Page last updated at 20:27 GMT, Saturday, 16 January 2010

Political and personal crises collide at Stormont

By Mark Simpson
Ireland correspondent, BBC News

A week at Stormont which began with controversy about DUP leader Peter Robinson's wife has ended with more questions raised about the brother of Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams.

It is difficult to remember a time in Northern Ireland when the private lives of politicians have been more exposed.

Iris and Peter Robinson
Mr Robinson has temporarily stepped down as first minister

But this is en exceptional political period; Stormont is being rocked by political and personal crises.

One party member leaving Parliament Buildings this weekend simply shrugged his shoulders and wearily whispered: "You couldn't make it up."

Peter Robinson has been forced to talk openly about his wife Iris's affair with a 19-year-old cafe owner, as a result of the issues raised by her secret financial dealings with the young businessman.

The furore has overshadowed the difficulties faced by Mr Adams, after it was revealed just before Christmas that his brother, Liam, is wanted for questioning by police in Northern Ireland on allegations of child abuse.

What makes this such a difficult time for both party leaders is that before now they have both been fiercely private individuals - especially about their families.

But Peter Robinson has spoken candidly about the hurt caused by his wife's affair.

On Friday he said: "There are days when, were it not a case of getting up and getting on with things for the sake of the family, your instinct is just to get into bed, turn out the light, pull yourself into a foetal position and not come out again."

The questions are unlikely to go away for Gerry Adams

However, life goes on and he spent most of Saturday at Stormont involved in high-level negotiations. He was talking to his own party, and then Sinn Fein, amid attempts to save the Assembly from collapse.

Gerry Adams was there too, but when he met the media it was issues surrounding his brother which dominated the discussion.

Liam Adams is currently in the Irish Republic, while police in Belfast seek a European arrest warrant over allegations that he abused his daughter when she was a child. He denies any wrongdoing.

It was revealed on Friday that even though Gerry Adams said he forced his brother to leave Sinn Fein in 1997, Liam Adams later became a member of a Sinn Fein branch in west Belfast.

The Sinn Fein president insisted on Saturday he knew nothing about this at the time, even though he is MP for West Belfast.

Gerry Adams at Stormont
Gerry Adams has always been a fiercely private politician

He said: "I got my brother Liam to leave Sinn Fein in County Louth. He later, unbeknownst to me, rejoined the party in west Belfast. Had I known that that was the case... I obviously would have went to get him to leave the party again."

The BBC's Gareth Gordon asked: "How could you not have known? You're the MP for West Belfast, that's your power base?

Mr Adams replied: "Well, I can only tell you I don't know every member of the party in west Belfast. I'm also a very busy activist. A lot of this happened at a time of intense, hyper activity.

"But I didn't know. That's it. People will make up their own mind on that and decide on their own position."

The questions are unlikely to go away for Gerry Adams.

For Peter Robinson, the issues raised by Iris Robinson's affair - and exactly what he knew about her financial arrangements - are the subject of Stormont and Westminster investigations.

Negotiations deadlocked

All this comes at a time when the future of the Northern Ireland Assembly is hanging in the balance. The main problem is nothing to do with the personal matters facing the DUP and Sinn Fein leaders - it is a dispute over when policing and justice powers should be devolved from Westminster to Stormont.

It may not sound like the sort of issue which could bring down devolution but it is a test of whether the DUP and Sinn Fein can find common ground, and continue working together.

If it isn't resolved by the end of this month, Stormont may fall, and fresh elections may have to be called. That would be damaging for the peace process.

Three days of negotiations between the DUP and Sinn Fein have so far failed to break the deadlock.

The talking will resume after a day of rest on Sunday.

Much may have changed in Ulster politics in recent days, but there are still no negotiations on the Sabbath day.

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