In wake of sex scandal, Northern Ireland’s top leader takes leave


Northern Ireland’s top leader announced Monday that he was stepping down temporarily amid an explosive scandal over his wife’s affair with a teenager and allegations of an ethical lapse of his own in connection with the relationship.

Peter Robinson, Northern Ireland’s first minister, said he was giving up his post for six weeks to concentrate on clearing his name and on caring for his wife, Iris, an influential lawmaker whose spectacular fall from grace has rocked the British province’s political scene.

The revelation last week of her affair with a 19-year-old and allegations that she solicited secret loans to help him open a coffeehouse have left her career in ruins and put her in need of “acute psychiatric treatment,” Peter Robinson said.

“As a father and a husband, I need to devote time to deal with family matters,” he told lawmakers gathered at Stormont Castle in Belfast, the Northern Irish capital and home of the power-sharing government.

Looking drawn and grim, Robinson said he was temporarily transferring authority to Arlene Foster, a fellow minister from his Democratic Unionist Party, which earlier in the day had expressed “unanimous support” for its beleaguered leader.

Robinson also denounced accusations, made in a BBC investigation, that he had known of his wife’s alleged solicitation of $80,000 from two property developers to help her lover but had failed to report it to authorities.

“It is particularly painful at this time of great personal trauma that I have to defend myself from an unfounded and mischievous allegation,” he said.

His hiatus from Northern Ireland’s top political job comes at a highly sensitive time for the province’s unity government of Roman Catholic republicans and Protestant unionists.

The two sides are bogged down in rancorous talks over how to devolve policing and justice powers from London to Belfast, a key component of the 1998 Good Friday peace accord that formally ended armed conflict in Northern Ireland.

Analysts warn that the power-sharing government could collapse if an agreement is not reached soon. Robinson, a vital figure in the negotiations, made a point Monday of saying that he would continue to work on the issue, albeit no longer as first minister.

His wife is expected to resign from her posts as a member of the British Parliament and of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Known as a moralizing politician who publicly espoused conservative “family values,” Iris Robinson said she tried to kill herself after confessing to infidelity with Kirk McCambley, with whom she began a sexual relationship shortly after his father died in 2008. McCambley, now 21, says that Robinson lent him $72,000 to start his coffeehouse and kept $8,000 for herself.