Fall of the house of Robinson

The career of Northern Ireland's no-nonsense First Minister is on the line as the Democratic Unionist Party expels his wife after she passed £50,000 to her teenage lover. David McKittrick reports on a story with everything
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Indy Politics

The lock-keeper's cottage is a calm quiet spot beside the River Lagan on the peaceful green southern outskirts of Belfast, close to two little bridges where the meandering river meets an old canal.

Derelict for half a century, it has been restored in recent years as a modern refreshment halt where strollers, joggers, cyclists and dog-walkers call in for coffee and scones. There is a fair bit of history in those parts: the Duke of Wellington used to canter round the adjoining estate.

But from now on it will probably be known locally as Robinson Cottage, for it was here that outspoken Iris Robinson, MP for Strangford, Member of the Legislative Assembly at Stormont, and one of Northern Ireland's best-known figures, helped to set her teenage lover up in business. The menu might someday offer roast Robinson or perhaps, more daringly, instant Iris.

Her exploits have plunged the cottage from rural tranquillity into political turmoil, wrecking her own political career and endangering that of her husband Peter, Northern Ireland's First Minister.

Her behaviour could even put the hard-won political settlement in jeopardy, for if they bring down Peter they will remove one of the most able figures from Belfast politics. Iris has already undoubtedly had an effect on the delicate balances within Protestant politics, since support for their Democratic Unionist Party is bound to be hard hit. And if Peter goes, his successor may be much more sceptical about the entire peace process. The Assembly he heads, which has already been operating at a sluggish pace, could seize up altogether.

The Rev David McIlveen, who is close to the DUP's founder, the Rev Ian Paisley, said he believed Mr Robinson should consider stepping down temporarily. He said: "I do believe that his position is becoming untenable."

And all this is because a 59-year-old woman took a shine to a 19-year-old youth whose dying father asked her to look after him. The dying man could not have imagined what happened subsequently; indeed, no one could have, for the Iris Robinson saga is one of the most bizarre to come out of Belfast.

Tales from that city typically centre on political intolerance and paramilitary violence. So the sudden emergence of a yarn featuring illicit sex, marital disharmony and alleged financial corruption has generated huge attention. Besides, the troubles and thus the big stories were supposed to be over: no one guessed that such an intriguing tale could emerge, combining as it did some old elements with completely new features in utterly unexpected and quite startling counterpoint.

Iris Robinson was known as slightly erratic – "always that wee bit flaky", in the words of one observer – but in the past decade she became a woman of power. In the 1970s she used to type for her husband and, he joked, correct his spelling mistakes. Then she moved into politics at local level, though always taking second place to Peter. "I don't pretend to be anything other than a simple housewife," she once said. "My husband is the head of the house."

Peter, in addition to holding a Westminster seat since 1979, developed a personal fiefdom in Castlereagh in the suburbs of Belfast, the council which sponsored the renovation of the lock-keeper's cottage.

Within the council he was a very big fish in a small pool, dominating meetings and steering policy, often contemptuously slapping down those who disagreed. He exercised, in the words of a moderate councillor, "absolute control".

His domination lasted for decades: he even immodestly had a leisure centre named after himself. When the council built a new headquarters, its design reflected his inner unionist siege mentality, with its fort-like structure and narrow slit windows.

For him it was like a little local drama group, something of a rehearsal for the national leadership he one day hoped to assume. After a while, Iris got a walk-on part, becoming a councillor. After a few years he arranged for her to become an alderman and then mayor for several terms.

At council meetings she referred to him as Councillor Robinson while he called her Alderman Robinson. The councillor would frequently formally congratulate the alderman on the excellence of her speeches; the alderman would simper appreciatively, as though the compliments had some meaning.

Peter, always his party's primary electoral fixer, spotted an opportunity in a nearby constituency in 2001 and under his guidance Iris became Westminster MP for Strangford. In the Commons, she worked hard but never escaped her political inferiority complex. "I recognise I'm not the brightest light in the chandelier when it comes to debating constitutional issues," she once disarmingly admitted. "I leave those to Peter."

For years they both stayed on in the council, and in fact were joined by one of their sons, one of a number of political offspring in an expanding dynasty. They live in suitably dynastic splendour. Iris once gave the journalist Suzanne Breen a tour of her truly remarkable home. Ms Breen found "curtains of wine and gold silk rising into a central coronet; towering Chinese vases; hundreds of china figurines and sculptures". Chandeliers were in every room.

"I think I was born in another era," Iris trilled, proudly exhibiting her hand-printed wallpaper, the hand-carved 10ft high, three-ton stone fireplace which she had specially designed for her study, the Tuscan landscape in the bathroom specially commissioned from a local artist.

It sounds seriously over the top, almost a shrine to aggrandisement via interior design. "Each room is themed," Breen reported. "The dining room is Oriental; a sitting room is old English; the bathroom is Italian; one bedroom is Scottish, another French."

Iris said: "I designed them all myself. It took years." And a glimpse of the boudoir: "The Robinsons' bedroom has a massive four-poster Gothic bed with heart-shaped cushions. Then there's Iris's lilac dressing room. She blushes, trying to hide black lacy underwear lying on the bed for a function later that night."

Iris carried out an elaborate makeover not just of her home but also of her husband. Out went his old light-sensitive spectacles which sometimes looked faintly menacing. In came contact lenses, lighter suits and spiky moussed hair.

Peter went along with it because it suited politically, seeming to emphasise a less traditional, more modern approach. Perhaps there was also a subliminal message of favouring a more updated unionism of the type which he has espoused in recent years.

