stormont closed 19 months on?

Peter Robinson had a significant role in converting the DUP from a party of protest to a party of power. His relationship with Ian Paisley - the behind-the-scenes strategist and the front-of-house presence created extraordinary, powerful, intimidating chemistry. Who would have foreseen their relationship collapsing, Ian Paisley having a family-only funeral and their successor as DUP leader reduced to the de facto role of First Lady of Fermanagh?

McGuinness didn’t think he would see a united Ireland in his lifetime (He formed that view before the Brexit referendum and instability that has flowed from it since). Robinson doesn’t envisage Irish unity happening. What he articulated in Glenties, in a few sentences, was the lesson of experience that occasionally it makes sense to devote some thinking space to the inconceivable.

The real meat in Robinson’s Glenties address, the argument he spent the bulk of his time articulating, was significantly more important. In the immediate aftermath of his speech, his remarks about the current political stalemate had a much deeper impact on those who sat listening to him - the likes of former Irish Times editor Conor Brady and cyber psychologist, Professor Mary Aiken. The former Chair of the Foundation for Fiscal Studies, Dr Donal de Buitleir, called the section of Robinson’s address "the most significant contribution to the MacGill School week".

Dr Eddie Molloy, a management consultant, specialising in strategy, large-scale change and innovation, said on the Main Street of Glenties, immediately after the Robinson address that the former DUP leader had articulated text-book wisdom about our current political conundrum.

According to the Molloy logic, when dealing with an alcoholic, the first principle that must be acknowledged is there is a problem. In a marital strife sitution, the first recognition must be that the relationship is failing. In Eddie Molloy’s view, the strength of the Robinson paper was the recognition that there is a problem, some parts of complex relationships are changing forever and the priority now should be to quickly activate and support the elements that bring ballast and offer hope.

This is what Peter Robinson had to say about the potential relationship repercussions of Brexit.

"No matter how one views the Brexit process it has been disruptive, distracting and - let’s face it - wearisome. It could not have been otherwise. For a sustained period there has been a settled understanding of the constitutional position of Northern Ireland and its interaction with both the rest of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. Shaking that tree was certain to cause an abundant fall-out.  

"Whatever happens over the next weeks and months the stable connections that developed over the past two decades will unalterably change. We are at the cusp of a new era. An era in which the Republic of Ireland is firmly locked into a union as part of the EU while Northern Ireland is firmly locked into a distinct and separate union as part of the UK.

"Yes, the last page of a transformative chapter in our history is being turned and whether we look back longingly or with displeasure we are all still moving on...and in different directions. There will be an outcome to the present negotiations and we will all have to live with it.

"Let us look at the governmental east-west relationship.

"When I approach the issue of post-Brexit ties I first have to draw attention to a reality that often gets missed in the relentless drama about borders and whether the UK is about to grasp a great economic opportunity or face a crushing economic disaster. For the EU, in addition to being economic union for the UK and the Irish Republic - it has been a common-room where allies discussed common interests and almost always pursued common causes.

"Firstly, there has been the frequency of contacts. Membership of the same club brings representatives of the two governments together routinely and regularly. Such natural and habitual contact provides opportunities and, for the most part, creates a sense of friendship and conviviality.

"Secondly, there is the comradeship of being part of the same team; distance and detachment will inevitably cool the kinship. There is no question that the two governments will continue to claim everlasting friendship and affection complete with copious commitments to maintaining their unique bond, but any lucid thinker will realise that the more remote the new relationship becomes the more it will involve a greater level of competition which will cause the gap to grow.

"Thirdly, as full and co-operating members of the EU there has been a significant 'oneness' in the approach of both countries and a shared outlook when dealing with policies, problems and events, however, in a post-Brexit scenario there will be much more competition, greater protection of the separate national interests and more room for independent action accompanied by the clashes and struggles that accompany such rivalry as will from time to time undoubtedly occur.

