Robinson steps down as North sinks into crisis
Wife Iris receiving 'acute psychiatric care' after scandal
THE North's main parties have just weeks to salvage the fragile power-sharing government after First Minister Peter Robinson temporarily stepped down from the post yesterday.
Stormont was plunged into crisis after Mr Robinson announced he was relinquishing control for six weeks in an attempt to clear his name from the sex and financial scandal engulfing his wife Iris.
She is continuing to receive acute psychiatric treatment in Belfast. But it is unclear whether he will return to office following a break or whether he is being eased out in stages.
In a day of drama, his Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) stunned Stormont with the shock decision to install Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster in the top job.
However, the DUP attempt to stage a damage limitation exercise in the wake of the scandal failed to defuse the continuing stand-off with Sinn Fein that threatens to derail the Belfast settlement.
He remains leader of the DUP party, which is facing into a difficult Westminster election. But the political atmosphere is filled with high drama and uncertainty, and his position looks precarious.
His party has suffered considerable damage in the extraordinary political firestorm which followed his wife Iris's admission of an affair with a local teenager.
The move is the latest in a series to have been put in place to distance the party from the misbehaviour of Mrs Robinson, whom it expelled at the weekend. She is said to be receiving "acute psychiatric treatment".
A whirlwind day of activity at Stormont in Belfast appeared to start well for Mr Robinson, when his party's assembly members passed a unanimous motion pledging "wholehearted support" for him.
But this was followed by news that an assembly minister, Arlene Foster, had been drafted in for a period of up to six weeks as acting first minister.
Mr Robinson said: "As a father and a husband, I need to devote time to deal with family matters. 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 stressed that he would retain control over the continuation of long-running negotiations, involving Sinn Fein and others, on the transfer of policing powers to the Assembly.
Even before the Iris Robinson scandals blew up, republicans had been warning that her husband was holding up the issue. It is conceivable that Mr Robinson, one of Belfast's most astute political operators, might be considering striking a deal that might increase his chances of survival.
Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams said: "The failure of the DUP to fulfil its political commitments has led to a considerable lack of public confidence in the political institutions.
"We want policing and justice powers devolved as soon as possible -- we want to sort it out in the very short term."
On this issue London is in broad agreement with Sinn Fein. A spokesman for British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said: "The government is totally focused on completing devolution with the transfer of policing and justice powers from London to Belfast. That is the government's objective."
The delicate judgment call for both London and Sinn Fein is whether Mr Robinson will retain power, and whether it is worthwhile expending political capital on rescuing him.
All Mr Robinson's astuteness was not enough to avoid the move to sideline him, at least for a time, following a torrent of harmful publicity.
His wife stands accused of procuring £50,000 (€55,000) from two property developers and using the money to set her then-19-year-old lover up in business. She also voted, as a councillor, in favour of his project without declaring an interest.
Although her withdrawal from public life was recently announced, she was also a member of the Assembly and a Westminster MP. She failed to tell any of these institutions about the money, as required by law. It has also emerged that she personally pocketed £5,000 (€5,500) of it in cash.
Mr Robinson is defending himself against charges that he knew of some of his wife's activities and should have informed the authorities about them.
Speaking in the Assembly, Ms Foster said she was sure senior lawyers commissioned to investigate Mr Robinson's actions would find no evidence of wrongdoing.