Our unexpected new leader (pro tempore)

Well, that was a twist, wasn’t it? The plot doesn’t merely thicken – like the best gravy granules, it both browns and thickens. From the Assembly media centre:

ASSEMBLY INITIATES OFFICIAL INVESTIGATION INTO CONDUCT OF MRS IRIS ROBINSON MLA AND MR PETER ROBINSON MLA

The Committee on Standards and Privileges today responded to issues which have been raised in respect of the conduct of Mrs Iris Robinson MLA and Mr Peter Robinson MLA.

The Committee also received correspondence directly from Mr Robinson MLA requesting that the Committee commence an inquiry into the questions that have been raised.

The Chair of the Committee, Mr Declan O’Loan MLA said: “It is clearly in the public interest that an official investigation is carried out in order to establish the full facts in relation to the issues raised in the BBC’s recent Spotlight programme.

The Committee on Standards and Privileges has therefore today instructed the Assembly’s Commissioner for Standards to carry out a thorough independent investigation into the conduct of Mrs Iris Robinson MLA and Mr Peter Robinson MLA in order to enable the Committee on Standards and Privileges to determine whether or not any breaches of the Assembly’s Code have occurred.”

And in the Assembly itself this afternoon:

Mr Speaker: I am conscious that we are proceeding to Question Time, but it is important that I share with you a letter that I have just received from the First Minister. I wish to inform the House that I have received written notice from the First Minister, Peter Robinson, that, under section 16A(11) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, he has designated Mrs Arlene Foster, the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, to exercise the functions of the office of First Minister. The designation takes immediate effect.

Here’s how it works. Peter has not in fact resigned. That would have required the election of a new joint ticket for the FMDFM posts, presumably Nigel Dodds and Martin McGuinness, with the potential for this to feed into the brinkmanship over devolution of policing and justice. Instead, under a little-known part of the GFA legislative architecture, he has employed a special instrument of the Assembly (read: a stroke) to take a six-week sabbatical. Peter has let it be known that this is the maximum period, and he expects to be back within the six weeks; he remains the DUP leader. The fascinating thing is that, in the absence of the First Minister, his position is not taken by the Deputy First Minister (that would be Martin McGuinness) but by an interim FM of his own designation. This is, incongruously, enterprise minister Arlene Foster. And indeed, in a special question time Arlene came out batting strongly for Robbo:

Ms Ní Chuilín: asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister to outline to the Assembly any possible implications for OFMDFM in respect of allegations relating to financial matters made by the BBC ‘Spotlight’ programme

The Acting First Minister (Mrs Foster): Earlier today, the First Minister, pursuant to section 16A(11) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, wrote to you, the Presiding Officer, designating me to carry out the functions of the office of First Minister. During this period, I will carry out those functions while the First Minister helps to deal with his wife’s medical problems. I have already discussed handling arrangements with the deputy First Minister and how the work of the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister will be carried out in the coming weeks. On behalf of the First Minister, I want to make it clear that he rejects entirely the sole allegation made by the BBC ‘Spotlight’ programme and that he will be seeking to clear his name in the days that lie ahead.

Ms Ní Chuilín: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I would like to wish Minister Foster well. My rationale for tabling the question is not the Robinsons’ private family matters. Serious allegations were raised in the BBC ‘Spotlight’ programme, and there is an issue of public confidence. It is crucially important that the outstanding political issues are resolved and resolved speedily. As well as everything else that needs to be cleared up, that means getting an early date for the transfer of powers on policing and justice. There is a limited time frame in which to sort out these matters.

The BBC ‘Spotlight’ programme raised questions that are serious in their nature. They are serious political questions that need to be responded to very quickly, as well as writing to the Committee on Standards and Privileges about how these matters will be resolved. For me, other MLAs in the House and, indeed, public confidence, I would like to ask the Minister —

Mr Speaker: Order, order. I ask the Member, and I emphasise the point to all Members, to be very careful. It is important that, as far as possible, Members keep to the original question. I am not trying to stifle debate in the Chamber. I am just asking the Member to be careful in what question is asked to the Minister; that is all that I am saying.

Ms Ní Chuilín: In conclusion, in respect of the allegations relating to the financial matters made by the BBC in the ‘Spotlight’ programme — [Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order.

Ms Ní Chuilín: Will the Minister assure me as an MLA, other Members in the House and, indeed, the public on how a conclusion can be reached speedily to bring about transparency and a robust response?

