Brexit’s Irish Problem – A Semi-Personal Reflection

It is inconceivable that a vote for Brexit would not have a negative impact on the (Irish) Border, bringing cost and disruption to trade and to people’s lives.

Theresa May, June 2016

Nobody wants to return to the borders of the past.

Theresa May, July 2016

Around three hundred roads bisect the circuitous three-hundred-and-ten-mile border that separates the six counties of Northern Ireland from the twenty-six of the Irish Republic. Some are barely paved country lanes that snake over and back from one jurisdiction to another multiple times in a matter of miles. Others – like the motorway that connects Dublin and Belfast – are major arteries, as seamlessly asphalted as any German autobahn. The only way you can tell which side of the border you are on – as British television reporters have become so fond of telling viewers back home on ‘the mainland’ – is whether the speed signs are in miles or kilometres.

I grew up about thirty miles into the southern side of the border line, in a drab market town called Longford. For an over-eager child in a monochrome 1980s Irish home, Northern Ireland was strikingly exotic, simultaneously always present and continually absent. Each night it seems the news was filled with macabre tales from Belfast, less than a hundred miles away. But we seldom ventured north. When I was about seven years old my mother took us shopping in Enniskillen, the closest large town across the border, in County Fermanagh. We must have passed barbed wire and concrete look outs manned by acne-scarred teenagers from Derby or Newcastle touting automatic weapons, but I have no recollection of any of these. My only memories are remarking to my mother about how smooth the northern roads were – I was a serious boy – and how colourful was the window display in Enniskillen’s Woolworths. Northern Ireland seemed so much more modern. There were no Woolworths in Longford.

By the time I went to university in Dublin, in 1998, the border that had been erected in the early 1920s had started to disappear. The customs posts had already been dismantled. Most of the green wooden border huts were gone. Those that remained rotted slowly in the countryside. The signing of the Good Friday Agreement effectively brought an end to the thirty-year-long Troubles. The IRA’s war was over. So was the British state’s. The imposing watchtowers that hugged the hillsides of the southern reaches of Down and Armagh were dismantled. The squaddies went home, or eventually ended up in Afghanistan or Iraq. Roads that had been closed during the violent years – or simply bombed into uselessness – were opened. In the early 2000s, by which time I was living in Belfast, I often travelled on a rickety country bus back to Longford to visit my mother. I would occasionally pass the time by trying to figure out if we had crossed the invisible line based on when my cellphone switched providers. I was seldom certain.

Politically, the border started to fade, too. As southern politicians no longer had an immediate need to worry about the insoluble ‘national question’ attention turned towards getting filthy rich. The Celtic Tiger roared. Property prices doubled, then tripled. Semi-detached houses in Longford sold for €400,000. Now it was Dublin that was modern, all wine bars and hundred grand sports cars. I often headed south from Belfast at the weekends, escaping a half empty ghost city where people were still fearful of venturing after dark. By the time the boom turned to bust – form 2008 – most Irish voters had forgotten about the ‘black north’. Even Sinn Fein, the party of the IRA, campaigned on working-class demands for higher wages and social security not the need for “Brits Out.”

I was the only person I knew from my school who spent any time living in Northern Ireland. Over Christmas pints in the local pub nobody asked about life in Belfast. In the south, Northern Ireland had become an an embarrassment. A place famous around the world for bombs and bitterness. Thirty miles away, but another world. A Lacanian ‘Other’ that can never be assimilated, nor totally disavowed. Better to ignore and move on least the atavism proves contagious. So the Republic spent the best part of the last decade struggling to emerge from a self-inflicted mountain of bank debt while the north continued the slow struggle to emerge from its brutal past.

Thirty thousand people cross the Irish border every day for work. The border has not withered away but it is far less noticeable. There are still the fireworks stores on the northern side, and the incongruous petrol stations, often said to be illegally passing off industrial fuel for commercial use. Every so often, the Irish and British police team-up for a raid on republicans opposed to the peace process. But, for most, the border has ceased to matter a great deal. People in Donegal give birth in hospitals over the border in Derry. When my brother needed to get his driving licence at short notice he took the test in Enniskillen, where waiting times are far shorter.

