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Peter Robinson: The highs and lows of 40 years at the heart of unionism

By Noel McAdam

Peter Robinson has been a pivotal figure in Northern Ireland politics for almost 40 years.

Viewed as a shrewd political strategist who can just as quickly become a fierce street orator, he has been First Minister for more than seven years.

His chief aim over that time has been to achieve stability at Stormont and ensure that devolution delivers for ordinary people - and the 'Fresh Start' blueprint provides that prospect.

But perhaps his main political legacy will be how he helped steer the DUP from the margins of unionism in the 1970s to become the province's biggest party.

He served almost three decades in the shadow of the Rev Ian Paisley, almost continuously as deputy leader, before eventually succeeding him as party leader and First Minister in 2008.

But a series of personal crises in recent years put the former East Belfast MP in the headlines for the wrong reasons.

The most recent was his suspected heart attack in the summer, though he returned to the office he shares with his former nemesis - the Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness - within a number of weeks.

But the most sensational issue was the allegation in 2010 that he knew his wife, Iris, then MP for Strangford, had obtained £50,000 from two developers to give to her 19-year-old lover, Kirk McCambley, without the proper authorities being informed.

He stood aside, allowing Arlene Foster to step in as acting First Minister, as she did again recently, until the storm clouds dissipated. A police investigation recommended that he should not be prosecuted and he has stood by Iris throughout.

His admission to the Belfast Telegraph today that he had originally wanted to stand down a year later, in 2011, however, will not come as a complete surprise. By then, he had lost his House of Commons seat in East Belfast to Alliance Party deputy leader Naomi Long.

Mr Robinson, who turns 67 next month, has long had a life outside politics, with a string of interests including country music, Japanese koi carp fish and a collection of ties which once earned the soubriquet "the swish family Robinson".

But it will be the New Year before Mr Robinson finally stands down from his job, having been persuaded to remain at the helm as this week's revived Stormont House implementation plan rolls out with a planned sequence of 'feelgood' announcements.

Often seen as a difficult person, he can also come across as diffident and has a little-seen-in-public sense of humour, though at times Mr Robinson does not suffer fools gladly.

A former estate agent, he was already 30 when he first won his beloved East Belfast seat in 1979. His appearance has changed from the starch-suited heavily bespectacled student look to a more casual, well-dressed man with a modern, if increasingly grey, haircut.

He was born in Belfast, where he went to school at Annadale Grammar, and as a teenager became drawn to the oratory of Ian Paisley.

He became deputy leader after winning his parliamentary seat but came to province-wide prominence in the mid 1980s, when he played a leading role in the joint unionist campaign against the Anglo-Irish Agreement, which for the first time gave the Dublin government a greater say in Northern Ireland.

The campaign led to arguably the most controversial incident in his career, when he led 500 loyalists in an "incursion" into the Co Monaghan village of Clontibret.

Later, he pleaded guilty to unlawful assembly and was fined, and he was then photographed wearing a red beret at a rally of the paramilitary Ulster Resistance movement.

He was instrumental in directing the DUP's campaign against ex-Ulster Unionist leader and First Minister David Trimble, which included a boycott of Executive meetings while ensuring full access to government papers.

As the DUP overtook the UUP as the main unionist party, the father-of-three consolidated his position as the organisation's single most influential negotiator in the talks that led to the 2006 St Andrews Agreement and the restoration of devolution.

He has served as Minister for Regional Development and Minister for Finance in the Executive.

It is said he wanted to end months of speculation over his future and get the news out just ahead of his party's annual conference this weekend. The announcement then would have overshadowed everything else.

Mr Robinson can be expected to be cheered to the rafters as he prepares to hand over the reins of power, with the role of party leader potentially going to one individual and the job of First Minister to someone else.

And he will, as always, have something to say in his address, as he did in 2011 - which could have been his watershed - when he said: "The greatest challenge that we will face in the next few years will be to rebuild our society after years of division. We must work towards a more normalised form of government, with an Executive and an open and honest opposition."

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