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Donal Lynch : The second coming of Mrs Iris Robinson

ON THE surface it was just another canny PR move, one designed to soften the image of the often dour-seeming Peter Robinson. In early March, Northern Ireland's First Minister won the celebrity cook-off at the Cafe Vic-Ryn in Lisburn.

He cracked a few jokes, showed himself to be a dab hand in the kitchen, £2,500 from the event was donated to charity and the food was, by all accounts, delicious.

Everyone agreed it had been a huge success. However, the event was significant in another way. Those gathered in the cafe that day, including "celebrity taster" BBC sports journalist Denise Watson, couldn't help noticing a surprising figure accompanying the DUP leader: his wife Iris.

Presumed by many to be still languishing in a Belfast psychiatric facility, Robinson's rehabilitation has in fact been afoot for a while.

Last summer, a couple of months after Northern Ireland's Public Prosecution Service announced it would not be pressing charges against her, Iris's husband announced she was still too mentally ill to attend the Royal Wedding in London. But just a few weeks later she was by his side in Dublin, resplendent in green, for the Queen's visit.

Since then, quietly, stealthily she has made her way back into public life, hoping perhaps that two years is long enough for people to forget biblical-level hypocrisy, a criminal investigation and the greatest sex scandal ever to convulse Northern Ireland.

It's that long since Ulster's first lady was found to be having an affair with 19-year-old Kirk McCambley, a handsome young man who had been a friend of the Robinson family, and had become embroiled in his financial dealings.

The affair was all the more remarkable because Robinson, a devout Christian, had been so virulent in her damnation of other "sinners". She had condemned gay people in a now-infamous radio interview -- saying there was no viler act a person could commit, other than sexually abusing children -- and had, in an interview with the Sunday Tribune, wondered aloud how on earth Hillary Clinton had stayed with Bill through all his infidelities.

For Northerners, soul-sick of the holier-than-thou Robinsons, the scandal seemed too good to be true. It even came with its own ready-made Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack. "It's a little secret, just the Robinson's affair, most of all you've got to hide it from the kids ... "

Kirk McCambley was still very much a kid when he first met the older woman who would become his girlfriend. Mrs Robinson -- also MP for Strangford, member of the Northern Ireland assembly and alderman of Castlereagh borough council -- was a frequent customer of Billy McCambley's butcher's shop in Ballyhackamore, east Belfast. His young son Kirk would help out in the shop, and first got to know her in the late Nineties when he was still at primary school.

He would later tell BBC's Spotlight: "I always seen her coming in and out. Just knew her from an early age, through the butchers and through my Dad."

At that point Peter Robinson's star was still in the ascent within the DUP. He had a reputation for being serious, hardworking and buttoned-down. His wife, by contrast was a more flamboyant character. Perfectly coiffed and heavily made up, she was vocal about her conservative Christianity.

When they married in 1970, they did so against the background of the Troubles. He was a university graduate and an estate agent, she was a secretary. Three children followed and sacrifices were made: Peter Robinson spoke of Iris bringing up the children alone while he pursued his political ambitions.

The efforts soon paid off though. As the Robinsons established themselves, their wealth grew exponentially. They soon owned homes in Florida, London and Belfast and together earned close to €250,000 a year.

The kids got in on the act too: Peter employed their daughter Rebekah as his office manager and his son Gareth as his parliamentary assistant, while Iris employed their elder son Jonathan as her office manager and her daughter-in-law Ellen as a part-time secretary. A leisure centre in Belfast was named after Peter, while the Stonewall charity named Iris Ulster's "First Bigot". Loved and reviled in equal measure, the Robinsons had earned their moniker as the North's "first couple".

And so it looked as though Kirk McCambley could not have been in safer hands as Iris Robinson began to take an interest in him, following the death of his father, Billy, in 2008.

"She made sure I was OK," Kirk McCambley told the Spotlight programme. "Obviously anyone who has ever lost a parent knows that it's an incredibly hard time, and she was there to help."

Selwyn Black, Mrs Robinson's former political adviser who turned whistleblower for the BBC investigation, told the programme that the couple would take evening walks around Belfast, with Mrs Robinson at first taking a maternal, advisory role.

"As for Kirk he is the other son I would have loved to have been a mother to," she texted Black, forgetting perhaps that she already had two adult sons. The relationship soon turned sexual, however, and by the middle of the summer of 2008 the young man and the older woman were having an affair.

The tryst was all the more shocking because of Iris's evangelical background. The BBC could not help noting that the biblical passage that she once quoted in describing how homosexuality made her nauseous -- Leviticus -- contains similar sentiments about adultery. Her Christian faith did not stop the affair, however, and soon Iris was becoming involved in the career of her young lover. One evening she took him on a walk by the river Lagan in Belfast and showed him a new building, which the council was advertising for tenants. According to McCambley she said, "she had... heard about a place down there. I came down and saw it, loved it, and started working on my business plan".

As a teenager with little business experience outside of his father's shop, McCambley had little resources to start a new business. Iris arranged for two property developers to give her £25,000 (€30,000), which she then passed on to McCambley.

Part of the deal was that McCambley was to give her a "kickback" of £5,000 (€6,000) in cash, which he said he did.

When the lease for the cafe was discussed it was granted to McCambley -- Robinson was present but did not declare her interest. A subsequent investigation by the council cleared her of any wrongdoing in this regard, however.

By late 2008 the relationship had hit the rocks -- it was reported that Kirk had resorted to "feigning testicular cancer" to get out of it -- and Iris wanted 'her' money back.

As with other issues, she claimed to have God's backing on this. "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. The money was not to be paid back to the developers, but to the Light 'N' Life Pentecostal church in Belfast, where Peter's sister was a pastor.

While the Robinsons relaxed in Florida that Christmas, details of the affair became known to Peter, who urged that his wife's toyboy be told to return the money to the developers. As more details of the relationship became known to the wider family, Iris became distressed. On the evening of March 1, 2009, she attempted to take her own life.

A doctor was called to the family home the next morning, but Peter Robinson left for work as usual. Television footage showed him cracking jokes to colleagues, while his wife was arriving at hospital.

After the BBC programme aired, there was to be no room to carry on as normal, however. Iris stood down as MP and withdrew from public life to receive psychiatric treatment at a Belfast hospital. In an anguished statement, she called the affair "the worst thing I have ever done" and again claimed that God was with her: "I grieve that I have damaged my profession in Christ, but I am comforted that He was able to forgive even me," she said.

Just two months previously, in an interview with the Sunday Tribune, she had insisted she would never retire.

As the worldwide media descended on Belfast and Playgirl magazine made Kirk McCambley an offer to pose nude, Peter Robinson himself stood aside, allowing Arlene Foster to temporarily take over the leadership of the beleaguered DUP. Robinson has now taken the reins back, with former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Peter Hain insisting that the scandal has in fact strengthened and humanised him in the eyes of the electorate.

That's one way of looking at it, but the evidence suggests the public may be rather suspicious of the second coming of Iris.

The famous Lock Keeper's Inn was last week reported by the Belfast Telegraph to be keeping its name, with its new owner declaring, "I know it has history, but history is history."

If the comments on the cafe's Facebook page are anything to go by, people have not forgotten the scandal. "I hope you've sacked Mrs Robinson," one read.

Sunday Independent