Peter Robinson: Four decades at the heart of Northern Ireland politics

With a reputation as a steely strategist of ruthless ambition, Peter Robinson has been at the heart of Northern Ireland politics for almost 40 years.

From rabble rousing during the street rallies of the 1970s and 80s to thrashing out landmark peace deals, the 66-year-old has risen from a modest estate agent to one of the region’s most powerful politicians running Stormont’s “big house on the hill”.

Born in Belfast just after the Second World War and educated at Annadale Grammar School in the south of the city, Mr Robinson developed an interest in politics as a teenager.

Stirred by the firebrand oratory of the late Reverend Ian Paisley and reeling over the death of a friend in an IRA bomb attack, he joined the campaign to “save” Ulster from republicans.

As a founding member of the hardline Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), he cut his teeth during the darkest days of the Troubles and aged just 30, he became the UK’s youngest MP in 1979.

A year later he was appointed DUP deputy leader, retaining the post until he was unanimously voted in to replace Dr Paisley who retired in 2008.

In 1985 Mr Robinson was at the forefront of pan-unionist opposition to the Anglo-Irish Agreement - an accord between the British and Irish governments which gave Dublin a greater influence over Northern Ireland’s affairs.

But, a year later, in August 1986 came one of the most controversial moments of his political career when he was among 500 loyalists arrested during a quasi-military protest through the village of Clontibret in Co Monaghan.

Mr Robinson was fined after pleading guilty to unlawful assembly.

Although a staunch opponent of violence, he was pictured wearing a beret and military fatigues during a rally by the Ulster Resistance paramilitary movement.

Mr Robinson has always been seen as the brains behind the DUP, plotting their rise from the extreme outcasts to the most popular unionist party in Northern Ireland

In 1998, he and rest of the party led opposition to the Good Friday Agreement which largely ended decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.

They slammed the release of paramilitary prisoners and raised concerns about the decommissioning of weapons as well as the future of policing.

Although he took office as minister for regional development in the newly created powersharing executive at Stormont, Mr Robinson refused to participate in cabinet meetings.

The eventual collapse of that assembly benefited the DUP and they displaced the moderate Ulster Unionists.

During 17 years of talks processes and deals since the Good Friday Agreement, Mr Robinson has been a key negotiator.

On the doorsteps, he helped sell the 2006 St Andrews Agreement which paved the way for the return of devolution and saw a previously unimaginable alignment of polar opposites with Ian Paisley as First Minister and former IRA commander Martin McGuinness as his deputy.

Over the past four decades Mr Robinson has also carved out a mighty political dynasty.

His wife Iris and son Gareth both served alongside him on the former Castlereagh Borough Council while other family members including son Jonathan and daughter Rebekah had jobs behind the scenes.

With an enviable income derived from the public purse, a sprawling property in the hills overlooking Belfast, another house in London and a holiday home in Florida, some critics mocked them as the “Swish family Robinson”.

The election of Mrs Robinson as MP for Strangford in 2001 saw Westminster’s first husband and wife team on the green benches.

They effectively became Northern Ireland’s “First Couple” when he was appointed Stormont First Minister and DUP leader seven years later.

However, Mrs Robinson, a born-again Christian, sparked outrage and a police investigation when she described homosexuality as an abomination and claimed gay people could be “cured”.

She was forced to quit public life when details of her affair with teenager Kirk McCambley and attempted suicide were revealed in 2010.

Mr Robinson’s lengthy political career was also threatened after it emerged his wife had asked two property developer friends for a £50,000 loan to fund a new business for her youthful lover.

At the height of the scandal Mr Robinson stepped aside as First Minister for six weeks.

But subsequent investigations by the police and Assembly Standards committee cleared him of any wrongdoing.

One of his lowest ebbs came when he lost his House of Commons seat to the cross community Alliance Party in the 2010 general election. It was the first time in over 30 years that the East Belfast stronghold was not held by the DUP.

His protege and namesake Gavin Robinson subsequently won back the coveted seat in May.

More recently, Mr Robinson has been forced to defend his integrity over allegations he was set to benefit from a multimillion property deal between the Republic of Ireland’s so-called bad bank Nama and a US investment firm.

Loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson used parliamentary privilege to make a series of explosive claims alleging corrupt conduct by the First Minister and a number of senior business, property and legal figures in Northern Ireland.

All have denied the claims.

Political watchdogs on both sides of the border are examining the circumstances surrounding the Nama sale while the National Crime Agency (NCA) has also launched a criminal investigation.

Mr Robinson has slammed the allegations as “outrageous” and has denied any wrongdoing.

His health has been in decline and in May he spent four days in hospital having suffered a heart attack. He was back at work a day after being discharged and attributed his illness to an unhealthy lifestyle rather than the stress of the job.

In September he was rushed back to the cardiac unit again and has appeared frail during public appearances. But it is understood Mr Robinson was reluctant to stand down until a deal to secure powersharing had been struck.

Although much of his career in the shadow of Ian Paisley, Peter Robinson will be hoping the Fresh Start Stormont Agreement, unveiled this week, will earn his place in history as the man who cemented stable government in Northern Ireland.

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