Northern Ireland’s leader steps aside after wife’s affair
Trysts with teen, financial dealings raise questions
BELFAST - The peace process faces a new challenge as Northern Ireland’s leader was forced to step down, at least temporarily, amid outrage after revelations of his wife’s affair with a teenager.
In an emotional statement yesterday, First Minister Peter Robinson said he would step aside for a few weeks to answer questions about his wife’s romantic and financial dealings with the 19-year-old for whom she helped raised tens of thousands of dollars when she was 58.
Iris Robinson, also a lawmaker, said last week that she began the affair less than two years ago while she was suffering a bout of mental illness and comforting someone after a family death. Giving few details, she said she had encouraged friends to give her lover financial support.
The British Broadcasting Corp. reported that Iris Robinson allegedly solicited $80,000 from people in business so her lover could open a restaurant. The BBC suggested Peter Robinson acted improperly by failing to alert parliamentary authorities about the financial transactions.
The scandal has outraged Peter Robinson’s socially conservative Protestant power base, and threatened to undermine the Democratic Unionist Party’s partnership with the Catholic Sinn Fein, critical to maintaining Northern Ireland’s shaky coalition government.
Robinson said his wife was receiving psychiatric treatment and that he was stepping down to deal with family matters and to allow an inquiry to take place. He denied any wrongdoing.
“I continue to contend I have acted ethically, and it is particularly painful at this time of great personal trauma that I have to defend myself from an unfounded and mischievous allegation,’’ he said.
If Robinson had resigned outright, Britain’s secretary for state, Shaun Woodward, has said he would have to call a snap Assembly election, unless all sides of the power-sharing executive agreed on a successor within seven days.
Robinson’s temporary departure sidesteps the need for elections, but his party’s partnership with Sinn Fein is already badly strained by disagreements over who will run the province’s justice system. Officials in Britain have expressed concern that the turmoil could hurt the peace process at a sensitive time.
Britain’s prime minister, Gordon Brown, issued a statement late yesterday urging “all politicians in Northern Ireland, whatever the turbulence of recent events, to remain focused on the business of government and to recognize the crucial importance of intensifying engagement in those issues which remain to be solved.’’
Robinson’s Protestant colleague Arlene Foster, who replaces him, promised lawmakers that the 61-year-old politician would be back “with a clear record,’’ quickly.
But Britain and Ireland’s governments fear that the scandal weakens Robinson’s party in its negotiations with Sinn Fein over if and how responsibility for policing and justice should be transferred to the Assembly.