Governments bid to break deadlock in North

Foreign Minister Micheál Martin and the Northern Ireland Secretary Shaun Woodward are due to meet tonight as the Irish and British governments prepare to step up the pressure to end the political crisis in Belfast in the aftermath of the Iris Robinson scandal.

Foreign Minister Micheál Martin and the Northern Ireland Secretary Shaun Woodward are due to meet tonight as the Irish and British governments prepare to step up the pressure to end the political crisis in Belfast in the aftermath of the Iris Robinson scandal.

With First Minister Peter Robinson standing down for six weeks to be with his wife and children, Dublin and London are becoming more and more alarmed that any further delay in the transfer of policing and justice powers from Westminster to Stormont could end with the collapse of the power-sharing executive.

The couple are to be investigated by the Assembly’s committee on standards and privileges after Mrs Robinson admitted she secured £50,000 (€55,500) from two wealthy developers to help her teenage lover set up a restaurant business on the banks of the river Lagan in south Belfast.

She too is under investigation after failing to declare her interest.

The sensational revelations of her relationship with Kirk McCambley, now 21, effectively put the Belfast administration on hold for 48 hours.

It emerged today that Mr McCambley ended the affair in late 2008 after pretending to Mrs Robinson he was suffering a serious illness.

It was then that she demanded he repay the money and last March tried to kill herself after admitting to her husband she had been unfaithful.

The scandal mesmerised the North, but the two governments believe it must be set to one side as they attempt to make sure the troubled political process stays on track.

Agreement on the devolution of policing and justice is absolutely critical, and even though Mr Robinson is taking time out to care for his wife, who is under psychiatric care, he will remain in charge of the DUP's negotiations with Sinn Féin who are becoming increasingly irritated at the delay.

With a UK general election just months away, Taoiseach Brian Cowen and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown believe time is running out, and there are serious doubts a deal can be hammered out because of opposition by hardliners within Mr Robinson’s party. If not, then the Assembly will fall.

Minister Martin and Mr Woodward will have talks in Dublin this evening and there will be more discussions at Stormont.

Mr Brown, who has already had a series of meetings with Mr Robinson and the Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness has tabled a £1bn (€1.1bn) financial package, partly to fund the transfer and the new justice department. But that is conditional on an agreement.

The British Prime Minister said last night: “I urge all politicians in Northern Ireland, whatever the turbulence of recent events to remain focused on the business of government and to recognise the crucial importance of intensifying engagement of these issues which remain to be solved.”

Mr Cowen said: “I believe it is now essential that there is swift progress in the coming days on the devolution of policing and justice that is in the interests of all of the parties and all of the people they represent.”

Meanwhile the investigation by the Assembly’s committee on standards and privileges will be headed up by Tom Frawley, the Northern Ireland Ombudsman, but today it was unclear whether Mrs Robinson will be fit to face questions about her financial affairs and her failure to inform the Stormont authorities about the £50,000 (€55,500) she secured from developer Fred Fraser, who died last year, and close family friend Ken Campbell. She kept £5,000 (€5,500) for herself.

She was dumped by the party and ordered to resign her seat at Westminster where she was MP for Strangford. She will not be returning to Stormont either and is likely to be replaced in the next few weeks.

It is understood she is undergoing acute psychiatric treatment at her home at Dundonald on the outskirts of east Belfast.

Mr Robinson says he is confident he will clear his name by answering any allegations that he did not act properly, but despite his claim that he will be back running the First Minister’s office by the end of next month – ministerial colleague Arlene Foster is due to take over his day to day duties – there are some senior members of the party who believe the scandal has become such a distraction and will remain so in the coming months, that their electoral prospects could take a major hit.

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