Peter Robinson: Sinn Fein blocked deal on past over access to secret files
A row over national security prevented agreement on how to deal with the legacy of Northern Ireland's troubled past, Peter Robinson has revealed.
As he prepares to step down as DUP leader and First Minister, Mr Robinson told the Belfast Telegraph that the key sticking point which held up progress was that Sinn Fein would not accept a High Court judge adjudicating on matters of national security.
A body, the Historical Investigations Unit (HIU), had been proposed which would recover information about the Troubles. However, the British Government retained the right to withhold anything that endangers national security.
Typically, this includes anything that could reveal the identities of agents, the location of listening devices, or intelligence given confidentially to Britain by a foreign state.
"We had pages and pages of agreement on the past. All of the issues were agreed except the extent of disclosure. There is no government anywhere in the world that is going to hand that over to a third party," said Mr Robinson.
The First Minister said the Government was prepared to allow decisions over disclosure to be taken out of its hands and challenged in the courts.
He said a judge would then decide whether that material was being held back "for national security or for awkwardness".
"A High Court judge would have decided the issue and that seemed to be a reasonable compromise as far as I am concerned," said Mr Robinson.
There have been other suggestions that the Police Ombudsman, a devolved position, or a foreign judge could have adjudicated instead.
Asked about this, Mr Robinson replied with another question: "Who is going to hand such a decision over the security of the country to someone outside their jurisdiction? No other country would do it - no other country would contemplate doing it."
Yesterday, the Belfast Telegraph exclusively revealed that Mr Robinson (66) would not contest next May's Assembly election and was likely to leave his post at the head of the power-sharing coalition in the coming weeks.
But before he steps down, he intends to bed down the new agreement as much as possible.
However, this week's Fresh Start deal has so far not been supported by the three smaller Executive parties, and Mr Robinson accused his opponents of opportunism.
The Ulster Unionists have already withdrawn from the Executive after police said IRA members had been involved in the murder of Kevin McGuigan, a former IRA member himself, in August.
But Mr Robinson predicted they would renege.
"The parties which talk up the possibility of them being in opposition or those who tactically go into opposition will be knocking you down on the way to the Executive room to get into the Executive after an election is over," he said. "The idea that they suddenly have a Damascus Road experience six months before an election is hard to swallow. The Ulster Unionist Party was the party that brought Sinn Fein into government.
"Not only that, but they stayed in government while Sinn Fein's partner, the IRA, was still killing people, was still carrying out the criminal acts."
He was equally critical of Fearghal McKinney, the recently elected SDLP deputy Leader, who suggested that an advantage of staying in government was that you could see what the big parties were cooking up between themselves.
Mr Robinson countered: "The purpose of being on an Executive is to do things for the people of Northern Ireland. It is to get delivery - it is not to be a spy so that you can take some political advantage out of it.
"If that is the sole role of the SDLP, as described by Fearghal McKinney, they [the SDLP] would be better getting out of the Executive now."
Robinson exit: those questions that remain unanswered
Q. Why is he announcing his resignation now?
A. Stormont Assembly elections are due to be held next May. The DUP’s annual party conference takes place at the weekend, traditionally when the party grassroots ready themselves for the polls.
Yesterday’s Belfast Telegraph announcement clears up any ambiguity about Mr Robinson’s position and he is due to step down early in the New Year.
Q. What does this mean for power-sharing?
A. Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness has said he believes he can get on with anybody at the head of the administration and has reiterated his commitment to building on peace process achievements to date.
The DUP will launch a leadership contest with MP Nigel Dodds and Stormont Assembly member Arlene Foster among the frontrunners, ahead of the election.
The fundamentalist unionist party has different wings, one aligned to Mr Robinson and seen as less traditionalist, and another to his late predecessor as DUP leader, Ian Paisley, whose political beliefs were for many years shaped by his Free Presbyterian religion.
Q. Did Mr Robinson go... or was he pushed?
A. During the recent political negotiations at Stormont, some in Mr Robinson’s party expressed unhappiness with his “hokey cokey” policy of resigning then reappointing ministers to disrupt normal business but ensure that the power-sharing institutions did not fall.
He himself stepped aside as First Minister but retook the position after official assurances were given on paramilitarism following a murder which was linked to the Provisional IRA.
However, he was arguably under greater pressure when in 2010 it emerged that his wife Iris, the former Strangford MP, had been involved in an affair and had given developers’ money to her teenage lover.
Mr Robinson stepped aside for six weeks as colleague Arlene Foster took the reins but he was personally exonerated of any wrongdoing and returned to the head of the ministerial Executive.
Many critics expected him to resign then but he led his party to victory in the 2011 Assembly elections.
He made a public apology last year after saying he wouldn’t “trust Muslims to go to the shop” for him.
During the summer he defended himself over allegations of involvement in Northern Ireland’s largest ever property deal.
But Mr McGuinness said he was a friend and deserved credit for his role in the peace process.