Peter Robinson was “hanging on by a thread” a year after taking over as First Minister and could “snap or just walk away”, former Secretary of State Shaun Woodward privately warned.
A leaked diplomatic cable discloses how the US was secretly briefed on fears the DUP leader could quit public life amid mounting pressure to complete a deal on the devolution of policing and justice.
The comments are reported in a classified document released by WikiLeaks, and came 13 months after Mr Robinson had replaced Ian Paisley.
The Woodward remarks were made six months before Peter Robinson made a public statement that his wife Iris had an affair and had attempted suicide.
The dispatch also raises concerns about a leadership vacuum if Robinson were to resign, claiming no-one in the party was prepared to succeed him. According to the confidential cable, Mr Woodward wrote off both Arlene Foster and Jeffrey Donaldson as “untenable” replacements.
The document, dated July 10, 2009, came during the protracted negotiations over a deal on devolved policing. On July 1, Mr Robinson had publicly warned that “a considerable amount of work” was needed before agreement could be reached.
The following day, Mr Woodward held a meeting with a visiting congressional delegation in London.
During the discussion, he raised concerns over Mr Robinson’s future as DUP leader and First Minister, and warned against pushing him too hard on devolution.
His remarks were subsequently reported back to Washington by Daniel McNicholas, an official from the US Consulate in Belfast.
The cable states: “Robinson had sought power for 30 years, he [Woodward] said, but now realised it was harder to govern than he had thought.
“Woodward expressed concern that, if pushed too far, Robinson, whom he said was ‘hanging on by a thread,’ could ‘snap or just walk away’.”
The cable reports concerns about who would replace Mr Robinson were he to step down.
“The fear is that no one in the DUP is prepared to succeed him,” it adds. “Woodward ruled out potential contenders – former junior minister Jeffrey Donaldson and Minister of Enterprise Arlene Foster — as untenable.”
The remarks will be viewed as surprising since Mrs Foster and Mr Donaldson are among the party’s most experienced and high-profile members.
Mrs Foster is viewed as one of the Executive’s most competent and popular ministers, and was reappointed to the Enterprise portfolio last month.
The cable is classified ‘CONFIDENTIAL/NOFORN’ — not to be viewed by non-US citizens — and also details concern within Sinn Fein over Mr Robinson’s future.
Gerry Adams, in a separate briefing with diplomats, claimed the difficulties facing the DUP had also affected his party.
According to the cable, the Sinn Fein president shared the view that strong leadership “was in the interest of both communities and necessary for progress to be made.”