David McKittrick: Grassroots will decide if leader survives

Share
Related Topics

The Democratic Unionist Party anxiously played for time yesterday in an effort to take some of the heat and fevered excitement out of the scandal which has engulfed its leader Peter Robinson and his family.

In deciding that he should step aside as First Minister it has introduced fresh uncertainties into an already complex and confused political situation.

The political settlement centring on the power-sharing Assembly looked as though it might be careering out of control, with some observers predicting it might collapse within the week.

The DUP move has not settled any of the many unresolved issues, but it may reduce the dangerous sense that a catastrophic breakdown is imminent.

A break of up to six weeks will provide breathing space to sort some of the intertwined political problems. It can be expected to include negotiations which will involve the DUP, Sinn Fein and other parties, as well as the British and Irish governments.

Mr Robinson's future was not resolved yesterday. He is to remain as leader of the DUP, and he personally will obviously hope to soon resume the post of First Minister. But nothing is guaranteed.

The first development of the afternoon was when his party's members met and emerged to announce their "wholehearted support" for him. This, together with several individual statements of support, momentarily gave the impression that the DUP might try to tough out the Iris affair.

Within hours however came the news that Mr Robinson was to step aside for up to six weeks, allowing Arlene Foster, a departmental minister, to take over temporarily as First Minister.

This is not an admission of any kind that Mr Robinson has done anything blameworthy. Ms Foster has already, in her first statement in her new role, said that departmental lawyers tasked to examine his conduct had concluded that he was not at fault in anything he did.

"When Peter comes back he will come back with a clear record," she told the Assembly confidently. "He has nothing to answer for."

Such a clear result after such a brief inquiry – it was announced just last week – will have negligible political impact, however. And his stepping aside, even temporarily, will diminish a personal status already battered by the Iris episode.

Certainly there is an element of duality in the action of a party which, while proclaiming its faith in its leader, nonetheless eases him to one side.

By doing so the party's representatives have time to make a more calculated judgement on whether they should fight the Westminster election campaign with Mr Robinson as leader, or someone else.

He has always been a major electoral asset; the grassroots will now be sounded out as to whether he has become a liability.

It is also technically possible that Sinn Fein, which for months has been expressing frustration with Mr Robinson, could pull the house down and precipitate an Assembly election. This would dismay the DUP, but it is unlikely to happen, since the republicans would almost certainly prefer to see unionists get the blame for an Assembly collapse. Their tactics will probably be to keep the institutions alive.

At the same time they will aim to extract DUP movement on their demand, which they have been pushing for years, to complete devolution by agreeing to transfer policing powers from London to Belfast. London and Dublin strongly favour this devolution, and will now work non-stop both to bring it about and to dispel the instability and uncertainty which currently endangers the process.

Like the DUP, the two governments believe that Mr Robinson is unionism's most able leader. And like the DUP, they will be weighing up his prospects of surviving.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Lettings Negotiator

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Central London based firm loo...

Recruitment Genius: Events / Conference Operations Manager

£25000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Ledger Administrator

£14400 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a multi-d...

Recruitment Genius: Service, Maintenance & Installation Engineers - London

£34000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This provider of Energy Consult...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

If I were Prime Minister: I'd champion the young and hold a cabinet meeting on top of Ben Nevis

Bear Grylls
 

i Editor's Letter: The five reasons why I vote

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot