Robinson on the brink as party revolts over SF deal
Published 03/02/2010 | 05:00
DUP leader Peter Robinson was fighting for his political life last night after his party split over the proposed deal on policing with Sinn Fein.
It emerged yesterday that 40pc of the DUP members in the Northern Ireland Assembly are opposed to the terms he negotiated after a week of intense talks.
The divisions within the DUP, the largest unionist party in Stormont, are holding up the talks on the devolution of policing powers -- now entering their ninth day.
Mr Robinson and Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness arrived back at Hillsborough Castle last night to continue talks to save the North's power-sharing government. Foreign Affairs Minister Micheal Martin and the UK's Northern Secretary Shaun Woodward were on hand to chair the talks.
Taoiseach Brian Cowen and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown are still on standby to travel to Belfast to sign off on a deal. But the second major crisis within a month has seriously undermined Mr Robinson's authority as DUP leader and his position as First Minister.
DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds moved to calm growing speculation about Mr Robinson's leadership.
Mr Dodds said Mr Robinson was a "first class unionist" who enjoyed the "full support" of his party but he did not deny that 14 MLAs opposed the leader's proposals.
"Speculation and innuendo" was being peddled by "some sections of the media", said Mr Dodds. He also denied there had been a vote of confidence on the leader.
It is also understood that a number of the DUP's Westminster MPs joined the 14 MLAs in criticising the deal on devolving policing and justice and reform of the Parades Commission.
The latest political crisis could provoke an Assembly election where the DUP would almost certainly lose seats and their position as the largest party. It would also open the door for Sinn Fein to become the largest party in the Assembly and take the position of First Minister.
Mr Robinson's judgment and leadership was questioned at a stormy meeting in Stormont yesterday where 14 MLAs spoke out against the deal he agreed with Sinn Fein on Monday.
After Monday's meeting, Mr Robinson's leadership of the DUP and his position as First Minister were on the line, according to informed party sources.
The most influential of Mr Robinson's critics is Westminster MP Gregory Campbell who believes the devolution of policing and justice needs wider support in the community. DUP MPs Willie McCrae and David Simpson; and party chairman Maurice Morrow, an MLA who also sits in the House of Lords; are understood to support Mr Campbell.
A group of older, overweight and bald DUP MLAs, dubbed "the babies" by other parties, has also come out against Mr Robinson.
Sinn Fein's Alex Maskey said he believed that there is still the prospect of a deal.
"Whatever is going on in the DUP, is a matter for the DUP," he said.
Mr Robinson has breathing space for 24 hours when his MPs go to Westminster today but both Downing Street and Dublin government sources believe that there will be a development by tomorrow.
TALKS MISS THE POINT: JOHN BRUTON, PAGE 31