Saturday 24 August 2019

David McKittrick: Scandal pushes peace process into major crisis

First Minister Peter Robinson leaves the DUP headquarters in Belfast after a press conference yesterday
First Minister Peter Robinson leaves the DUP headquarters in Belfast after a press conference yesterday

David McKittrick

WHICHEVER course the extraordinary saga of the dysfunctional family Robinson takes, the peace process is heading for a crisis of major proportions, causing nightmares in Dublin, London and Washington.

It is highly unlikely that Peter Robinson will survive the turmoil generated by his family, the most likely outcome being that he will be swept from office in Belfast's biggest ever political scandal.

Even if he should somehow manage to cling on, he will continue to be dogged by the lurid tales of his wife's inappropriate sexual and financial appetites. He will always maintain that he did nothing wrong -- but he has admitted that she had an affair, and cuckolds lack authority.

One of the most common themes in yesterday's political and public reactions was the need for inquiries into many aspects of the episode. To have any faint chance of remaining in office he would have to agree to thorough investigations.

Such investigations would inevitably give rise to a stream of details of political and sexual squalor, at a time when his Democratic Unionist Party is at loggerheads with Sinn Fein and preparing to fight the upcoming Westminster election. It is impossible to imagine that a wounded leader like Mr Robinson could manage to cope on all these fronts.

His party will therefore be facing into the election with a new leader at the helm. Who it might be is not at all clear, but they would struggle to create some element of unity in what is a divided party.

The party would be in no mood to concede the policing devolution demanded by Sinn Fein, which means the election campaign will be a bitter one between unionists and republicans.

But there will be far more bitterness within unionism. The DUP is the biggest unionist party, which is why first Ian Paisley and then Peter Robinson became First Minister: all is decided by arithmetic.

But the DUP took an electoral hit last year when one-time member Jim Allister carved off a large slice of its vote. He is against the peace process, and clearly speaks for unionists opposed to sharing power with Sinn Fein.

The DUP suffered not only because of this factor but also from 'Swish Family Robinson' resentment -- widespread and frequently expressed disapproval about the extent of their parliamentary salaries and expenses, which were on a heroic scale.

The betting has to be that Mr Allister is going to take even more votes from a party which has been so battered by the Robinson revelations. The Ulster Unionist Party can also hope for a modest improvement in its showing.

This three-way split in the unionist vote has far-reaching implications, since it could easily allow Sinn Fein to become the largest single party. And the largest single party gets the prize of the post of First Minister.

That would put Martin McGuinness in line to be not the deputy but the actual First Minister when the next Assembly election rolls around. If the unionist vote is splintered, Sinn Fein could well become number one in party terms.

Many unprecedented things have happened in this peace process, but the idea of unionist politicians serving under a Martin McGuinness prime ministership is inconceivable. The result would be complete deadlock.

Things could change: as the Robinson ruckus showed, Belfast politics can be full of surprises. But, as things stand, a fractured unionism could undermine the entire process, largely because of the sudden collapse of the Robinson political dynasty.

Irish Independent

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