David McKittrick: Grassroots will decide if leader survives

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.