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DUP ousts Iris while husband's fate is weighed up

IRIS ROBINSON has been ousted from the ranks of the Democratic Unionist Party, in the wake of damning revelations over her sexual and financial affairs.

Mrs Robinson's membership was terminated yesterday and she is now set to leave Westminster and her MLA position in Stormont within the coming days because of her financial dealings with a 19-year-old Belfast businessman, Kirk McCambley, who became her lover. Party officers plan to meet as early as tomorrow to decide who would replace Mrs Robinson as MLA in the Northern Ireland Assembly. However, there will not be a by-election for her Westminster Strangford seat as a British general election is likely before the formal writ can be moved. Meanwhile, her husband's future as First Minister and leader of the DUP could be decided as early as the end of this week.

Senior party sources say that the outcome of an internal probe by a lawyer appointed by the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister to examine Mr Robinson's conduct after he became aware of his wife's financial and other dealings with Mr McCambley will be pivotal in their deliberations.

The party is fearful that Mrs Robinson's actions in assisting Mr McCambley to secure a franchise for a council-owned cafe in south Belfast will badly damage the DUP at the general election later this year.

And there are fears that the indiscretions of the First Minister's wife could even lead to the collapse of the Stormont Executive, with some of Mr Robinson's supporters saying that his forced departure from the Office of First Minister could herald another collapse in the peace process.

Some senior figures in the DUP, while sympathetic to the First Minister's plight over the hurt he has suffered through his wife's betrayal, are questioning his judgment in the handling of the affair.

They feel that he should have been more forceful in March of last year when Mrs Robinson tried to take her own life and when he first learned of her sexual liaison with Mr McCambley.

The DUP's party officers met at Stormont last Friday and are understood to have decided that Mrs Robinson should be removed from all public posts as soon as possible and cease to benefit from payments from the public purse. Its expected that formal steps will be taken to remove her name from the posts she holds on Castlereagh Borough Council, where she failed to declare her interest in Mr McCambley's business during meetings. Some members of the DUP are privately saying that Mr Robinson's position is also untenable, while others feel that his survival is essential for the party and the peace process. One DUP assemblyman, who supports fully the First Minister but who didn't want named, said Mr Robinson's departure as party leader would have major consequences beyond the DUP.

"If that happens the peace process will collapse," the MLA has warned.

Last Friday evening, the DUP MP Gregory Campbell increased the pressure on the First Minister by saying Mr Robinson should have one week to clear his name and then the party should move on. Another MP, who also did not wish to be identified, said he would accept Mr Campbell's suggestion but said he feared for the future of the party. Another assemblyman said that major mistakes had been made and many had tolerated Mrs Robinson's rudeness within the party only because she was the leader's wife. "Many of us have had our run-ins with her. She would be unpleasant, rude and unhelpful but we put up with it because of who she was married to.

"But she is a hypocrite and she caused major damage to the party," the assemblyman, who also did not want named, said. Apart from Mr Campbell, few within the DUP were prepared to put their name to any public comment yesterday -- with many anxious to avoid adding further fuel to the party's difficulties.

But there are a number of figures within the DUP who do not have great sympathy for the Robinsons and feel the party would fare better in the coming general election if Mr Robinson was to step down.

"Was he being economical with the truth in his interviews on Wednesday, waiting to see what was on the Spotlight programme, calculating what he had to divulge? What worries me is what is still to come out about her dealings and whether Peter has anything he is concerned about.

"I think his position is untenable," another assemblyman said.

At the core of Mr Robinson's difficulties is the arranging of two £25,000 (€27,800) loans by his wife for Mr McCambley from two of her wealthy friends, her failure to advise Castlereagh Borough Council of her interest in Mr McCambley's application for the franchise to run the Lock Keeper's Inn, and the possibility that she erred in not informing the parliamentary watchdogs in both London and Belfast that she facilitated the loans.

Mr McCambley has alleged she demanded £5,000 (€5,560) in cash from the money before eventually demanding it all back when her husband learned of the arrangement in December 2008. Mr Robinson announced last Wednesday that his wife had conducted a brief affair with a man and had attempted to take her life on March 1 last year, but he failed to reveal her financial dealings with Mr McCambley or her illegal lobbying for him to obtain the franchise of the small restaurant in south Belfast owned by the council.

Since Thursday, when the details of the financial links between his wife and Mr McCambley emerged, Mr Robinson has been fighting a rearguard action to save his job. He has said that he will remain in his posts but opponents within the DUP fear his presence will damage its prospects in the general election. Mr Robinson's critics have questioned his judgment in not demanding his wife's resignation from her public posts in December 2008 when he learned about the loans.

It was alleged by her former political adviser Selwyn Black, a former RAF chaplain, that when the First Minister learned of her business relationship with Mr McCambley, he demanded that the money be repaid forthwith.

The BBC alleged that Mr Robinson was present in Florida with his wife when texts were sent to Mr Black instructing him to demand the return of the money but the First Minister has denied any knowledge of these dealings.

Mr Robinson has denied any wrongdoing and has told civil servants in the Office of First Minister/ Deputy First Minister to appoint a barrister to examine the actions of his wife and his response and compile a report on his conduct. Critics say he should have informed the Westminster authorities of the loans, even though they didn't pass through her bank account and cheques were made payable to Mr McCambley. Alistair Graham, the former House of Commons watchdog, has said that he believes at least two breaches of parliamentary rules have taken place regarding the donation of loans via Mrs Robinson because they were undeclared.

Reg Empey, the leader of the Ulster Unionists, has demanded that Mrs Robinson immediately resign her Strangford Westminster seat, her Assembly seat, and her position on Castlereagh Borough Council.

He says it is improper for her to continue to receive any public funds. A number of investigations must immediately be launched at Westminster, Stormont and Castlereagh he says.

Martin McGuinness, the Deputy First Minister, demanded a meeting last Friday with Mr Robinson but he was unavailable. Mr McGuinness believes the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister has been drawn in to Mrs Robinson's improper conduct through her husband's knowledge of her sourcing of the loans.

Sunday Independent