"It is easy to imagine circumstances, in the future, where the Republic takes up cudgels alongside the other EU states which are hostile to the United Kingdom's interests. It is just as easy to envisage the impact that the resultant resentment will have on the ties between the two nations, particularly if a pattern of opposition develops.

"Some politicians and others, recognising the loss of this catalytic factor argue that the two governments will be able to set up their own meeting structures. Of course they can, and will, as has been suggested only this week, but they will never replicate the routine, regular and relaxed 'retreat' or European hang-out that has provided countless opportunities for contact and conversation in the margin of meetings and  events over many years.

"My own knowledge of such contacts before or after formal, stuffy and scripted summits tells me they are much more valuable than the official meeting exchanges.  

Brexit EU flags

"In summary, no matter how it is approached, at best, the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland governments will struggle to maintain anything close to the warmth of their pre-Brexit affinity. At worst that relationship may become stony and staid and, in extreme circumstances, even perfunctory and fruitless.

"I already detect, from behind the scenes on the UK side, that what they judge to be the rigid, if not antagonistic, negotiating posture adopted by Irish Government Ministers, has planted the seeds of regression in that association. Do not be fooled by diplomatic, understated Whitehall-speak. They are not happy with Dublin.

"I believe the impact of recent months should serve as a timely and cautionary example of how even strong, stable and special ties loosen when interests diverge and politicians cross swords on the battlefield. Admittedly I come from a unionist pro-UK angle of vision but the truth stands no matter from whatever viewpoint you arrived here.

"If I am right - to whatever degree - there is a lesson for people, North and South, to learn. The harmonious and cordial co-existence between the two traditions on this island, upon which, I would suggest, peace and stability depends, cannot in the future be reliant or dependent on the safety net of the one-in-a-million possibility of  a genial Brexit outcome that maintains British-Irish relations at pre-Brexit levels.  

"Until now the role of government has been to troubleshoot the Northern Ireland settlement. It may not be productive to rely on them fulfilling that role in the future. In short we must be able to work out for ourselves the way we function in a post-Brexit era while maintaining the important balance in both Northern Ireland’s east-west and its North-South axis.  

"Then I move to consider the impact on north-south relationships.

"I first feel compelled to say that those who seek to manipulate the UK's exiting process to shift the balance - either by working towards a back-up option that separates Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK or by pressing for a hard border that cuts off North-South interaction - clearly do not understand the importance of maintaining the balance which led - pre-Brexit - to Northern Ireland having its best ever rapport with the South and internally. More than that they are playing a dangerous stratagem. One that could destabilise Northern Ireland for years to come.

"The network of arrangements North-South, east-west and within Northern Ireland have developed over a number of years and involved much give and take and hard work in getting the balance right. The arrangements have allowed unionists and nationalists to participate fully within a framework of relationships - and do so in a relaxed manner with mutually beneficial outcomes. It worked, and moreover, no one felt threatened by it. But it is a carefully and finely tuned instrument and events that disturb the balance will require measures to be taken to maintain the equilibrium. Correspondingly, efforts to tip the balance one way or the other must be resisted.

"I cannot properly analyse this aspect of the subject without first stating the obvious - there will be at least two views of how North-South arrangements should develop in a post-Brexit situation but I suspect there will be fewer differences when considering how divisive the handling of the Brexit process has been to the necessary partnership between the two main sections of the Northern Ireland community.  

"It would be absurd for me to proffer a nationalist outlook on the potential impact of Brexit on North-South relations. However, as an interested observer I have to conclude that in tandem with their unionist counterparts the understandable focus on the immediate practical arrangements has consumed more of their thinking, and to the extent it has been considered at all, it has been in the context of loading the outcome of a Brexit deal to safeguard or advance wider constitutional matters.


"From a unionist perspective it need only be stated to be accepted that there has been a rapid deterioration in their estimation of the Irish Government. Unionists believe Dublin has been completely self-serving and unnecessarily bellicose during this process. I believe the absence of a working North-South institution has exacerbated the situation. It would be a Unionist view that the Republic’s Government showed little interest and took no account of how they felt about any of the proposed Brexit solutions and still less about the impact of those proposals on future relationships. Moreover, there is a feeling that at no point has there been any consideration of the effect and force of their words and actions upon the unionist population.