In March 2016, I was in Dublin for the centenary commemorations of the Easter Rising, a rebellion which led to the war of independence and then to partition. The fiftieth anniversary of the Rising – a story of blood sacrifice still told in gruesome detail when I was a school child – had been celebrated with high nationalist pomp. The rebels of Easter 1916 were the heroes. The villains were the British. Everybody else – the vast majority of the population who had little interest in insurrection – were ignored. The IRA even got in on the act, blowing up Nelson’s Column on Dublin’s main thoroughfare, O’Connell Street, in March 1966. Out of practice, the republicans misjudged the amount of explosives needed, leaving behind a stone stump that the Irish Army was left to dispose of. The tone in Dublin a half-century later could scarcely have been more different, or more ecumenical. There were solemn silences and visiting dignitaries from well beyond the republican family. There had even been talk of an invitation being extended to the Queen. Almost a century after independence, ‘Official Ireland’ showed itself off in the Dublin sun, a mature state, reconciled with its former colonial power beneath the European Union’s starry flag. There was little talk of Irish unification, or the border.

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A few weeks before the European Union referendum I went on a reporting trip to Belfast. Elections to the devolved assembly in Stormont had taken place a fortnight earlier. Round-faced middle-aged men still smiled down from placards on lampposts. The Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein once more topped the polls. Barely half the electorate had voted. There seemed even less enthusiasm for the EU referendum.

“We’re not allowed to vote in that. It’s only England,” Sean Morgan told me inside his souvenir shop on the Falls Road in republican West Belfast. I thought better of correcting him. His shop was called Fenians after the 19th century Irish republicans committed to a United Ireland. Replica guns and copies of the proclamation of Ireland adorned the walls. There were rolls of red, white and blue union flag toilet paper at £2.50 a pop. “You’ll never never believe how many of those we sell,” Morgan laughed.

Sinn Fein – long the dominant political force in West Belfast – reversed its historic opposition to the EU to back a remain vote but there was little sign of pro-EU sentiment on the Falls Road. No starry European Union flags flew alongside the Tricolours. None of Northern Ireland’s parties spent more than £10,000 on their pro-EU campaigns. I counted a single Leave poster, on the Shankill Road, on the opposite side of the 15-foot-hight corrugated iron “peace wall” that has cut off Catholics from Protestants in west Belfast for more than four decades.

In the interests of balance – or so I told myself – I called into Ulster Souvenirs, halfway up the Shankill Road. Across the street, faded images of hooded loyalist gunmen looked down from a gable end mural. Inside the narrow shop, a portrait of a serious-looking Edward Carson, Northern Ireland’s Dublin-born founding father, hung over the till. David Reid, the shop’s owner, looked about thirty years old. I asked how would be voting in the referendum. “Oh aye, out!” He smiled. “People are fed up with the way the country is run, with being in the European Union.”

As if on cue, a trio of customers arrived. All wanted to buy Northern Ireland football jerseys for the upcoming European championships. How will you vote, I asked, a little too aware of which side of the border my accent placed me on. “Leave,” Greg Benson bellowed. The “Now That’s What I Call Loyalist Music” CDs and the Apprentice Boys flags behind the counter almost shook with the reverberations of his voice.  “You can’t say too much or you’re a racist, but immigration is the big thing. It’s having a massive affect on our health system,” Benson told me.

Northern Ireland remains one of the most ethnically homogenous places in the UK. Non-white faces are still something of a rarity in Belfast. But the squat capital has changed since I left for Scotland in 2009. The city centre is no longer a dead zone after dark. The rebirth of Belfast as a “cool” destination has been celebrated by journalists from around the world. Where once even a cup of coffee on a Sunday afternoon was hard to find now there is a plethora of cafes in the modish fashion, all exposed brick and customers with fixed gear bicycles.

Yet Belfast still carries the scars of the Troubles, particularly in the near-inner city districts such as the Shankill and Falls Roads. Here unemployment is high. Long term out of work even higher. There are still gap sites, and much of the new private housing is beyond the reach of local residents. And there are still the “peace walls”. These barricades, ad hoc at first, emerged with the start of the Troubles in the late 1960s. In 1971, a secret Northern Ireland government report expressed concern that the barriers, gates and fences springing up in West Belfast in particular were creating an “atmosphere of abnormality”. However, the report writers added that they did “not expect any insurmountable difficulty” in bringing down the walls. The following year, Stormont was suspended as the violence worsened to descend into civil war. The peace walls continued to appear. Only a handful have ever been dismantled.

