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Sam Smyth: First Minister has just weeks to save his career

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EXPECTING the Westminster and Stormont parliaments to conduct a thorough investigation into the Robinson cash and affair scandals in just six weeks is a big ask.

The period is the extent of time allowed in legislation for Peter Robinson to temporarily stand down as First Minister.

Inquiries will address questions raised about how Mr Robinson dealt with his wife's financial arrangements with two developers. And crucially if he knew she took £5,000 in cash from her teenage lover.

However they may also look into Mr Robinson's personal and professional relations with builders and developers.

Mr Robinson has categorically denied any wrongdoing. Yesterday the interim First Minister, Arlene Foster, assured the Assembly at Stormont that an investigation by lawyers for his department has already cleared him.

Party officers and assembly members of the DUP met before his surprise announcement yesterday and deputy leader Nigel Dodds said Mr Robinson had their "wholehearted support" to continue as leader. But ironically it is Sinn Fein and the British and Irish governments who are even keener for Mr Robinson to survive.

So far Mr Robinson and his wife Iris have managed the news agenda very skilfully. But they are now at the mercy of further embarrassing details emerging in the coming weeks.

A statement on Sunday night that Mrs Robinson was undergoing "acute psychiatric treatment" in Belfast prepared the way for Mr Robinson saying he was stepping aside to care for his wife yesterday.

However, the Robinsons have had nine months to deal with the trauma since the First Minister first learned of his wife's affair and her financial shenanigans. And within a few hours of his wife's suicide attempt last March, when two doctors were attending to her, Mr Robinson was back at Stormont.

Through eight of the past nine months it was also business as usual for the golden couple.

They appeared and paraded together regularly in public, apparently without a care in the world. From March until December last year they holidayed and attended functions as a couple, just as they have always done through their 40-year marriage.

Through the spring, summer, autumn, and until just over a month ago, the Robinsons lived their life as they have always done: "They thought they had got away with it, that no one would ever find out about the affair, the funny money and the suicide attempt," said one person who knows them well.

Their lives changed utterly on Monday, December 7, when Deric Henderson, bureau chief of the Press Association in Ireland, asked a couple of questions of Mr Robinson -- did his wife have extra-marital sexual relations and had she tried to slash her wrists?

Two days later, on December 10, a close advisor to Mr Robinson told Mr Henderson that his information was "balderdash".

When no story appeared, the Robinsons continued to socialise and attend to their political duties through early and mid December; Mrs Robinson even said she would be running for Westminster again in the British general election expected in a few months.

Mr Henderson, a very experienced journalist, was reassured by his sources that the story about Mrs Robinson was true. And in the week before Christmas he went back to Mr Robinson and repeated his questions.

Meanwhile, the Robinsons learned that a BBC team had been given access by Mrs Robinson's advisor to text messages sent to her teenage lover Kirk McCambley.

And on December 27, Mr Henderson was exclusively given Mrs Robinson's statement that she was mentally ill and leaving public life.

As the BBC investigation progressed with the help of advisor Selwyn Black who worked for the Robinsons, a series of questions were forwarded to the First Minister.

And in what many believe was a pre-emptive move to limit the political damage last Wednesday, Mr Robinson gave his agonised personal interview admitting his wife's affair and suicide attempt.

The BBC 'Spotlight' programme was transmitted the following night. The £50,000 she secured for Mr McCambley from two developers, its return and Mr Robinson's role in it, is a big worry for them.

But it was Mrs Robinson demanding £5,000 in cash from £50,000 she had solicited from two developers to help her then-teenaged lover open a cafe that threatens ruin on both their careers. Last night political sources in Belfast said they thought a criminal investigation was almost inevitable.

It was suggested that Mrs Robinson's mental illness might prevent the DPP from charging her, if the PSNI found evidence of wrongdoing by her.

Friends of Mr Robinson say his wife is suffering from serious mental illness and suggest that it was her mental illness that caused her to be unfaithful and solicit money for her lover. But opponents point out that just a few weeks ago Mrs Robinson was delighted to launch her candidacy as an MP in the upcoming election.

Others want to know how the Robinsons managed to live what appeared to be a normal life for some nine months after the First Minister learned of his wife's affair and at least some of the detail of her financial dealings with her lover.

On December 10, just a month ago, Mr Robinson denied his wife had an affair and that she had attempted suicide. In the past week Mr Robinson has had to admit to his wife's infidelity and suicide attempt. Now he has six weeks to get back his job as First Minister.

ssmyth@independent.ie

Irish Independent