Wednesday 25 April 2018

The Big Story: It's just the Robinson's family affair

The story that electrified Northern Ireland may be about to reignite. With a new report due to be published on Iris Robinson's affair with a young family friend the eyes of the province turn back to its former First Lady and Donal Lynch asks, is there a way back for her?

Peter and Iris Robinson pictured in 2008. Photo: Paul Faith.
Peter and Iris Robinson pictured in 2008. Photo: Paul Faith.
Power couple: Iris Robinson (left) and her husband Peter.
Irish and Peter Robinson wedding day
Selwyn Black, Iris's trusted adviser.
Kirk McCambley, with whom Iris had an affair.

The news, when it was finally made official, came too late for the last evening edition of the Belfast Telegraph. "Confusion reigns" was the baffled front page headline on the day when an unmissable sex scandal set in Northern Ireland - words nobody ever thought they'd write - almost brought down the government there and turned the eyes of the world on the province. The scandal had even made it onto some of the American nightly shows. "Reports, pages 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 &10", blared the Telegraph in January 2010.

Late in the evening, when the paper was already on the streets, Peter Robinson announced that he was standing aside "for a short period" to attend to family matters - principally his disgraced wife Iris, the couple's three adult children, and his own damaged reputation. His deputy, Arlene Foster would take over for the time being.

Robinson had had an unbroken run as an MP since 1979. He and Iris had been outspokenly conservative proponents of family values. She had spoken of the place of psychiatry in helping to "cure" homosexuality". Now she herself had checked into psychiatric care and the rest of her family had to watch as an evening news programme played out a piece on the scandal that had engulfed their family complete with the Simon and Garfunkel song that seemed especially written for it: "Coo-coo-coo-coo-choo, it's just the Robinson's affair, most of all you've got to hide it from the kids…". Over the following days Belfast radio stations would be bombarded with requests to play the song.

The song had formed part of the soundtrack to the movie The Graduate, the plot of which centres around an older women (Anne Bancroft) who seduces a young man (Dustin Hoffman). In real life, however Iris Robinson bore little resemblance to Bancroft's character. For one thing the Mrs Robinson of the movie was a bored housewife while Iris was one of the most powerful politicians on the island. On the grey benches of Stormont she was a flamboyant splash of colour. Styled out like a character from Dynasty, preaching fire and brimstone under parliamentary privilege, she straddled the three arms of government - the Co Council, Europe and Westminster while also, as the wife of First Minister Peter Robinson, serving as the Province's First Lady.

They met when they were in their mid teens against the background of the worst years of the Troubles. She was the eldest daughter in a family of seven. Her father, a demobbed soldier, had died from a illness contracted while on duty and by some accounts she had a large hand in helping to raise her younger siblings.

She trained as a secretary and married Peter, a university graduate in 1970 - they would go on to have three children. The following year, Peter's passion for politics was aroused after his friend, Harry Beggs, was killed by an IRA bomb, and he was one of the earliest members of Ian Paisley's DUP party - he would eventually lead the party.

In the early years, her career took a back seat to his: Peter Robinson spoke of Iris bringing up the children alone while he pursued his political ambitions. While this may have been true to an extent Iris too harboured lofty political ambitions. By the time she was 40, she had been elected as a councillor in Belfast and three years later she became the council's first lady mayor. In 1998, the year the historic Northern Ireland peace deal was brokered, she was finally elected as an MP. She and Peter became the first husband and wife from Northern Ireland to serve in parliament at the same time.

The Robinson's power couple status however did not win them universal popularity, even within the Unionist community. Extravagant expense claims, including a double claim for expenses - they were both claiming expenses for the same things, despite being together at the time - were made throughout the 2000s and the fact that they employed their son, Gareth, and daughter, Rebekah, raised further eyebrows in the province and opened them to accusations of nepotism. The couple, who had five jobs between them, also accumulated a substantial personal fortune and owned homes in Belfast, East London and Florida. Over the years she was seen driving both an MG sports car and an Audi convertible. She spoke at length about her purchase of lingerie and was an extrovert counterpart to Peter's taciturn personality. For Iris, fashion was next to Godliness. When Peter was in court in 1986 following a cross-border "invasion" she "decided that my clothes would be my camouflage. I wore a big purple ski-suit one day and an emerald green tartan skirt and sweater another day to show the Republic didn't have 
a monopoly on that colour."

