Martin McGuinness may yet become first minister

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness  INMM2713-209ar.
Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness INMM2713-209ar.

Will Martin McGuinness yet replace Peter Robinson? The question isn’t as daft as it sounds. Martin won’t be the Democratic Unionist Party’s next leader but he could become the next first minister. In that sense he would ‘lead’ all of us. (The next assembly election is due in May 2016 unless dissolution happens between now and then.)

The first and deputy first minister are co-equals but if Martin were to become the first minister it would send psychological shock-waves throughout unionism. It would be an unmistakable signal that things really have changed. It would provide the long-overdue moment of realisation that I was writing about last week.

Sinn Féin is within overtaking distance of the DUP. If Sinn Féin does become the largest party in the assembly it will get to nominate the first minister. It would take only a relatively small decline in the DUP’s fortunes to bring that change about.

There has been much speculation about Robinson’s future. It may be premature. We don’t know whether or not he will retire soon. What we do know is that his credibility has been damaged.

The party misjudged the Belfast City Hall flag issue. They thought they could exploit it to damage the Alliance Party but it backfired when grass-roots anger spiralled out of control. Voices were raised in criticism of politicians in general and of the DUP in particular. At one stage it was no longer considered safe for First Minister Robinson to walk around his own constituency.

Both major unionist parties were caught in possession of the ball deep in defence. They passed it quickly to the hastily convened Unionist Forum. It’s due to report by Christmas, as is Richard Hass on a range of other contentious issues. Expectations need to be handled carefully if the DUP is to avoid further disappointment. As always, events are unpredictable and can throw-up unforeseen dangers for political parties.

Peter Robinson has had a turbulent relationship with Martin McGuinness but the two men are still together. Like his predecessor Ian Paisley, Peter has had to manage a tricky image change. This can’t have gone unnoticed at the grass-roots. The former Mr Angry has become Mr Reasonable with just occasional flashbacks to the Mr Angry of old.

At first it seemed clear that Peter’s successor would be Arlene Foster. (Arlene stood-in for Peter during the 2010 scandal engulfing Iris.) Now former finance minister and stand-up comic Sammy Wilson seems to be the front runner.

Neither of these two contenders can be regarded with much enthusiasm here in Derry. Fermanagh woman Arlene seems to have issues with this city and Sammy has always been very Greater Belfast centred. He’s a former Belfast Lord Mayor with his roots in working-class urban areas.

Derry has long suffered from insufficient investment. The historic wrongs of the old unionist regime still haven’t been put right, so the more politicians we have in senior positions who are sympathetic to the city’s needs the better.

If things go against the DUP between now and May 2016, whoever is the leader of the DUP could find himself or herself taking up the post of deputy first minister. Then, unionists would really have to come to terms with change.