First Minister Peter Robinson opens his heart about the pain and anguish his family have been going through since the revelations about his wife Iris.
In a wide-ranging and often emotional interview, the DUP leader describes the “unimaginable cruelty” of the media furore over his private life since the BBC Spotlight programme.
“There are some reporters who would be disappointed if they could not punish Iris into her grave,” he says.
And he challenges journalists who have alleged his wife has had other affairs to show him the evidence. If true, he says, it would make reconciliation with his wife harder.
Mr Robinson also talks frankly about the ongoing struggle to repair his 40-year marriage since he found out about his wife’s affair with the young man she helped set up in business.
But he says, at his lowest ebb, he has been greatly encouraged by the thousands of supportive cards and letters which have poured in from Northern Ireland, the Republic and all around the world.
“I don’t think there has been any period of my life which has been more difficult to come through,” he says.
“But there has also been no period of my life when I have ever received more encouragement and support, and when I have never needed that support more than now.
“In particular there has been a massive response from people in the Republic of Ireland, and from people who have made it clear that they come from a Catholic or a republican background.”
Mr Robinson also signalled his determination to remain as First Minister and as DUP leader.
“Though my duties are being carried out very ably by Arlene Foster, I remain First Minister.
“I’m determined I will clear my name and will not be hounded by the Press out of a job colleagues have asked me to perform. I am not going to allow headline writers and the Press pack to write my script for me.”
Mr Robinson’s daughter Rebekah, meanwhile, has spoken for the first time about the turmoil the family has been going through over the last few months — and of her pride in how her father has coped under incredible pressure.
‘There are days I just want to go to bed, curl up in the foetal position and not come out again’
Peter Robinson has always been seen as dour and emotionally reserved, the stereotypical Ulster Protestant and staunch defender of unionism. But the man sitting opposite me, exposing his all too real hurt as a husband, is as far away from that image as is possible to imagine.
In an extraordinarily personal interview at his Dundonald home, the First Minister laid bare the heartache that he has endured since he found out about his wife Iris’s affair with 19-year-old Kirk McCambley.
At times his tone is not that of the public politician, but the hurt husband who is evidently still struggling to come to terms with the turmoil that has engulfed him and his family.
He is, of course, also a father and acutely aware of how the revelations have impacted on the Robinson’s three grown-up children Jonathan, Gareth and Rebekah.
“How am I dealing with this?” he asks, leaning back in a leather armchair in his study with a wry smile, rubbing his chin ruminatively. “Well, my weight has dropped from 215-and-a-half pounds to 180lbs over the past 10 months, though it’s not a diet plan I would recommend to anyone.
“But there are days when, were it not a case of getting up and getting on with things for the sake of the family, your instinct is just to get into bed, turn out the light, pull yourself into a foetal position and not come out again.”
That he is deeply hurt is beyond question — by his wife’s affair and also by the welter of lurid media coverage that has followed the BBC Spotlight programme.
And if coming to terms privately with his wife’s infidelity has been devastating, the public fall-out has been much, much worse.
One thing’s certain, though — the public have seen a very different Peter Robinson to the hard-nosed politician they’ve witnessed for decades.
Suddenly, as of that memorable and harrowing TV statement when he went public about his wife’s “inappropriate behaviour”, he has seemed so much more human.
And if the thousands of cards, letters and emails that have been pouring into his home and constituency offices are anything to go by, many people seem to like him all the more for it.
It’s clear that while people have been stunned by the episode, many also have sympathy and |understanding for the family’s predicament.
Mr Robinson says: “I have seen two facets of human nature. There has been the baying Press pack who treat you and your family as if they are a commodity without any thought of the lives they impact, without any thought of the accusations that they say. Simply the accusation is sufficient.
“And then there are all those people who offer support, who write to you, who ring to see if there is anything they can do to help. I and my family are so grateful for all the kind words and prayers and want to say thank you for all of them.”
