Robinson: Sinn Fein coalition stronger than ever
Former enemies in the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein have defied their critics to form a stable government in Northern Ireland, it was claimed today.
First Minister Peter Robinson said his coalition with republicans was stronger than previous Stormont administrations led by so-called centre-ground parties.
Mr Robinson also revealed that his understanding of Sinn Fein had grown since he took the top office in June and he had now formed a business-like relationship with deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.
"There had been this general view that there were some certainties in life - that the DUP and Sinn Fein could never resolve differences to come together in the one Executive," he said.
"Having been caught off balance on that, there was this general view that, 'well, it will never last'."
The two parties clashed over the devolution of policing and justice powers - a dispute which saw republicans block Executive meetings for five months in protest at what they said was the refusal of the DUP to share power fairly.
The DUP rejected the claim and Mr Robinson cited the episode as the low point of the last year.
And while he blamed Sinn Fein for the episode, he said the parties eventually defied expectations by brokering a deal and ending the deadlock.
"I think actually if you compare this Executive with the previous Executive, this one is much more stable," he said, hitting out at the Ulster Unionists and SDLP who were then the largest parties.
"When difficulties arose with the previous Executive - the Trimble, Empey, Durkan, Mallon, Executive - it collapsed.
"It couldn't hold itself together and eventually it was off the scene.
"When difficulties arose on this occasion, we talked our way through those difficulties, but even while talking, we still ensured the normal business of government went on.
"I think there is much more mature handling of a difficult situation on this occasion, than there had been on the previous Executive."
Mr Robinson took over leadership of the DUP in June, succeeding former leader Ian Paisley as First Minister and working alongside Sinn Fein in government.
"There are still decisions which ideologically we haven't been able to get around yet, but that's politics," he said of the relationship with republicans.
"It would be the same in any country anywhere in the civilised world.
"I think it does take some time to work out negotiating styles.
"And I would certainly have a better understanding of the way Sinn Fein operate now, than I would have had before having now seen it up close.
"But I think what's fairly evident is that there is no desire on their part to walk away, which is something that I hope all of the parties in Northern Ireland have in common.
"When you know that there is some stability about the process as a whole, it allows more confidence about how you deal with the issues in front of you."
Mr Robinson said he had developed a good working relationship with Sinn Fein's deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.
"It's a very straightforward and open one," he said.
"I don't think either of us are is in the business of trying to win any diplomacy awards.
"We tell each other what the issues are as we see them. I find that much better.
"It removes any misunderstanding from the process. You know what somebody wants, where the difficulties lie for them.
"Very often, if you know why somebody wants a particular outcome, particularly if it's an outcome that you don't want, if you know why they want it, you can often find a different outcome which satisfies the reason underlying their proposal.
"So I think from that point of view it's a professional and business relationship that seeks to make progress, while taking into account each other's sensitivities."