BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) - The peace process faces a new
challenge as Northern Ireland's leader was forced to step down - at
least temporarily - amid outrage following revelations of his
wife's affair with a teenager.
In an emotional statement Monday, First Minister Peter Robinson
said he would step aside for a few weeks to answer questions about
his wife's romantic and financial dealings with the 19-year-old for
whom she helped raised tens of thousands of pounds (dollars) when
she was 58.
Iris Robinson, also a lawmaker, said last week that she began
the affair less than two years ago while she was suffering a bout
of mental illness and comforting someone after a family death.
Giving few details, she said she had encouraged friends to give her
lover financial support.
The British Broadcasting Corp. reported that Iris Robinson
allegedly solicited 50,000 pounds ($80,000) from people in business
so her lover could open a restaurant. The BBC suggests Peter
Robinson acted improperly by failing to alert parliamentary
authorities about the financial transactions.
The scandal has outraged Peter Robinson's socially conservative
Protestant power base, and threatened to undermine the Democratic
Unionist Party's partnership with the Catholic Sinn Fein - critical
to maintaining Northern Ireland's shaky coalition government.
Looking pale and drawn on Monday, Peter Robinson said his wife
was now receiving psychiatric treatment and that he was stepping
down to deal with family matters and to allow an inquiry to take
place. He denied any wrongdoing.
"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.
If Robinson had resigned outright, Britain's secretary for state
Shaun Woodward had said he would have to call a snap Assembly
election, unless all sides of the power-sharing executive agreed on
a successor within seven days.
Robinson's temporary departure sidesteps the need for elections,
but his party's partnership with Sinn Fein is already badly
strained by disagreements over who will run the province's justice
system. Officials in Britain have expressed concern that the
turmoil could hurt the peace process at a sensitive time.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued a statement late
Monday urging "all politicians in Northern Ireland, whatever the
turbulence of recent events, to remain focused on the business of
government and to recognize the crucial importance of intensifying
engagement in those issues which remain to be solved."
Robinson's Protestant colleague Arlene Foster, who replaces him,
promised lawmakers that the 61-year-old politician would be back
"with a clear record," quickly.
But Britain's and Ireland's governments fear that the scandal
weakens Robinson's party in its negotiations with Sinn Fein over if
and how responsibility for policing and justice should be
transferred to the Assembly. Sinn Fein wants the Assembly to take
charge of policing and justice as soon as possible, while parts of
the Democratic Unionist Party want to wait until finances are in
place for the move and the communities involved feel comfortable.
Robinson said he would continue to work on policing and justice,
even without holding the title of First Minister.
Both parties are now trying to shake off scandals. Late last
year, the niece of Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams publicly accused
her father - Gerry Adam's brother Liam - of sexually abusing her
for several years between the late 1970s and 1980s. She had told
Belfast police about the abuse earlier in confidence.
Liam Adams fled to the Republic of Ireland to avoid a November
2008 Belfast hearing over the charges. Gerry Adams admitted he had
known about the alleged abuse since 1987 but had not told
authorities - in keeping with Sinn Fein's longtime policy of
rejecting the Northern Ireland police.
The episode has embarrassed Gerry Adams and his Irish
nationalist Sinn Fein, which spent decades backing the Irish
Republican Army's attacks on civilians who cooperated with the
police. The outlawed IRA renounced violence and disarmed in 2005.
Adams was quick to dismiss any connection between the two cases,
telling Sky News it was "offensive" to compare his family's
attempts to come to terms with the issue of abuse with Robinson's
scandal. But the two cases, revealed in close succession, are a
distraction at a critical time.
"These scandals have hit when the power-sharing executive is in
maximum danger," Irish historian Tim Pat Coogan said. "There is
embedded volatility in Northern Ireland. You'd be letting all sorts
of problems pop up if you delay things like a policing deal for too
Tensions in the region have recent months and a recent surge in
attacks by Irish Republican Army dissidents has raised fears about
the area's stability. In March, militants killed two soldiers and a
policeman - the first killings of British security forces in
Northern Ireland since 1998. On Friday, a Catholic policeman was
badly hurt when a bomb hidden beneath his car exploded.
Robinson will step down for six weeks, but an official with
Robinson's Democratic Unionists, speaking on condition of anonymity
suggested that the embattled leader could stay away for another six
weeks while noting that Robinson would remain at the head of the
Democratic Unionist Party. The real question may be whether
Northern Ireland can cope with a government held in suspended
animation for that long.