14 January 2010 Edition
Robinsons under pressure
BY LAURA FRIEL
ALLEGATIONS of hypocrisy and corruption are at the heart of recent revelations concerning Iris Robinson. Beyond the salacious details of an affair between someone old enough to know better and a vulnerable teenager, is the memory of a public figure who demanded the right to express deeply offensive views about other people’s sexuality on the grounds of religious liberty.
Before the scandal broke and Iris Robinson was forced to resign, she held a string of political offices. A member of the DUP, Iris Robinson was elected to the British House of Commons as MP for Strangford, at the same time she held an MLA seat in the Stormont Assembly and a council seat in Castlereagh Borough Council. But that’s only half the story.
Married for almost 40 years, Peter and Iris Robinson were seen as unionism’s golden couple. In 2008 Peter Robinson succeeded Ian Paisley to become leader of his party and Stormont First Minister. Shortly after his appointment, Iris became the focus of political controversy, the first indication, perhaps, that she did not fully grasp the responsibilities of political office.
Commenting after a young gay man had been brutally beaten by a homophobic gang, Iris Robinson evoked the Christian Bible to describe homosexuality as “an abomination”. In a subsequent statement the DUP MLA equated homosexuality to child abuse.
Prompted during a radio interview Iris confirmed that she viewed homosexuality as “disgusting” and “loathsome”. In an unrelated incident Iris bemoaned the availability of emergency, morning-after contraception while advocating the promotion of celibacy amongst teenagers.
It’s against this public backdrop that recent revelations about Iris Robinson’s private life will be judged. A person who evokes fundamentalist Christian doctrine as non-negotiable in public cannot expect to escape ridicule when she is exposed as an adulteress in her private life.
It is unfortunate that having used her position as a political leader to espouse intolerant and damaging attitudes, as someone now receiving psychiatric care, Iris will attract little public sympathy.
Initially the scandal emerged as solely a personal and family tragedy. Interviewed by the ‘Belfast Newsletter’ last Thursday, Peter Robinson declared, “We’ll fight for our marriage” and spoke of his personal sense of anguish and his wife’s remorse. But the screening of ‘Spotlight’ a BBC television documentary, just hours later, moved it into the political arena.
Screened first as ‘Spotlight’ and days later as ‘Panorama’, the BBC made a number of allegations. Firstly that Iris Robinson had an affair with 19-year-old Kirk McCambley 18 months ago, and secondly, during the course of that relationship Iris had solicited a substantial sum of money, £50,000, from two wealthy property developers, which she used to establish a business for her lover.
The £50,000 was paid in the form of two cheques, made out to Kirk but given to Iris. The first came from Fred Fraser, now deceased, whose successful transformation from teacher to millionaire house builder had followed a similar trajectory to the Robinsons’ political ascendancy in east Belfast. The second came from County Down builder Ken Campbell. According to the BBC, Iris Robinson had lobbied on behalf of a Campbell building scheme in Newtownards.
Worse still the status of the £50,000 handed to Iris was ambiguous and somewhat fluid. Was it a loan? Was it a gift? Or could it be a ‘charitable’ donation? Whatever it was, there seems to have been no contract or written agreement to accompany the payment by either developer.
At first Iris seems to have regarded the £50,000 as a gift secured by her on behalf of her lover. Later, when Kirk ended their affair, Iris regarded it as a loan and demanded immediate repayment. But the ‘loan’ was not to be paid back to either developer. Iris insisted half should be paid back to her directly while the rest should be paid to an east Belfast Methodist church run by her sister-in-law Pastor Pat Herron.
The Robinsons have a history of keeping it in the family. Peter and Iris attracted criticism during the recent MP expenses’ scandal when it emerged that on top of receiving more than £500,000 a year in salaries and expenses, a further £150,000 in wages was being paid to four relatives, including their daughter Rebekah and son Gareth.
According to the BBC, it was only after Peter Robinson became aware of his wife’s infidelity and financial irregularities that the decision was taken to return the £50,000 to the developers. As it stands most of the money has been returned, with a shortfall of the £5,000 Iris took for herself in cash.
The third allegation focused on Iris’ role as a local government councillor. As an Alderman of Castlereagh Borough Council, Iris was well placed to know tenders for the lease to the Lock Keeper’s Inn, an historic cottage at Shaw’s Bridge, were due to be submitted to the council.
According to the BBC, Iris had identified the café as a potential business for her lover but without experience or capital, Kirk required considerable assistance to secure the contract. Iris Robinson was present when Castlereagh Borough Council authorised the lease of the Lock Keeper’s Inn to be granted to Kirk.
McCambley’s application was apparently the only one to meet the criteria of the lease. As a councillor, Iris Robinson is obliged to declare any interest when council approval is being sought. She did not. Castlereagh Borough council is currently considering how to conduct an inquiry into how the tender for the Lock Keeper’s Inn café was awarded. The PSNI have also announced an investigation into the Strangford MP’s financial affairs.
A further allegation focuses on the conduct of Peter Robinson and his response to learning of his wife’s affair and attendant financial irregularities. It is clear that Peter’s intervention resulted in the bulk of the £50,000 being returned. But his failure to inform the relevant authorities about his wife’s financial dealings has been questioned.
There are currently three main investigations into the conduct of Peter Robinson - an investigation by the Assembly’s Committee on Standards and Privileges, a legal probe by the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister into the ministerial code and an investigation by the British House of Commons Standards in Public Life Committee.
On Saturday the DUP announced it had sacked Iris Robinson and she had stood down from all her elected positions. According to Peter, his wife currently remains too ill to be questioned and is receiving “acute psychiatric care” by the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust.
On Monday, having received the “wholehearted support” of his DUP party colleagues, in a statement delivered by the speaker, Peter Robinson announced he would stand down as First Minister for six weeks to “devote time to deal with family matters” and “to defend myself from an unfounded and mischievous allegation”.
“I have asked the minister for enterprise, Arlene Foster MLA, to carry out the functions of the Office of the First Minister for a short time,” ran the statement
Within minutes of the announcement by Speaker Will Hay, Arlene Foster was at the dispatch box addressing the Assembly chamber.