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First Ministers paint themselves and political process into a corner

It is 20 years since then Ulster Unionist leader Jim Molyneaux warned that a prolonged IRA ceasefire could be the most destabilising development to face unionism since Partition.

Two decades on, in the zero-sum game of Northern Ireland politics, events within the republican movement still carry the same potential. Thus, Peter Robinson's unvarnished threat to walk away from the power-sharing structures of Stormont over the on-the-runs revelations.

Last time he threatened to resign, in November 2011 over the Royal insignia on Prison Service emblems, he appeared to be shooting from the hip at Justice Minister David Ford.

This time it seems more calculated, with Robinson waiting almost 24 hours to retaliate after Mr Justice Sweeney's decision at the Old Bailey to free John Downey, resulting in no prosecutions over the 1982 Hyde Park atrocity, and pointing out that Mr Ford (below) agrees with him.

The DUP leader's demands are clear – a judicial inquiry into secret letters given to more than 180 Irish republican paramilitary suspects and the letters themselves being made public – and his advisers insist his threat is real.

Robinson stressed he was not prepared to be a "stooge" for the Government, indicating he was apparently not aware of the detail of the 'administrative route' taken by Tony Blair and then Secretary of State Peter Hain to address the long-running 'anomaly' of the on-the-runs which arose from the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

A legislative framework to deal with the issue was withdrawn in 2005 but the DUP was aware it was an issue the Government wanted out of the way, and the OTRs were advised to write to the NIO if they wanted to seek clarification whether there was evidence against them which could result in arrest.

It is inconceivable that at St Andrews and in the negotiations in the run-up to the restoration of devolution the DUP stopped asking questions, and unlikely it took its eye off the ball if the answers it got were unsatisfactory.

Meanwhile, Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness's appeal for calm among unionists is capable of producing precisely the opposite effect.

Not for the first time the First Minister and Deputy First Minister appear to have painted themselves – and the political process – into a corner.

Once again, in the short-term, it is difficult to see a way out.

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