Thursday 14 November 2019

Illuminating tale of two politicians

Both Iris Robinson and Brian Lenihan are battling illness, but our attitude to them is markedly different, says Carol Hunt

TWO politicians. Both seriously ill. They suffer having their personal tragedies ruthlessly exposed on television. But while one TV station is excoriated for intruding into a person's private life, the other is lauded. While one ill person receives support and consolation, the other is pilloried and ridiculed. While one is allowed to continue working as long as they feel physically able, the other is informed in no uncertain terms that their political career is over.

What's the difference? Is it just down to the fact that one is an extremely likeable character and the other not so popular? That one is male and the other is female? Or is it because one is suffering from a physical disease and the other a mental one? Whichever it is, and I suspect it may be a combination of all the above, it's a damning indictment on all of us to be so ignorantly and blatantly biased -- to be downright cruel -- in our dealings with people who are severely ill.

When I heard that the much-heralded BBC Spotlight programme about Iris Robinson was to be screened, I made the popcorn, poured a glass of wine and settled down to be gloriously entertained. What I watched was an expose about a woman who was, without a doubt, seriously ill and I felt deep guilt at having been momentarily entertained by her difficulties.

It's been said that "it's hard to believe that a man of 60 who had been exposed in a relationship with a voluptuous teenage girl would ever be considered to be in obvious need of psychiatric care", and that "hooking a toyboy doesn't exactly count as a cry for help", as rumour and innuendo combine to suggest that Iris is putting on her illness. Just today, a woman righteously informed me that "the whole psychiatric thing" was a smokescreen put about purely for sympathy, and that in Iris's case there was "no treatment for pure badness".

But Iris Robinson has gone on the record about her experiences of debilitating depression. Her actions during the year she began her affair with young Kirk McCambley (and possibly beforehand)

smack of a woman in the throes of a manic episode. She is sexually indiscreet, takes ill-advised financial risks and develops what amounts to a terrifying obsession with a teenager who eventually has to pretend to have cancer to get her off his back.

This is not a woman in control of her life. This is a woman who seems to veer between highs and lows with devastating results. This is a woman who, like Brian Lenihan, is suffering from a severe illness. God love her, this is a woman who needs friends, compassion and good psychiatric care.

It makes you wonder what sort of society we have turned into when a mentally ill woman is ridiculed and derided the way we have treated Iris. Hopefully she isn't allowed read newspapers or listen to the news in the Belfast hospital where she is now receiving "acute psychiatric treatment". She may start to imagine that she murdered a busload of schoolchildren -- how else to explain such vitriol?

What is most worrying is how enthusiastically and in what abundant numbers the 'sisters' have turned out to crow and bay. Iris has not just been kicked when down, but joyously pummelled and whipped by women who consistently argue that there should be more female representation in politics. There's a bit of a contradiction there. But perhaps it's just women who agree with certain ideologies that are supported by the so-called sisterhood?

So, we didn't share Iris's political ideals and we may not too keen on her religious beliefs, but does that give us the right to contemptuously laugh about her lingerie collection or her heart-shaped pillows? We've heard that Iris with her "sneery putdowns" was "no feminist" and "behaved like the worst sort of man". I'm not quite sure what that means. She was a woman who held down three political jobs in the most difficult of circumstances while raising a family, so she obviously believes in the right of women to work both within and outside the home. She was a toughie, she had to be to survive in the ultimate boys' club that is Northern politics; but as she admitted herself, she was "soft" inside.

Where is the anger from so-called feminist women about the despicable way Iris has been treated -- by her political party and by the media in general? Why are they so loath to lend the tiniest bit of support to this woman in her time of need? Surely it couldn't be because Iris shares different political/religious views to the majority of the sisterhood? That she and her husband, after her attempted suicide, "resumed their role as Ulster's first couple, smiling their crocodile smiles and doing what the DUP does best -- obstructing political progress"?

What else was Iris supposed to do? Retire back into the home like the good little housewife she was supposed to be? Spend her time trying on her underwear? Become a born-again Shinner? Slit her wrists?

She must have had a few months of hope, after her hospitalisation last March, when she was able to share her pain with her husband (who so obviously truly loves her), receive the care she needed and try, with the help of her family, to mend the damage done. And then disaster struck as her story was outed for public entertainment and for political gain.

Iris has been accused -- and with good reason -- of being hypocritical but surely the condemnation about the consequences of her illness is more than a little hypocritical and moralistic in itself? As her husband has noted: "She would have been treated better had she been a serial killer."

This is ultimately a personal tragedy, which any family should be allowed to suffer in privacy. This is also a political tragedy in that a very sick woman is being punished by losing her career and having her life held up to ridicule.

Go home, Mrs Robinson, say the moralists. From now on you can live off the scandal of your indiscreet affairs but your political career is over. And don't expect the 'sisters' to speak up for you, to point out that a seriously ill man would never receive such a thrashing from his male colleagues. They may want more women in politics; but ultimately, some sisters need us all to sing from the same hymn sheet.

Sunday Independent

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