As the Assembly today resumes after its Christmas break, Political Correspondent Noel McAdam looks at the potential fallout from the developing political crisis
Can Peter Robinson survive as First Minister?
Yes, if he is cleared by the legal opinion of the senior counsel appointed to investigate his handling of his wife’s financial dealings and can continue to command the support of a majority of the DUP’s MLAs.
Questions arise, however, over whether the verdict of the QC, appointed by officials from Robinson’s own office, will satisfy public opinion and will be viewed as independent, particuarly if there is less than full disclosure of the documentation.
Does the First Minister have sufficient party backing?
This is hard to gauge. MLAs, councillors and party officers have been instructed not to speak to the media, even on an unattributable basis. But among those prepared to breach the embargo there is division between those who believe Peter should be given time to clear his name and could then hold on and others who are coming towards the conclusion that, even if exonerated, the party cannot go into an election battle with a broken general.
What happens if Robinson resigns?
The DUP would have some time to choose a successor. There is some speculation the positions of leader and First Minister could be split, with Nigel Dodds, the current deputy, most likely to take over the party helm, and various names being hinted for First Minister including Sammy Wilson and Arlene Foster. The First Minister comes from the largest party but does not have to be the leader. As it is a joint office, Sinn Fein will have to re-nominate a deputy First Minister if this happens.
Will Sinn Fein automatically re-nominate Martin McGuinness as deputy First Minister?
Not necessarily. The party could refuse to re-nominate as leverage to secure a date for the transfer of policing and justice powers — but with the prospect there would be no Assembly to devolve the responsibility to.
What if Sinn Fein refuse to re-nominate?
The Government is required to start the clock ticking towards new Assembly elections over six weeks. With a potential three-way unionist split — the DUP, Ulster Unionists and Traditional Unionist Voice — the prospect of a Sinn Fein First Minister at Stormont could not be ruled out.
Would the DUP agree to become deputy FM alongside a Sinn Fein First Minister?
Unlikely. Jim Allister’s Traditional Unionist Voice has already ruled it out so a new Assembly elected, say, in March could also collapse. Such political paralysis would ensure the return of Direct Rule. But this time Direct Rule would take the form of a sort of ‘Plan B’ set-up mentioned at the time of the St Andrews Agreement, with an enhanced role for Dublin. This was the scenario which former First Minister Ian Paisley said helped persuade him over the line to share power with republicans.