Belfast: Hopes rose on Thursday that Northern Ireland's feuding parties could break a political deadlock and save their power-sharing administration after the province's leader was cleared over a scandal.
Peter Robinson, the British province's first minister, resumed his duties on Wednesday after being cleared of breaching official rules over claims linked to his wife's affair with a teenager.
He had stepped aside temporarily last month as an investigation by a government-appointed lawyer was carried out into his handling of the financial scandal surrounding his wife, Iris.
Despite stepping back, Robinson had remained involved in talks to break a political impasse between his Protestant party and their Catholic power-sharing partners.
But after being cleared by the internal investigation on Wednesday, the leader suggested he could now fully commit to solving the long-running political crisis that threatens the troubled province's fragile administration.
"I am... glad that at this critical time I can resume fully the functions of my office with confidence," he said.
Observers fear that failure to agree on the transfer of justice and policing powers from London to Belfast, as well as on the policing of controversial parades, could lead to the collapse of the power-sharing set-up.
Nearly two weeks of round-the-clock talks between the first minister's pro-British Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the party they share power with, the Catholic group Sinn Fein, have so far failed to bring agreement.
It has been widely reported the DUP is split over a deal and had rejected proposals put forward by Robinson to reach agreement on the issues, which are a vital step in the devolution process.
Speculation was mounting on Thursday that the result of the investigation would strengthen Robinson's hand, making him more capable of winning over his party.
The first minister still faces a parliamentary probe, however, while police are reviewing the claims made against his wife.
On Wednesday after the investigation found in his favour, Robinson said in a statement: "I have acted at all times properly, and in compliance with my public duties."
Robinson announced on January 11 he was standing aside after his wife Iris admitted an affair with a teenager, and a television investigation alleged financial impropriety by her and possible breach of rules by him.
The BBC programme said she had secured GBP 50,000 (EUR 56,000, USD 80,000) from two wealthy developers to help her lover, Kirk McCambley, set up a cafe.
Peter Robinson denied any knowledge of the deal, which he would have had to report to parliamentary authorities. His wife resigned as a deputy and was undergoing psychiatric treatment.
Britain and Ireland helped broker the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which largely ended three decades of violence that killed at least 3,500 people and led to the creation of the power-sharing executive.
But Northern Ireland is still dogged by sporadic violence. A policeman and two soldiers were shot dead last year in attacks blamed on dissident republicans and a policeman lost a leg in a car bomb this month.
First Published: Thursday, February 04, 2010, 13:56