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Standing ovation for Robinson as he faces final Question Time

By Noel McAdam

Published 24/11/2015

MLAs give a standing ovation to the outgoing First Minister, Peter Robinson
MLAs give a standing ovation to the outgoing First Minister, Peter Robinson
Outgoing First Minister, Peter Robinson

Peter Robinson has been given an unique standing ovation in the Assembly as he insisted there are now no issues which can "trip up" the Stormont Executive.

Led by Martin McGuinness, Sinn Fein members and even Speaker Mitchel McLaughlin - who normally remains neutral - joined in the rare tribute as Mr Robinson completed his last Question Time as First Minister.

The DUP chief, who first revealed in the Belfast Telegraph he is standing down as First Minister and party leader within weeks, warned it would no longer be tolerated for Stormont to go through another term "at odds with itself".

It is believed to be the first time a serving politician has received the honour of an ovation, even if it took some members longer to get to their feet than others.

Mr Robinson, who turns 67 next month, quipped: "It has been somewhat of a surreal experience. It is almost as if one was dead and listening to the obituary.

"But I am, I hope, still very much alive, and will remain so for some time to come."

There were tributes and good wishes - and a rousing round of applause - from all parties, including Mr Robinson's unionist arch-enemy, Jim Allister, who said: "I join in wishing the First Minister a long and healthy retirement." But questioned by independent unionist John McCallister, Mr Robinson said he believed the foundations for stability had been laid in last week's 'Fresh Start' agreement.

"There are no issues that should trip up the Executive in taking the positions necessary to have a sustainable Budget and be able to take decisions on behalf of the people whom we represent," he said.

While it was Mr Robinson's last appearance at Question Time, it was his new Junior Minister, Emma Pengelly, who dominated the half-hour of MLAs' written questions before the 15 minutes of more spontaneous topical issues.

The Assembly is due to begin its Christmas and New Year recess from December 7 and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness will preside over the first Question Time of 2016 - by which time Mr Robinson plans to stand down.

He dealt with the long-delayed racial equality strategy, an anti-poverty strategy and the need to promote Northern Ireland internationally, and could not resist a dig at Ulster Unionist leader, Mike Nesbitt, who had warned last week's deal could put future generations of children in debt. Mr Robinson said an extra £560m from the Government had unblocked Stormont's Budget, meaning "it is very clear that, without any difficulty, we will be able to make ends meet this year.

"It is sufficient to say that, while the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party was absolutely sure that this would be borrowing and that our children and our children's children would have to pay for decades to come, not one penny of this additional funding is borrowing."

In an earlier statement, the UUP said: "It was the Ulster Unionist Party which made Peter Robinson change his mind over building a terrorist shrine at the Maze and forced him to write a letter of U-turn from his bolthole in Florida.

"That was a lightbulb moment for Peter. Nevertheless, we wish him well in retirement and do not begrudge him a final broadside."

Mr Robinson added yesterday: "...ultimately, the electorate in Northern Ireland will judge whether it wants to have wreckers deciding the future of Northern Ireland or whether it wants to invest its future in the hands of those who genuinely want to make a fist of the most difficult circumstances to move Northern Ireland forward."

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