When Britain first voted on Europe, in 1975, Northern Ireland was the most Eurosceptic of the “home nations”. Where two-thirds of English backed the then European Economic Community, just 52 per cent of Northern Irish voters supported membership. In 2016, positions were basically reversed. Where English opposition to the European Union swung the Brexit vote, fifty-six per cent of Northern Irish citizens voted to remain part of the EU in June 2016. In the border counties, the remain vote rose to 65 per cent.

 

My mother rang the day after the Brexit vote. It must have been the afternoon because she asked about Scottish independence. (In the morning, Nicola Stugreon had said that a second referendum was “highly likely”.) But she was mainly interested in the border. “What will it mean for Northern Ireland?” she asked. “Will I need to bring a passport to go to Belfast?” I said that I did not know but was sure it would not come to border controls. I was only half honest. I wasn’t sure it wouldn’t come to that. Already that morning Boris Johnson, one of the leaders of the Leave campaign, was distancing himself from the referendum result.

 

That nobody on the BBC’s rolling referendum coverage was talking about what Brexit might mean for the Irish border was hardly surprising. Northern Ireland rarely features in news headlines anymore, in Britain or in Ireland. There was little said about Northern Ireland – or the border – during the campaign. The Democratic Unionists supported a Leave vote, without providing any discernible rationale, while almost every other local political party opposed Brexit, mainly on the basis that anything that might unsettle the notoriously fragile political and economic ecosystem could hardly be a good thing. Such caution seemed particularly justified when, a few weeks before the referendum, then home secretary Theresa May warned that a leave vote could create border chaos, “bringing cost and disruption to trade and to people’s lives”. In 2015, Northern Irish farmers received 87 per cent of their income direct from European Union grants. Polls suggest many famers subsequently voted Leave.

May’s pre-referendum fears about the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland were quickly forgotten, however. In July, the new prime minister, declared that there be would be “no return to the borders of the past”. That sound-bite would quickly assume the role of a mantra, trotted out as often, it seemed, as “Brexit means Brexit”. Concerns about the cross-border trade and travel were blithely dismissed by references to the Ireland-wide Common Travel Area. (The CTA, Irish political leaders pointed out, has existed since the early days of the Free State but never before has one jurisdiction been inside supranational body with free movement of people and the other outside.)

In her first cabinet reshuffle, May defenestrated Theresa Villiers, David Cameron’s Brexit-supporting Northern Ireland secretary. Ms Villiers, generally perceived as detached from local affairs, caused consternation in Belfast by openly campaigning with the DUP ahead of the EU referendum. Villiers’s replacement, James Brokenshire, has smacked of nominative determinism: since the Brexit vote Northern Irish politics has, after a decade of relative calm, collapsed. Divided on the most significant issue facing Northern Ireland since the peace process, relations between DUP first minister Arlene Foster and her then deputy, the late Martin McGuinness, quickly deteriorated. When a botched green energy scheme was revealed to have massively overspent – apparently largely on grants to DUP-supporting farmers – Sinn Fein pulled the plug on Stormont.

Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland is governed by a “consociational” system. This approach – in which ethnic blocs are given vetoes and balances – was initially devised in the Netherlands, to deal with regionalist demands. Since the 1990s it has become the solution of choice for post-conflict societies: Bosnia, Lebanon, Iraq. Under the Northern Irish iteration, the largest unionist and nationalist parties must share power. But in government the DUP and Sinn, always uncomfortable bedfellows, have drifted further apart, not closer together. The DUP has consistently blocked Sinn Fein legislation, including a law to permit gay marriage. While Foster was first minister, grants under a community halls scheme were bestowed on groups linked to the Orange Order, and largely denied to Gaelic Athletic Association clubs. The DUP’s culture minister refused a small grant to a Belfast community group which planned to take some children to an Irish-speaking area. The DUP leader’s fondness for majority rule echoes that of Theresa May. Brexit means Brexit. That most Northern Irish voters rejected the prospect of leaving the EU is incidental. The United Kingdom has spoken. But such majoritarianism has run into a major obstacle – not the Armalite, but the ballot box.

