The Belfast Assembly at Stormont was in disarray today as the DUP leader Peter Robinson stepped down temporarily as First Minister following revelations of an affair between his wife Iris, and a 19-year-old youth.
The scandal also involved payments totalling fifty thousand pounds to ‘toyboy’ Kirk McCambley from two developers, which are at the heart of corruption allegations against both Mr and Mrs Robinson. The money was used my Mr McCambley to open a cafe, under licence from DUP-dominated Castlereagh Borough Council.
The controversy has completely obliterated the political career of Mrs Robinson, now aged 60, who is to officially step down later this week as a Westminster MP and an Assembly member and who was unceremoniously thrown out of the DUP at the weekend.
But it was Mr Robinson’s response to the allegations and scandal surrounding him which dominated breathless media coverage at Stormont today. It was claimed that on discovering the affair, he had moved to reverse and effectively conceal the payments made by the two developers and given by his wife to Mr McCambley, contravening various legislation.
Mr Robinson today asked party colleague Arlene Foster to step in as First Minister for a “short period”, but insisted that he had acted ethically in the face of an “unfounded and mischievous allegation”.
The move came just an hour after DUP colleagues backed Mr Robinson, who was under pressure to resign over the scandal.
In a statement, he said his wife was receiving acute psychiatric treatment.
“As a father and a husband, I need to devote time to deal with family matters.
“To take account of this I have, following a meeting with party colleagues and one with the Deputy First Minister, asked the Minister for Enterprise, Arlene Foster MLA to carry out the functions of the office of First Minister for a short period.”
He said it was “a great honour and privilege to lead the Democratic Unionist Party” and that he would continue to do so with “the full support” of his colleagues.
“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.”
The scandal was fuelled by ‘whistle-blower’ Selwyn Black, a former RAF chaplain who worked as an adviser to Iris Robinson at Stormont for some two years. Mr Black kept a record of damaging text messages which he exchanged with Mrs Robinson, including those relating to her relationship with Mr McCambley.
According to BBC documentary makers, Mrs Robinson later demanded for a cash payment of five thousand pounds from Mr McCambley -- possibly a kind of ‘commission’ for her efforts in securing the payment from the developers. When the relationship ended, she demanded that the full sum be returned, before urging that half be diverted to a church with family connections.
Mr Black accused Mr Robinson of taking charge of the process of returning the money, without have informed the relevant authorities or declaring the family’s financial interests. Mr Robinson has also denied having any knowledge of the extraordinary five thousand pound payment sought by his wife directly until Thursday’s documentary broadcast.
One of the most damaging aspects of the scandal is that it comes against a background of bible-thumping intolerance by the Robinsons. In June 2008, Iris Robinson described homosexuality as “nauseous” and “disgusting” and claimed that members of the gay community were suffering from a psychiatric disorder.
Arlene Foster, now acting First Minister and a relatively progressive member of the DUP, gave her whole-hearted support to Mr Robinson. She said she was sure the senior lawyers commissioned to investigate Mr Robinson’s actions would find no evidence of wrongdoing.
“I am personally confident, my party is very confident, that this will confirm that Peter Robinson, the First Minister, acted entirely properly at all times, but let’s have this [investigation] and let’s have it quickly.”
Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams said he was “entirely sympathetic” to the Robinsons and that the First Minister was “perfectly entitled” to step aside for up to six weeks to deal with family problems.
Mr Adams said he did not believe the move should further derail the political process and the main concern remained the DUP’s “willingness to deal with issues that have been holding this process up”.
He said the problem remained that that some elements within the DUP who he described as “political dinosaurs” needed to come to terms with what he said was the equality agenda.
He pointed out that Sinn Fein had stayed away from making any judgement or speculation on the Robinson scandal.
“Despite all these difficulties that we can seize this opportunity”, he said.
The political stalemate needed to be dealt with in a very short period, not just the six weeks for which Mr Robinson is permitted to step down under Assembly rules, he added.
Earlier, Sinn Fein Chief Whip at Stormont, Caral Ni Chuilin formally requested the Assembly’s Standards and Privileges Committee to look into the allegations against Mr Robinson.
However, Mr Adams said that Sinn Fein was determined to “see beyond the current difficulties. Our focus is on ensuring that the political institutions work and that they deliver for citizens.
“Whatever happens in the short term the need for partnership, and equality will not go away. Delivering for all the people, honouring agreements, is essential for good governance.”
He said that at the most recent meeting with the DUP on Thursday last, with Martin McGuinness and myself, neither Mr. Robinson nor [DUP deputy leader] Nigel Dodds showed any willingness to agree a date for the transfer of powers on policing and justice.
“This is despite the DUP commitments on this. It is despite the communal and policing need to do so and to have public safety and law and order issues dealt with by the local administration.
“Partnership and equality, a date for the transfer of policing and justice powers, Acht na Gaeilge and other issues are all matters which need to be delivered on. This is not about the Robinson’s private family matters. Sinn Fein respect their right to privacy.
“It is about implementing outstanding political agreements that are essential to good government and public confidence.
“It may be now dawning, eventually and belatedly, on the two governments that they need to act as guarantors of the agreements they are charged with upholding.”