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Maurice Hayes: Policing agreement in North hangs on Robinson's fate

That nerves are beginning to fray at governmental level in the North is clearly demonstrated by the odd intervention of Secretary of State Shaun Woodward in asking the Northern parties not to allow the fall-out from Peter Robinson's domestic difficulties to get in the way of business in the Assembly. The business he has in mind is the devolution of responsibility for policing to the Assembly. His message is clearly directed at Robinson's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) colleagues.

Apart from the fact that they do not like being lectured by a British minister, the people most likely to be critical of Robinson within the DUP are also those most opposed to the devolution of policing. Woodward's appeal is hardly likely to change their minds.

At one level it seems odd that a British government minister, in the present climate, should be exhorting members to disregard the implications of codes of conduct and the restrictive application of rules and regulations in pursuit of the greater political good of preserving and stabilising the power-sharing arrangements.

It could be argued, though, that progress up to the present has depended very often on a convenient amnesia about the previous associations and behaviour of other partners to the process.

But sadly for Woodward, the mood in Stormont, no less than Westminster or Dublin, is to regard abuse in the financial affairs of elected members as the highest form of misdemeanour, and one that cannot be condoned.

Robinson may be seen as caught in a storm not of his own making, which has unleashed forces over which he has little control. On the most charitable interpretation, he can be seen as a man who, when confronted by the financial and other indiscretions of his wife, did his best to get things back on the rails by requiring immediate repayment of loans procured from businessmen.

The charge against him in the 'Spotlight' programme is that he should have blown the whistle at the time by reporting matters to the parliamentary watchdogs, and that he failed to do so. His sin, if any, was one of omission. The case against him may well not be sustained, but in the time available to him, that may not matter.

Robinson's future as party leader will be decided in the next few days by senior members of the party, many of them anxious about retaining their seats in the upcoming general election. These are the people who removed Ian Paisley Jr as an electoral embarrassment after the Dromore council by-election, and who have ruthlessly, in recent days, thrown Iris Robinson to the sharks.

Already voices in the Free Presbyterian Church have expressed moral reservations about Robinson's position, and if the party decides that he is an electoral liability, he will go.

Even if he remains, it will be with reduced status and moral authority, and seriously distracted by serial inquiries and continued speculation.

If this were only a spat within the DUP, it would matter little more than as a bit of light relief, with echoes of Whitehall farce, in the worst winter for decades. But it goes further.

Since an aborted effort with Frank Miller and the late Harold McCusker to modernise unionism, Robinson has been the leading strategist in the DUP for years, and by far the most consummate politician in unionism. He has committed himself to making power-sharing with Sinn Fein work, and to the devolution of policing as a necessary component of that process.

If he falls, there is no other leader likely to emerge to the left of Robinson. The party is likely to seek solace in someone more reflective of traditional DUP values of frugality, probity and implacable opposition to power-sharing, especially with republicans.

The main beneficiary of all this is the Traditional Unionist Voice Party (TUV), founded by former DUP MEP Jim Allister. The DUP will be concerned to fight the election on a platform that avoids further losses the TUV, and that takes the devolution of policing off the agenda.

This, in turn, will leave Sinn Fein out on a limb, after they persuaded their followers to support, supply information to, and even to join the PSNI on the undertaking that the police would be ultimately accountable to elected representatives in the North. It also begins to lend a spurious credence to those sceptical voices within republicanism who question the strategy of abandoning the armalite for the ballot-box.

Since the great prize of the peace process is not who occupies ministerial seats at Stormont, but the permanent removal of the gun from politics, the stakes are now quite high. Sadly, few on the unionist side have been able to see it in this light.

After all the years, the tripartite division in unionism regarding power-sharing remains, virtually unaltered. There are those who would, those who might be persuaded to, and those who would never agree.

The Westminster election will provide even more turbulence, with the Ulster Unionist Party riven between co-operation with David Cameron's Conservatives and local demands for electoral pacts with the DUP, and the DUP seeking to outbid TUV in intransigence.

Woodward is right to be worried.

mhayes@independent.ie

Irish Independent