Explanation of the process for a succession and profiles of the candidates to replace Peter Robinson as First Minister of Northern Ireland.
News that Northern Ireland’s First Minister, Peter Robinson, is to stand down for a six week period to clear his name following allegations over his actions vis-à-vis his wife, Iris’s financial affairs has provoked a mixed response, with concerns about the instability it could cause in Stormont.
Concerns have particularly been raised over the position of the newly appointed Acting First Minister, Arlene Foster.
The allegations against Mr Robinson were initially made in BBC Northern Ireland’s Spotlight current affairs programme last week, and broadcast again across the whole of the UK on last night’s Panorama.
There are now a number of paths these latest developments could take:
• As the Times has suggested, Martin McGuiness will use the cover of the Robinson affair to resign his position as Deputy First Minister, in protest over the slow pace of negotiations on completing devolution. In such a scenario, under the terms of the legislation establishing the bodies, the First Minister would also be forced to step down. If a new First and Deputy First Minister could not be appointed within 7 days, the Secretary of State would be forced to call fresh elections to the Assembly.
• Mr Robinson will use the time away from the limelight to broker an agreement on policing and justice with Sinn Fein. He will then return as First Minister, after clearing his name, with renewed authority, with declarations of a fresh start for Northern Ireland following months of political instability.
• He will either use a successful outcome to negotiations over policing and justice as an opportunity to bow out of politics, or he will be forced to step down as a result of investigations finding him guilty of breaching the ministerial code.
In the event of his stepping down, a number of senior DUP figures would fancy their chances at Northern Ireland’s top job:
The elevation of Enterprise Minister Arelene Foster to the post of Acting First Minister makes her the first female First Minister of any of the devolved institutions, and only the second woman in the UK, after Margaret Thatcher, to lead a Government.
The 39-year-old MLA for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, she has had first hand experience of the troubles, when a bomb went off in 1988 under the school bus she was on. She later went on to qualify as a Solicitor, with the Ulster Unionist Party proving her preferred route into politics.
In 2004 however, only weeks after being elected a UUP MLA, she joined colleagues Jeffrey Donaldson and Norah Beare in defecting to the DUP in protest over the direction of the party under David Trimble.
Since then, Mrs Foster has held the post of Environment Minister, before taking on the role of Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment.
On the devolution of policing and justice powers, she has towed the party line. She has said:
“We will only assent to devolution of these powers when the conditions are right, including the provision of an adequate financial package and the establishment of broad community confidence.”
Speaking at the DUP annual conference in November, he concluded that the current legislation making coalition government in Northern Ireland mandatory was flawed. On policing and justice, his speech left little doubt that the DUP are in no hurry to see the devolution of these powers take place any time soon:
“It is a DUP ‘No’ that is ensuring policing and justice is not devolved except and only on the right terms and in the right time.”
Having been a Press Officer for the DUP since 1981, Wilson is in a strong position to know the party well, with his work for it likely to have proved important to build his contacts book and building relations with those who matter.
On policing and justice, Wilson has made clear his view that devolving such powers can only take place once the community supports such a move. He recently said:
“It is essential for the successful operation of the devolved institutions that not only are the financial issues around the devolution of policing and justice settled, but also that the necessary community confidence to allow devolution is established.”
For the UUP, its Leader, Sir Reg Empey – himself a former Acting First Minister – issued a statement in which he made clear that whilst he had personal sympathy for the position of Peter and Iris Robinson, he had serious concerns over the current position. He said:
“At this crucial time in the political process, we now have two lame-duck First Ministers, neither of whom can make the decisions necessary to ensure proper, working devolution. Northern Ireland requires strong, stable government capable of taking the hard decisions required to be made in order to secure working devolution.
“This requires a First Minister who is neither mired in attempts to clear his name nor an Acting First Minister in a care-taker capacity incapable of taking the hard decisions. The people of Northern Ireland will be asking if today marks the beginning of the post-Robinson era.”
SDLP Leader Mark Durkan also raised concerns over the confusion over who was now in chare during sensitive and delicate negotiations on policing and justice. He said:
“Now we need to know if these arrangements are going to last the full six weeks and what will happen then? However, overall this is not a satisfactory situation for all the parties. There seems to be some confusion as to who is responsible for what and we cannot afford to add to the uncertainty.
“It is important the Minister Foster follows through on the letter of 2 December from the First Minister and deputy First Minister and convenes a meeting of all party leaders and brings forward plans for the devolution of policing and justice.”
For Sinn Fein, Gerry Kelly made clear that his and his party’s view that what matter mosts was a completion of negotiations over the devolution of policing and justice powers. He said:
“I don’t want this to go on for six weeks, I want this issue sorted out. We want to sort it out in the very short term.”
And here lies the problem. Whilst, as Mr Kelly has made clear, Sinn Fein, Northern Ireland’s largest Republican Party, would like to see a rapid implementation of the devolution of policing and justice powers, the DUP remain far more cautious. Speaking recently, Lord Morrow, DUP Chief Whip at Stormont, has made clear his view that the negotiations were unlikely to yield positive results before the General Election.
The resignation of Peter Robinson has precipitated another crisis in Northern Ireland Politics, with the Belfast Telegraph speaking of the UK and Irish government’s embarking on a “rescue mission” to prevent the collapse of the power sharing institutions.
In September, Left Foot Forward reported on Mr Wilson’s embarrassment at a leaked memo in which he was alleged to have called for £370 million in cuts in Northern Ireland’s spending.
Northern Ireland now stands in a fragile state. The weeks to come will plot Northern Ireland’s course for many years to come.
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