FOR a few days it has seemed that the hard and difficult work that so many people for so long have put into achieving justice and stability in Northern Ireland was about to be lost in a scandal that combined an unlikely love affair with dubious financial dealings. Fortunately Northern Ireland's first minister, Peter Robinson, whose role in the final stages of devolution of power to Belfast is crucial, remembered that the small print of the Northern Ireland Agreement of 1998 provides for the first minister to designate a colleague to carry out his duties for a period of up to six weeks. So he named the enterprise minister Arlene Forster to take his place temporarily.

There are ethics charges against Mr Robinson which he denies but requires time to rebut in detail; he also needs time to help his wife Iris, a Westminster MP and Northern Ireland Assembly member, whose unwise behaviour precipitated the scandal.

Thus far none of Northern Ireland's political parties has tried to make political capital out of this business. The stakes are high with only the issue of the full devolution of responsibility for police and justice matters to Belfast remaining to be agreed. Whatever the outcome of the personal aspects of the scandal may be, it is extremely important that the final political prize is not lost.


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