Leading article: One man in the thick of it

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The Independent Online

The Northern Ireland Secretary Shaun Woodward is right to point out that the peace process is bigger than any one man. It has had many pivotal figures, who at different times were probably indispensable, including John Hume, Gerry Adams, Tony Blair, Bertie Ahern and the Rev Ian Paisley. But most of these once-crucial figures have now departed the political scene, leaving one particular figure in the thick of it.

Peter Robinson is in the throes of a battle for his political life. He seeks to convince his Democratic Unionist Party that, whatever sexual and financial violations were committed by his wife Iris, his own actions were beyond reproach. The charge against him is that he omitted to report her transgressions, in particular her failure to declare an interest as she solicited money from building developers and helped her teenage lover secure a contract from her local council. The question of whether Mr Robinson should have reported his wife will involve lawyers and politicians poring over the minutiae of various public codes of conduct. But of course the whole episode has attracted huge public focus on the idea of Mrs Robinson, a woman with stern fundamentalist views, seducing a teenager.

Her husband has acted briskly to distance himself from her, peremptorily dismissing her from his party, but his image and authority have been seriously damaged. Yesterday he met his Assembly members to receive their preliminary judgement on his rearguard actions. They gave him "wholehearted support" as party leader but slightly less than wholehearted support in his role as First Minister. He is to move sideways for some weeks. He and his party say he will be back, but no one knows whether or not he has gone for good. Various inquiries about to get under way may aid his cause, and Sinn Fein might be helpful, if he responds to their demand for policing devolution.

But any fresh revelations could be fatal, and so too could a wave of disapproval from the Protestant grassroots, if one becomes evident. The Westminster election is uncomfortably close for a party swamped with sleaze. If he goes, it will be seen whether the peace process can successfully proceed without him or whether one man really is indispensable to its survival.