Northern Ireland power-sharing leader Robinson surprise loser in British election

By Shawn Pogatchnik, AP
Friday, May 7, 2010

NIreland leader Robinson surprise loser in UK vote

DUBLIN — The leader of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government emerged Friday as one of the biggest losers in the British election, casting doubt over his ability to stay at the helm of the core peacemaking institution in the province.

Not a single political commentator had forecast that Democratic Unionist Party chief Peter Robinson would lose in Protestant east Belfast, his British parliamentary seat and power base since 1979. But his reputation had been hurt by scandals involving his wife.

Analysts warned that any leadership fight atop the Democratic Unionists could weaken their uneasy partnership with former Irish Republican Army commanders in Sinn Fein. The two former foes have jointly governed Northern Ireland since 2007 and weathered occasional attacks by IRA dissidents opposed to their partnership.

Robinson, 61, appeared ashen-faced as Friday’s results showed him finish second in a stunning upset victory for Belfast Mayor Naomi Long, deputy leader of the Alliance Party.

Alliance was founded in 1970 with the aim of uniting Irish Catholic and British Protestant voters on a platform of compromise. It more commonly finishes fifth than first in elections, and had never before won a British parliamentary seat.

Robinson’s loss doesn’t directly prevent him from remaining as “first minister” of Northern Ireland’s governing coalition, the four-party administration at the heart of a U.S.-brokered 1998 peace accord. He still holds a seat in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

But political analysts forecast that Robinson has been badly damaged and will face a Democratic Unionist leadership challenge well before Northern Ireland elects a new Assembly next year. The Democratic Unionists are Northern Ireland’s largest party, and until now the Democratic Unionist leader has held the first minister’s post too.

“Peter Robinson can’t survive. He’s looking like a broken man,” said Belfast political commentator Brian Feeney. “He might be able to soldier on as first minister in the short term, but it’s only a question of time before he must give way. His party will demand it.”

Robinson spent decades waiting patiently by the wing of Democratic Unionist founder Ian Paisley to retire. When that happened in 2008 — barely a year after Paisley stunned Northern Ireland by leading his hard-line party into a coalition with Sinn Fein — Robinson’s day had finally come.

But his two years overseeing Northern Ireland’s regional government have been overshadowed by scandals involving his wife, Iris.

Earlier this year she resigned from her own posts in British Parliament, the Assembly and a suburban Belfast council after declaring she had suffered a nervous breakdown, tried to commit suicide — then admitted, under pressure from a BBC investigation, to having an affair with a teenage Belfast boy.

Peter Robinson’s reputation was tarnished by allegations he sought to conceal from parliamentary ethics watchdogs his wife’s predicament — particularly her solicitation of cash from Belfast property developers for her young lover to start a business underwritten by her own political clout. The BBC found evidence that Peter Robinson knew about the secret donations, some of which his wife pocketed.

The morally conservative Protestant base of Robinson’s party recoiled with distaste at the seedy story.

Despite this, analysts said Robinson probably would have retained his British parliamentary seat anyway, if not for a first-time challenge from an extremist Protestant faction that wants power-sharing with Catholics to end. That new party, called Traditional Unionist Voice, sapped more than 1,800 votes from Robinson; he lost to Long by 1,533 votes.

Robinson, in his typically taciturn and stiff style, quipped Friday from the loser’s podium that he had personally not wanted to serve another five-year term in London’s House of Commons.

“You should always be careful what you wish for in politics,” he said with a weak smile.

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said his party needs a stable partner in the Belfast administration. He said Robinson appears likely to be the second leader to fall in just three years.

“I didn’t see it coming. I thought the DUP would take some small hit on their vote, but I didn’t see Peter losing his seat,” said Adams, whose IRA colleagues long sought to assassinate Robinson before calling a 1997 cease-fire. “He has had a very torrid time recently and politics is a very tough business.”

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