Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 December 2014

Editor's Viewpoint: Not just political careers at stake

There are times when even old clichés contain obvious truths, and a week is indeed a long time in politics.

This applied last week with the astonishing revelations concerning the private and business life of Iris Robinson, and the serious implications for her husband Peter in his position as First Minister.

The maxim will continue to apply this week as major political figures try not only to make progress at Stormont, but in the worst possible scenario to shore up the institutions which will keep the peace process on track.

Over the weekend some of the more lurid claims about the Robinson affair appeared in the media, but the private implications of these are essentially a painful personal problem for those most closely involved. The real challenge, which has implications for every man, woman and child in Northern Ireland, is whether or not the peace agreement can be maintained in the run-up to a general election, or whether recent events will shunt the political process into a dangerous cul-de-sac which nobody wants.

The Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, has stated clearly his concerns about the lack of progress by the Stormont Executive. In an article on this page he has accused the DUP of blocking reform on education, of refusing to afford “full rights” to the Irish language community, and also of failing to deliver on the transfer of policing and justice powers.

Mr Adams particularly underlines the commitment of the DUP, way back in 2007, to making government work, and even though republicans have their own agenda, there is some sympathy for Sinn Fein’s obvious frustration over what they would regard as the DUP’s foot-dragging tactics.

Nevertheless, Mr Adams’ re-iteration of his party’s frustrations at this particular time could be seen as placing further pressure on the DUP, which is facing crucial leadership issues.

Traditionally the DUP has responded to republican pressure by closing ranks, but the situation is more complicated this time due to the personal and leadership difficulties facing Peter Robinson.

His future in the short term may depend on the verdict of independent counsel on whether or not he has broken the ministerial code. However, the realpolitik of the situation would suggest that his fate lies with the DUP, who will decide whether it is better to enter an election campaign with or without him.

The major test for the Northern Ireland Secretary, Sean Woodward, and for members of all parties, is to proceed during the next few days with great caution, at a time when there is a need as never before for mature and strong political leadership from all sides.

The tribulations of one political family or the complex fragility of the Stormont experiment in power-sharing should not be allowed to lead us back into the worst of the past. This is a time for steady nerves and clear vision.

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