The big political development in Northern Ireland this year was the bonding
of Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist party (DUP) into a durable
partnership to manage the province's affairs. Once sworn enemies, they now
form a tight team and will stand or fall on their joint record in
Yet last January it seemed unlikely that Gerry Adams and Peter Robinson
would survive the year politically. The careers of both leaders appeared to
be in meltdown as sexual and money scandals swirled around them.
Adams's problems surfaced first. In the run-up to last Christmas he
attempted a damage-limitation exercise by giving a press conference in which
he said that his father, also Gerry, had sexually abused some of his
siblings. Adams said he had wanted to bring this into the open and, by doing
so, help other families facing the same problem.
At first there was praise and sympathy for his courageous stance. Much of
that evaporated after UTV Insight screened a documentary that alleged
Adams's brother, Liam, had abused his daughter, Aine Tyrell, for about a
decade. Tyrell accused Gerry Adams of covering up the abuse after she had
told him about it. Adams said he had done all he could, including asking
Liam to admit the alleged abuse, but the press continued digging.
Even after discussing the allegations with Gerry, Liam had worked in youth
clubs in his brother's West Belfast constituency and in Dundalk, in the
Louth constituency that the Sinn Féin president is contesting in next year's
Dáil election. Separate allegations of a cover-up of sex abuse by other
republican families emerged, with victims saying they were afraid to tell
the police because of the IRA's code of silence.
At the time, everyone wondered why the DUP was not taking advantage of Sinn
Féin's difficulties by demanding Adams's resignation and a public inquiry.
Some said they were building up "brownie points" with Sinn Féin.
All became clear a few weeks later when Robinson gave a television interview
in which he revealed that his wife, Iris, had been having an affair and had
attempted suicide. She resigned as a DUP MP on the grounds of mental
Just like Adams, Robinson benefited from an initial wave of sympathy that
receded when a documentary - this time the BBC's Spotlight - revealed more.
Iris Robinson, a born-again Christian whose moral campaigns included appeals
to teenagers to abstain from sex, had been sleeping with a 19-year-old young
enough to be her grandson. In addition, she had secured loans for him from
two property developers - both described as friends and DUP donors by Peter
Robinson - to set up a business leased from the DUP-run Castlereagh council.
The mixture of sex, hypocrisy and cash from builders was toxic enough. The
Robinsons were also caught up in the Westminster expenses scandal and
accused of extravagance. Although they had kept within the rules, the
tabloid nickname "Swish Family Robinson" was widely published.
Now it was Sinn Féin's turn not to milk its rivals' embarrassment. In
private, Martin McGuinness offered support to Robinson. The two men even
shook hands for the first time and their previously rocky relationship was
Robinson was under real pressure.
In January, Gregory Campbell, a DUP MP, said the party executive had granted
its leader just one week to sort things out. Later he stepped aside
temporarily from the post of first minister to resolve his personal affairs.
McGuinness's support helped convince the DUP that Robinson was its best
chance of retaining control at Stormont.
As if to prove it, the first and deputy first ministers steered through the
devolution of policing and justice, maintaining a united front in the face
of opposition from the SDLP and smaller unionist parties. They won community
approval by vowing that dissident-republican and loyalist violence would
never break their common purpose.
Robinson suffered a further blow when he lost his East Belfast seat at
Westminster in May's election. For much of the year, the DUP had been
fixated on the threat to its right from Jim Allister's breakaway Traditional
Unionist Voice and from the Ulster Unionists. Instead Robinson's seat, which
he had held since 1979, was lost to the Alliance party. Being in government
with Sinn Féin was not an issue on the doorsteps. MPs' expenses and the way
Iris Robinson had obtained money from builders were the hot topics in
working-class areas, including the Cregagh estate where Iris is from.
Allister and Sir Reg Empey, then the Ulster Unionist leader, did not win
seats at Westminster, and neither did their parties. The DUP vote was up,
despite being in government with Sinn Féin and Robinson's personal
The effects of the scandals that opened the year rippled through it. They
helped cement the McGuinness/Robinson relationship and taught Robinson to
pay attention to the threat from the middle ground. Since then the DUP has
repositioned itself to attract moderates, selling itself as a post-Paisley
party without alienating its Paisleyite core vote.
This is a delicate manoeuvre, but other parties have managed it. Fianna Fail
is one example. Although nobody likes to mention it in DUP ranks, Sinn Féin
in Northern Ireland is another.
The departure of Adams and Iris Robinson makes the new dispensation easier.
Adams had picked fights with the DUP that many believe McGuinness would have
avoided. Meanwhile, Iris Robinson's fundamentalist outbursts can be
discounted as the result of mental instability rather than a reflection of
Brand Robinson. The first minister has softened in manner and in political
pitch. Now he talks of bringing people together and is an advocate of
integrated education. That pleases both moderates and hardliners, who see it
as a way of weakening the hold of the Catholic church.
The problem for Robinson and McGuinness is to keep things moving. One big
project is the planned inquiry into child abuse in Catholic church and
state-run institutions in the north. Their approach has won widespread
support from victims. The strategy on the economy - refusing to raise taxes
while asking Westminster for more money - is more questionable and is
testing the patience of David Cameron.
Northern Ireland elections are not usually fought on economic issues but,
unless the dissident threat grows faster than expected and draws in
loyalists, they will be from now on.
So it ended up being a good year for the DUP and Sinn Féin. They have
recreated the old pre-Troubles paradigm of one big nationalist and one big
unionist party, and done so on a co-operative basis. Smaller parties
complain that it is a carve-up between the orange and green power blocs
rather than a genuine sharing of power on behalf of the whole community.
Learning to get on only goes so far. In the end the DUP/Sinn Féin
partnership will be judged on delivery. Both parties took seats and support
from the SDLP and Ulster Unionists on the promise that they would govern
The growth of the DUP and Sinn Féin proves that Northern Ireland voters are
fickle. Having turned once, they can turn again, as Robinson himself has
Sinn Féin and the DUP now control Stormont and the patronage that goes with
it. They are in a strong position going into 2011. It is theirs to lose.