Scandal-scarred N.Ireland leader suffers UK election defeat
Northern Ireland's First Minister Peter Robinson suffered a shock defeat in Britain's general election Friday after a sex and cash scandal involving his wife battered his reputation.
Despite his political humiliation, Robinson's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) could still play a role in bolstering any government led by Conservative leader David Cameron, whose party won the most seats in Thursday's vote.
The Tories fell short of winning an absolute majority in the House of Commons in London and are likely to try to form alliances with smaller parties -- and the 18 seats in Northern Ireland could prove crucial.
Robinson's defeat in the Belfast East seat he had held since 1979 was a huge shock, described by the Belfast Telegraph newspaper as "one of the biggest political upsets of all time in Northern Ireland".
It followed a scandal earlier this year over his wife Iris's affair with a teenager and her complicated financial affairs, which prompted Robinson to briefly stand down at first minister until he was cleared of any wrongdoing.
Despite the defeat he will remain as first minister, a position accorded to him by his place in the Northern Ireland Assembly in Belfast.
"I have a job to do and I have a job to complete... I will continue to carry out that important work," he said.
"We will ensure that the people of Northern Ireland have a bright and better future," added a stunned-looking Robinson after his defeat, which gave the cross-community Alliance party its first seat in parliament.
In a grim reminder of the latent terror threat to the peace process here, a viable car bomb was left outside a vote counting centre in Londonderry, the province's second city, though it did not explode and the counts went ahead.
With 17 seats declared, the DUP had won eight, while the Irish nationalist Sinn Fein had won four wuth its president Gerry Adams holding Belfast West.
Adams said he too was suprised by Robinson's setback, but added that the DUP leader retains the authority to stay on as first minister.
"I didn't see it coming," he said, adding: "He has had a very torrid time recently and politics is a very tough business. One can not help but feel empathy with Peter Robinson."
Sinn Fein do not take up their seats in London -- they refuse to swear their allegiance to Queen Elizabeth II -- and their absence brings down the margin required for a working majority in parliament.
The Conservatives have an electoral alliance with the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), who are more moderate than the hardline Protestant DUP.
But it remains to be seen whether the DUP would be prepared to join their Unionist rivals in a Conservative-led government.
The Conservatives may have to offer significant concessions to the DUP, who never give ground easily.
Before his defeat, Robinson had said that in a hung parliament, the DUP would maximise Northern Ireland's influence by protecting the block grant given by Britain to the province.
The Daily Mail newspaper said Friday that any Conservative deal with the DUP "would be heavy for the UK taxpayer".
"The DUP would demand Northern Ireland is spared 200 million pounds (290 million dollars, 230 million euros) of cuts in state spending from an economy over-reliant on state jobs," it said.
Upping the stakes on the eve of the poll, Robinson claimed the DUP were also being courted by Prime Minister Gordon Brown's Labour Party, releasing a letter from him which promised to maintain the size of the block grant.
The Conservative-UUP alliance suffered a disappointing night, failing to win a seat in Northern Ireland. UUP leader Reg Empey came a near second in the South Antrim constituency.
Meanwhile Lady Sylvia Hermon, who left the UUP to stand as an independent in protest against the Conservative tie-up, romped home in her North Down seat.
The car bomb in Londonderry was blamed on dissident Republicans opposed to the peace process. Security forces last month warned such dissidents posed the biggest threat to security in the province since the 1998 Omagh bombing.
© 2010 AFP