| 10°C Dublin

Sugar-mummy affair with man just a third of her age is the stuff soap writers dream about

IT is horribly appropriate that while the misadventures of Iris Robinson were playing out so publicly on BBC's 'Spotlight' programme on Thursday night, a quick flick of the channels would have alighted on the actress Stephanie Beacham queening it up on 'Celebrity Big Brother'.

Beacham, as any 1980s TV drama fan will tell you, is most famed for her role as Sable Colby in 'The Colbys', glamorous matriarch of a power-hungry family dynasty. For all the fundamentalist rigour of the Robinson religious creed, it appears that Iris had been modelling her lifestyle on the flamboyant big-haired Sable.

So outlandish are certain elements of the Robinson affair that it is hard to believe they exist outside the mind of a soap opera screenwriter. A cross-generational affair between a 19-year-old and a woman three times his age. Murky insinuations of sugar-mummy donations. Hellfire evangelism undermined by breathtaking hypocrisy.

Like Peter Robinson's televised statement about his wife's doings, the unfolding story is excruciating to watch but impossible not to. Impossible, too, not to wonder open-mouthed at the motivation behind the then 58-year-old Iris -- handsomely well-preserved woman though she is -- taking a 19-year-old into her bed.

Her own three young adult children are of the same generation as her former lover, Kirk McCambley. As if that were not toe-curling enough -- "icky" is the technical term, I believe -- McCambley's father was a friend of the Robinsons. Close to death, he apparently asked Iris to take care of his son. In what we can only hope was a confusion of maternal affection for attraction, the relationship between Iris and Kirk took off a few months after the funeral.

"She looked out for me to make sure I was okay," McCambley told 'Spotlight'.

What are we to make of McCambley?

The death of a parent can be deeply traumatic. It could drive a vulnerable young man to seek comfort in the most unlikely of quarters. Yet he is clearly no fool. He had won a young entrepreneur of the year award by his late teens. Robinson's help with arranging a £50,000 (€55,000) business deal gave him an enviable leg-up in starting his own restaurant.

As for Robinson's "inappropriate" behaviour, as it was coyly dubbed by husband Peter, it is not clear if it was the result of, or resulted in, the mental difficulties that drove her to a suicide attempt last March.

There has been much schadenfreude expressed over Bible-thumper Iris being hoisted by her own moralistic petard. It's almost too delicious -- the woman who believes homosexuality to be such an "abomination" that it makes her feel "nauseous" rides roughshod over several of the Commandments she so cherishes.

And yet: how to banish the niggling feeling that any person in such distress that they try to kill themselves deserves our compassion? Not aggression veiled as compassion, mind, as per Mrs Robinson's offer to recommend a good psychiatrist who could "fix" gay people. We are better than that, even if she isn't.

In the end, it doesn't really matter if the public accepts Mrs Robinson's display of self-flagellation or buys into her husband's statement of "love the sinner, not the sin". Three months down the line, Mr Robinson's political fate will have been decided one way or another.

If he's lucky, he will still be First Minister, having been found guilty of nothing more than standing by his woman.

Or he may be found negligent of his public duty, of not alerting the relevant watchdogs to his wife's lack of disclosure to the donations she sought for her lover.

That decided, the spotlight which the Robinsons themselves shone on their home with their pre-emptive revelations of infidelity will have moved on. They will be alone at their breakfast table, 40 years of marriage behind them and the dark chasm of an uncertain future together yawning in front of them.

Mr Robinson has said he still loves his wife. He referred to the years she stood by him in the political wilderness, the children she bore him.

Having made his moral beliefs very much part of his political policies, he has given himself no choice but to stand by her now that she has 'fessed up and begged forgiveness. That's the Christian thing to do, isn't it?

Yet when Mr Robinson made his statement about her affair, you had to wonder what his obviously genuine tears were for -- surely not for the betrayal about which he has now known for 10 months?

The carefully placed card from his children 'To Dad' on the bookshelf behind him said it all: Don't ever forget who the victim is here. And it's not her.

It was interesting how quickly his "we" turned to "I" when it came to defending his wife on anything other than sexual matters.

The affair he can theologise away -- the brass tacks of any funny money, he can't.

And what of Iris? A woman whose tastes in sports cars and lavish interior design contributed to the "Swish Family Robinson" tag the pair acquired in a report on their MPs' expenses last year is unlikely to want to prostrate herself in contrition forever.

A show of public unity is all well and good -- but if unhappiness and resentment reign in private, it will make for a bitterly divided home.

Irish Independent