Peter Robinson: Key questions after First Minister steps down

Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness
Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness

Peter Robinson has announced that he is to step down as Northern Ireland’s First Minister and Democratic Unionist leader.

It follows his heart attack in May which left him hospitalised for several days but he has denied he decided to leave for health reasons.

Here are some of the key questions.

:: Why is he announcing his resignation now?

Stormont Assembly elections are due to be held next May. The DUP’s annual party conference takes place at the weekend, traditionally when party grassroots ready themselves for polls. Today’s announcement clears up any ambiguity about Mr Robinson’s position and he is due to step down early in the New Year.

On Tuesday he sealed a deal with Sinn Fein counterpart Martin McGuinness to end a powersharing crisis at Stormont over funding and paramilitarism and clearly feels this is an appropriate time to step aside.

:: What does this mean for powersharing?

Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness has said he believes he can get on with anybody at the head of the administration and has reiterated his commitment to building on peace process achievements to date.

The DUP will launch a leadership contest with MP Nigel Dodds and Stormont Assembly member Arlene Foster among the front runners, ahead of the election.

The fundamentalist unionist party has different wings, one aligned to Mr Robinson and seen as less traditionalist, and another to his late predecessor as DUP leader, Ian Paisley, whose political beliefs were for many years shaped by his Free Presbyterian religion.

:: Did he go or was he pushed?

During the recent political negotiations at Stormont, some in Mr Robinson’s party expressed unhappiness with his “hokey cokey” policy of resigning then reappointing ministers to disrupt normal business but ensure the powersharing institutions did not fall. He himself stepped aside as First Minister but retook the position after official assurances were given on paramilitarism following a murder linked to the Provisional IRA.

However he was arguably under greater pressure when in 2010 it emerged his former Strangford MP wife Iris had an affair and gave developers’ money to her teenage lover. Mr Robinson stepped aside for six weeks as colleague Arlene Foster took the reins but he was personally exonerated of any wrongdoing and returned to the head of the ministerial Executive.

Many critics expected him to resign then but he led his party to victory in the 2011 Assembly elections.

He made a public apology last year after saying he would “trust Muslims to go to the shop” for him. During the summer he defended himself over allegations of involvement in Northern Ireland’s largest ever property deal.

But Mr McGuinness said he was a friend and deserved credit for his role in the peace process.