Sunday 21 January 2018

Here beginneth the hardest of lessons for the Robinsons

The North's 'First Couple' have enjoyed huge support from a constituency which can be unforgiving in the face of wrongdoing, says Jim Cusack

Iris Robinson pictured at her husband's side in Stormont in June 2008
Iris Robinson pictured at her husband's side in Stormont in June 2008
Jim Cusack

Jim Cusack

WHEN footage of an apparently distraught Peter Robinson appeared on UTV and BBC Northern Ireland on Wednesday evening, there was an initial outpouring of sympathy for the North's most powerful political couple.

The North's First Minister had summoned four hand-picked journalists to his home to make what on the face of it was a painful and honest revelation that his wife had had an "inappropriate" affair, had attempted suicide in March last year and that was why she had quit politics. He asked for privacy as he and his wife worked to rebuild their lives together. He would continue as the North's First Minister.

His statement was read out in his library with a hand-drawn Christmas card from his children on a shelf behind him, which read: "Daddy: no matter how tall I grow I will always look up to you". The camera man zoomed in on Peter's left hand showing he had his wedding ring on.

He said: "I love my wife. I have always been faithful to her. In a spirit of humility and repentance, Iris sought my forgiveness. She took responsibility upon herself alone for her actions and I have forgiven her. More important, I know that she has sought and received God's forgiveness."

A statement handed to the four journalists inside the house by Iris herself read: "During this period of mental illness I lost control of my life and did the worst thing that I have ever done. Over a year-and-a-half ago, I was involved in a relationship.

"It began completely innocently when I gave support to someone following a family death. I encouraged friends to assist him by providing financial support for a business venture.

"Regrettably, the relationship later developed into a brief affair. It had no emotional or lasting meaning, but my actions have devastated my life, and the lives of those around me." The initial "news" reports were sympathetic almost to the point of sycophancy. What wasn't shown on the television or even mentioned was the bunch of journalists kept outside the Robinson home who had other questions to ask but were denied access to the North's "First Couple".

They all knew that the BBC Northern Ireland Spotlight investigative unit had a dynamite story about Iris Robinson and that it had put a series of questions to the Strangford MP and Mr Robinson just before Christmas. One of the four journalists inside the house asked Peter Robinson a vague question about Spotlight which he brushed aside.

The reports by the four journalists allowed access to the Robinson home in Castlereagh all carried his vows to continue in his position and his determination to resolve the tricky job of devolving justice powers from Westminster to Stormont.

It had been presumed that Spotlight would air that evening but it was not shown until 24 hours later, appearing on Thursday night at 10.35. It was bombshell stuff.

Spotlight's Darragh McIntyre, brother of high-profile TV crime reporter Donal, had interviews not only with Iris's former adviser and counsellor but also with the handsome and very young-looking object of Mrs Robinson's desire.

Kirk McCambley, now 21, told of how Mrs Robinson had become close after the death of his father, Billy, the well-known east Belfast butcher where Iris did the family shopping. "She looked after me to make sure I was OK," was as far as Kirk would comment on the five-month affair which took place during the summer of 2008. At the time Iris was 59 and Kirk 19.

She had known him since he was nine. At the time, Kirk, a chef by profession, was looking for a business opportunity. Castlereagh Borough Council, controlled by the DUP for almost 30 years and seen by many as something of a Robinson fiefdom, had such an opportunity.

The lease on the former lock house on the banks of the River Lagan in Belvoir Park was out to tender. Kirk bid and, with Iris's guiding hand in the council, won the "contest". Iris then fixed him up with two loans of £25,000 (€27,800) each from her property developer friends Fred Frazer and Ken Campbell.

Frazer, who died last year, was one of the North's biggest house builders. His firm made millions from building on what had been the former "green belt", especially in the Castlereagh Council area. The "breaching" of the city's green belt land, set aside for strictly agricultural or amenity use, with re-zonings and generous planning permissions, has been a controversial issue in Belfast since the 1980s.

Ken Campbell is a property developer and part of the consortium planning to redevelop the old Harland & Wolff shipyard site, now known as the Titanic Quarter. Iris handed the cheques to Kirk who said he used them to fit out the Lock Keeper's restaurant which he still runs. He also just happened to drop yet another bombshell -- after Iris had handed over the

cheques she asked for £5,000 (€5,560) back in cash to offset "debts".

The programme-makers then interviewed Iris's former close adviser, Methodist preacher Dr Selwyn Black. He had kept a series of emails and text messages from Iris about the whole affair. Spotlight and Dr Black made the point that Iris had not declared her interest when Kirk was granted the contract by Castlereagh Council -- on which she sits as well as being an MP at Westminster and MLA at Stormont. Further, she did not declare the five grand in cash in her MP's earnings and interests report. She also failed to declare a pecuniary interest in the project to Castlereagh Council.

The affair with Kirk ended, according to Black -- producing emails and 150 text messages to support his case -- in March last year with Iris demanding he repay all the money. In one she demanded that a cheque for £25,000 be paid into the account of a small church in east Belfast, the Light & Life Free Methodist Tabernacle, run by Peter Robinson's sister, Pat. She subsequently changed her mind on this and no monies were paid to the church.

Compounding the revelations are Iris Robinson's public utterings on Christian morality. She and her husband are evangelical Protestants worshipping at the Metropolitan Tabernacle in north Belfast. She caused international controversy -- the only time in fact she made headlines outside Northern Ireland -- by branding homosexuality an "abomination".

In June 2008 -- around the time she was conducting her affair -- she said the idea of homosexuality made her "sick" and "nauseous". Speaking in Stormont that month she apparently described homosexuals as worse than paedophiles saying: "There can be no viler act, apart from homosexuality and sodomy, than sexually abusing children." Several people complained to the PSNI that this amounted to incitement to hatred. An investigation was carried out but she was cleared in March last year on the instructions of the North's Public Prosecution Service. She was branded "Bigot of the year" by British gay rights group Stonewall, and referred to as the "Wicked Witch of the North" by another.

She even denounced Hillary Clinton for accepting and forgiving her husband's affairs, saying: "No woman would put up with what she tolerated from her husband when he was president. She was thinking only of her future political career. It's all about power not principle."

Both Robinsons also came in for fire after details of their Westminster expenses were leaked along with all other MPs in April last year.

They were branded the "Swish Family Robinson" after it emerged they received £571,939 (€635,770) in salaries and expenses. It also emerged that £150,000 (€166,844) had been paid to four of their family members.

Both Robinsons have had tremendous support from their electors and both are renowned for their constituency work. The Castlereagh Council area prides itself in having the lowest property rates in the North. Iris's announcement over the Christmas holidays that she was retiring from politics pre-empted what would have been a humiliating rejection by DUP voters. The party was built up around the core values of fundamentalist Protestantism espoused by its founder Ian Paisley and his Free Presbyterian Church. While Paisley's image in recent years has been one of the peacemaker and cuddly older statesman, he too espoused what are now seen as bigoted and crude life views.

Paisley once headed the anti-homosexual campaign which he named "Save Ulster from Sodomy".

Many DUP voters still hold dear the strictest tenets of the Bible in ways similar to Bible Belt voters in the United States. While the party itself has been led on highly successful and largely secular course by Peter Robinson, much of its bedrock support lies in the evangelical Protestantism of Northern Ireland, not known for its acceptance or forgiveness of sins of the flesh.

Sunday Independent

Promoted Links

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Promoted Links

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News