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Fall from grace is no laughing matter for Iris

PEOPLE in the media are positively gleeful. It would seem, on the surface at least, that Northern Protestants are some kind of freak show, and fair game, most particularly if they are female.

Think about it. A vibrant, good-looking 59-year-old woman, married for 40 years, politically active in her own right as an MP and local councillor, deeply embedded in the morally rigorous world that is evangelical Protestantism in Northern Ireland, a woman who has weathered the storm of sectarian politics all her adult life, not least as wife of the head of the DUP and now First Minister of Northern Ireland, with all the pressures that entails -- this woman has an affair with a 19-year-old son of a butcher, and loses it to the point that she abuses her position on the local council to hustle a couple of developers for money to set him up in business.

You don't need to be a psychologist to see that Iris Robinson was not acting in her own best interests. On the contrary, she had everything to lose: her dignity, her husband's love, her children's respect, her marriage, her place in the community. Much was at risk, not least the possibility of exposing her husband Peter's political flank -- which has in fact happened, as opponents, on both sides of the sectarian divide, look for his head on a platter.

Worst of all, she had already lost herself, stepped outside the strict code of her religious community, sinned, as she would undoubtedly see it.

Small wonder she was suicidal. Iris Robinson clearly went off the rails, and woke up in hell.

What, in all that is humane, kind and generous, is there to titter about? This isn't funny. It is a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. Why, then, are our hearts so hard? Why is our grasp of the true enormity of this woman's fall so shallow? Why is the story of this couple's heartbreak met with such schadenfreude, or at best, empty-headed, lightweight and unsympathetic commentary?

It's tempting to stay with the politics of Northern Ireland, particularly the bigotry of sectarianism and unresolved tribal antagonism, which still linger there and constitute an added dimension to political manoeuvring. Or to discuss the degree to which the media in the Republic of Ireland still sit in the nationalist camp, happy to engage in that deeply embedded impulse to strip opponents of all humanity, and declare Protestants non-persons. But it's not the story. Or at least not the whole story.

This isn't just about dehumanising Northern Protestants, although that knee-jerk reaction undoubtedly played a role.

Iris Robinson fell foul of modern western society on one serious front. She made the wrong fundamentalist noise.

As every rookie reporter reminded us in the last couple of days, she recently declared that homosexuality is an "abomination". Of course we wince. Such harsh biblical language offends. How can we create a civilised, understanding and enlightened society while such dismissive and perhaps potentially dangerous attitudes prevail?

Iris was neither wise nor kind in her commentary. She deserves to be rebuked, rebuffed, politically challenged on her public comments, and most particularly on her stridency. Any caring society would demand that.

She does not deserve to be demonised, which is what we have done.

Depriving her of all sympathy in her fall from grace is not the act of a humane society. Nor is it enlightened support of homosexuals. For make no mistake, Iris Robinson would have met the same fate if she had publicly derided the notion that all opposition to President Obama is racially motivated, an idea which suppresses any independent political thought, and hence damages democracy. Or if she had dared to disagree that 'Fat is a Feminist Issue', pointing out, instead, that obesity is seriously damaging health and happiness, and urgently needs to be tackled. In fact, let anyone scroll down the check-list of modern political correctness, choose any item to oppose, and they will suffer the same harshness. As the media portray us, we are not an enlightened society. We have merely moved the fundamentalist goalposts.

On the ground, of course, it's different. Our hearts go out to Iris Robinson, and her husband Peter, in what is first and foremost a sad and shattering episode in their personal lives -- which in the nature of things must be played out in the public arena. For Iris in particular, we hope that the close community of family and friends around her show the compassion, support and simple humanity so sadly missing in open comment.

Sunday Independent