It was Iris's social views, rather than her finances, lifestyle and political fashion choices, which made her the most divisive figure in a province marred by division however. A social conservative and one time 'bigot of the year' (so named by UK based gay charity Stonewall) in Northern Ireland, she sparked outrage when she claimed during a BBC radio debate that gay people could be 'cured' through psychiatric counselling. These came the week after another interview in which she called homosexuality "an abomination." It was comments made to a UK parliamentary committee concerning the management of sex offenders that provoked the most opprobrium, however. She stated that, "There can be no viler act, apart from homosexuality and sodomy, than sexually abusing innocent children" and reiterated her comments to the Belfast Telegraph, which quoted her as saying that child sexual abuse and gay relationships were "comparable." A police investigation followed, however it was decided that no charges would be brought.

Those comments were made in 2008, the same year Iris lost a man she had been extremely close to. Billy McCambley, a Belfast butcher and alcoholic, died in February of that year at the age of 59 and Iris would have a hand in organising the funeral, which took place at the Light 'n' Life Free Methodist Church in Dundonald, where the pastor is Rev Pat Herron, Peter Robinson's sister.

In a maternal way she also began to look out for McCambley's teenage son, Kirk. "She made sure I was OK," Kirk McCambley later told a journalist. Selwyn Black noticed the couple taking evening walks around Belfast. "As for Kirk he is the other son I would have loved to have been a mother to," she texted Black.

By the middle of the summer, Iris and Kirk were having an affair. Iris took her young lover on a walk along the river Lagan in Belfast and showed him a new cafe development for which Castlereagh council was advertising for tenants.

She told him, McCambley would later say, that "she had … heard about a place down there. I came down and (saw) it, loved it, and started working on my business plan." Kirk was just 19, had precious little business experience (aside from working in the father's shop) and almost no money. He needed help.

McCambley would later admit that he received £25,000 from Iris which she told him came from two property developers - whom he never met. At the time they gave the money Iris was also lobbying on one of the men's behalf concerning a prospective development. She also stipulated that she should receive a kickback of £5,000 in cash so that she could pay off her own debts. Kirk paid her this. When the issue of who should take over the lease came to be decided at a council meeting, it was decided that McCambley was the only candidate to have met the criteria. Iris was present for this meeting but did not declare her financial or personal interest.

By the end of 2008 the relationship was on the rocks. "Just cut links with Kirk. God's word was very clear on it. He was reasonably OK on it. I am not," she texted to Selwyn Black, a trusted advisor. But despite her mention of God, the true reason seems to have been money - Robinson wanted the investment cash back. "It seems cruel but I am not going to soften until he has paid back the 45k and he has got until Christmas," she wrote in another text.

In fact the money was not going to go back to the developers. Instead £20,000 was to be paid to the Robinsons' pentecostal church on the outskirts of Belfast, and another £20,000 to repay her debts. Black, himself a former chaplain who was increasingly disgruntled with the arrangement, texted his employer: "Where is God in all of this?"

The following Christmas, at their holiday home in Florida, Peter Robinson learned for the first time about the financial arrangements between McCambley and his wife. At his insistence, according to Black, McCambley was told to send the two payments of £20,000 to the two developers. Two months later a Robinson family member, according to Black, found a letter in which details of the relationship emerged. On the night of 1 March 2009, according to the Robinson family, Iris tried to take her life. Selwyn Black was called to the family home the next morning, where he found her "seriously ill" and summoned a doctor, who rang for an ambulance. Peter had left for work; television footage showed him joking in the assembly chamber at the time his wife was being taken to hospital.

