Belfast Telegraph

Robinson rejects resignation claims

Northern Ireland's First Minister has said he has no plans to step down.

Peter Robinson rejected claims that he intended to leave before the next Assembly election in 2016, insisting he would continue to lead his Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) for as long as he had a mandate.

He said: "Neither now, nor before the Assembly election, have I any plans to stand down, and the public and media can be confident that when I decide such a moment has arrived I will be the one to make the announcement.

"I repeat the comments I have previously made that I will continue to lead as long as the party and the electorate in East Belfast wish me to do so."

Earlier, Edwin Poots, who was axed as health minister yesterday, said he believed it was "public knowledge" that his party leader wanted to go "within months".

He dropped the bombshell during a radio interview.

"It was never really the intention for Peter to stay on for that period in any event," Mr Poots told the BBC's Nolan Show.

He added: "He (Peter Robinson) referred to months, and months is generally taken as less than a year."

Mr Robinson announced a major reshuffle of his Executive team on Twitter yesterday.

Lagan Valley MLA Mr Poots, who was seen as a close ally of former first minister Ian Paisley and who has been a minister for six out of the Assembly's seven-year lifetime, was not handed another portfolio.

Although he insisted the revamp had not generated any bitterness, the remarks, by one of the DUP's most astute politicians, have been interpreted by some as a deliberate attempt to reinvigorate rivalries among the party leadership.

Mr Poots' tenure at the Department of Health, which was extended by two years, had been dogged by a series of controversies including his refusal to lift a ban on gay men giving blood.

Comments he made in the Assembly chamber about the judiciary prompted Northern Ireland's most senior judge, Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan, to raise concerns that the remarks were detrimental to the rule of law and damaging to public confidence in the justice system.

But it was budgetary pressures which proved to be his biggest headache. And M r Poots, who was facing a £140 million shortfall, clashed with his DUP colleague, Finance Minister Simon Hamilton, over proposed cuts which he claimed would destroy the health service.

Tensions between himself and Mr Robinson finally emerged in public when Mr Poots repeatedly dodged questions about whether or not he would back his leader into the next election.

Significance is also being attached to the fact that Paul Givan, another Lagan Valley MLA who is close to Mr Poots, was stood down as chairman of the Stormont justice committee without being given a promotion.

Speaking ahead of a trip to New York last year, Mr Robinson claimed he was in a strong position and said he would lead his party up to the forthcoming Westminster, European and Assembly elections.

Earlier this month he said the Stormont institutions were not fit for purpose.

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