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Sam Smyth: Shattered Robinson is standing by his woman

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Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson speaks to the media from his home in east Belfast yesterday

Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson speaks to the media from his home in east Belfast yesterday

Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson speaks to the media from his home in east Belfast yesterday

I used to joke to Northern politicians that they would know they lived in a relatively normal parliamentary democracy when they had a gale-force sex-and-money scandal. And yesterday, as the biggest loyalist paramilitary murder gang gave up their guns, it was a sordid yet sad story that left the six counties gobsmacked.

Iris Robinson, the MP wife of First Minister Peter, had attempted suicide after confessing to her husband that she had an affair.

And she had solicited money from friends for the man with whom she had been involved, inviting suspicions of inappropriate financial dealings.

As a couple, the Robinsons had encouraged voters in the North to admire their fairy-tale marriage that they flaunted with their photogenic children.

Although they are not members of the Rev Ian Paisley's Free Presbyterian Church from which their political party, the DUP, draw much of their support, the Robinson's are fundamentalist Protestants.

Wise old grandmothers in Northern Ireland have a very useful phrase to describe pushy lads who barely bother to conceal their arrogance: "He's a hard child to love," they would say, and that's how many of them refer to Peter Robinson.

Neither was it easy to warm to his wife Iris, nor her libidinous-librarian look that came with a bible-thumping message delivered with a Sarah Palin-like bling.

Yet it was difficult not to feel some sympathy watching Peter Robinson on television last night, his voice cracking, his hand trembling, stripping away the most intimate and private details of their life.

The story of Irish Robinson's affair and rumours of her allegedly inappropriate financial favours for the man she was involved with have been doing the rounds for a couple of weeks.

Mr Robinson appeared to withdraw from his public duties for the past few weeks and then last week his wife, Iris, issued a statement saying she was suffering from mental illness. The BBC's investigative current affairs programme 'Panorama' had a team working on the story and a veteran journalist from a news agency was leading the press pack.

Meanwhile, politics was heading toward another crisis as the First Minister appeared to be dragging his heels on devolving policing and justice to Northern Ireland. Public attention was diverted by the family difficulties of Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams and questions about his brother Liam's alleged abuse of his daughter.

Yesterday morning, the 'Belfast Telegraph' asked the question: 'Why did Robinson's Daly tribute take so long?' Mr Robinson didn't issue a statement about the death of Cardinal Cahal Daly and hadn't attended the funeral.

The pressure was building, and then yesterday afternoon Mr Robinson laid bare his soul in that remarkable interview.

At times, Peter Robinson's confessional tone gave him the look of one of those haunted TV evangelists in the southern states of the US explaining a dark family secret.

Forgiveness and compassion were never noticeable in his vocabulary, particularly when dealing with people he appeared to view as moral inferiors, and that seemed to include nearly everyone who didn't share his political and religious views.

Yet in a reverse Tammy Wynette moment, Mr Robinson is standing by his woman, although he did assure everyone that he had never betrayed his marital vows.

A couple of years ago, Mrs Robinson took charge of a his-and-hers makeover when her husband, Peter, was positioning himself for the leadership of the DUP.

The First Lady of Northern Ireland took on the role of Trinny and Susannah, deciding that Peter should have a spikey hair cut and laser surgery to his eyes so he didn't need spectacles. Mrs Robinson, who was 60 last September, also underwent a dramatic change: a sharper haircut and a new wardrobe that "cost the price of a medium-size family car", according to a local.

Gazing at window-dressers in shops or getting her hair styled, Mrs Robinson must have had some knowledge of gays, so it was surprising when she found herself as hate figure with the gay community. In a BBC interview, she described homosexuality as "disgusting loathsome, nauseating" -- "it's an abomination," she said.

In a follow-up interview, she said: "Just as a murderer can be redeemed by the blood of Christ, so can a homosexual. I cannot think of anything more sickening than a child being abused. It is comparable to the act of homosexuality. I think they are all comparable," she said. "I feel totally repulsed by both."

In her statement, Mrs Robinson, who tried to take her own life on March 1 last year, said she did not deserve a second chance, but has been given one.

After a marriage of 40 years, yesterday's news was an emotional rollercoaster for such a proud man as Peter Robinson.

The First Minister gave his interview in the comfortable family home in a suburb in east Belfast and officials distributed Mrs Robinson's statement before he spoke.

Mrs Robinson wasn't at home but Mr Robinson spoke very warmly of their 40-year marriage and his determination to save the marriage and rebuild their lives.

Text jokes about the Robinsons were beginning to circulate by early last night and this morning the First Minister in Northern Ireland will have to pick up the pieces of his private life. But more importantly, he will be expected to focus fully on doing the business of all of the people of Northern Ireland.

And from the humiliating shame of revelations about their private life, the Robinsons may find grace and wisdom to help them in their public duties.

ssmyth@independent.ie

Irish Independent