The family Robinson


AS NORTHERN Ireland society remains transfixed by the sensational revelations involving members of the Robinson family, it would be easy to ignore the continuing threat to peace and stability. An attempt by dissident republicans to kill a member of the police force with a car bomb underlines the importance of completing the peace process and building community confidence through the transfer of justice and policing powers. The First Minister has a major role to play in this regard.

Whether Peter Robinson has the appetite, or the capacity, to convince his party that this measure is required to cement the peace process remains to be seen. In the meantime, he is trying to focus and truncate his own particular problems by asking officials at Stormont to appoint a senior counsel to decide whether he has breached his ethical obligations. A critical report would, he suggested, bring about resignation. It is a high-risk strategy. Nothing less than the future of Northern Ireland, the whole dispensation agreed in the Belfast Agreement, is at stake. The Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness had already set a similar legal process in motion.

Sex, power, attempted suicide and money are a lethal political cocktail. It is a time of great uncertainty. But, the resignation or removal of Mr Robinson as First Minister, because of allegations of unethical behaviour, would create a political crisis. The effects of such a development on the Democratic Unionist Party or on any political successor could be traumatic. And it may come to that as these dramatic events run their course, within and without, the DUP.

Sinn Féin has concentrated on what it sees as the “big picture”: agreement on the transfer of policing and justice powers before a British general election is called. Three years ago, it agreed to co-operate with the PSNI and to serve on policing boards in the expectation that responsibility for law and order would be devolved to Northern Ireland. Despite various undertakings and pressure from the Irish and British governments, however, Mr Robinson has resolutely refused to co-operate. During the week, he promised to rebuild relationships and make real progress in 2010. But following his meeting with Sinn Féin the morning after his press conference about his personal life, the First Minister had not moved an inch.

Relations within the Executive between Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness have been dysfunctional for a considerable time. Despite, or perhaps because of that, Mr McGuinness and his senior colleagues made space for Mr Robinson when details of his family difficulties became public. Sinn Féin is well aware that the removal of the First Minister would not advance its agenda at this time. And Gerry Adams has his own particular family problems.

Now loyalist paramilitary weapons have been put beyond use, the reinforcement of powersharing and cross-community support for law and order is needed. Mr Robinson, DUP members and a wider electorate will decide.