Belfast Telegraph

First Minister Peter Robinson faces night in hospital after suspected heart attack

By Lesley-Anne McKeown

Northern Ireland's First Minister could be facing a night in hospital after suffering a suspected heart attack.

Peter Robinson, 66, underwent a procedure at Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital earlier today.

He was transferred in an ambulance to the RVH's specialist cardiac unit after seeking treatment at the Ulster Hospital which is close to his home in the Castlereagh hills.

A spokeswoman for the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust confirmed: "Mr Robinson underwent a procedure this morning and is currently recovering in the Royal Victoria Hospital."

His admission comes on the eve of a crucial debate on welfare reform which has been threatening to collapse the power-sharing institutions at Stormont.

The RVH, in west Belfast, is Northern Ireland's largest hospital and is the main centre for cardiology.

A DUP statement said: "The First Minister felt unwell this morning and has been admitted to the hospital for some further tests."

Messages of good will have flooded in from across the UK, Ireland and America throughout much of the day.

Prime Minister David Cameron was among the first politicians to express concern.

He said on Twitter: "My best wishes to Northern Ireland's First Minister Peter Robinson who is in hospital. I hope he has a speedy recovery."

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers and Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness also used Twitter to show their support.

Mr McGuinness said: "Concerned to hear First Minister Peter Robinson has been admitted to hospital. My thoughts & prayers are with him,Iris & family."

Mr Robinson, a father of three, has been leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and First Minister since 2008.

In contrast to his predecessor, the firebrand preacher Ian Paisley, his tenure has been characterised by mixed relations with his coalition partners, Sinn Fein.

DUP colleagues including the party's deputy leader Nigel Dodds, new East Belfast MP Gavin Robinson, North Antrim MP Ian Paisley and former health minister Jim Wells have also added their best wishes.

Mr Dodds said he believed the First Minister had taken ill during the night.

Meanwhile, Ian Paisley whose father spent several weeks in hospital in 2012 said he understood what the strain on the family.

He said: "I know what it is like. I send him my best wishes and hope that he makes a speedy recovery."

Gavin Robinson, who won back the constituency seat Mr Robinson lost in 2010, said: "I extend best wishes to the party leader and hope he makes a full and quick recovery."

Political opponents including Mike Nesbitt, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), Jim Allister from the TUV and SDLP leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell have also urged the First Minister to make a full recovery.

Members of the Robinson family, including disgraced former Strangford MLA Iris Robinson whose affair with a teenager sparked a scandal which almost ruined her husband's 35-year political career when it was exposed in 2010, have asked for privacy, as they rally round.

As leader of Stormont's largest party Mr Robinson has been under significant pressure in recent months not least because of the welfare reform wrangle.

His hospital admission means he is likely to miss tomorrow's key debate on proposed changes to the benefits system.

Nationalists have vowed to veto the move and have deployed measures to block the Welfare Reform Bill when it is brought to the floor of the Assembly.

Mr Robinson has warned that the Executive faces financial meltdown and said he would seek to hand welfare powers back to London if the Bill was rejected.

The DUP also endured a difficult election campaign and was forced to enter a pact with the Ulster Unionists to safeguard seats.

Further pressure was added when former health minister Jim Wells resigned after a furore about comments he made linking same sex marriage to child abuse. The resignation meant Mr Robinson had to re-shuffle his top team.

Mr Wells said he could not recall Mr Robinson having a sick day in 40 years.

He said: "I have known Peter since 1975 and I cannot remember him ever having a day off sick.

"He always struck me as being fit and healthy, so it was a real surprise to hear the news.

"The party will be 100% behind me in wishing him well. We hope he will be back on his feet as soon as possible.

"It will be strange not having him with us at this crucial vote tomorrow - assuming he won't be there. I wouldn't put it past him to bounce back quickly."

Peter Robinson profile

Peter Robinson, who has three children, was a founding member of the DUP.

Born in Belfast just after the Second World War, and schooled at Annadale Grammar in the south of the city, he was inspired by the firebrand oratory of the Rev Ian Paisley and joined him in his battle to protect Ulster from the hands of republicans.

In 1985 he was at the forefront of the pan-unionist campaign against the Anglo Irish Agreement - an accord between the British and Irish governments which gave Dublin a role in affairs in Northern Ireland.

