Sunday 22 September 2019

Robinson to bow out of politics in coming weeks

First Minister Peter Robinson (right) speaks alongside Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness
First Minister Peter Robinson (right) speaks alongside Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness

Liam Clarke

Just 24 hours after bringing the political impasse in the North to an end, Peter Robinson has announced he is retiring from politics.

He will step down as First Minister and DUP leader shortly, probably after Christmas.

Mr Robinson (66) has denied that he is stepping down for health reasons, saying he had decided to go before he had a heart attack last May.

He said he "very much takes the two-term view of politics at the top" and has achieved many of his objectives.

However, he conceded that the stresses of the job had taken a toll on his health.

"While I was lying horizontal in hospital, I got all sorts of advice and lectures on what I should be eating and looking after myself, in terms of sleeping more than I allow myself at the present time," he said.

"I was advised to avoid pressure and get more exercise. For at least a fortnight, I kept all of those rigidly but it is remarkable how soon you slip back into all those old bad habits with this kind of job."

In recent months, he has considered four or five hours sleep "a good night's sleep".

"I am fortunate that I can operate with very little sleep, but it does accumulate. You pay for it eventually."

Mr Robinson has hinted that the roles of First Minister and DUP leader will be split - as already happens in Sinn Féin, where Martin McGuinness is First Minister but Gerry Adams is party leader.

This will likely pave the way for Arlene Foster to become First Minister and Nigel Dodds DUP leader.

Mr Robinson revealed his plans in an exclusive interview ahead of this weekend's DUP conference.

"I am telling you this now because I think it would be disrespectful to the party membership if I was to go through a conference with the pretence that I would be leading the party into the next election," he said.

One reason for leaving now is that he has accomplished the aims he set himself as DUP leader. These are a date and rate for the devolution of corporation tax, seeing his former East Belfast seat retaken by his protégé Gavin Robinson and stabilising the Stormont Assembly.

"I have told the party officers that I don't intend to fight the next Assembly election for a wide range of reasons and not simply because those objectives have been achieved. I very much take the two-term view of politics at the top."

He doesn't believe leaders should hang on too long. His predecessor Ian Paisley only retired in his mid-80s.

"For anyone who is not very young to go beyond two terms is stretching it," said Mr Robinson.

"There are massive pressures on anybody in this job. You do need to renew political leadership, bringing in people with perhaps more energy and people with new ideas."

He had twice previously proposed standing down to party officers. The first was in 2011, after the DUP won 38 Assembly seats, its highest number ever.

"I felt that was an appropriate time to stand down. I was then persuaded by DUP colleagues that the transition process within the party wasn't at a state where that was a wise decision and I agreed to remain," he said.

The second time was following the Westminster elections in May.

"We won back the East Belfast seat, we got more votes than in the previous election... more votes than all the other unionist parties put together, and we were again established as the number one party in Northern Ireland.

"After that, I again went to the party officers and I indicated that I did not wish to stand in the next Assembly election.

"The Assembly was in a very delicate position at that stage and I was persuaded that I should remain to try and steady that ship."

He will now oversee the early stages of bedding in the Fresh Start deal, which was agreed by the DUP, Sinn Féin and the British and Irish governments on Tuesday.

"There are a number of fairly immediate decisions that have to be taken and they (DUP officers) will then organise a transition," he stated.

He said he and his wife Iris, who had a mental breakdown in 2009, are now looking forward to his retirement.

He said Iris was now "very well" adding: "She is engaged in a lot of activities and looking forward to my retirement and me spending more time at home."

Irish Independent

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