In March, Northern Ireland held another round of devolved elections. This time there was a notable sense of expectation. In the weeks leading up to the vote, Adam Ramsey and I published a series of articles on how the DUP had received £425,000 for its Brexit campaign and was refusing to name its donors. The story caught the Northern Irish public imagination. I found myself on nightly news programmes, where anchors explained that the murky story of the DUP’s funding fed into a sense that the party were untrustworthy. In Ballymena, the buckle in Northern Ireland’s bible-belt and the powerbase of DUP founder Ian Paisley, I met traditional Protestant voters who accused the party of having “lost touch with its religious base”. In Belfast, younger voters were angry at the prospect of losing their ready access to the other 27 European Union states, including the country on the other side of the invisible border. The election proved dramatic. Turnout was up almost ten per cent on 2016. For the first time since partition, unionism failed to secure a majority in a Northern Irish parliament. Sinn Féin won 27 seats to the DUP’s 28. The Democratic Unionists lost seats across the border counties, including in Foster’s home, Fermanagh, where Sinn Fein took three of the five seats on offer. At the time of writing, no arrangement has been reached on a new governing coalition. Sinn Fein insist Foster must step aside. She has refused. The prospects of a swift re-instatement of power-sharing look slim.

Brexit has put the border back into Irish politics, in ways that would have seemed impossible only a couple of years ago. In Belfast, senior people from Alliance – an avowedly ‘cross-community’ party borne of a split in the Ulster Unionists in the Troubles’ early days – talk of the need to make plans for Irish unification. The Fine Gael government in Dublin held up as a major victory the Brussels’s confirmation that a post-unification Northern Ireland would seamlessly rejoin the EU. Having emerged from the pro-Treaty side after the civil war, Fine Gael has long been the most fiercely anti-republican force in Irish politics.

Along the border, life goes on, in its own quiet way. After Ulster Gaelic football championship games, queues of traffic still snake out from Clones, in County Monaghan, over the border into Northern Ireland. The questions of who did what to whom during the three-decades-long dirty war remain, waiting for answers. Peace, however, has not given way to prosperity. The border remains one of the poorest parts of the country. The large houses dotted across the drumlins belie a general shift from the rural to the urban, from the towns to Dublin and Belfast, that has characterized Irish life in recent decades. Where there has been sustained – and sustainable – investment in the border counties it has often come with a large sign bearing the European Union’s starry standard.

My first proper job, at the University of Ulster, was funded by the European Union. It was 2008, just before the financial crash. We were not so starry-eyed as to imagine that our attempts to reconcile Catholics and Protestants on either side of a peace wall in Derry would bring the barriers down overnight, but there were minor moments of success. A film night on Derry’s walls. A talk on social enterprise well-attended by both sides. Small steps. Nobody expects that London – or Dublin – will replace the £500m that Northern Ireland receives from the EU each year, especially for the slow, difficult work of rebuilding communities after conflict.

This spring I was back home for a wedding. The reception was in a stunning colonial castle nestled by a lake in rural county Leitrim, barely fifteen miles from Northern Ireland. The road signs were peppered with destinations on both sides of the border. The following day, I visited my mother. She was planning to get her teeth fixed, in Enniskillen. She had the name of a dentist there who charged only a fraction of the price on the southern side of the border. “The NHS is great,” she told me. “We should have it here, too.”

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The Maze and dealing with the past in Northern Ireland

If ever a country was defined by a punctuation mark, it’s Northern Ireland and the forward-slash. A history of conflict has produced some awkward semantic contortions: Catholic/Protestant, Nationalist/Unionist, and, of course, Derry/Londonderry, that waggish ‘Stroke City’. Less celebrated, but no less contentious, is another double take, the Maze/Long Kesh.

Last week it was revealed that the European Union had, in December, approved a £18m funding package to establish a ‘peace-building and conflict resolution centre’ at the Maze, where the notorious H-Blocks once stood. What to do with the 360-acre site on the outskirts of Lisburn, about ten miles from Belfast, has been a recurrent source of political discord since the prison, built on the former RAF Long Kesh base, was closed in September 2000.

In 2002, the Maze Regeneration Unit was created within the devolved Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. Three years later, after a lengthy, torturous consultation process, A New Future for the Maze/Long Kesh was published. The Maze/Long Kesh: Masterplan and Implementation Strategyreleased in May 2006, consolidated the main proposals for the site, chiefly the construction of a sports stadium and an International Centre for Conflict Transformation.

