Sex scandal rocks Northern Ireland

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By John Murray Brown
Tuesday, January 12, 2010

DUBLIN -- A scandal involving sex and money is unsettling Northern Ireland's normally staid Protestant community, threatening a fragile political accord with its Roman Catholic rivals that ended decades of sectarian violence.

Peter Robinson, leader of the Democratic Unionists, a pro-British party that wants Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom, announced Monday that he would step aside as first minister in the provincial government for six weeks to try to clear his name.

The move follows allegations in a BBC television documentary that Robinson's wife, Iris, also a leading local politician, solicited money from builders to help her 19-year-old lover start a business, and failed to declare her financial interest to the parliamentary authorities.

Critics say Robinson should have informed the authorities about his wife's dealings once he knew about them.

The affair has prompted references to "The Graduate," the 1967 film in which Anne Bancroft's Mrs. Robinson seduces the young Dustin Hoffman.

But the scandal threatens an unpredictable political fallout for Northern Ireland's experiment in home rule. The charges of adultery and financial impropriety have shocked the DUP, a party founded by the Rev. Ian Paisley on the principles of moral rectitude.

The revelations also come at a critical time in the peace process as parties grapple with the sensitive issue of who controls policing in the province.

Cross-community support for the police has long been seen as the biggest test of the power-sharing agreement brokered in 1998 by Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, with the backing of then-President Bill Clinton.

Sinn Fein, once seen as little more than the mouthpiece of the Irish Republican Army, is now the DUP's partner in a cross-community administration, but ties remain strained. Said Rick Wilford, politics professor at Queen's University in Belfast: "Current relations between the DUP and Sinn Fein rival those between Peter and Iris Robinson. It's a very unhappy marriage."

-- Financial Times


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