In his latter career he has been a trenchant opponent of all forms of paramilitarism, but in those dark days of the Troubles the lines were somewhat blurred having been arrested in the village of Clontibret, in the Irish Republic, after taking part in a so-called "invasion" along with 500 loyalists as part of the protest.

He later pleaded guilty to unlawful assembly.

Mr Robinson and his party colleagues opposed the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, citing its release of paramilitary prisoners as abhorrent.

Atlhough he took office as minister for regional development in the newly created power sharing executive, he refused to take part in cabinet meetings.

The eventual collapse of that assembly benefited the DUP at the polls and they soon displaced the Ulster Unionists as the largest unionist party in Northern Ireland and, in 2006 negotiated the St Andrews Agreement which paved the way for the latest assembly.

To all intents and purposes, Peter and Iris Robinson became Northern Ireland's "First Couple" when he realised his long term ambition and became Stormont First Minister and DUP leader after the retirement of Ian Paisley in 2008.

Mr Robinson served as MP for East Belfast from 1979 until 2010, when a shock result saw Alliance's Naomi Long win the seat.

Mr Robinson's period as head of the DUP has been characterised by mixed relations with his coalition partners Sinn Fein.

In a significant development for community relations in Northern Ireland in 2012, he joined deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness at a Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) cup final.

Gaelic games are associated with the nationalist community, but his attendance at the Armagh Athletic Grounds follows long-running efforts to build bridges between the GAA and the unionist community.

He has bolstered his traditional unionist credentials by forming a pact ahead of the general election by the Ulster Unionists to maximise the number of unionist seats and has made a resolution of the impasse over loyal order parades one of his priorities.

But his most immediate challenge had been expected to be this coming week when an expected Sinn Fein veto of welfare reform legislation will leave a gaping hole in the powersharing administration's budget and could precipitate its collapse.

Peter and his wife Iris met at Cregagh Technical College in east Belfast when she was 16.

“He was very handsome, he stood out from the other boys,” she recalled in a 2008 interview.

In this same interview with the Sunday Tribune Mrs Robinson spoke frankly about long-standing rumours that her husband had beaten her.

“This malicious lie was started by the Government in an attempt to blacken Peter's name when he was protesting at the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

“It took root because I was in hospital 17 times during that period with gynaecological problems,” she said.

Her involvement in frontline DUP politics began alongside her MP husband as a fellow Castlereagh councillor from the 1980s.

But she soon established a reputation as a major electoral force in her own right, in no small part due to her record of constituency work.

Strangford — next to her husband's East Belfast base — was steadily turned into DUP territory. Her victory there in the 2001 General Election was one of the key steps in the party's march to the top of unionism.

Mrs Robinson was dubbed the unofficial First Lady of Northern Ireland when her husband took the top Stormont job in 2008.

However, Mrs Robinson, a born-again Christian, sparked outrage and a police investigation when she described homosexuality as an abomination and claimed gay people could be "cured".

In 2010 the DUP suffered considerable damage in the extraordinary political firestorm which followed Iris's admission of an affair with a teenager.

She was expelled from the party and was said to be receiving "acute psychiatric treatment".

Last year Ian Paisley (snr) launched an explosive attack on his former colleagues in a BBC documentary, where he alleged Mr Robinson was part of a plot to oust him as DUP leader -- a claim Mr Robinson denied.

An internal survey was alleged to have been compiled on Mr Paisley's leadership.

Asked what it was about, he replies: "Getting rid of Ian Paisley", adding that it had been carried out "in the interests of the people who took over".

He is asked if that included Mr Robinson, replying: "Oh yes, he would have been."

Mr Paisley also said he could no longer have the same relationship with Mr Robinson, adding: "His ways are not my ways."

Mr Robinson responded: "As someone who faithfully served Dr Paisley for many decades, I will make one final sacrifice by not responding and causing any further damage to his legacy beyond that which he has done himself. Rather than return insult for insult, let me bless him with the mercy of my silence and wish him well."

Ian Paisley died on 12 September last year.

Mr Robinson threatened to resign as First Minister in February 2014 unless there was a judicial inquiry into the on-the-runs scandal, in which secret "amnesty" letters were given to more than 180 IRA suspects.

Prime Minister David Cameron caved into pressure and promised an inquiry hours before a midnight deadline set by Mr Robinson– pulling Northern Ireland back from the brink of political meltdown.

The DUP leader's ultimatum followed the collapse of the trial of John Downey, suspected of involvement in the 1982 Hyde Park bombing which killed four soldiers.

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