Northern Ireland

2010: when Northern Ireland's politics became personal

Iris and Peter Robinson
Image caption Family drama: Iris and Peter Robinson

War and peace, bloodshed and breakthrough - Northern Ireland politics has had it all. But nothing to compare to the family drama which began 2010.

Last December, the Strangford MP Iris Robinson, wife of the Stormont First Minister Peter Robinson, announced she was leaving politics after suffering from depression.

There was a wave of public sympathy...then rumours began to spread that a BBC Spotlight investigation into Mrs Robinson was in its final stages.

On 6 January, Peter Robinson called a small group of journalists to his home for what turned out to be an extraordinary news conference. Mr Robinson appeared at breaking point as he revealed that his wife had had an affair with a younger man and had attempted to commit suicide.

The next day, the BBC Spotlight programme identified Mrs Robinson's lover as businessmen Kirk McCambley, who was just 19 at the time of the affair.

The programme showed how Mrs Robinson had used her influence on Castlereagh Council to set up Mr McCambley as a restaurateur - in a café leased from the council. She had obtained £50,000 from two property developers to get the business off the ground.

Spotlight claimed the First Minister had discovered what was going on, but had failed to report his wife to the authorities - allegedly in breach of the Stormont rules.

Mrs Robinson swiftly resigned from her positions as MP, MLA and councillor. Her husband stepped down temporarily as First Minister - handing his duties over to Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster. But he strenuously denied any wrongdoing, insisting he had broken no rules and would clear his name.

On 4 February the DUP leader resumed his role as First Minister, after a senior barrister gave an opinion, that, on the basis of the information provided to him, Mr Robinson had not breached the ministerial code.

That put Mr Robinson back centre stage for the conclusion of round-the-clock negotiations on the future of devolution, which saw the British and Irish prime ministers flying in to Hillsborough Castle.

The talks ended with agreement to proceed with the transfer of justice powers from Westminster to London - a key Sinn Fein demand. In return the DUP insisted on changes to the laws governing parades.

In April the Alliance leader David Ford was elected as Justice Minister after a cross-community vote. On the same day - in a direct response to the devolution of justice - the Real IRA attacked MI5's regional headquarters at Palace Barracks in Holywood.

Scandal

This was one of a number of incidents throughout the year which underlined the severe threat posed by dissident republicans.

In May voters went to the polls in the General Election. The DUP retained all its seats but one. Sensationally, the First Minister and party leader Peter Robinson was toppled in East Belfast by the Alliance deputy leader Naomi Long - the first time the cross-community party had an MP elected.

East Belfast's voters, it appeared, had given their verdict on the Iris Robinson scandal and other stories about the family's links to property developers.

Bookmakers thought Mr Robinson wouldn't last the year as DUP leader. But in the absence of an internal challenge he hung on as leader, MLA and First Minister. In fact, by the end of the year he seemed re-invigorated, talking of expanding his DUP to widen its appeal to moderate unionists.

His survival was facilitated, in part, by the weakness of his opposition. In an attempt to re-brand itself, the Ulster Unionist party extended its co-operation with David Cameron's Conservatives and fielded a raft of joint candidates in the Westminster election.

Mr Cameron visited Northern Ireland late in the campaign, but the experiment failed to see a single MP elected. The Ulster Unionist leader Sir Reg Empey missed out in the key target seat of South Antrim.

The party's only existing MP, Lady Sylvia Hermon, had long made clear her opposition to any closer link with the Tories. She defended her North Down seat with ease, but stood as an independent, depriving the Ulster Unionists of any voice in the Commons.

After the election disaster, Sir Reg Empey confirmed his intention to step down. In September the Fermanagh farmer Tom Elliott took over as Ulster Unionist leader, beating his moderate rival Basil McCrea.

Image caption Family scandal: Gerry Adams

The Robinson saga wasn't the only family drama of 2010. At the turn of the year the Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams was confronted with allegations that his brother Liam had abused his daughter, Gerry's niece, Aine Tyrell. Mr Adams insisted he had done all he could to help his niece, and revealed that his own father - Gerry Senior - had abused members of his family.

Liam Adams fought extradition from the Irish Republic to the north where investigators wanted to question him about a series of sex abuse charges. In the press some expressed doubts over Gerry Adams' version of events and believed he should have done more to expose his brother.

However in the May General election more than 70% of the voters in his West Belfast seat backed the Sinn Fein president. Yet just seven months later, Gerry Adams announced he would quit West Belfast and seek election to the Irish parliament.

Crisis

With the Republic's economy in crisis, Mr Adams sensed an opportunity to revitalise his party's fortunes south of the border. As his party's poll ratings rose steeply, he was selected to fight the Louth constituency.

Sinn Fein emerged from the Westminster election as Northern Ireland's biggest party - a repeat of its performance in the 2009 European poll. However it was assisted by the fact that the DUP didn't contest two seats.

The SDLP showed no sign of recovering the ground it had lost to Sinn Fein. But Margaret Ritchie, who succeeded Mark Durkan as SDLP leader in February, emerged from the campaign with some credit.

Ms. Ritchie inherited the South Down seat from her mentor Eddie McGrady, while Alasdair McDonnell, whom she had defeated for the leadership, defended his South Belfast seat.

Although his electoral pact with the Ulster Unionists didn't produce results, David Cameron had more success with his handling of one of the most crucial events of the troubles.

The Prime Minister's Commons speech in June, accepting the findings of the Bloody Sunday Inquiry, was broadcast live on a big screen in Londonderry's Guildhall Square.

Image caption Family celebrations: Relatives of Bloody Sunday victims

Spectators were treated to the unusual sight of Derry nationalists cheering a British prime minister as he admitted the shooting of 13 unarmed protestors was "unjustified and unjustifiable".

More challenges connected to the past remain, but the new Prime Minister passed this test with confidence.

The year ended with a focus on how Northern Ireland's public sector dominated economy would survive cutbacks, as its southern neighbour struggled with a severe banking crisis.

The dissident republican threat remained a major concern, with warnings of a threat to Britain and attacks on a court, a bank and a Catholic police officer all evidence that Northern Ireland's journey from war to peace is incomplete.

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