THE intervention of former DUP leader Peter Robinson in the ongoing Stormont boycott, now heading towards its third year, was as clumsy and obvious a piece of political theatre as we’ve seen on the local stage.

In a rather odd and stilted pre-recorded interview with the BBC’s Talkback radio programme, Mr Robinson was given half the time to plug a book he’s just written on funny and memorable quotes, while the other half was devoted to his pronouncements on the way ahead for his former party – the most relevant being that it’s time to bank what gains have been made and get the MLAs back to work. 

That his intervention came at a time of increasing speculation that DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson will announce a return to Stormont is surely no coincidence. That’s particularly the case since just about every word he uttered could just as easily have been written by his former protegé, who is struggling to persuade his badly split party to agree to end the Stormont boycott.

And boy does Mr Donaldson need all the help he can get. Opinion polls suggest that the corner he’s backed himself into through his lack of political nous and his refusal to stand up to the grunting and permanently disaffected big beasts of his party is in fact a corner in which the DUP base feels right at home. Given that the party’s factory setting has since its inception been reactionary opposition, it’s not surprising that its electorate has a fondness for negative politics; but the difficulty facing Mr Robinson is that the absence of a devolved administration is daily charging the batteries of the New Ireland movement and providing lively subject matter for the quickening debate on the future.

While Mr Donaldson and a goodly portion of the North’s journalists and commentators continue to view Mr Robinson as something of an éminence grise in unionist politics, he exited politics in 2016, the year of the Brexit referendum, and he has played no part in a tumultuous seven years in which a border has been placed in the Irish Sea and the union has never looked more fragile. Will those DUP elements clinging to the comfort blanket of the Stormont boycott and deeply suspicious of a return to Stormont have their minds changed by the intervention of a man who’s been tending his ornamental fish as the Protocol disaster unfolded? 

That’s unlikely, and doubly so if – as is already happening – the wholly independent Westminster clique decide they’re happy with the way things are. Asked about Mr Robinson’s recommendation to Mr Donaldson that enough’s enough, East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson said that his former leader must know more than he does about what’s going on. That’s an inauspicious start if Mr Donaldson hopes this new intervention will open up the way for him to make the move he clearly wants to make. And he’s already proved he prefers to stop and stare at hurdles rather than clear them.