Scandal-scarred N.Ireland leader suffers election defeat

7th May 2010, Comments 0 comments

Northern Ireland's First Minister Peter Robinson crashed to 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) will retain his top job in the once strife-torn British province for now because he is a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly in Belfast.

His 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".

Robinson saw a 6,000 majority from 2005 evaporate as Naomi Long of the cross-community Alliance party won its first seat in parliament.

It followed a scandal earlier this year over his wife Iris's affair with a teenager and her complicated financial dealings, which prompted Robinson to briefly stand down at first minister until he was cleared of any wrongdoing.

A stunned-looking Robinson insisted he would carry on as First Minister.

"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."

In a grim reminder of the latent terror threat to the province's peace process, a car bomb was left outside a vote-counting centre in Londonderry, the province's second city, but it did not explode and the count went ahead.

With 17 seats declared, the DUP had won eight, while the Irish nationalist Sinn Fein had won four with its president Gerry Adams holding Belfast West.

Adams said he was surprised 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, who won the largest number of seats in the new parliament but fell short of an absolute majority, had been rumoured before the election to be eyeing a deal with parties in Northern Ireland.

But the Liberal Democrats said they were prepared to negotiate first with the Tories.

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 London-based 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

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