Mr Robinson (61) is obviously a man torn between defending the honour of his wife and the mother of his children — who remains under acute psychiatric care — and his own sense of self-respect.
Referring to newspaper claims that Iris (60) had two other affairs — with McCambley’s late father Billy and also an unnamed DUP politician — he proffers this challenge to reporters: show me your proof.
“These journalists who make these accusations make them very carefully,” he says.
“They know that a woman who has had an affair is deemed as someone who has no reputation to defend so they proceed to print claims on that basis.
“They also know that since one of these people is deceased they cannot libel him, and of course another remains unnamed, so he cannot be libelled either.
“But I’m asking these journalists on the basis of common humanity to give me their evidence.
“You see, I have to go back to the events of March 1 last year (the night his wife attempted to take her own life).
“Afterwards, despite the hurt and pain that I felt, I told Iris that I would attempt to repair and to continue with our marriage provided that she told me everything and that there were no secrets between us.
“Now I have seen these accusations, so I’m saying to these journalists, show me your proof.
“Tell me what you know — if you know anything at all. Because I have decisions to make about my life, too.
“Obviously, after what has happened in our marriage trust has clearly been affected, not just by what I found out that night but also by some aspects of the story played out on Spotlight, things that I had not been told about (as regards the affair).
“So, yes, as I said in my statement last Wednesday, I want to rebuild the marriage, but I also said that we were on a road without guarantees, but not without hope.
“And any new revelation which transpired to be true would clearly make that road more difficult.
“However, for the time being I travel that road on the basis of an understanding that I have been given all the key facts.”
If the Robinson marriage was seen as the successful, modern and high-powered union of a DUP leader and his highly able, glamorous MP wife, it was also no stranger to unfounded slur.
For years the old line about Peter hitting Iris has done the rounds. It is a smear she dismissed outright in her autobiography and, to those who know the couple, as far away from the truth as is possible to be.
Her husband says: “If you were to take what has happened over the last 18 months out of it, it has been a very happy and loving marriage.”
For Mr Robinson the first indication that anything was amiss in what had always been a strong, supportive and loving relationship came last March when Iris attempted to take her own life, and the discovery of a letter outlining some details of her relationship with Kirk McCambley.
Even as a wronged husband, however, it seems he can still do no right in the eyes of some.
He says: “Ten months ago when I discovered what had happened — and I think anybody who is married will understand the emotions that come into play in such circumstances — I attempted to come to terms with it.
“But having to assimilate all that for 10 months in private was nothing to having to deal with it in public.
“Yet the other day I read a blog where someone was attempting to say that on the Wednesday night when I made my initial Press statement about Iris’s affair that I was doing a spot of very good acting because, after all, I had had 10 months to come to terms with this, so it was hardly a surprise.
“Well, I can tell you that dealing with something privately is very different from having to deal with it in interviews with the world’s Press. That is immensely more difficult.
“And if that had been all it was, then that might have been something that in the fullness of time I might have accommodated myself to and got over.
“But what hurt more than anything was the deliberate attempt to inveigle me in a scandal without any justification and without any evidence.
“I have seen some heartless things in my lifetime but that demonstrates the depths that some people will go to.”
Perhaps, though, the cruellest charge of all is that he failed to look after his wife properly in the immediate aftermath of her suicide bid. Critics say that when he was attending to his duties as First Minister the following day his rightful place was by his ill wife’s side.
Many will agree that it is a frankly rather tasteless and highly intrusive accusation and it is one that has deeply wounded — and appalled — both him and his children, who were also involved in the care of their mother at that time.
He counters: “One does have to question the insidious nature of the Spotlight programme when they chose to show the one small portion of First Minister questions when someone put in a question of a jovial nature and I responded in kind, and then they started to indicate that I had left my wife in a dire state.
“I had stayed by Iris’s side throughout the night and during that time she had become more lucid and we were having conversations.
“First we had dealt with the immediate impact and made sure the drugs were out of her body. I will not go into any further detail on that.