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DUP's Peter Robinson walks away but leaves door ajar for a dramatic comeback

By Liam Clarke

Published 11/09/2015

Peter Robinson after announcing he was to step aside as First Minister
Peter Robinson after announcing he was to step aside as First Minister
Theresa Villiers
Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams address the media at Stormont yesterday

An old peace process hand now abroad told me last night he'd been watching Peter Robinson on the BBC website and then checked for the 'most read' story.

It wasn't about our political crisis, but instead about a "chicken that lived for 18 months without a head".

Could Stormont do the same with all these resignations?

Mr Robinson's strategy, which he unveiled yesterday, was based on two things.

He believed that whatever happened, Sinn Fein would not walk out. That was correct - Sinn Fein's strategy was to keep the Assembly going, but failing that to force him to walk so that he - not they - would be blamed for the collapse, at least among nationalists. This has now happened.

They now want an election, and it looks like they can get one if they stand their ground. They will also go into the Irish election, next May at the latest, without the stain of either collapsing Stormont or implementing welfare cuts.

Mr Robinson's second assumption, or perhaps it was just a roll of the dice, was that he could force the Secretary of State's hand and make her suspend the institutions without calling an election. It was fairly obvious that the Government wasn't up for that and that the Irish government, which met Ms Villiers on Monday night, would publicly criticise her if she did.

Mr Robinson could still win on that one, but it is unlikely. Ms Villiers has called new talks on how to end the impasse for Monday - she is in her constituency today - and if things look bleak enough it is always possible.

There is still some time for luck. DUP ministers are resigning, but they have seven days to nominate replacements. Could the government buckle in that time? If it did fold, both the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State would have to eat their words. Apart from anything else, it would mean legislation, which deeply divided the Northern Ireland parties, being rushed through in a week before the house adjourns for party conference season.

The British government is also a bit busy, with migration and Europe, for micro-managing Northern Ireland and they will try to avoid that. That was made clear in the House of Lords yesterday.

Lord Dunlop, speaking for the government, told Lord Reid, the former Secretary of State: "The noble Lord brings ... will appreciate the seriousness of any step to suspend. As the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has already set out, the Government do not think that the time is right to suspend devolved institutions. If circumstances change, the Government will review their options."

Earlier in the week, David Cameron basically sent Nigel Dodds, the DUP parliamentary leader and Mr Robinson's possible successor, away with a flea in his ear. Mr Dodds had asked about excluding Sinn Fein from government, but Mr Cameron basically told him to go home and work with the other parties for a solution.

"It was an amazing thing you all did in Northern Ireland, when you formed that administration and that Assembly," the Prime Minister said.

"We will do everything we can to help you, but let us think of the nobler processes and the great noble principles that were put in place in the past - and let's do it again."

The DUP can maintain the pressure for a while to see if it can bend the government to its will or panic Mr Cameron into action. Mr Robinson has not resigned as First Minister but only stepped aside - putting in Arlene Foster as a temporary replacement. That could delay an election being called by six weeks or more and it is conceivable that in the interim, something could happen to Sinn Fein's disadvantage. That is another gamble.

There will be incredible pressure in the coming weeks, but it is clear that if the Assembly does come down, it will be hard to get up again, given the lack of goodwill among the parties. Sinn Fein will want money for welfare, the DUP will want an end to compulsory all-party coalition.

That is what is called a long haul.

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