The Acting First Minister: I thank the Member for her question. First of all, the Departmental Solicitor’s Office has already considered the allegations made in the ‘Spotlight’ programme and advised Peter Robinson that he was not in breach of the ministerial code, the Pledge of Office, the ministerial code of conduct or the seven principles of public life. It is important to say that first of all. As well as that, Peter Robinson has written to the Chairpersons of the Committees on Standards and Privileges in both Westminster and the Assembly to ask them to conduct a full investigation into the allegation made by the BBC ‘Spotlight’ programme. It needs to be made very clear that the process that the First Minister has asked to be initiated involving senior counsel is not intended to be an alternative to other processes that may, and undoubtedly will, be carried out.

However, I will go to the heart of the Member’s question: the First Minister very much believes that an early indication needs to be given in relation to the allegations. I personally am confident, and my party is very confident, that this will confirm that Peter Robinson, the First Minister, acted entirely properly at all times. However, let us have that, and let us have it quickly, because we need to move on. The Member made reference to other issues that need to be dealt with. She is absolutely right: other issues need to be dealt with. Frankly, this is all a distraction for the people of Northern Ireland when we have other issues to deal with. I refer particularly to the issue that was mentioned first in the House earlier today: the attempted murder of a police officer.

That is why we need to really focus on what is going on here. We will deal with the issues, but there are issues more important to the people of Northern Ireland to be dealt with, and I say that very strongly.

The Chairperson of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (Mr Kennedy): I am grateful for the opportunity to ask a question on behalf of the OFMDFM Committee and then to follow up from a party political perspective. I thank the interim First Minister for taking questions today, and I congratulate her on her — even temporary — appointment.

When does the Acting First Minister expect the departmental investigation to present the findings? Will my Committee be briefed on the investigation and subsequent findings? In respect of my party’s considerations, there are obviously matters of concern that the ‘Spotlight’ programme highlighted. The ones of a personal nature should, in the view of my party and me, remain purely private matters for the Robinson family. We wish them well as they attempt to resolve those.

The second matter is, of course, of a more public nature. Will the Acting First Minister confirm whether public resources are being utilised in the investigation that the First Minister has instigated? Will she confirm whether the deputy First Minister has agreed to the process? Can she explain how the investigation that is under way will be seen as independent and considered as such? Will she also confirm whether the investigation is being conducted in a manner that was advised by OFMDFM officials? Finally, will the Acting First Minister confirm how long she can act as a caretaker in charge of OFMDFM?

The Acting First Minister: In relation to that last question, the Member is all too aware of the legislation, as, indeed, is the rest of this House. I made it very clear when I began my statement that this is a temporary arrangement. It is something that his party should be very much aware of because, in the past, somebody who was very much in my position as Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment acted on behalf of the First Minister. There have also been occasions, although there was no formal arrangement, as I under­stand it, when the Minister of Agriculture was assisted by colleagues during her confinement due to her maternity.

Legal advice has already been sought, and I have made reference to the fact that it has already been given back to the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. Two opinions have been received from the Departmental Solicitor’s Office that indicate that there was no breach of various codes and standards. There will be another departmental investigation, which we want to happen very quickly so that we can have that dealt with. I have already indicated that Peter has written to the Assembly Ombudsman and the Committee here, and to the parliamentary Committee in Westminster.

Let us be very clear: Peter Robinson is going to clear his name. I have no doubt about that. One sole allegation was made. That sole allegation will be dealt with, and I want to be very clear about that. My standing here is very much temporary. I do it in the knowledge that when Peter comes back, he will come back with a clear record.

And there was a lot more blether from the other party leaders and Assembly dignitaries, with Arlene straight-batting right back at them.

Ms Purvis: I also wish the Minister well as she exercises her new responsibilities as Acting First Minister. Will she clarify whether the actions taken by her party today are, in fact, in the best interests of her office, the Assembly and the governing institutions of Northern Ireland, which belong to the people of Northern Ireland and are not the possession of any party inside or outside this Chamber, and that these actions by her party are not focused on simply preserving whatever is left of its electoral fortunes?

The Acting First Minister: We can all dream. I believe that Peter has acted with complete integrity. His decision to temporarily step aside from carrying out his duties as First Minister was, in part, driven by his wish to clear his name from allegations of impropriety once and for all. In doing so, he will submit himself to the full scrutiny of any investigation that the Assembly may instigate, although he has already instigated one himself in respect of the Assembly. He has also stated that he will review his position if any inquiry or investigation finds that the allegation has some substance to the integrity of the Assembly, so that we can move forward and the Assembly is protected very clearly. I do not know how much more open the House expects Peter Robinson to be. He has done everything that has been asked of him, and he will submit himself to all the inquiries that come forward. Do you know why? It is because he has nothing to answer for. I believe that firmly in my heart, and I know that the party believes that as well.