The stadium – a 40,000-seat affair to be shared by Northern Ireland’s three main sports, football, rugby and Gaelic Games – was shelved in the face of significant unionist opposition. Comprehensive plans for the site have yet to be released on foot of last week’s news, but are now expected to include a more palatable, at least to unionists, scheme to rehouse the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society at the Maze, alongside the conflict resolution centre and a residential development.

In October, following a testy exchange in the House, the Stormont Assembly passed a motion recognising ‘the potential social and economic benefits which the utilisation of former security sites, such as the site of the Maze prison, can bring to Northern Ireland’. The motion called on First Minister Peter Robinson to progress development at the Maze, including a conflict resolution centre on the site where ten republican hunger strikers died in 1981, a move previously opposed by Robinson’s Democratic Unionist Party.

Last week, Jeffrey Donaldson, erstwhile anti-Belfast Agreement Ulster Unionist and now DUP MP for Lagan Valley, gave the planned centre a surprisingly hearty endorsement. ‘Far from it being seen as a shrine, it is about looking to the future. The peace building centre can help us look and focus towards the future,’ he said. However, many unionists, including the Ulster Unionist leader Tom Elliott, are opposed to the proposal, which Traditional Unionist Voice’s sole MLA Jim Allister dubbed ‘a Provo victory’.

The Maze conflict resolution centre, as Laura McAtackney has written, is an attempt to replace the site’s ‘negative associations’ with a ‘physical expression of the ongoing transformation from conflict to peace’. In that respect, the recent fracas over the centre reflects the incomplete nature of Northern Ireland’s own post-Troubles transformation. Almost a decade and a half after the signing of the Belfast Agreement, Stormont still has no functioning anti-sectarian strategy, despite the country’s well-published, sclerotic divisions. Meanwhile, the threat of prosecution from the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s Historical Enquiries Team has stymied any prospect of an authoritative account of what took place during the Troubles, as researchers at Boston College recently found out to their peril.

How, or even if, the Northern Ireland’s fractious past is to be acknowledged and commemorated is not just a question for historians and archivists. This year marks the start of a succession of distinctly live centenaries: the Ulster Covenant, signed in 1912; the Battle of the Somme; the Easter Rising; the Civil War; and, finally, the partition of Ireland. As Hegel famously observed, ‘the one thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.’

Could Direct Rule be the Answer to North's Problems?

This comment piece appeared in The Irish Times on Thursday 4 February. It was intended as an attempt to start a discussion about what needs to be done to move Northern Ireland forward. In it, I advocate a possible temporary return to direct rule as it existed during Stormont suspensions over the last decade. But it certainly got a few folks hackles up, judging by the vitriol in my inbox….

Politicians are often traduced for being out of touch with reality, but rarely has the charge rung so true as in Northern Ireland today.

Early last month, the North’s finance minister, Sammy Wilson, announced cuts in government spending totalling £367 million (€420 million) in the coming fiscal year. Since then the putative leaders of the Stormont Executive have spent the best part of a week and a half locked in discussions about policing and justice, parading and the Irish language. Not exactly core economic issues.

Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionists, the main protagonists in the protracted farce at Hillsborough, are playing gesture politics at a time when what is required is a bellyful of bread and butter.

But then again, in the three years since devolution was restored, neither party has proved particularly adroit at quotidian politics. In education, Sinn Féin’s Caitríona Ruane dedicated significant amounts of time and money to abolishing the controversial 11-plus exam. The move was highly divisive, bitterly opposed by unionists and ultimately futile: the transfer test for children from primary to secondary schools has been retained by a growing number of rebel grammar schools.

Ruane – or whoever inherits her portfolio if the current talks break down – is unlikely to be in a position to indulge such whims again. The education budget for next year has been slashed by more than £73.3 million. Over in Michael McGimpsey’s health department, the situation is even bleaker. Northern Ireland’s already understaffed health service is being asked to achieve spending reductions in the region of £113 million.

