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Bloody Sunday, election, Irish, Ireland, British, Ulster, Unionist, Sinn Féin, SDLP, Ahern, Blair, Irish America

The Robinson era begins

(by Liam Clarke, Sunday Times)

Peter Robinson, who succeeded Ian Paisley as DUP leader yesterday, will seek to unite his party and when he reshuffles its frontbench team later this week. He will also seek early talks with Sinn Féin, who could yet veto his appointment as Northern Ireland's first minister.

Gregory Campbell, the MP for East Londonderry, and Sammy Wilson, the MP for East Antrim, are tipped for promotion as ministers. If Robinson takes over as first minister on Thursday, his old Finance and Personnel portfolio becomes vacant and will pass to Nigel Dodds, whose enterprise ministry may go to Wilson. Insiders expect that Robinson will also remove Edwin Poots, the Culture minister, thus creating an opening for Campbell.

Jim Wells, who fell out of favour with Paisley after he voted against power sharing, is likely to be restored to favour. He may be given a committee chairmanship or a seat on the Policing Board where David Simpson, the MP for Bann, wants to stand down. Others tipped to move up include Mervyn Storey, Nelson McCausland, Jimmy Spratt and Simon Hamilton.

Robinson, whose appointment as leader was confirmed at a meeting in Castlereagh borough council headquarters in east Belfast yesterday morning, will attempt to start talks with the UUP over and electoral pact aimed at increasing unionist representation.

He will use the summer recess to iron out differences with Sinn Féin on issues that have caused deadlock in the Stormont assembly. The key stumbling block is the devolution of policing and justice powers to the assembly, an issue which the DUP hope to link to the formal standing down of the IRA army council and progress on Orange marches.

Other divisive issues include education and the future of the Maze prison site. Sinn Féin wants a conflict transformation centre built in some of the old prison building s but the DUP fear that this could turn out to be a "shrine to terrorism" which would glorify the 1981 hunger strike led by Bobby Sands.

Robinsons said yesterday that these differences did not presage the dissolution of the government. "I think "The idea that people are going to bring the houses down around themselves is so ludicrous, particularly when you have a leadership that wants to resolve outstanding issues, that wants to see progress being made" he said.

"There is an awful lot we have to do as an assembly and executive, and indeed I have to say that there are many things that we should be doing that can be win-win."

Sinn Féin's nomination for deputy first minister will almost certainly be Martin McGuinness.

June 1, 2008

This article first appeared in the Sunday Times on June 1, 2008.