Wed, Jan 13, 2010 - Page 6 News List

N Ireland balance tested as leader steps aside

AFP , BELFAST

This composite photo shows Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson, left, as he arrives at Stormont Parliament Buildings in east Belfast, Northern Ireland, on Monday, and his wife and member of parliament, Iris, on April 4, 2005.

PHOTO: EPA

Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson has stepped down temporarily amid a scandal over his wife’s affair with a teenager, heaping fresh pressure on the province’s strained political institutions.

Robinson will stand down for six weeks, lawmakers were told on Monday, as the pressure finally got to the first minister after calls mounted for him to go over financial allegations linked to the sex and politics row.

“As a father and a husband, I need to devote time to deal with family matters,” a drawn-looking Robinson said in a televised statement, his voice breaking.

“I continue to contend I have acted ethically and it is particularly painful at this time of great personal trauma that I have to defend myself from an unfounded and mischievous allegation,” he said.

Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster has taken over as acting first minister during his absence, the Northern Ireland Assembly’s speaker said.

Robinson’s wife Iris, 60, also a top politician, last week admitted having an affair with a then 19-year-old, Kirk McCambley, and securing £50,000 (US$80,000) from two wealthy developers to help him set up a cafe.

She is currently receiving “acute psychiatric treatment” in Belfast, her husband said, and is expected to quit her seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly and Britain’s House of Commons imminently.

Robinson has denied any knowledge of the deal, which he would have had to report to parliamentary authorities, but there were calls for him to quit over the weekend.

The news came against an already tense backdrop in Northern Ireland, with lawmakers grappling to reach agreement on the final stages of the devolution process, the transfer of policing powers from London to Belfast.

Disagreement over this issue had already fueled concerns that power-sharing between Robinson’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein, who were foes during decades of civil unrest in the province, could break down.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown led appeals for lawmakers to concentrate on politics as the sense of crisis mounted.

“I urge all politicians in Northern Ireland, whatever the turbulence of recent events, to remain focused on the business of government,” he said late on Monday.

The British government’s Northern Ireland Secretary Shaun Woodward added his voice to calls to focus on the devolution process, telling BBC television: “This is not a game ... the consequences of getting this wrong will be disastrous.”

He insisted Peter Robinson’s decision to temporarily step aside would not affect talks to resolve the policing issue.

But some see the collapse of the current power-sharing arrangement on the horizon.

“Many now believe the dissolving of the DUP/ Sinn Fein coalition to be inevitable, leading to fresh elections,” the Times newspaper wrote yesterday.

Robinson’s conservative DUP, which is Protestant and wants Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK, has since 2007 shared devolved powers from London in an administration with socialist Sinn Fein, which is Catholic and wants the province to join the Republic of Ireland.

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