On Thursday, the UDA completed its decommissioning programme; by the weekend, however, the peace process faced crisis following news of Iris Robinson's affairs.
If Harold Wilson thought that a week is a long time in politics, then in Northern Ireland, it is perhaps closer to an eternity.
On Thursday, Left Foot Forward reported on the positive reception that the UDA’s completion of its decommissioning programme had received across the political divide in Northern Ireland. By the weekend, however, the question on everyone’s lips was simple – is Stormont about to come tumbling down?
The latest crisis to afflict Northern Ireland began on Wednesday, when First Minister and DUP Leader, Peter Robinson, made an emotional statement, confirming that on the 1st March 2009, his wife, DUP MP and MLA Iris Robinson, had attempted suicide, following an affair with café owner Kirk McCambley – who was just 19 at the time and she was 59. Iris Robinson said that the affair, the worst thing she had ever done, had taken place after suffering a “period of serious mental illness”.
Mrs Robinson had already made clear that she would not contest her Strangford seat at the next General Election. Furthermore, reaction to the interview was largely sympathetic towards the couple. Peter Robinson’s Deputy as First Minister, Martin McGuiness, spoke for many when he said:
“Nobody watching this evening’s interview by Peter could fail to be moved by obvious hurt and pain being experienced by the Robinson family.
“Despite Peter’s public role he is entitled to privacy as he and his family seek to deal with this matter. I wish them well as they seek to rebuild relationships away from the public glare.”
By Thursday, however, the narrative had changed completely. An investigation for BBC Northern Ireland’s Spotlight programme made a number of serious allegations against Mrs Robinson, including that she broke the law by failing to declare to the relevant authorities in Westminster and Stormont the £50,000 she had obtained from two property developers to help finance the setting up of a new café by her then teenage lover.
More significantly were the allegations that when he learnt of the transactions, rather than informing the relevant authorities of the deal, Peter Robinson simply pressed his wife to return the money. Again, if true, a failure to declare the transaction would represent a breach of Northern Ireland’s Ministerial Code of Conduct.
In a robust defence of his position, following the Spotlight programme, the First Minister said:
“I completely reject BBC Spotlight’s attempt to implicate me by insinuation and innuendo. I am even more appalled by the inclusion on that programme of comments and conclusions made without any supporting facts – indeed with facts in the programme which support a contrary position.
“While I have learned from Spotlight for the first time some alleged aspects of my wife’s affair and her financial arrangements, I will be resolutely defending attacks on my character and contesting any allegations of wrongdoing.”
In recognition of the seriousness of the allegation however, Mr Robinson asked for a QC to undertake a full investigation into the matter and any involvement he might have in it. It is expected that this investigation will be completed by the end of the week.
Initial reaction from the SDLP, the UPP and the TUV was concentrated on Iris Robinson, with all united in calling for her to resign her public offices as a councillor, MLA and MP with immediate effect.
The DUP has now confirmed that Mrs Robinson will stand down from her posts as soon as is practicably possible. Under the PR system of elections for Stormont, Mrs Robinson’s replacement in the Northern Ireland Assembly will be selected by the DUP, and a by-election for her Westminster seat is unlikely to be held given the proximity to the General Election. It has also emerged that the DUP has expelled Mrs Robinson completely from the party.
More seriously, however, questions have now been raised about the future of the First Minister and his alleged involvement in the story, leading to fears that such a resignation could lead to the devolved bodies collapsing altogether.
Reacting to the story, the Rev David McIlveen, a Minister in the Free Presbyterian Church and close a ally of Mr Robinson’s immediate predecessor, Ian Paisley, concluded that Robinson should stand down:
“I do believe that his position is becoming increasingly untenable. He has a major problem with regard to solving his own family difficulties, and I personally cannot take the view that a person’s private life does not affect their public life.
“Judgments that we make in private will undoubtedly influence our judgments in public.”
Former UUP First Minister, and now Conservative Peer, Lord Trimble, has told the BBC that he believes Mr Robinson had “lost authority within the party and the system”, going on to say that he expected the First Minister to resign “within the next few days”.
Sinn Fein have stopped just short of calling for Mr Robinson to resign outright so far. However, Deputy First Minister Martin McGuiness has called for an urgent meeting with Peter Robinson, to discuss what he has said are the “implications” of the allegations for the Office of First and Deputy First Minister. Furthermore, Sinn Fein Assembly Member Carál Ní Chuilín has announced that she has submitted an emergency motion to the Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, calling on Mr Robinson to make a statement to MLAs on the allegations made in the Spotlight program.
The prospect of the First Minister resigning has led to a belief that stepping down could precipitate a collapse in the power-sharing executive, with Sinn Fein likely to block the appointment of a DUP replacement unless they were signed up to their timetable to see the speedy devolution of policing and justice powers.
In a recognition of the serious consequences Mr Robinson’s departure could have, colleagues in his DUP party sought to shore up his position.
Speaking prior to attending the same Church as Peter Robinson, Finance Minister and likely contender for the DUP leadership should it become vacant, Sammy Wilson, said:
“As far as I am concerned he has got support, the stories about Iris don’t impugn him.”
However, East Londonderry MP, Gregory Campbell, whilst broadly supportive of his leader, left open the prospect that he might have to step down. He said:
“I think Peter Robinson has the confidence of his party – that is the position and has been the position. But he himself has said that he wants to put his own credibility on the line in the manner in which he has done by setting up this investigation which in some respects is a very brave thing to do.
“Peter himself has asked for a week to resolve those issues, respond to them and refute them. I think we should allow him that week and hopefully we then move on in a week’s time.“
Northern Ireland Secretary Shaun Woodward reacted by warning all sides to think carefully about how their actions may affect the peace process, telling the BBC:
“It is a responsibility on everyone in the assembly to understand that the consequences of allowing the political process to slide would undoubtedly have an impact on the broader canvas.
“And that if anybody were to be selfish enough to think this is a moment when that can be allowed to be put in the deep freeze, even some may wish to unpick, they would be extremely irresponsible, foolish and would be playing very, very dangerous games.“
The forthcoming week stands to be a pivotal one for Northern Ireland. However, with that in mind, political leaders would do well to remember the words of Hilary Clinton when she addressed the Assembly in October last year:
“There have been many moments in Northern Ireland’s peace journey when progress seemed difficult, when every route forward was blocked, and there seemed to be nowhere to go. But you have always found a way to do what you believed was right for the people of Northern Ireland.
“As Scripture urges us, ‘Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up’.”
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