Well, hope springs eternal. As the vultures gather around Peter, at least he can console himself that Arlene is on side.

Of course, Stormont wouldn’t be Stormont if the DUP just took this sort of indignity lying down.

Mr Poots: On a point of order, Mr Speaker; will you clarify to the House how, under the Members’ code of conduct, a complaint can be brought forward against a Member who has withheld information from the police that may lead to the prosecution of paedophiles?

Mr Speaker: That is not a point of order, but if the Member wants to have a debate on the Floor of the House on any issue, there is a clear procedure that he can follow, and he will get all the advice that he needs from the Business Office.

Here we see the classic DUP tactic of pretending to be violently opposed at every turn to the people they are in coalition with. It almost takes you back to the glory days of Sammy Wilson and Rhonda Paisley playing silly buggers at City Hall.

Anyway, let’s get back to the stroke, a bold move reminiscent of the strokes that were employed to keep the Trimble Executive on the road. Putting Arlene Foster in the driving seat is quite clever, in that she’s not (yet) seen as a challenger for the leadership, and, unlike her fellow OUP blow-in Jeffrey Donaldson, she’s endeared herself to the DUP membership by being quietly efficient in government whilst learning quickly what buttons the rank and file like to have pushed. Given her Fermanagh background, she’s especially good at talking to jittery border Prods. I say she’s not seen as a leadership contender at the moment – then again, since half of the DUP hierarchy don’t want the leadership and half are damaged goods, it might yet come down to Arlene versus Edwin Poots.

As for Peter… I don’t especially like the guy, but I kind of feel a little sorry for him. Just a little, mind. He’s spent thirty years waiting to be leader, he finally gets the big job, and within a year and a half the whole edifice is brought crashing down not by his bad decisions, but by his wife’s lust and greed. Now he has this time-bounded six-week period in which he has not only to try and clear his name, but also care for his mentally ill wife. He says there’s no question raised that he can’t answer, apart from those allegations against Iris that he doesn’t know the details of, and she isn’t lucid at the moment.

But he’s very clearly on the back foot. He’s long past the point where he could get a legal opinion from the DSO and wriggle off the hook. Even if he can avoid any legal problems, the political problem is much bigger and it’s right in his own backyard. There are two things everybody in Castlereagh knows about the late Fred Fraser. One was that his building projects had a terrible reputation for corner-cutting; the other was that he had the magic ability to get permission to build anything anywhere. From a purely business point of view he was enormously successful, but developers are not universally popular, even in Castlereagh, and for politicians to appear to be in developers’ pockets can be seriously damaging. Just ask Ian Paisley Jr.

And so, as the clock starts ticking, at the end of six weeks Robbo will either be vindicated or will have to go for good. My money is on the latter. What he really doesn’t need is for more insiders to feel around in their pockets, locate whistles and ponder whether, since the Robinsons aren’t the power in the land they used to be, it might be worth blowing them.

Oh, and finally: this is a chance for our media to get stuck in. Local government in the north being what it is, it would be folly to think sharp practice is confined to the DUP, and even greater folly to expect the other parties not to get cold feet.

5 Comments

  1. January 12, 2010 at 11:19 am

    why not converting [sic!] the whole stuff into a daily soap or a sitcom called “Stormont” (with the “adult” horror version “Dark secrets of Stormont”)? … some of the participants would also make good housemates for “Celebrity Big Brother”

  2. Richard Bayley said,

    January 12, 2010 at 5:24 pm

    I take it that Mr O’Loan, chair of the Standards and Privileges Committee, is NOT a creation of Private Eye……

    • splinteredsunrise said,

      January 12, 2010 at 9:00 pm

      No. He’s a real person.

      • WorldbyStorm said,

        January 12, 2010 at 10:42 pm

        Just thinking about what you’re saying about Peter Robinson getting the chalice only to have it dashed away. Isn’t this sort of a pattern these days in DUP/Assembly politics?

  3. splinteredsunrise said,

    January 13, 2010 at 12:33 am

    Perhaps. Or it could be the curse of the Long Serving Finance Minister. Think Brown, think Cowen…


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