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"Selfish Strategic and Economic Interest"

Mark Devenport | 16:52 UK time, Saturday, 27 November 2010

Back in 1986 Peter Robinson's selfish interest in the south concentrated on not spending too long behind bars after his arrest during the loyalist incursion into Clontibret. But today he was able to take on the role of the concerned neighbour, wishing to see his southern cousin drag itself out of its current economic plight.

The use of the phrase "selfish strategic and economic interest" was quite deliberate - harking back to Peter Brooke's speech in 1990 (in which he said Britain had no such interest in Northern Ireland). The Brooke speech served as a signal to Irish republicans that they should pursue a negotiated solution. The Robinson speech is intended to portray a settled situation in which Gerry Adams has given up on hoping his West Belfast seat will ever be part of a United Ireland, and the north and south are comfortable about mutual cooperation.

Although there were occasional barbs towards Gerry Adams, Caitriona Ruane and Margaret Ritchie, the DUP leader's speech did not include any specific reference to his partner in government Martin McGuinness. Someone else notable by his absence was the new Ulster Unionist leader Tom Elliott. Other DUP politicians threw brick bats at the UUP, but Mr Robinson, now seeking to broaden his party's appeal, treated them as, more or less, an irrelevance.

If there were few remarkable passages in today's conference spech, then it was well to remember the astounding political survival act which made today's gathering possible. In the immediate wake of the revelations over his wife's personal and financial affairs and the loss of his own Westminster seat few would have given Mr Robinson much chance of survival. But there he was, receiving a warm reception and talking with conviction about strengthening the party (although he didn't specify whether recapturing East Belfast would be a job he would take on, or one he intends to sub contract to another DUP politician).

I have recorded an interview with Mr Robinson for tomorrow's Inside Politics during which he argues that Sinn Fein's increased southern focus (in the light of their by-election victory and Gerry Adams' switch to Louth) should spur republicans to reach a budget deal. His logic - that Sinn Fein can hardly present themselves as economic saviours south of the border if they cannot conduct budget negotiations competently at Stormont.

Is this the case or will the need to stand against cuts in the south have a negative impact on Sinn Fein's willingness to cut deals in the north? Martin McGuinness's speech in London on Friday night lacerated the Secretary of State Owen Paterson for playing party politics with the process here. Mr McGuinness drew analogies with what he portrayed as the failure of the Conservatives under John Major. Mr Paterson has ruled out any further negotiations on the Spending Review, insisting that the allocation is a settlement, not a basis for discussion.

We've been here before - John Major insisted the Downing Street Declaration was not open for negotiation. However Sinn Fein came back with demands for "clarification". It seems frankly unlikely that George Osborne will clarify, discuss or negotiate his decision any more. So will Sinn Fein take "no" for an answer?


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