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Peter Robinson: Nobody goes on forever... my heart attack was a timely warning

In an exclusive interview with political editor Liam Clarke, First Minister Peter Robinson talks about the possibility of retirement and speaks of what he wants to achieve politically before stepping down

Published 14/08/2015

First Minister Peter Robinson speaking at Stormont Castle yesterday
First Minister Peter Robinson speaking at Stormont Castle yesterday

Peter Robinson spoke yesterday of the possibility of his retirement - saying that his heart attack was a "timely warning" that he can't work forever.

But the First Minister insisted that there were many political challenges to resolve before that day, and he wouldn't be drawn on speculation that he would step aside before next May's Assembly elections.

Mr Robinson, who suffered his coronary in May, said he had lost weight and was wearing an Apple watch, which can be used to monitor your health, including heart rate, blood rate and breathing.

He said there were several issues that he needed to resolve, including the devolution of corporation tax "which I believe could bring us tens of thousands of jobs".

He said that the controversial petitions of concern should no longer be used to veto financial measures at Stormont.

He also indicated that he may resign before the next Assembly election if he can complete a number of reforms in his party and at Stormont.

Mr Robinson was speaking to the Belfast Telegraph to spell out the problem as he saw it: "A year ago in your newspaper I indicated that the Assembly was not fit for purpose.

"In December, the Stormont House Agreement gave us a route whereby the Assembly could function more expeditiously and more suitably. Unfortunately the Stormont House Agreement has not been implemented, so the same stricture has to apply - it is still not fit for purpose."

The agreement provided grants and loans from London to help Stormont balance its books, but Sinn Fein and the SDLP repudiated it a few months later.

The agreement provided low interest loans for a public sector exit scheme to save money long-term and streamline the public service. There was also money to deal with the legacy of the past.

In return, the Assembly had to pass welfare reform to bring payments into line with the rest of the UK. However, we were allowed to set up a special fund from our own resources to meet hardship.

Mr Robinson is insistent that the cost of welfare must be met from our own budget.

"You expect too much if you think the Prime Minister is going to bail us out" he said, adding: "We have to deal with welfare reform ourselves and if we want any enhancements it has to come from our own budget."

However, there was a shift in the DUP position. Previously the party argued that negotiations were completed at Stormont House in December. Now he says they must be reopened and the Government should provide some new "flexibilities" in the budget. This moves him marginally closer to Sinn Fein's position.

He said he agreed with Martin McGuinness that there had been new changes in Tory spending, which had to be factored in. The Deputy First Minister had stated in an interview we published on Monday that changes made since the Stormont House Agreement impacted our budget so severely that we needed help, which he thought Britain was considering.

Mr Robinson stated: "We want to see some flexibility from the Government. I don't think you are going to see a large additional pot of money, but there are ways the Government can treat money which has an impact on whether there is a reallocation of resources from one purpose to another. I don't want to go into the details of what our ask might be."

Pressed further, he said: "There have been changes since last December and we need to take them into our calculations. That applies both to the second tranche of welfare changes, some of which we have direct responsibility for and some of which are determined at Westminster. On top of that you have changes to departmental spending. The DUP will be voting against some of those changes when they come to the House of Commons, but Sinn Fein won't be there." However, he added: "We have had discussions with Sinn Fein over the summer and they will continue over the next couple of weeks. There certainly is an indication that they want to resolve matters. We have to test that over the next few weeks."

He sounds like a man who is putting a legacy together before retirement. Asked about that, he said: "When I stand down will not be dictated by the clock. I have said consistently that I want to see some things done politically and also some party issues."

It was always clear that seeing the East Belfast Westminster seat won back for the DUP after he lost it was one career objective. Another was balancing the books at Stormont.

He went on: "There are a number of other issues, including corporation tax, which I believe could bring us tens of thousands of jobs.

"Nobody goes on forever and I had a timely warning on that in terms of having a heart attack, but I do want to hand over at the right time and I want to hand over in the right circumstances for both the party and the province."

Asked if that would be before next May's Assembly elections, he replied: "I don't know."

And he issued a "you'll miss us when we've gone" plea for people to support devolution while there was still time.

He predicted: "One thing I do know is that if the Assembly collapses, people will be protesting for it to be brought back within a year.

"They will see a difference if they have to pay water charges, see tuition fees rising to the level of the rest of the UK, when welfare payments here are the same as in England. There are lots of things the Assembly does that it doesn't get credit for."

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