Concerns that Northern Ireland sex scandal will break the peace





The scandal has riveted Northern Ireland like few things before. First, Peter Robinson, leader of the province's Protestant-Catholic coalition government, admitted that his 60-year-old wife Iris had embarked on an affair with a teenager two years ago. Then came the allegations that she had obtained $80,000 from two property developers to help her lover set up a café and that Peter Robinson, upon learning of the deal, failed to report it. Now that the Evangelical base of Robinson's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has had time to digest the lurid headlines, the political fallout begins....

But much more is at stake over the next six weeks than one man's political career. The scandal broke at a critical time for the province's shaky power-sharing agreement. For months, the two biggest parties in government, the DUP and the Catholic-backed Sinn Fein, have been at loggerheads over the devolution of policing and justice powers from London to the Northern Ireland Assembly, which was reconvened two years ago following its suspension in 2002. Sinn Fein wants control over the province's police force to be transferred to Belfast to end what it perceives to be a longtime pro-Protestant bias. But many Protestants, including Peter Robinson, are reluctant to change the status quo. Even before Iris Robinson's affair came to light, Sinn Fein had signaled that it could walk away from the power-sharing deal — painfully negotiated throughout the 1990s — if the DUP fails to compromise. Now, the Robinsons' personal crisis threatens to turn an impasse into a political vacuum — with potentially deadly results.

Northern Ireland's watchdog body on paramilitary activity, the Independent Monitoring Commission, said two months ago that dissident republicans opposed to power sharing now pose a greater security threat than at any time in the past six years. On Jan. 8, a Catholic police officer was critically injured when a bomb exploded under his car in County Antrim. And in November, another police officer survived a gun attack by suspected dissidents in County Fermanagh. Many fear that a political collapse could play into the dissidents' hands — and bring more violence. "A lot depends on the next few days in relation to progress on policing and justice," says Michael Graham, a political-history professor at Queen's University in Belfast. "If Sinn Fein don't feel they're getting very far, I think they're likely to pull the plug."...


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