"If, at the end of the negotiations, there is the potential of UK and RoI relationships cooling and a worsening in unionist relationships with Dublin the spill-over consequences on relationships within Northern Ireland are clear and alarming.

"Fewer common causes and shared interests along with greater competition are likely post-Brexit. Poaching, the appearance of poaching, jobs and investment across the border - in any direction - or indeed Dublin taking any decision in the EU which would have a detrimental impact on Northern Ireland will add bile to the mix.

"It’s not a pretty picture and not a positive vision for the future.  

"So, let’s focus on the inter-community relationship in Northern Ireland.

"Although it is not something people have talked about much, there will be major implications, within Northern Ireland, for political and community concord in the post-Brexit age.

"But unionists and nationalists have very different observations about the Brexit process. Nationalists feel the UK government has ignored the majority view in Northern Ireland expressed in the referendum - I will try to disguise my amusement at who now dons the mantle as the new majority rule advocates - they fear that the separation from those with whom they identify in the South is now endangered and they are alarmed at the prospect of barriers, hard borders and a new more austere dispensation.

"Unionists fear any deal that results in them being prised away from Great Britain and by treaty or regulation stapled to the Irish Republic.

"Both nationalist and unionist fears are genuinely held and, in truth, they are both notionally possible outcomes.

"The fact that nationalists have been repeatedly assured, by everyone involved, that there will be no physical infrastructure or hard border on the island or the fact that unionists have been assured in parliament and now in legislation that there will be no sea border, still has not removed the fears.

"Unquestionably the parties and traditions in Northern Ireland have become more polarised as a result of the Brexit hysteria - much of it was avoidable but an absence of the political cohesion that a functioning Executive has provided in the past has intensified the division. Once again that division is along traditional lines. The entirety of nationalism would seem to still hold out the hope that some route can be found to reverse what they see as an unacceptable referendum outcome. The sliver of unionists who voted to remain in the EU have accepted the referendum verdict and now, have moved back towards the mainstream unionist position.

"Looking forward it does not augur well as parties in opposition are even less measured in the presentation of their case. Each tradition will almost certainly echo the position of the government with which they most closely identify and without the task of governing, and the responsibilities that accompany being in government, a blame game and justification philosophy will prevail.

"The fourth relationship in the series is the internal UK relationship. Of course a Secretary of State will be on hand to meet, as regularly as needed, any of the Northern Ireland parties and representatives. But with no SDLP members elected to Westminster and Sinn Féin boycotting the House of Commons the nationalist contacts will be infrequent.  

"This is not because of Brexit but in the absence of an Executive the British-Irish Ministerial Council and the UK’s inter-governmental committee meetings do not take place and will contribute to the general shrinking of contacts."

Having identified the immediate consequences of Brexit and, as he sees it, the inevitable down the line fall-out, Peter Robinson then said the immediate restoration of power-sharing in Stormont should be a priority because if offers hope for Northern Ireland, for North-South and Irish-British relations. This was how he put it.

"Central to protecting the helpful and cordial set of relationships that have been built up over many years, is the rebirth and smooth operation of the Northern Ireland Assembly, its Executive, along with the North-South and east-west institutions. Without each and all of those parts being in place, and working, relationships will suffer - perhaps drastically.

"The absence of the complete network of connections leaves us all vulnerable to a downward spiral which may lead to toxicity.

"I must say this - before someone throws the accusation at me - yes, I do want those arrangements to return anyway, but I am not shaping my discourse around post-Brexit relationships to apply leverage in order to achieve what has been my prevailing objective. The potential - I would say likely - damage to relationships is simply one more sound reason why politicians need to be exercised about resolving the present impasse in Northern Ireland.