It would be the following January, however, before the full chain of events was brought to public notice, by the BBC in their Spotlight programme, which featured extensive interviews with Selwyn Black and Kirk McCambley. It caused a huge sensation in Northern Ireland and beyond. Politicians on all sides of the political spectrum expressed shock at the financial aspects of the scandal, with some demanding the immediate resignation of Iris Robinson as MP, MLA and councillor - she did in fact resign from all positions.

Others focussed on the poetic justice of the situation Robinson found herself in. MP Edwina Currie, who herself had a much-reported four-year affair with former English prime minister John Major was scathing about the North's First Lady. She branded Robinson "a stinking hypocrite" for hiding her own shameful secret while referring to homosexuals as "an abomination" and criticising other people's lifestyle choices. Currie said: "If you go on and on about God's commandments and keep flinging the tablets of stone at other people, sooner or later someone is going to pick up a bit and chuck it at you." In America, the focus was mainly on the irresistible Graduate setup of the whole affair. Darren Nardicio, the marketing manager of Playgirl magazine in the US, told media in Dublin that he would be making McCambley an offer. "He's young, he's good looking, and the toppling of a political dynasty is just great", he said. In the North meanwhile, many were seeing the humour in the situation. "Well you gotta hand it to her, for a pensioner she has game", one twitter wag wrote. "Kirk is total legend though, he did in one night what Sinn Féin has tried to do for 30 odd years; brought down the DUP, and he even got paid and got his leg up to do it."

In fact the DUP would not be brought down. Peter Robinson publicly stood by his wife and vehemently denied any wrongdoing. He said he was "appalled" by his inclusion in the Spotlight programme and the "insinuation and innuendo" made by the BBC relating to his alleged knowledge of the financial aspects of the affair. Of Iris 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." As he spoke these words many couldn't help calling to mind Iris's assessment of Hillary Clinton: "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 and not principle."

Peter asked both the House Of Commons and the Assembly to investigate his conduct. The Police Service Of Northern Ireland began an investigation into Iris Robinson's financial affairs, but this did not result in any charges being brought. A subsequent investigation by Castlereagh Borough Council, also cleared Iris Robinson of any wrongdoing in relation to the granting of the cafe lease.

Iris Robinson meanwhile had left Northern Ireland and did a stint at a London clinic, where she remained for 9 months. Her first major public appearance came the following year when she accompanied her husband to the state dinner held in honour of the Queen in Dublin Castle. Since then she has been seen on a couple of occasions: accompanying Peter to a celebrity cookery competition and competing in a Belfast fun run. Throughout it all however there persisted the sense that Iris had somehow escaped the worst of the possible consequences for her actions.

The Standards and Privileges Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly has been working on a report since the week the scandal broke but its publication has been delayed by objections from Iris' lawyer, John McBurney, who voiced concerns that her health and privacy may suffer if the findings of the report were made public. Alliance MLA Anna Lo, vice-chair of the Assembly Committee on Standards and Privileges, recently insisted it must be published urgently, however it now appears that it will be later this coming autumn before the final verdict on Iris and Peter's conduct is made public. It has already been a rough year for Peter Robinson. He publicly backed a Northern Irish Pastor - Jack McConnell - who described Islam as "satanic" (Robinson subsequently apologised) and there is rancour within the ranks as well as questions about his leadership. If the forthcoming report is indeed negative in its assessment of his and his wife's conduct it may be the last straw for his political career. If, on the other hand, it clears them perhaps we may see the second coming of Iris Robinson. She is a woman of faith - and Christianity was built on characters who have managed great feats after spectacular falls - and of some brazenness. As the recent controversy over the 'gay cake' in Belfast shows, social progress on issues relating to social rights moves slowly there and she still has her constituency on these issues.

Kirk McCambley has reportedly left Northern Ireland to work abroad, reducing the potential for recurrent embarrassment for her. Iris has always inhabited a world in which she speaks to God and he speaks right back to her. She has never been one for meekly staying at home and the role of eternal penitent will not be a natural one for her. Assuming that a comeback is His Will and that she got better psychiatric care than the kind she herself advocated on radio perhaps it is not too late to speak of the Second Coming of Iris Robinson. Ulster awaits.

Sunday Independent

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