There is a relatively straightforward solution to the hole in the Executive’s budget – water charges. Unlike the rest of the United Kingdom, residents in Northern Ireland pay regional rates instead of council tax. At present, these rates are, on average, 50 per cent lower than in England. The introduction of water charges, which have been deferred for next year, would add an estimated £210 million to the treasury’s purse. Doubtless such a move would be met with resistance among sections of the electorate, but in times of crisis elected governments need to act collectively and decisively – two qualities absent among the squabbling Northern Executive.

There is, however, a large breach in Northern Irish society that cash alone will not solve and which neither Sinn Féin nor the DUP have shown any willingness to address. Sectarianism remains a serious problem in many working-class communities: since the peace process started in 1994 the number of peace walls in Greater Belfast has trebled.

Remarkably, Northern Ireland currently has no anti-sectarian policy. It did – A Shared Future, which was launched by then direct rule minister, Des Browne MP in 2005 – but on reaching office in 2007 both Sinn Féin and the DUP decided to abandon the policy. Instead, a draft of a new strategy, Cohesion, Sharing and Integration, was circulated – and almost as quickly forgotten.

On leaving office last September, Hugh Orde, the outgoing chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, criticised both Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness for their “lack of a coherent and credible strategy” for tackling sectarianism. Ruffled, Sinn Féin quickly published what was effectively a retitled, cut-and-paste version of Cohesion, Sharing and Integration, while the DUP responded by simply reissuing the original strategy.

One document, no matter how well intentioned, will not eradicate generations of sectarian division, but the coalition partners’ inability to even agree on a policy is indicative of the stasis that has gripped Stormont.

Of course, the current crisis is hardly unique in the intermittent history of the North’s devolved administration. In 2007, when Sinn Féin and the DUP argued over the various sections of the St Andrews Agreement in advance of Assembly elections, then secretary of state for Northern Ireland Peter Hain issued both parties with an ultimatum – reach agreement or face a return to direct rule.

Direct rule has long been used as a stick to threaten the North’s unruly devolved assembly, but perhaps the time has come to seriously consider it as an option.

Since devolution was restored in 2007, Northern Ireland has either stood still or gone backward in many areas. The bickering and brinkmanship that have characterised Stormont’s current incarnation have fuelled a growing apathy, especially in civil society. The North is not going back to the dark days of the Troubles, but neither Sinn Féin nor the DUP have been able to articulate any coherent vision for the future.

Under direct rule, career politicians appointed from Westminster overseeing (reasonably) impartial civil servants would replace the present ineffective, bipartisan administration. The benefits of the switch are manifold: policies would be produced and actually enacted; water charges could be implemented, going some way to solving the North’s budget crisis; and, probably most importantly, Northern Ireland would finally be in a situation where decision-makers are no longer hamstrung by a divided Executive.

As the arguments continue to rage at Hillsborough, a return to direct rule – at least temporarily – might be the reality check that the North’s political classes need, and its general public deserve.

From Family Robinson Woes to Affairs of State

I wrote a comment piece on the political fall-out from the Robinson affair for The Scotsman last week: (Published 13/01/10)

A leading unionist politician in Northern Ireland laid low by a lurid sex scandal splashed across the red tops. Accusations of backhanders from property developers. Political unrest in Ulster’s bible-belt. The plot of The Bad Book Affair, a new novel by Belfast-based writer Ian Sansom published next week, must have sounded pretty far-fetched when it arrived on his editor’s desk – but in the parallel universe that is Northern Irish politics truth really is stranger than fiction.

The scandal that has engulfed Peter Robinson threatens not only to cut short the political career of the Democratic Unionist party leader but could yet bring down the entire Stormont administration. But, unlike so many Northern Irish crises, this one began calmly when, just over a week ago, a select band of journalists were invited to Robinson’s East Belfast home. Briefings are part and parcel of political life but this was no normal ‘meet the press’ evening: instead, holding back tears in his front room, the First Minister explained that his wife of over thirty years, and fellow parliamentarian, Iris had attempted suicide following an affair.

Initially, revelations of Iris Robinson’s infidelity were received with a mixture of incredulity and black humour on the streets of Belfast but politicians from both sides of the tribal divide maintained a respectful silence. It was only with the accusation, made on a BBC current affairs television program, that Iris had borrowed two sums of £25,000 each from property developers to set her 19-year-old lover up in business that what began as a straightforward sex scandal – albeit with Mrs Robinson’s odious statements on homosexuality and hard-line Christian views adding extra spice – morphed into a full-blown constitutional crisis.

