Page last updated at 18:18 GMT, Monday, 11 January 2010

Devolution pushed further towards edge

Jim Fitzpatrick
By Jim Fitzpatrick
BBC NI Politics Show

Sex, power and money - for a while Northern Ireland politics was starting to make sense to a wider public.

Arlene Foster
Arlene Foster addressed the assembly as acting first minister

But Northern Ireland doesn't do minimalism. It favours Baroque embellishments and Byzantine twists and turns.

As things stood on Monday morning, First Minister Peter Robinson's wife, Iris Robinson, was leaving politics.

Sex with a 19-year-old and £50,000 in payouts from developers had sealed her fate. She would be replaced in the assembly, and stand down from Westminster and Castlereagh Council.

There was mounting pressure on Mr Robinson to go too.

He faced a crunch meeting of DUP assembly members, MPs and party officers. His problem was guilt by association and the fact that he did nothing to inform the authorities about his wife's highly irregular financial dealings.

In most other places, Peter Robinson's career would have been over. But this is Northern Ireland and when all options appear to lead to a dead end, there's always a secret passageway if you know where to look.

Magic lever

Peter Robinson did, perhaps with a little bit of help from government sources. He found the magic lever buried in the legislation that created the current structures and he pulled down hard.

At half past two on Monday afternoon, the speaker of the assembly Willie Hay stood up in the chamber and revealed that the quarry many members had been hunting - Peter Robinson - had escaped.

He'd appointed his colleague, the enterprise minister, as an interim replacement while he would deal with personal matters.

Peter Robinson himself told journalists that he was remaining in place as DUP leader and that he would retain personal control over the policing and justice negotiations.

Some assembly members, who had hoped to skewer Mr Robinson with an investigation into the role of first minister and his responsibilities under the code of conduct, saw their dreams evaporate.

When the new acting first minister Arlene Foster stood up in her new capacity later, Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness sat opposite with the attire and countenance of a man at a funeral.

Should further revelations emerge that pertain more directly to Mr Robinson himself, then he may be dumped by his party before they face any elections

Sinn Fein wants a deal on devolving policing and justice powers.

It has wanted this deal since it went into government with the DUP.

Martin McGuinness had warned before Christmas that they would be in "deep trouble" if they didn't have progress before the New Year. We're well into the new year and there's little sign of progress.

But there are hints, at least. Peter Robinson ends his statement today pledging to make 2010 the year devolution delivers.

So, has Monday's conjuring trick bought him and devolution some time? The DUP will decide the former and Sinn Fein the latter.

Should further revelations emerge that pertain more directly to Mr Robinson himself, then he may be dumped by his party before they face any elections.

Should the DUP continue to stall on the issue of policing and justice then Sinn Fein may dump devolution by resigning from office.

At the weekend, it was reported that Peter Robinson would be gone within a week if he didn't clear his name.

Monday's manoeuvre doesn't necessarily change that and short of a deal on justice, devolution may not have much longer.

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