Perhaps, like Brian Lenihan, this wave of public sympathy will strengthen him
POLITICS is a cruel business. It can also be brutal, even beastly, as when Brian Lenihan was denied the time over Christmas to come to terms with his diagnosis and to break the news to his family. So, too, the sight of Peter Robinson, an intensely private man, publicly reciting the intricacies of the most intimate personal and family matters, raises the question of whether what interests the public is necessarily a reflection of the public interest, and where the line should be drawn.
Few could have watched Mr Robinson's television presentation without being moved. Here was a very private person peeling back painful layer after revelatory layer to uncover a momentary hitch in a 40-year happy marriage. The initial reaction had to be of almost universal sympathy for him as the victim, the innocent party, trying hard to save his marriage, and at the same time resolutely determined to carry out his public duties. Perhaps, like Lenihan, this wave of public sympathy and admiration will strengthen him in his battles on both fronts.
In his case, too, the decent thing is to draw a clear line between the public and the private life. As long as he performs his public duties, Mr Robinson should be allowed the time and the space to deal with private matters and relationships within the bosom of the family.
And yet, there are striking differences in the two cases. Mr Lenihan was dragged prematurely into the spotlight by the inability of a news organisation to give the same weight to compassion, charity and human decency as to their perception of the public interest. Mr Robinson, in contrast, by inviting the media in, thrust his family affairs into the spotlight. He chose the time, the place and the manner of disclosure of an event which had occurred nine months earlier, and many people will wonder why? Why now? and in this particularly dramatic form.
When the spell begins to break and the initial flush of sympathy subsides, the cynic in all of us who comment on the activities of professional politicians begins to reflect whether it was all a bit too pat, overproduced perhaps; performance rather than presentation. It may be ungenerous to allow the catch in the voice, the homely surroundings, the artfully placed motto to be transmuted into the picture of a victim, yes, but also of a man fighting for his political life.
It may well be that this was a pre-emptive strike ahead of the posse of a widely rumoured television expose. There would be every reason why he and the DUP would wish to have the authorised Robinson version on the public record before other more heretical apocryphal texts begin to emerge.
The difficulty with pre-emptive statements is that they either say too little or too much. In this case, particularly in Mrs Robinson's statement, it seems to have gone too far.
It is one thing to admit to an inappropriate relationship (to use Mr Robinson's words), but why was it thought necessary to add the grace notes that there had been some financial dealings as well. It is one thing to claim privacy for a personal relationship; quite another, especially in the current political climate in these islands, where money is concerned.
Mr Robinson, in his interview, and in response to a question which embraced both himself and his wife, very robustly defended his reputation in financial matters, but it was very much a first-person singular defence from a man who uses language carefully. He claimed, too, to have a full response ready to any of the questions raised by investigative journalists.
If so, he will probably retain the sympathy of the public (and of his DUP members) and carry on in office as party leader and First Minister. If so, his family affairs should be private and off-limits for public examination.
If he cannot do so, and more particularly if Mrs Robinson is unable to do so, and he cannot distance himself sufficiently from even the hint of financial impropriety, then the dogs will keep barking, the party will become restive, and his position will become very difficult indeed.
BOTH governments will be relieved to hear Robinson's determination to get back to business with Martin McGuinness. However, for most people outside the DUP, and for the governments, getting down to serious business means effecting the devolution of policing, which might not be what Peter has in mind. Even if that is the intent, it must be more difficult for him now, even on a tide of sympathy, to get the party to move this side of the general election, or even before the Assembly election in 2011.
It is unlikely that Sinn Fein can wait until then in the face of scepticism in the ranks and the taunts of dissident republicans. McGuinness is emerging as the only remaining strong personality, but he cannot do it on his own. On the other hand, Robinson's difficulties exemplify the leadership vacuum right across unionism.
Robinson's survival as a strong leader of the DUP is therefore of more than passing significance for the future of power-sharing in its present form. The governments, who had been congratulating themselves for having got rid of the problem, will hope that he does not join the litany of unionist leaders, from Terence O'Neill and Faulkner to Trimble and Paisley, whose discovery of political reality left them stranded far ahead of the pack.