That the personal problems of a politician – even the devolved assembly’s most senior – should imperil devolution itself reflects the wider impasse on the issue of policing and justice powers that has paralysed Stormont in recent months. Sinn Fein want control of policing and justice to be transferred from Westminster to Belfast now, if not sooner; the DUP (their erstwhile coalition partners) have thus far resisted such moves, despite Gordon Brown pledging £900 million to smooth the transition.

Amid much publicity on Monday, the DUP’s deputy leader Nigel Dodds announced that Peter Robinson has resigned ‘temporarily’ as First Minister, designating Arlene Foster to take over his duties for the next six weeks. In invoking the Northern Ireland Act 1998 in this way, Robinson has repeated a familiar tactic of his predecessor but one, David Trimble. But while the media clamoured over themselves to admire Robinson’s political nous and speculate on whether or not he has saved his head, two crucial points were widely missed: first, Sinn Fein have given the DUP three weeks to resurrect a deal on the devolution of policing and justice, and, second, Robinson has nominated himself to head the negotiating team to meet their republican counterparts.

Reaching a deal with Sinn Fein is crucial to the short-term future of both the DUP and the current incarnation of Stormont. If no agreement on the transfer of policing is forthcoming then there is every possibility that Sinn Fein will collapse the assembly when Robinson returns from his six-week sabbatical by simply refusing to re-nominate Martin McGuinness as deputy first minister. Under the rules of the Good Friday Agreement, power-sharing only works if both nationalists and unionists can agree to it. In the absence of the majority player in the nationalist bloc the assembly would automatically dissolve and fresh elections held.

Before events of the last week overtook them, the DUP could have faced such elections in reasonably buoyant mood. Despite growing internal dissent from the right of the party and the prospect of losing votes to former Democratic Unionist MEP Jim Allister’s anti-agreement Traditional Unionist Voice, Robinson’s colleagues would have expected to profit by positioning themselves as the party that refused to hand control of policing to former terrorists – a rather spurious claim, incidentally, given that Sinn Fein members already sit on the Policing Board and numerous District Policing Partnerships.

Now the situation facing the North’s largest party is very different. Grassroots DUP supporters include many evangelical Christians who, shocked by the salacious tales emanating from the Robinsons’ door, are likely to abandon the party in droves for Allister’s TUV, while more mainstream voters could return once again to the Ulster Unionist party. Such a split in the unionist vote could quite conceivably see Sinn Fein emerge as the largest party in Northern Ireland, an honour that brings with it the right to nominate their choice for First Minister, almost certainly McGuinness. An administration with the former IRA man from Derry at its head would be anathema to any unionist – triggering another, this time potentially fatal, crisis in Northern Ireland’s fledgling experiment in devolved government.

So what are the prospects of avoiding this doomsday scenario? Relations between the DUP and Sinn Fein, rarely anything more than icy, have plumbed new depths in recent months. The power-sharing partners’ continuing inability to agree a joint anti-sectarian strategy has been decried by David Ford, leader of the moderate Alliance party, and last month McGuinness used a meeting of the North-South ministerial council in Limavady, County Derry to publicly lambast the First Minister for the failure to devolve policing. Robinson, who was standing barely five feet from his deputy on the same platform, looked stunned.

Nevertheless, an agreement on policing is increasingly in everyone’s best interests. And not just to save Peter Robinson or the assembly. In the early hours of last Friday morning, before the radio phone-ins had started to hum with chatter about Mrs Robinson’s dalliances, a car bomb seriously injured an off-duty policeman in Randallstown, outside Belfast. The victim, who was lucky to escape with his life, was a Catholic policeman, the perpetrators dissident republicans hell bent on catapulting the North back to the dark ages.

Regardless of its eventual fall-out, the Robinson affair will not spell a large scale return to violence – indeed on the very day the First Minister was briefing reporters on his wife’s indiscretion the loyalist Ulster Defence Association finally announced that it had decommissioned. However, the next few weeks are certainly crucial for the stability of Northern Ireland. Peter Robinson has bought just enough time to make a deal to save its current political process, though whether he can save it or himself remains to be seen.

Peter Geoghegan