| 4.8°C Dublin

I was the victim of Iris love affair, says Peter Robinson

PETER Robinson has always been seen as dour and emotionally reserved, the stereotypical Ulster Protestant and staunch defender of unionism. But the man sitting opposite me, exposing his all-too-real hurt as a husband, is as far away from that image as is possible to imagine.

At times his tone is not that of the public politician but the hurt husband, who is evidently still struggling to come to terms with the turmoil that has engulfed him and his family.

He is, of course, also a father, and acutely aware of how the revelations have impacted on the Robinsons' three grown-up children, Jonathan, Gareth and Rebekah.

"How am I dealing with this?" he says with a wry smile, leaning back in a leather armchair in the study of his Dundonald home.

"Well, my weight had dropped from 215.5lb to 180lb over the past 10 months, though it's not a diet plan I would recommend to anyone.

"But there are days when, were it not a case of getting up and getting on with things for the sake of the family, your instinct is just to get into bed, turn out the light, pull yourself into a foetal position and not come out again."

That he is deeply hurt is beyond question -- by his wife's affair, and also by the welter of lurid media coverage that has followed the BBC 'Spotlight' programme.

And if coming to terms privately with his wife's infidelity has been devastating, the public fall-out has been much, much worse.

One thing's certain, though: the public have seen a very different Peter Robinson to the hard-nosed politician they've witnessed for decades.

Suddenly he has seemed so much more human.

And, if the thousands of cards, letters and emails that have been pouring into his home and constituency offices are anything to go by, many people seem to like him all the more for it.

It's clear that while people have been stunned by the episode, many also have sympathy and understanding for the family's predicament.

Mr Robinson says: "I have seen two facets of human nature. There has been the baying press pack who treat you and your family as if they are a commodity without any thought of the lives they impact, without any thought of the accusations that they say. Simply the accusation is sufficient.

"And then there are all those people who offer support, who write to you, who ring to see if there is anything they can do to help."

Mr Robinson (61) is obviously a man torn between defending the honour of his wife and the mother of his children who remains under acute psychiatric care, and also his own sense of self-respect.

Referring to newspaper claims that Iris (60) had two other affairs -- with McCambley's late father Billy and an unnamed DUP politician -- he proffers this challenge to reporters: show me your proof.

"These journalists who make these accusations make them very carefully," he says.

"They know that a woman who has had an affair is deemed as someone who has no reputation to defend so they proceed to print claims on that basis.

"They also know that since one of these people is deceased they cannot libel him, and of course another remains unnamed, so he cannot be libelled either.

"You see, I have to go back to the events of March 1 last year (the night his wife attempted to take her own life).

"Afterwards, despite the hurt and pain that I felt, I told Iris that I would attempt to repair and to continue with our marriage provided that she told me everything and that there were no secrets between us.

"Now I have seen these accusations, so I'm saying to these journalists, show me your proof. Tell me what you know -- if you know anything at all.

"Because I have decisions to make about my life, too.

"Obviously, after what has happened in our marriage trust has clearly been affected, not just by what I found out that night, but also by some aspects of the story played out on 'Spotlight', things that I had not been told about (as regards the affair).

"So, yes, as I said in my statement last Wednesday, I want to rebuild the marriage, but I also said that we were on a road without guarantees, but not without hope.

"And any new revelation which transpired to be true would clearly make that road more difficult.

"However, for the time being, I travel that road on the basis of an understanding that I have been given all the key facts."

For Mr Robinson the first indication that anything was amiss in what had always been a strong, supportive and loving relationship came last March, when Iris attempted to take her own life, and the discovery of a letter outlining some details of her relationship with Kirk McCambley.

He says: "Ten months ago when I discovered what had happened -- and I think anybody who is married will understand the emotions that come into play in such circumstances -- I attempted to come to terms with it.

"But having to assimilate all that for 10 months in private was nothing to having to deal with it in public."

But critics say that when he was attending to his duties as First Minister the following day, his rightful place was by his ill wife's side.

He counters: "One does have to question the insidious nature of the 'Spotlight' programme when they chose to show the one small portion of First Minister questions when someone put in a question of a jovial nature and I responded in kind and then they started to indicate that I had left my wife in a dire state.

"I had stayed by Iris's side throughout the night and during that time she had become more lucid and we were having conversations. First we had dealt with the immediate impact and made sure the drugs were out of her body. I will not go into any further detail.

"We then took expert medical advice and acted according to it. On three occasions during the course of the night we took advice and then we were told to let her have a sleep.

"Three members of the family stayed with her and I went to carry out my duties, all the time being updated by phone by family members.

"But it just seems that I cannot win over this business."

What has been rather lost in the rush to point fingers at the First Minister is the personal heartbreak he was also coming to terms with during those bleak days last March.

As for his sense of duty to the office of First Minister, he points out: "If you hold a public office then you have obligations and that is particularly important if you are at a time of crisis."

Peter Robinson says that from the moment he found out about his wife's affair, he knew it would become public -- and that her parliamentary career was coming to an end.

He explains: "I made it clear to her that she could see out her present terms but could not stand again. I told her that it would be impossible for her to operate in politics with skeletons in the cupboard. I told her she would be far better being on the outside in that scenario and she accepted that."

For the time being Mrs Robinson remains under acute psychiatric care. "Iris has not seen the 'Spotlight' nor 'Panorama' programmes, nor seen or heard any TV or radio coverage, nor seen any of the newspapers. I think there are some reporters out there who would be disappointed if they could not punish her into the grave.

They all want to know where exactly she is, and it is not in order to send her a get well card. I honestly believe she would have been treated better had she been a serial killer."

Given the nature of his wife's severe illness, Mr Robinson says he is reluctant to go into too many details about her.

But intriguingly he does say that when her full story is told -- "and one day it will" -- including details about her childhood and background, there will be more understanding for the path her life has taken.

Irish Independent