Although their three children are grown-up – and until now were progressing well in the lower reaches of politics – the Robinsons are in the process of upsizing. They are engaged in building a splendid spread in the Castlereagh hills. It is said that one side of the house will have a view over his Westminster constituency while the other has a vista over hers. The new home is not finished; her political career is.

Money has not been a Robinson problem because of their multiple political jobs. The Belfast Telegraph calculated that they jointly received more than half a million pounds a year in salaries and expenses. A further £150,000 in wages was paid to four of their relatives for constituency and other work.

Among their parliamentary receipts was a £375 bill for replacing the leather on Peter's desk. Iris, meanwhile, unsuccessfully attempted to claim for a £352 fountain pen, a £632 briefcase, as well as £1,780 for a coffee table and lamp. Voters seemed particularly affronted that they also claimed £30,000 for food over four-years. The handsome sums thus amassed earned them the unfortunate nickname of "Swish Family Robinson".

The extensive publicity given to all this has cost their party dearly in terms of votes in an election last year. In fact, DUP members say it was possibly the most potent factor in the substantial drop in their vote.

Both Peter and Iris have been impressive vote-getters. She has specialised in health issues, while her occasional outbursts against gay sex – "an abomination" – have done her no harm with the Protestant voters of Strangford.

Such pronouncements have been part of Iris's unique persona which blended old-fashioned Christian values – she and Peter are regular churchgoers – with her vivacious wardrobe and glamorous hairstyles. She has been the very model of a modern female unionist politician.

She combined that old-time religion with up-to-date fashion, which is why she was once memorably described as "fire and brimstone in a Laura Ashley package".

But all that is gone now as she has had to quit public life as a result of a scandal which potently and indeed fatally mixed the elements of sex and money. She has lived her life on a grand scale and now her scandal is on a grander scale yet.

In place of the former image is now a picture of a woman who, it might be said, preyed on a teenage boy. When her very close friend, Billy McCambley, was dying of cancer he asked her to look after his son Kirk. She promised she would.

After a time she seduced Kirk when she was 59 and he was 19 and vulnerable following the death of his father. Then she told him of a business opportunity, pointing out that Castle-reagh council was looking for someone to run the lock-keeper's cottage.

The fact that he had no money for start-up costs posed no problem for, with what looks like practised ease, she raised £50,000 from two local property developers. Interestingly, according to the BBC programme which brought all this to light, she herself held on to £5,000 of this, in cash.

With Kirk apparently the only suitable applicant to run the cottage, the council approved of his proposal. Iris voted in his favour, but did so without declaring a personal interest in the project as councillors are required to do. This week the council announced it is to hold an investigation. The question also arises of whether she should have declared that she had successfully solicited money from the developers.

After her dalliance with Kirk ended Iris seems to have brusquely demanded that he repay the money, and he made efforts to do so.

When Peter found out about all this, as he seems to have done after Iris attempted suicide, the signs are that he was shocked and appalled. He instructed her to repay all monies involved while, he says, forgiving her for her sexual trespasses.

His attempts to clear up the mess were conducted in his familiar cool, methodical way. Many have already commented, in fact, on how exceptionally cool he was after the suicide attempt. Having taken pills, Iris was discovered at midnight.

But the next day Peter was on his feet in the Assembly taking members' questions in his capacity as First Minister. What's more, he smiled and made little jokes as he did so, giving no hint of the dreadful family crisis at home.

That was last March. Since then Peter has kept the family secrets close, putting huge efforts into maintaining personal and political appearances. He made his television announcement of his wife's infidelity only after queries from journalists indicated that the whole sorry saga was about to become public.

He is now waging a rearguard action, very much against the odds, in an attempt to save his career. Many involved in the peace process wish him well because he has been a mainstay of the process and has been prepared to share power with Sinn Fein. But most feel he will not survive.

His defence is essentially that he did nothing wrong and was involved in no transgressions. One key point is whether he had a duty to inform the authorities of his wife's actions after learning that she had, for example, not declared an interest in various transactions.

A QC is to conduct an inquiry into whether he had a duty to do so. But even if the conclusion is that Peter was remiss in putting secrecy first, and should have blown the whistle on Iris, this will be the equivalent of a technical knockout for him.

It is the emergence of a whole new Robinson world which has wiped out his authority. The amazing drama of the revelations instantly meant that Iris was, as one unsympathetic political reporter put it, "toast".

A couple of months ago the family could be presented as a political force, including a buttoned-up husband with a flamboyant wife, though it was being said that the Robinsons were over-concerned with the pursuit of Mammon and worldly gain.

Today an entirely different Robinson world is on show, featuring sex between a woman and a toy boy young enough to be her grandson, together with bundles of cash and a whiff of corruption.

Even if Peter is exonerated, the amazing exploits of his wife – obsessional interior designer extraordinaire, public defender of morality, private seductress – have brought about the fall of the house of Robinson.

Public reaction: Little sympathy from the blogosphere

Is this the same Iris Robinson who attempted to clean up the morals of Northern Ireland? Shame on you for defiling a young, vulnerable lad.

J Moore, Belfast Telegraph

I sincerely hope they can get things sorted and get back to what they've done best for countless years – serving their community.

Ian Hobson, Belfast Telegraph

Sure, doesn't it give you something to laugh about during the cold snap.

Anne-Marie Heaney, Facebook

What a hypocritical bunch they are. I thought the DUP were extreme Christians quoting biblical passages.

Marty McG, Belfast Telegraph

Why should Mr Robinson resign? It's his wife who was flutin' about, not him. Die on his sword for the misbehaviour of his wife? Give her the sword.

Tony shannon, Irish Times

The DUP has always been a disgrace. Now it seems that their sectarian outfit is imploding. Good riddance.

John Q Public, Belfast Telegraph