Now in charge, DUP's Robinson faces challenges with confidence

For decades, Peter Robinson was the man in the background, a key player in the world of hard-line unionism but almost entirely obscured by Ian Paisley's epic shadow.

In 1979, at the tender age of 29, Robinson was elected to the British parliament, beginning a political run that has seen him spend the past 30 years, or half of his life, representing East Belfast at Westminster. A year later, in 1980, Robinson was named deputy leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, launching his long-running role as Paisley's loyal understudy.

Robinson served in that capacity until last year, when Paisley, the fire and brimstone preacher turned politician, retired, clearing the way for his business-like, low-key protégé to take over as the head of the DUP and as the leader of Northern Ireland's coalition government. Suddenly, the man who looked on while the cameras and lights were trained on the bombastic Paisley, was in charge.

Now, a year later, Robinson, 60, is holding the reins at a challenging moment, as Northern Ireland's government tries to complete the final stage of devolution by taking control of police and judiciary functions, and as the North looks ahead next year to Westminster elections and then to elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly.

All of this while Robinson's DUP has to deal with Sinn Fein's attempts to become the largest party in the Assembly and tries to fend off unionist challenges from the Ulster Unionist Party and the upstart Traditional Unionist Voice party.

Robinson's challenge is to chart a winning course while the Democratic Unionist Party is "in power," which in many ways is not the party's most natural or comfortable position.

Established in 1971 by the fundamentalist preacher Paisley, the DUP, according to its own history, was created "after it was agreed that a new party was needed to stem the continued appeasement" of the Ulster Unionist Party, the unionist-elite party that founded the Northern Ireland state.

The DUP then spent decades on the outside, railing against nationalists, republicans, moderate unionism, Irish America, the British Labor Party and, of course, the pope. That is to say all popes: past, present, and future. What the party lacked in terms of productive plans and proposals it made up for with a no-surrender brand of visceral populism that stirred many unionist souls.

And in 2003, after years of hammering away at the Ulster Unionist Party's peace-process compromises and accommodations, the DUP's electoral fortunes soared and the party surged ahead of the UUP.

The question of whether the DUP will be able to come up with an arrangement that will allow the control over police and judicial functions to be transferred from London to the Belfast-based Assembly is one that looms large. Unionist sensibilities rankle at the idea of a government that includes Sinn Fein ministers having anything to do with overseeing the police and the judiciary. On the other hand, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has upped the ante by offering to direct an additional $1.6 billion in British aid to the cash-strapped North if officials agree to take over police and court powers.

The DUP-Sinn Fein clash over devolution has the power to bring down Northern Ireland's government, but Robinson recently said: "I cannot guarantee the future of the Assembly, but I can guarantee that it will not be the DUP that will walk away."

At his party's annual conference, Robinson, setting an assertive tone for the momentous year that lies ahead, said it was the DUP that has created the Northern Ireland that most unionists want. "Mine," he said, "is for a party rewarded six years ago with the leadership of unionism and the responsibility to build a better Northern Ireland for all her people, a party that stood solidly when others wavered, a party that refused to panic when the tyrannies of prevailing political wisdom dictated compromise or flight. We held our ground when others bowed the knee; resisted the blandishments of false friends and held firm to our principles and beliefs, knowing, always, that a political settlement built on deception and lies would not stand."

He added: "Unionism is no longer on the run, and our actions have heralded the dawn of a new day for all the people of Northern Ireland."

Taking a swipe at his party's rivals, the DUP leader suggested that unionists who seek to be even more hard-line than the pugnacious DUP could bring about a return to direct rule from London, with the Irish government having a strong say in how things would be run.

"The choice," Robinson warned, "is not between some unionist panacea and the present form of devolution, but between devolution and direct rule with Dublin involvement. This party will continue to oppose Dublin rule.

And summoning up the bravado of his legendary predecessor, Robinson concluded his conference by saying: "The IRA and Sinn Fein once vowed to force the British out of Northern Ireland. They failed. We're here, and we're here to stay."