LONDON – The peace process faces a new challenge as Northern Ireland's leader was forced to step down — at least temporarily — amid outrage following revelations of his wife's affair with a teenager.
In an emotional statement Monday, First Minister Peter Robinson said he would step aside for a few weeks to answer questions about his wife's romantic and financial dealings with the 19-year-old for whom she helped raised tens of thousands of pounds (dollars) when she was 58.
An investigative report by the British Broadcasting Corp. suggests Robinson acted improperly by failing to warn parliamentary authorities that his wife was securing loans for her lover.
Looking pale and drawn, Robinson said his wife was receiving psychiatric treatment and that he was stepping down to deal with family matters and to allow an inquiry to take place. He denied any wrongdoing.
"I continue to contend I have acted ethically, and it is particularly painful at this time of great personal trauma that I have to defend myself from an unfounded and mischievous allegation," he said.
The scandal has outraged Robinson's socially conservative Protestant power base and threatened to undermine the Democratic Unionist Party's partnership with the Catholic Sinn Fein — critical to maintaining Northern Ireland's shaky coalition government. If Robinson had resigned outright, Britain's secretary for state Shaun Woodward has said he would have to call a snap Assembly election, unless all sides of the power-sharing executive agreed on a successor within seven days.
Robinson's temporary departure sidesteps the need for elections, but his party's partnership with Sinn Fein has already been badly strained by disagreements over who will run the province's justice system. Officials in Britain have expressed concern that the turmoil could hurt the peace process at a sensitive time. Prime Minister Gordon Brown was monitoring developments, his office said.
Robinson's Protestant colleague Arlene Foster, who replaces him, promised lawmakers gathered at the regional assembly building in Stormont that the 61-year-old politician would be back "with a clear record," quickly.
But Britain and Ireland's governments fear that the scandal weakens Robinson's party in its negotiations with Sinn Fein over if and how responsibility for policing and justice should be transferred to the Assembly. Sinn Fein wants the Assembly to take charge of policing and justice as soon as possible, while parts of the Democratic Unionist Party want to wait until finances are in place for the move and the communities involved feel comfortable.
Robinson said he would continue to work on policing and justice even without holding the title of First Minister.
Both parties are now trying to shake off scandals. Late last year, the niece of Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams publicly accused her father — Gerry Adam's brother Liam — of sexually abusing her for several years between the late 1970s and 1980s. She had told Belfast police about the abuse earlier in confidence.
Liam Adams fled to the Republic of Ireland to avoid a November 2008 Belfast hearing over the charges. Gerry Adams admitted he had known about the alleged abuse since 1987 but had not told authorities — in keeping with Sinn Fein's longtime policy of rejecting the Northern Ireland police.
The episode has embarrassed Gerry Adams and his Irish nationalist Sinn Fein, which spent decades backing the Irish Republican Army's attacks on civilians who cooperated with the police. The outlawed IRA renounced violence and disarmed in 2005.
Adams was quick to dismiss any connection between the two cases, telling Sky News it was "offensive" to compare his family's attempts to come to terms with the issue of abuse with Robinson's scandal. But the two cases, revealed in close succession, are a distraction at a critical time.
Tensions in the region have recent months and a recent surge in attacks by Irish Republican Army dissidents has raised fears about the area's stability. In March, militants killed two soldiers and a policeman — the first killings of British security forces in Northern Ireland since 1998. On Friday, a Catholic policeman was badly hurt when a bomb hidden beneath his car exploded.
Robinson will step down for six weeks, but an official with Robinson's Democratic Unionists suggested that the embattled leader could stay away even longer, telling the AP that Robinson's absence could be extended for another six weeks.
"The party has the opportunity to either re-nominate him or extend that six week period with support of the Assembly," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. He noted that Robinson would remain at the head of the Democratic Unionist Party. The real question may be whether Northern Ireland can cope with a government held in suspended animation for that long.