Wednesday 20 November 2019

Sam Smyth: Only topic in town as Robinsons dominate pub talk

Sam Smyth

The wind-chill factor had taken the temperature way below freezing on Saturday afternoon but the conversation around the two tables was red-hot, if occasionally blue.

And the six couples celebrating the birthday of one of the 30-somethings in the Belfast pub stuck to a single topic of conversation, although each contributed from a different perspective.

Iris, Kirk and Peter dominated the women's discussion while the men tended to go for the abstract principles of the peace process, DUP and Sinn Fein.

The dozen people sitting together in the pub went on endlessly trying to make black and white arguments while the snow had turned to dirty grey slush outside.

The different tones for incoming text messages syncopated their talk and someone would read out another bawdy joke and everybody would laugh.

One of the women argued that Iris Robinson was being demonised prematurely.

All of the men believed Peter Robinson was the victim of a scandal not of his making while most accepted that it was impossible for him to continue in office.

They were a mixed bunch religiously and politically, solidly middle class with large mortgages and small children; the sort of people Northern Ireland needs.

These folks coped admirably with a vicious guerrilla war for nearly two generations -- but they are finding it hard to deal with the social, moral and political consequences of the Robinson scandal.

One woman spoke of her deep embarrassment at the soap-opera story line that has cast Belfast as a sort of Alabama-by-the Lagan inhabited by Bible-Belt hypocrites.

"We're really not like that," she said. "Iris Robinson was always a bit of an embarrassment and her attack on gay people was over the top and unedifying, but she worked very hard."

Her friend shot back: "If she was describing someone else in her circumstances, Iris would have had no trouble calling them a painted Jezebel and then thrown in some more quotations from the Old Testament."

Several of the couples were descended from the Scottish Presbyterian tradition, just like the Robinsons and the bulk of the DUP membership. They are no more bigoted or narrow-minded than many conservative Catholics and resent being typecast by metropolitan types.

However, many middle-class Protestants shared a real and growing fear that this weekend's smutty jokes about the Robinsons would lead to a full-blown crisis in the Executive over the next week.


ONE of the men at the table opened a copy of the 'London Times' and read aloud from an article on the Robinson affair by Martin Fletcher, who had been based in Belfast.

Scottish Presbyterians transplanted to Ulster in the 1600s found themselves so exploited by Anglicans that tens of thousands of them sailed to America, he read, and by 1775 they comprised a sixth of the population. Half a dozen were signatories to the Declaration of Independence.

"We are not a petty people," said one of the men and continued to quote aloud from the newspaper: "A religious fundamentalism that spread down the Appalachians with these acolytes of King William (hence the term "hillbillies") and took root through what is now known as the Bible Belt."

"Oh yes, and then there is the Robinsons," laughed one of the women.

Irish Independent

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