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Published: Sunday, 1/17/2010

Irish scandal

IT IS hard to believe, but a sex scandal involving the first minister of the Protestant-Catholic unity government in Northern Ireland has jeopardized movement toward more cooperative government there.

The latest issue in Northern Ireland's effort to emerge from 30 years of "the troubles," which cost 3,500 lives prior to the 1998 Good Friday accord, is the passage of police and judicial powers from the British government to the unity government. The effort to clear this hurdle was being pursued by officials of the primarily Protestant Democratic Unionist Party, led by First Minister Peter Robinson, and the primarily Catholic Sinn Fein, led by Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.

Mr. Robinson, 61, has hit a rough spot in his marriage, and perhaps his career as well, through the revelation that his wife Iris, 60, had an affair with then 19-year-old Kirk McCambley, whom she helped obtain $80,000 in loans from property developers to finance his part-ownership of a cafe near Belfast. Mr. and Ms. Robinson both hold seats in the Belfast assembly and the British parliament. Mr. Robinson has asked for an independent investigator to look into the loans, including when he knew of them and what he did when he became aware of them. Ms. Robinson is, according to her husband, in "acute psychiatric treatment."

In the meantime, Mr. Robinson stepped down last week as first minister for 60 days, ceding his place to the unity government's enterprise, trade and investment minister, Arlene I. Foster.

The whole thing would be amusing - Ms. Robinson's affair with a young man, reminiscent of the 1967 film The Graduate and its song about Mrs. Robinson - except that both the consolidation of Northern Irish unity and the transfer of police and justice powers from the British to the unity government, are serious business. Mr. Robinson had been working on them with Sinn Fein for years. His departure from the scene would probably be a setback.

There isn't much the United States can do. It probably wouldn't hurt to pull former Sen. George Mitchell, who brokered the 1998 agreement and who is now wrestling with the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process, back into the picture at least temporarily, if the Irish are unable to get themselves out of the crisis.

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