Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson temporarily stood down on Monday after facing calls to resign over disclosures about his family's finances that threaten the province's power-sharing system.
Robinson, who earlier received the backing of his Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to stay on as its leader, asked party colleague Arlene Foster to stand in as head of the province's power-sharing executive, the speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly said.
Foster, the minister for enterprise, trade and investment, can deputise for up to six weeks under the rules of the provincial government, which was already close to breaking point because of a dispute over when policing and justice powers should be transferred from London to Belfast.
Robinson last week agreed to hold an investigation into whether he broke any regulations following the financial disclosures, but said he had done nothing wrong and he won the confidence of party members on Monday.
"It was unanimously agreed that, despite attempts by elements in the press and our political opponents to force Peter Robinson to resign as party leader, we offered him our wholehearted support and our desire that he remain in office as the Democratic Unionist Party leader," deputy leader Nigel Dodds told reporters, flanked by party officials including Robinson's predecessor Ian Paisley.
Later on Monday, William Hay, the speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, said Robinson had notified him of his intention to ask Foster to stand in as first minister.
Policing and justice
Calls for the pro-British leader to step down grew on Sunday when the former head of the province's executive, David Trimble, said he expected his resignation within days.
A BBC television programme had asked why Robinson did not tell authorities that his wife, also a member of parliament, failed to register 50,000 pounds ($80,000) received from two people and used to help a man with whom she was having an affair start a business.
Britain's secretary of state for Northern Ireland said he would have to call a snap assembly election if Robinson were to resign permanently and the power-sharing executive failed to agree on a successor within seven days.
However, one assembly member of the DUP, which shares power with former nationalist foe Sinn Fein, the political ally of the Irish Republican Army, said the DUP wanted the assembly to serve its full term of another two years.
Against a background of increasing attacks on security forces by dissident nationalist militants, cooperation between the DUP and Sinn Fein was already under severe strain because of the dispute over the transfer of policing and justice.
A leadership crisis in Belfast could make it more difficult to complete remaining steps in the peace process after decades of sectarian violence, and potentially embolden armed dissidents to carry out further attacks.
The DUP said on Monday that Robinson's wife Iris, who said last week she tried to kill herself last year after an extramarital affair with a 19-year-old man, was receiving psychiatric treatment. She has said she will leave parliament this week.
Last Mod: 12 Ocak 2010, 02:15