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Power sharing continues in Northern Ireland under new First Minister

Tony Grew June 5, 2008

Peter Robinson is Northern Ireland’s next First Minister.

Despite concerns that direct rule would be imposed after a dispute between the main parties to the peace process, Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness has been reappointed as deputy First Minister.

The Republicans were unhappy at the lack of progress on the devolution of policing and criminal justice, and they threatened to cause a crisis in the power-sharing administration.

However, Mr Robinson, the new DUP leader, and Mr McGuinness, a former IRA chief of staff, will continue to work together.

“We recognise there are outstanding and unresolved issues which have been raised with the Prime Minister and which require urgent attention,” they said in a statement yesterday.

Earlier this week Gordon Brown met with both parties to try to broker an agreement.

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said:

“There are a number of outstanding issues from the St Andrews Agreement to be implemented. These include the transfer of power on policing and justice and an acht na Gaeilge (Irish language act).

“These issues must be resolved satisfactorily if we are to build on the undoubted progress that has been made in the course of the past 12 months.”

Peter Robinson’s elevation brings to an end Ian Paisley’s domination of a party he created in 1971.

For decades identified with bigotry, intransigence and sectarianism, the ‘Big Man’ transformed into an unlikely angel of peace in recent years.

He took the DUP into government with the decidedly pro-gay Sinn Fein last May.

The 82-year-old will retain his seats in the House of Commons and Northern Ireland Assembly when he stands down as First Minister in June.

Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness will also stand down as Deputy First Minister at that time, but will be reappointed to the post alongside Mr Robinson.

In the 1970s Dr Paisley spearheaded a campaign against the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Northern Ireland, “Save Ulster From Sodomy,” and as recently as 2005 he led opposition to civil partnerships in the province.

In recent months, he has faced pressure from his own party after his son, Ian Paisley Junior, was forced to resign from the Northern Ireland Executive over links to a property developer.

Last year, Paisley Jnr caused outrage within the gay community after he said:

“I am pretty repulsed by gay and lesbianism. I think it is wrong. I think that those people harm themselves and – without caring about it – harm society.

“That doesn’t mean to say that I hate them. I mean, I hate what they do.”

Mr Robinson’s election as DUP leader is unlikely to change the homophobic attitudes of many of his party, but it is expected that like his predecessor he will continue to abide by the equality policies of the Northern Ireland government.

The DUP do not approve of gay equality, but they do not regard it an issue serious enough to keep them out of power.

Edwin Poots, the minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure, is a case in point. He is renowned for his homophobic opinions.

As a councillor in Lisburn he tried to ban gay and lesbian couples from holding civil partnerships in the town hall.

However, he did not block grants to Belfast Pride despite pressure from DUP grassroots.

Peter Robinson and new DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds are viewed as more secular, urban and pragmatic than Dr Paisley, a religious leader representing a rural, Bible-belt constituency.

While DUP members such as Mr Poots continue to make homophobic comments – in February he was expressing his view that a gay rugby team is a form of “apartheid” – gay rights legislation such as goods and services protection and civil partnerships were imposed from London during periods of direct rule.

The DUP can complain about them, but cannot alter or repeal them without the consent of Sinn Fein.

Mr Robinson’s elevation to First Minister marks an usual coincidence whereby the heads of government of the UK, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland will all have left office in the space of a year and been replaced by their Finance Minister.

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