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Governments bid to prevent collapse of Stormont

By Noel McAdam

The British and Irish governments are embarking on a rescue mission to prevent Peter Robinson’s family scandal precipitating the collapse of the Assembly and Executive.

While Stormont will today hold its first session of the New Year, senior sources say the potential of the highly-charged impasse to send the institutions crashing down should not be underestimated.

But London and Dublin appear to believe that if the First Minister can maintain control of his party and begin to clear his name, along with progress on a date for the devolution of policing and justice, a full-blown crisis can be avoided.

DUP and Sinn Fein sources acknowledge, however, that devolution is facing its greatest threat since the power-sharing adminstration was restored more than two and a half years ago.

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness has asked to speak to Prime Minister Gordon Brown in the next few days to press home the depth of the problem, and has already briefed the Irish government.

Sinn Fein sources claim Taoiseach Brian Cowen’s team is beginning to accept that a deal for the handover of powers over the police, courts and prisons is increasingly unlikely.

The Assembly will today however attempt to display a clear ‘back to business’ message with Finance Minister Sammy Wilson — among those tipped as a possible successor to Mr Robinson — spelling out details of the latest quarterly spending monitoring round.

But it will be against a pessimistic backdrop, with some party sources even wondering if Mr Robinson will still be First Minister by Thursday.

Secretary of State Shaun Woodward has insisted the Stormont project must not be dismantled over a domestic tragedy and its wider ramifications, and that the political process is “bigger than any one man”.

“It is a responsibility on everyone in the Assembly to understand that the consequences of allowing the political process to slide would undoubtedly have an impact on the broader canvas,” he said.

Mr Woodward said the First Minister had to be allowed the opportunity to clear his name but the business of the Executive must go on, including talks on policing and justice.

DUP MLAs, councillors and party officers have been told not to speak to the press but, among those defying the warning, there is a sense of support slipping away from the party leader.

“Even if he clears his name, his credibility has been dented, and there is no guarantee that more information is not going to come out,” one source said.

On the other hand Mr Wilson, among very few prepared to be named, said: “As far as I am concerned (Peter) has got support, the stories about Iris don't impugn him.”

Free Presbyterian Minister the Rev David McIlveen, who, while a close associate of former DUP leader Ian Paisley, made clear he was speaking on his own behalf, said: “I do believe that his position is becoming increasingly untenable.

“He has a major problem with regard to solving his own family difficulties and I personally cannot take the view that a person's private life does not affect their public life.”

Outside his own support base Mr Robinson was also facing increasing pressure.

Former First Minister Lord Trimble said: “To have a situation where a party leader sees his wife expelled from the party and acquiesces in it, doesn't even persuade the party to give her a decent way out, shows there has been a complete loss of authority.”

Outgoing SDLP leader Mark Durkan said: “The public are not talking about the ministerial code of conduct. They are asking other questions about how something like this could happen and how is money like this solicited and provided as a gift.”

And Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister argued: “Seeking to pass off obtaining counsel’s opinion as such is misleading. Being economical with the truth has been tried by the DUP in the infamous deflection by Ian Paisley Junior that he “knew of” Seymour Sweeney. Now is a time for transparency and candour.”

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