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

By Noel McAdam

Published 19/11/2015

Robinson as a young parliamentary candidate
Robinson as a young parliamentary candidate
Robinson with the late Rev Ian Paisley
Robinson with wife Iris on the day he became First Minister
Robinson with Martin McGuinness

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.

Peter Robinson pictured with his wife Iris after his release from Crumlin Road Prison where he spent four days in jail for his non payment of road tax in opposition to the Anglo-irish Agreement Sept 1987
Peter Robinson pictured with his wife Iris after his release from Crumlin Road Prison where he spent four days in jail for his non payment of road tax in opposition to the Anglo-irish Agreement Sept 1987
DUP MPs Iris and Peter Robinson are one of the best-known couples in Ulster politics. Here, in extracts from a brilliant new biography, Iris: An Intimate Portrait, the mother-of-three reveals how the death of her father when she was just five years old plunged the family into greater hardship - and the amazing discovery she made about her father years later. When Iris and Peter opted to spend their honeymoon in Majorca
Peter Robinson of the DUP pictured in the Israeli Border Area with AK47 rifles while on a fact finding mission to the Middle East. Pacemaker Press Intl. Dec. 1984
Enthronement of Archbishop John Armstrong at Armagh. Peter Robinson arrested outside Cathedral for trying to break through a police cordon. Robinson, Ian Paisley and Jonhy McQuade as well as DUP supporters were arrested. They were held in custody for just one hour. Paisley etc. were there to protest at the presence of Premier Charles Haughey from the south who they claimed was willingly harbouring wanted terrorists. Pacemaker Press Intl. 7th May 1980.....316/80/BW
Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson are taken away by police in Armagh after protesting a vist by Charles Haughey in 1980
rev Ian paisley leader of dup/ ralley at stormont peter robinson and ian paisley who addressed the crowd at stormont 23/11/1981
Peter Robinson (second from left) and Noel Little (right) at an Ulster Resistance rally in 1986
Ian Paisley with Peter Robinson
PETER ROBINSON:DUP
Robinson in the 1980s
Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), REV. IAN PAISLEY SPEAKING AT A PRESS CONFERENCE AT STORMONT. INCLUDED (FROM LEFT) REV. IVAN FOSTER, PETER ROBINSON, JIN ALLISTER AND REV WILLIAM BEATTIE. 20/9/1984.
First Ministers Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness greet Rory McIlroy at Stormont yesterday
DUP leader Peter Robinson with his wife Iris Robinson pictured at Parliament Buildings, Stormont, April 18 2008
MP Peter Robinson of the DUP speaking to Belfast Telegraph reporter Chris Thornton yesterday
File photo dated 01/10/08 Northern Ireland's new First Minister Peter Robinson and his wife Iris kiss behind his desk after he was nominated as First Minister in the Parliament Buildings, Stormont, Belfast. Robinson and his wife Iris munched their way through 30,000 of food claimed for in their MPs' expenses over a four year period, according to the Daily Telegraph. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Friday May 15, 2009. MPs are allowed to claim up to 400 a month for food. See PA story POLITICS Expenses Ulster. Photo credit should read: PA/PA Wire
Northern Ireland's new First Minister Peter Robinson celebrates with his wife Iris at his desk at Parliament Buildings, Stormont, Northern Ireland, Thursday, June 5, 2008. The Northern Ireland Assembly has elected Protestant politician Peter Robinson to be the new leader of a power-sharing government alongside Catholics. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)
Democratic Unionist Party leader Peter Robinson, center, Nigel Donaldson deputy leader, left, and Iris Robinson react to delegates at the annual party conference, in Armagh Northern Ireland, Saturday, Nov. 1, 2008. The DUP leader was speaking at his first conference as party leader and Northern Ireland First Minister. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)
Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, left and First Minister Peter Robinson, centre, greet US President George Bush, right, to the Stormont Castle in Belfast on the second day of the President's official visit to the UK. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Monday June 16, 2008. US president George Bush arrived in Northern Ireland today to meet the politicians heading its power-sharing government. Democratic Unionist First Minister Peter Robinson and Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness will welcome the president and the First Lady at Stormont Castle in Belfast. See PA story POLITICS Bush. Photo credit should read: Stephen Wilson/PA Wire
PACEMAKER, BELFAST, 9/5/2001: Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson at the launch of the DUP election Campaign Picture By Stephen Wilson/Pacemaker
Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness are all smiles as they talk to Europe team captain Paul McGinley during the Morning Fourballs of the 2014 Ryder Cup at Gleneagles.
From left, William McCrea, Ivan Foster, Jim Allister, Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson
Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson
Former DUP MP and MLA Iris Robinson at Stormont with her husband, First Minister Peter Robinson
DUP leader Peter Robinson congratulates Alliance’s Naomi Long after her victory in 2010
Peter Robinson being held in Clontibret, Monaghan
Queen Elizabeth II shaking hands with Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness
DUP leader Peter Robinson says the BBC has offered nothing new
Peter Robinson at Dundalk Court in August 1986 after the invasion at Clontibret
Ian Paisley announcing in 2008 that his replacement as DUP party leader will be Peter Robinson with Nigel Dodds being his deputy. Pic Colm Lenaghan / Pacemaker
Gerry Adams eats the cake he baked for Peter Robinson's 65th birthday
Canvassing together: Ian Paisley (centre), leader of the Democratic Unionists with deputy Peter Robinson (left) and his wife Iris Robinson as they embark on the election campaign in Carrickfergus, Co Antrim, Monday April 25, 2005.
President Barack Obama is flanked by Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness at the White House’s St Patrick’s celebrations in 2013
Martin McGuinness (right) claimed he and Peter Robinson were both behind the project
PACEMAKER PRESS INTL. BELFAST. End of the Carson Trial Phase 11. Stormont Rally. Ian Paisley, Peter Robinson. 28/3/81. 270/81/c
Sunday Life News Ian Paisley Death Pull Out DUP leader Ian Paisley with MPs Peter Robinson and William McCrea launching their election campaign in 1996
United stand: Peter Robinson and Gerry Adams at the funeral of Constable Ronan Kerr.
The Sunningdale talks of 1973
Prime Minister David Cameron (centre) talks as Northern Ireland's Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness (left) and Northern Ireland's First Minister Peter Robinson (right) listen during a press conference in the garden of 10 Downing Street in central London.

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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