Robinson sidelined – but will he return?

Northern Ireland's First Minister to take a six-week break to deal with family problems

The Northern Ireland First Minister, Peter Robinson, yesterday stepped aside temporarily as his party staged a damage limitation exercise in the wake of the sex and financial scandals surrounding his wife.

It is unclear whether he will return to office following a break which could last up to six weeks, or whether he is being eased out in stages.

He remains leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, which faces a difficult Westminster election, probably in May. But the political atmosphere is filled with high drama and uncertainty, and his position looks precarious.

His party has suffered considerable damage in the extraordinary political firestorm which followed his wife Iris's admission of an affair with a teenager. The move is the latest in a series intended to distance the party from the misbehaviour of Iris Robinson, whom it expelled at the weekend. She is said to be receiving "acute psychiatric treatment".

A whirlwind day at Stormont, Belfast, appeared to start well for Mr Robinson, when his party's Assembly members passed a unanimous motion pledging "wholehearted support" for him.

But this was followed by news that an Assembly minister, Arlene Foster, had been drafted in for a period of up to six weeks as acting First Minister.

Mr Robinson said: "As a father and a husband, I need to devote time to deal with family matters. I continue to contend I have acted ethically and it is particularly painful at this time of great personal trauma that I have to defend myself from an unfounded and mischievous allegation."

He specified that he would retain control over the continuation of long-running negotiations, involving Sinn Fein and others, on the transfer of policing powers to the Assembly.

Even before the Iris Robinson scandals blew up, republicans had been warning that her husband was holding up the issue. It is conceivable that Mr Robinson, one of Belfast's most astute political operators, might be considering striking a deal which might increase his chances of survival.

The Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, said: "The failure of the DUP to fulfil its political commitments has led to a considerable lack of public confidence in the political institutions.

"We want policing and justice powers devolved as soon as possible – we want to sort it out in the very short term."

On this issue London is in broad agreement with Sinn Fein, as Gordon Brown's spokesman indicated yesterday when he commented: "The Government is totally focused on completing devolution with the transfer of policing and justice powers from London to Belfast."

Mr Brown appealed to the province's politicians to concentrate on resolving the outstanding political issues facing them. "I urge all politicians in Northern Ireland, whatever the turbulence of recent events, to remain focused on the business of government," he said.

The delicate judgement call for both London and Sinn Fein is whether Mr Robinson will retain power, and whether it is worthwhile expending political capital on helping rescue him.

His wife stands accused of procuring £50,000 from two property developers and using the money to set up her 19-year-old lover in business. She also voted, as a councillor, in favour of his project without declaring an interest. She failed to tell the Assembly or House of Commons, of which she is a member, about the money, as required by law. It has emerged that she personally pocketed £5,000 of it in cash.

Mr Robinson is defending himself against charges that he knew of some of his wife's activities and should have informed the authorities about them.

The local council involved is setting up an inquiry, while Mr Robinson has requested that various departments carry out investigations, including a Westminster committee, and the Assembly's committee on standards and privileges.

Speaking in the Assembly as acting First Minister, Arlene Foster said she was sure senior lawyers commissioned to investigate Mr Robinson's actions would find no evidence of wrongdoing: "I am personally confident, my party is very confident, that this will confirm that Peter Robinson, the First Minister, acted entirely properly at all times."

Jim Allister, a hardline opponent of Mr Robinson whose Traditional Unionist Voice party hopes to profit from the DUP's difficulties, said of him: "One suspects that once he steps aside he will never be back. If the DUP is genuinely behind Mr Robinson, then they are more out of touch with public opinion than I appreciated."

Possible successors

* Mr Robinson's deputy, Nigel Dodds, is Westminster MP for north Belfast and was formerly finance minister in the Assembly. Known as able – he has a first-class law degree from Cambridge – he is a long-time political operator, having worked for many years as European aide to the party founder the Rev Ian Paisley. The IRA staged a gun attack on police guarding Mr Dodds's dying son while he was in hospital. He is regarded as being to the right of Mr Robinson.



* Arlene Foster, a solicitor, is presently Enterprise Minister in the Assembly as well as just becoming acting First Minister. She has risen rapidly through the party ranks since defecting to the DUP from the Ulster Unionist party. As a schoolgirl she survived an IRA attack which damaged her school bus and her father, a police reservist, was wounded in another IRA incident. She is seen as a moderate.



* Gregory Campbell, Westminster MP for East Londonderry, has been a thorn in Mr Robinson's side, voicing doubts about the system of powersharing with Sinn Fein.

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