Sex scandals expose reality
Belfast - While Northern Ireland scrambles to defuse a political crisis, sex scandals behind the turmoil have lifted the lid on the reality behind the province's perceived puritan religious divide, experts say.
News that Protestant First Minister Peter Robinson's wife took a teenage lover and claims of financial misconduct have forced him to stand aside, while child abuse charges have rocked his Catholic deputy's party head Gerry Adams.
Northern Ireland remains a deeply conservative place and the issue of child abuse is particularly raw given recent revelations about the Catholic church in the neighbouring Republic of Ireland.
"It's not entirely without precedent," said Dr Claire Mitchell, a senior sociology lecturer at Queen's University Belfast, of the recent scandals.
"There's a subculture of deviance and sin in these parties... but it's absolutely unprecedented on this scale."
However, the two main parties in the power-sharing executive have tried to put the scandals behind them and focus on the transfer of police and justice powers from London to Belfast, the final stage in devolution.
Following days of lurid revelations about his wife's affair with a "toyboy", First Minister Robinson's announcement on Monday that he was temporarily standing aside to clear his name over her financial affairs caused shock.
Unease among many supporters
"All day at Stormont one kept meeting people who told one another, in tones of amazement: 'You couldn't make it up.' Was this really dour, puritanical Ulster?" wrote a commentator in the Irish Times on Wednesday.
Iris Robinson's admission of her affair and news of loans she secured for her 19-year-old lover in 2008 has caused unease among many supporters of her and her husband's strongly conservative Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
Reverend David McIlveen, a Free Presbyterian minister and close aide to former DUP leader and founder Reverend Ian Paisley, warned before he stepped aside that Peter Robinson's position was "becoming increasingly untenable".
The story of the Robinsons came hot on the heels of another scandal, this time on the Catholic republican side of Belfast's power-sharing government.
Adams, leader of Sinn Fein which holds the deputy first minister post, revealed his father and brother had abused members of his family - and that he knew about his brother Liam's alleged abuse of his daughter since the 1980s.
It then emerged that Liam Adams had been a youth worker in Belfast and in Ireland and reports suggest he was also a prominent member of Sinn Fein in Ireland, well after Gerry Adams was told in 1987 about his behaviour.
Adams insisted he acted to get his brother "dumped" from his party and said he informed police and social services about him when he discovered his youth work, but his critics have questioned his account.
Shock and surprise
The affair is particularly damaging at a time when the whole of Ireland is reeling from revelations about widespread sex abuse of children by Catholic clergy dating back decades - and a report showing how priests covered it up.
"Now, as bishops come under pressure to resign because they failed to deal directly with child-abusing priests, the most revered republican in Ireland is having his own acquaintance with abuse scrutinised," said The Guardian.
Adams has kept his post, although he has in recent years stepped back from frontline politics here - as has Robinson now at least temporarily, but many commentators believe he cannot last.
But Robinson's decision to step aside prompted concerns the once-troubled province's already strained administration could collapse altogether and brought fresh impetus to talks on resolving the issue of policing powers.
"The mood is one of absolute shock and surprise, the place is in quite a state of turmoil in terms of 'will the government fail?'" said John Garry, senior politics lecturer at Queen's University.
But he told AFP: "I do not think the leaders mean a huge amount, because the underlying political questions are between nationalist and unionist parties about whether they will make devolution work."
Both the DUP, who support British rule in Northern Ireland, and the republican Sinn Fein said this week they were determined to find a solution to the stalemate.