"Think of it. If the institutions are all operational there will be regular contact, there will be the promotion of common causes, the pursuit of mutual interests and the best opportunities to strengthen the bond that should exist between and among good neighbours.  


"I accept that without this set-up it is still feasible to arrange meetings from time to time at which the key players can gather. But that is not the same as working closely together and in harness, consistently and frequently for a worthy purpose.

"It remains my strong and settled opinion that the deadlock in Northern Ireland must be broken. People are literally suffering the loss, or a reduction, of services and standards. Important decisions lie awaiting ministerial sign-off. It is intolerable that there are politicians who appear to have turned their backs on the will and needs of the community they are elected to serve.

"It does not matter which section of the community I talk to, the views are identical. The message is clear, the public believe that the consequences of not having a functioning Assembly - the impact on our health service and education system, the infrastructure projects that need to be started, the needs of those who have suffered institutional abuse and await action, those who need ministers to be searching for jobs and investment to get the country buzzing again and the countless other priorities - are far more urgent and of greater importance than any of the given reasons for refusing to operate the Assembly.

"It would be best if a resolution could first be found to the concerns parties have set out - that would be my preference - but if it is not immediately available, then at least accept that no one’s position is weakened if parties were to return to Stormont while outstanding issues are resolved in parallel, under a strictly time-tabled schedule.  

"Excuses that result in doing nothing really do not cut [it]. There is no more important task for Assembly members to perform than working to restore the institutions.

"We have 18 months of reasons to show that sitting outside the Assembly hasn’t solved the outstanding differences. There are strong reasons to believe that sitting in the Assembly with the necessity of solving problems which are tied to a set of strict deadlines that would trigger the removal of the Assembly unless they are met would produce better outcomes. What is needs is an injection of urgency to get the process moving.  

"Over the past generation we have, bit by bit, created a unique construct bringing together diverse traditions and distinctive cultures. We knew that it was untried, novel and a risk. It faced both opposition and difficulties. It also gave more than a glimpse of its potential. Now it has collapsed, and its future depends on whether those who were part of it, cherish what has been lost and have the drive and commitment to build it back up again. It also relies on the ongoing support of the public. I contend that the revival of the Assembly and Executive is an imperative in a post-Brexit era. It represents our best hope of peace, stability and reconciliation.  

"I know the Assembly has had its detractors but, though the road was bumpy at times, it proved that politicians from very different backgrounds and views could work together and do so to the benefit of the entire community.

"It is now facing a massive test but I have seen nobody come forward with a better plan for Northern Ireland than the one we operated successfully for over a decade - one that was capable of attracting the support of both sections of our community.  

It was worth the risks and hardships to put those arrangements in place, and it’s still worth fighting to see them return."

Until the Glenties speech by Peter Robinson, the most memorable address I’d heard by a leading Unionist was an impromptu speech by Eileen Paisley in a tent, at the Battle of the Boyne site, alongside her husband Ian and the then Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern.

She told of returning on a trans-Atlantic flight, looking out an airplane window, seeing the green island and the sea below and having an urge to jump out in order to swim home. The sincerity and the surprise content of the remarks took the breath away.

There was another time, after the sudden death of the universally liked photographer, John Harrison, in 2010. The hall alongside the Presbyterian church near Lisburn was full to overflowing and you could hear a pin drop, when during his sermon, a grieving Ian Paisley, quoted the Pounds/Fillmore hymn: "We are going down the valley, one by one. With our faces tow’rd the setting of the sun; Down the valley where the mournful cypress grows, Where the stream of death in silence onward flows."

The cleverness of the Robinson Glenties speech, is to those of us who argue that progress at ground level (Stormont) is impossible while the big picture problem (Brexit) remains unresolved, he offered a radical alternative. His argument is get Stormont up and running again, that would be welcome and popular and would help North/South and Irish/British relations, immediately and in the long term.

Sinn Féin and the DUP will find many reasons to stay in the current underemployed state. But in a hall in south west Donegal, Peter Robinson pulled no punches on the consequences of stalemate.