Who really wins and loses in Irisgate?

If you offered an account of the past five days as a piece of a fiction to a publisher he would throw it back in your face and tell you that it was too unbelievable for anyone to buy.

Actually the real crisis this week at Stormont had little to do with the salacious details of Peter and Iris Robinson’s private lives. It relates to a much more plausible, elemental power play of “who eats whom”.

Yesterday brought to a close, for now at least, the most extraordinarily feverish week in Northern Ireland since the collapse of the Assembly in October 2002. In the end, Mr Robinson’s response to the controversy and media fire around his wife’s extramarital affairs, dodgy dealing and mental health was to step down for six weeks as First Minister of Northern Ireland.

In any other corner of the democratic West, the fall of a single leader would signal trouble for the governing party and opportunity for the opposition. But in Northern Ireland, the whole political settlement is now under question, because here we don’t have an opposition. Instead we are gifted with the extraordinarily inclusive and utterly cumbersome mandatory coalition government that must include the biggest nationalist and biggest Unionist parties. So going into this crisis we had a situation in which the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin, who loathe everything the other stands for — including the vital issue of nationality — hold the joint offices of First Minister and Deputy First Minister. Falls one, falls the other.

The fear was that had Peter Robinson fallen absolutely in disgrace, rather than just temporarily stood down as First Minister, then Sinn Féin would have called an Assembly election as a means of dispatching what they considered to be an infertile partnership.

In such a scenario, the consequences for the DUP could have been near-fatal, with the primary beneficiaries being their formidable hardline former MEP, Jim Allister, the leader of Traditional Unionist Voice, and the newly minted and relatively moderate Conservative/Ulster Unionist alliance.

On the nationalist side, a snap election would have put Sinn Féin in a strong position to pick up seats from the moderate SDLP — which with a leadership contest only weeks away is effectively leaderless and rudderless — and advance against unionism, which is split three ways. Depending on just how deep the theoretical hole might have been, one very likely outcome would have had the Conservative/Unionist alliance return to the Stormont Assembly as the leading party in Unionist politics.

Under the new rules of the St Andrews agreement the largest party in either community takes the office of First Minister with the largest party on the opposite side taking the deputy’s role.

The likely outcome to such an event would have been Martin McGuinness becoming First Minister with his deputy being drawn from the Conservative/Unionist party ranks: setting up a joint Tory/Sinn Féin-led administration in Stormont Castle.

But there is not the slightest evidence that any of the parties were prepared for such a bizarre outcome, mostly because no one — except Sinn Féin, who helped to trigger the crisis with a whispering campaign up to and after Christmas — saw this crisis coming.

The crisis has been averted by a clever use of statute that means Mr Robinson can be relieved of some of his duties, but not his office, for six weeks. These next six weeks could be crucial in refocusing minds. Not least on the main issue that’s been vexing relationships between Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness — the devolution of policing and justice from Westminster to Stormont.

In the scheme of things, policing and justice is no big thing either to have or withhold. Nor is it a pressing issue for most of the electorate. But for IRA volunteers and a large section of Sinn Féin’s political supporters and activists, the promise of having an Irish man or woman in charge of such matters is an important point of principle.

Nonetheless it is this issue that has caused the deepest division between the two parties, because at its heart lies the question of trust — a trust that barely exists between what remain two mutually exclusive expressions of political enmity.

In the meantime the political landscape could shift in important ways. But whatever mess the Robinsons have inflicted on their party, the damage is likely to be less traumatic than in a snap election.

Sinn Féin — which has spent the past two years complaining loudly that its partner has not given it what it wanted — is in danger of sounding like a two-times divorcee compulsively blaming each of his previous wives for his broken marriages.

The SDLP, which spent most of the peace process years asleep at the wheel, now stands a chance of rejuvenating. A new leader will compete more aggressively with Sinn Féin for votes from an electorate for whom the whiff of cordite grows increasingly stale.

Had Mr Robinson resigned yesterday, it would have spelt the end of devolving policing and justice. And with unionism split three ways it would have been almost impossible to resurrect the current all-inclusive governmental arrangements.

His six-week stay of execution is a breathing space for everyone else. But for Mr Robinson, his political career is almost over.

Mick Fealty, the founder of the Slugger O’Toole political blog.