Shoosmiths in conversation with… Peter Robinson

Shoosmiths partner and head of the firm’s financial sector, Stephen Dawson, interviews the former MLA MP and first minister of Northern Ireland, Peter Robinson – reflecting on his life in politics, looking at modern challenges and assessing the economic impact and recovery of Northern Ireland.

Peter Robinson certainly has a story to tell – with a career spanning 45 years and as first minister for Northern Ireland until 2016, he is well-placed to comment on current events and the future of the economy. But, for Robinson, where did it all start?

“Politics wasn’t ever a deliberate choice on my part,” Robinson explains. The catalyst for the passion came when his school friend was killed in the Troubles, and his interest in politics was therefore piqued in politics, more so than in football or “chasing girls” in his formative years. “When your friend is killed in circumstances connected to political life, it’s hard to avoid that being a new interest for you, and that is how I got involved. That was a sharp reminder for me that there were things more important.”

A life in politics

Robinson is clear that politics was never a ‘career’ for him, but “more of a calling”, reflecting on how people who entered into politics in the 60s and 70s had a very significant passion for what they were doing. He thinks that people entering into politics now strongly believe in the policies and issues at stake, but he says that back then, “it was a matter of life and death”.

Regarding his own brand of politics, Robinson comments that his was to try to convince others there was a better way, and reflects on working with Ian Paisley, former leader of the DUP and first minister: “If you look at those who were around me at the time – you had Ian Paisley, who had very clear leadership credentials, he had a particular style of politics… so I think I probably would have taken a very logical, methodical strategic view of political life and to that extent the two styles welded together very well.”
Robinson explains that his approach to politics had to change with every role he had undertaken. “It is one thing being a protester but when you become an elected representative you then have to shape yourself into that role. It’s very different being in opposition than being in control.

“You carry out a responsibility and you have to be able to carry out the functions you’ve been elected for, which does require you to change.” He explains that really having to adapt was when moving into coalition government, and there was a greater need to adapt again when entering into a mandatory coalition with political opponents: “In performing the role of being first minister – every day was a negotiation day, and everything had to go through the first minister’s office for agreement.”

Despite having very different political opinions, the DUP and Sinn Fein had to build working relationships. This really came to the fore for Robinson when he became first minister in 2008 succeeding Ian Paisley, working alongside Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness as deputy first minister. Reflecting on his relationship with McGuinness, he said: “I think looking afar, people wouldn’t have thought we would have a lot in common – but we soon found that we were both fanatical about sports. We could have talked all day about any sport… it meant that the only contact [we had] wasn’t just about ‘hammering it out’ over a policy decision, and from there you do develop a relationship… I think it helped us through difficult situations.”

On 19 November 2015, Robinson announced that he would be stepping down as first minister and as leader of the DUP. Robinson subsequently stepped down as first minister on 11 January 2016, citing family and health reasons. “Politics has always been part of my DNA – it is hard to get away from it even when you retire”, he said. “I had promised family that when I became 60 I would stand down… I tried on several occasions to exit but within the party it just wasn’t the right time to do it as it would have prejudiced where we were. It is desperately difficult for those in the highest offices to live normal lives – the hours were dreadful, you’re eating on the run and in the end I had a heart attack because of the pressures... at the stage when I retired I felt the party was ready to move on – if you don’t take those moments when they arrive then it can be difficult to extract yourself at a later stage.”

Robinson says he has no plans to return to politics and doesn’t want to interfere with day-to-day politics of the party: “I have literally stood back – I think it is important that your successor doesn’t have somebody sitting on their shoulder giving a critique of every action they take.”

Politics has always been part of my DNA – it is hard to get away from it even when you retire.

Peter Robinson, former MLA MP and first minister of Northern Ireland

There is a massive job to be done in selling Northern Ireland and that needs to occur when businesses are looking to expand.

Peter Robinson, former MLA MP and first minister of Northern Ireland


This information is for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. It is recommended that specific professional advice is sought before acting on any of the information given. Please contact us for specific advice on your circumstances. © Shoosmiths LLP 2024.


Shoosmiths in conversation with… Peter Robinson

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