As the Irish and UK prime ministers meet to discuss the impasse over control of police and justice in Northern Ireland, the long-running dispute is overshadowed by sex and corruption scandals, and IRA splinter groups are keeping police busy by attempting to undermine the political process and capitalize on a vacuum should the policing powers dispute not be settled.

DUBLIN — Northern Ireland MP Iris Robinson’s affair with Kirk McCambley, now 21, prompted her to announce last month that she would be stepping down from politics as she seeks treatment for depression.

Robinson, 60, is the wife of Peter Robinson, first minister in Northern Ireland’s regional government and the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the largest pro-British political party in Northern Ireland.

The couple are to be investigated by Northern Ireland’s committee on standards and privileges after Iris Robinson admitted she secured £50,000 ($81,400) from two developers to help McCambley set up a restaurant business in Belfast.

The fallout from the scandal has led to Peter Robinson temporarily stepping down as First Minister, but remaining as DUP leader. The party has publicly pledged to stand by their leader for now, but the founder, Reverend Ian Paisley, is said to be angry.

The Robinsons have been lampooned as the ‘Swish Family Robinson” due to their collective income of around £600,000 per annum, derived from family members holding multiple political positions in London and Belfast.

Would-be comedians have latched onto the affair between Iris Robinson and a man one-third her age, predictably latching onto  the Simon & Garfunkel song ‘Mrs Robinson’ and the Dustin Hoffman movie ‘The Graduate.”

Scandal has hit the other side of the political divide as well. During Christmas, Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams gave an interview in which he revealed that his father had sexually abused his siblings. This came after it was revealed that Adams’ brother Liam, a Sinn Féin activist, was wanted for sexual abuse of his own daughter.

The Sinn Féin leader has pleaded for his brother to turn himself in, which he attempted to do in the Irish Republic, but as the Northern Irish police had not issued an international arrest warrant, the southern counterparts could not act.

While most of the gossip – political and otherwise – has focused on the tawdry and surreal Robinson scandal, it may well turn out that the Adams’ family troubles are more serious.

Robin Wilson, author of the forthcoming The Northern Ireland Experience of Conflict and Agreement: A Model for Export?  told ISN Security Watch that “Mr Adams has not only acted inappropriately in covering up the abuses by his brother, who was employed in positions where he was dealing with young people, but he has also lied in his claims about how he dealt with the episode.”

Splits and divisions

While Peter Robinson is on temporary hiatus, party colleague Arlene Foster will stand in as first minister, a title effectively shared with the deputy first minister, Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness.

However, relations between the parties have been sour for a long time, despite formal partnership. It was initially thought that the two parties could never work together, given that the DUP represented an uncompromising strain of unionist pro-British thinking, while Sinn Féin is the political wing of the IRA.

However, McGuinness and former first minister Paisley not only forged a working relationship but were regularly seen joking and backslapping together in public, earning the nickname “The Chuckle Brothers.”

But some unionists were not amused at the DUP’s cozy relations with men they deemed former IRA terrorists. Jim Allister broke from the DUP to form his Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV), retaining his European Parliament seat under this new dispensation during 2008.

With this latest scandal, it not inconceivable that the unionist vote could be split three ways — between the DUP, TUV and the Ulster Unionist Party, which is linked to the UK Conservatives. This would likely leave Sinn Féin as the largest party in Northern Ireland after the upcoming UK general election, most likely in May 2010, according to Wilson.

But IRA splinter groups who disagree with Sinn Féin’s commitment to the political process and the IRA’s decision do away with political violence are posing a serious security threat. As well as killing two British soldiers in March 2008, they attempted to murder a Catholic member of the police force recently, and since September 2007 there have been more than 750 bomb alerts attributed to  ‘dissidents.’

Who polices who?

All of which overshadows the debate about devolving control of police and criminal justice powers to Northern Ireland, which is part of the 1998 peace deal.

Unionists are wary of allowing people with close links to the IRA to have a direct say in law and order, while Sinn Féin wants what it sees as a pro-British, pro-unionist police force brought under local control. McGuinness and Adams feel that the DUP has been stalling on this issue since 2006, when – apparently – agreement was reached on finally letting Belfast run its own police.

It seems unlikely that the crisis-addled DUP will agree to police and justice devolution now, irrespective of whatever pressure they come under from the two governments. It cannot be confident that its supporters will back the move amid ongoing sexual and financial scandal.

This could allow other unionist parties to make gains at the elections. In a statement emailed to ISN Security Watch, Sir Reg Empey, leader of the UUP, said: “We will not support any deals or arrangements which we suspect have been made by Mr Robinson under duress.

If the DUP stalls again, Sinn Féin will likely withdraw from the regional government, prompting snap elections for the Belfast regional assembly.

But Sinn Féin will appear weak if police and justice powers are not handed to Belfast soon. This in turn could, in their own minds, give the IRA splinter groups some rationale for continued violence — whereby they claim that politics is not working for Sinn Féin, though there is scant public support for their actions.

Roughneen was in Dublin in late December 2009/early January 2010

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