Sunday 22 April 2018

Matters of the heart that led to tough leader's downfall

David Young

ON his relentless ascent to Stormont's top office, Peter Robinson appeared to revel in his reputation as an unforgiving negotiator with ice running through his veins. He was the dispassionate brains of the Democratic Unionist Party; Ian Paisley its fiery soul.

As he took his enforced sabbatical from the political stage yesterday, he will no doubt curse the irony that his current troubles have been precipitated by matters of the heart.

Allegations he covered up shady financial dealings of his wife have, in less than a week, endangered a 35-year-political career built on the foundations of God-fearing morality and unflinching principle.

Spurred into political activism by the murder of a friend in an IRA bombing, a 22-year-old Robinson was one of the founding members of the hard-line DUP in 1971 -- a year after marrying Iris Collins, who he met while studying at technical college.

Born in Belfast just after the Second World War, the father of three was inspired by the firebrand oratory of the Rev Paisley and joined him in his battle. So began one of the longest apprenticeships in political history.


In 1979 he turned his back on a fledgling career as an estate agent and entered politics full time after winning the east Belfast parliamentary seat, becoming the youngest MP in Westminster at the age of 30.

Twelve months on he was elevated to the Rev Paisley's official number two when he was elected DUP deputy leader.

A member of the Northern Ireland Assembly in 1982, three years later he was at the forefront of the pan-unionist campaign against the Anglo Irish Agreement. In his latter career he was a trenchant opponent of all forms of paramilitarism, but in those dark days of the troubles the lines were somewhat blurred.

He was pictured wearing a military beret at an Ulster Resistance rally in 1986 and around the same period posed holding a machine gun while on a visit to Israel.

Most controversially, he was arrested in the village of Clontibret, Co Monaghan after taking part in a so-called 'invasion' along with 500 loyalists as part of the protest against the Anglo-Irish Agreement. He later pleaded guilty to unlawful assembly.

While his public profile was that of a confrontational dissenter, behind the scenes he was credited with methodically turning the DUP into an effective electoral machine. Mr Robinson and his party colleagues opposed the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, citing its release of paramilitary prisoners as abhorrent.

While he took office as minister for regional development in the newly-created powersharing executive, he refused to take part in cabinet meetings. The eventual collapse of that assembly benefited the DUP at the polls and they soon displaced the Ulster Unionists as the largest unionist party in Northern Ireland.

From that new-found position of influence, the party negotiated the St Andrews Agreement of 2006 that paved the way for the latest assembly. While heavily involved in the wider political process, both at Stormont and Westminster, Mr Robinson continued to serve at Castlereagh council -- a workload that would lead to allegations of double, and even triple jobbing in recent years.


He served as mayor, as did his wife, and at the last poll his son Gareth was also elected as councillor, prompting critics to dub Castlereagh the Robinson's fiefdom.

The restoration of the devolved assembly in 2007 saw him stand down from the council -- a year before the controversial Lock Keeper's cottage tender was granted to Iris Robinson's lover, Kirk McCambley. With his party sharing power with Sinn Fein, he took on the finance ministry and helped make revitalising the local economy the main theme of the new Stormont programme for government.

Peter and Iris Robinson became Northern Ireland's 'first couple' when he realised his long-term ambition and became Stormont First Minister and DUP leader after the retirement of Ian Paisley in 2008.

But that's when the cracks started to appear.

Within days of taking the reins of power his born-again Christian wife sparked outrage with her contentious remarks about homosexuals. And last year the couple again found themselves the subject of some unwanted headlines after revelations they jointly received more than £500,000 a year in salaries and expenses.

Robinson is a devoted music fan, enjoying anything from rock to country star Tammy Wynette. His best chance of political survival now appears to depend on whether his party stand by their man.

Irish Independent

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