Robinson, Peter David

▪ 2009

born Dec. 29, 1948, Belfast, N.Ire.

 On June 5, 2008, Peter Robinson became Northern Ireland's first minister, succeeding Ian Paisley, who had retired at the age of 82. It was the culmination of a career that had seen Robinson, one of the fiercest opponents of Irish republicanism, finally reconciled to the need to share power with the main republican party, Sinn Fein, the political arm of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA).

      Robinson grew up in Belfast in an era when Northern Ireland's mainly Protestant unionists completely dominated the politics of the province through the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP). After studying at Belfast's Metropolitan College, he became a real-estate agent. Following the death in 1971 of a school friend at the hands of the recently revived IRA, however, Robinson helped to set up the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which demanded tougher policies against terrorism than those advanced by the UUP. He became the DUP's general secretary in 1975 and entered the U.K.'s Parliament in 1979 as MP for Belfast East, narrowly defeating (by just 64 votes) one of the UUP's most prominent politicians. In 1986 Robinson demonstrated his militancy by leading a “raid” of 500 unionists across the border into Clontibret, Ire., to confirm what he alleged was weak border security. Irish police arrested him, and he was fined £17,500 (about $30,000). He also briefly stood aside as the DUP's deputy leader, a post he had held since 1980.

      He was one of the DUP's leading critics of the Good Friday Agreement, a deal concluded in 1998 between the British and Irish governments, along with Northern Ireland's main parties, including Sinn Fein. When the agreement led to the establishment (1999) of a new Northern Ireland executive, however, he agreed to serve as minister for regional development. Britain restored direct rule over Northern Ireland in October 2002 amid a breakdown of relations between republicans and unionists. Despite the acrimony, that same month Robinson was the first DUP politician to appear in a live television studio debate with a Sinn Fein politician, Martin McGuinness. It was an angry debate—at one point Robinson denounced McGuinness as a “former IRA commander,” while McGuinness retorted that Robinson should stop “acting like a bigot”—but a taboo had been broken.

      Robinson went on to become a leading negotiator in the talks that led to the 2006 St. Andrew's Agreement, which paved the way for a full restoration of the Northern Ireland executive and assembly, with Paisley, the DUP's leader since its founding, as first minister and McGuinness as deputy first minister. When Paisley announced in March 2008 that he was stepping down in May, there was little doubt that Robinson would succeed him. On May 31, after 28 years as Paisley's deputy, Robinson was confirmed as DUP leader, and less than a week later he was named first minister.

Peter Kellner

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Universalium. 2010.

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