Peter Robinson came out fighting yesterday. Political Correspondent Noel McAdam interviewed the First Minister in his office at DUP headquarters in east Belfast with party officials and a solicitor present
Q: Are you planning to resign?
A: Many of the elements in the Spotlight programme came as a shock to me. Clearly many parts of it I had been aware of in terms of the affair, though the programme brought out aspects of that, that were new details to me. It raised issues about the financial arrangements which I had not heard before.
They made one allegation, as I understand it, against me, and I have to say I feel it is an abuse of the broadcasting position for the BBC Spotlight team who were clearly carrying out an investigation on my wife’s activity to seek to smear by association, to use innuendo, in order to attempt to draw in and damage me, particularly as they had the facts that should have led them to a different conclusion.
Q: What facts?
A: Let me make the facts clear.
I had no knowledge about my wife seeking financial support for the enterprise.
I had no knowledge about any of the financial dealings and the only issue I became aware of was how the money was to be repaid. I asked what it was and was told there had been a young man and she had known his father; he had died of cancer.
She felt that he deserved a chance in life and promised his father that she would help and that she had sought to get two loans for him to help him start up the business.
The information I received — and I think Spotlight confirms — is that the cheques were made out directly to the individuals starting up the enterprise, and I insisted that repayment was done properly, through a solicitor, directly to the lenders, and even though one of the lenders was deceased repayment would be made to his estate, and I was assured that would be done.
Q: What about the £5,000? (allegedly given back to Iris)
A: I had no knowledge of it until Spotlight.
Q: Doesn’t (Mrs Robinson) have to go — and right away?
A: She has already said she is leaving. Over the weekend I intend to make the necessary arrangements and discuss the matter with party officers as to how best it can be done. There’s an easy answer in relation to the Assembly in that we have complete control over the process. However, there is a different process as far as the council and Westminster is concerned and we will be attempting to resolve those issues over the weekend.
Q: Isn’t your position also untenable because, rightly or wrongly, you are tainted with the whiff of corruption?
A: Well, I have done nothing wrong. I have acted appropriately at all times and I believe the evidence on the programme shows that I acted properly at all times.
The one accusation against me by the Spotlight programme was that I had not disclosed various financial dealings.
But the information I had was that money was paid directly on a cheque from a private sector lender to someone else in the private sector and repaid directly.
There was therefore nothing for me to disclose and that has consistently been my view, which I made clear to Spotlight through my solicitor.
However, though I believe it — and those I have discussed it with believe it — I hold a public office and it isn’t, in my view, sufficient that it is my belief. I think the public need to be satisfied, either through my issuing a defamation action against the BBC and Spotlight — I don’t rule that out — but it is a process which could take one or two years and since I am already being tried in the Press that is a timescale that I cannot allow.
We could wait until the various standards bodies looked at the matter and reached a conclusion, but that would be some months, and therefore I have asked within the Office of FM that senior counsel is asked to give an opinion on the basis of the Spotlight programme and any questions he wants to ask of me as to whether there has been a breach of the obligations that I have in office.
I hope I will be able to publish at least the basis for that decision, but I do say to you that if that senior counsel’s opinion was to indicate that I was in breach, then clearly there would be consequences and a decision for me to take.
Equally, I hope that those who have been prepared to smear —that if the only allegation against me falls, I hope that people will be able to apologise to me for that.
Q: I think one of the things that people are surprised at is that someone can go to business people, even if friends, and get cheques for £25,000.
A: Well, you will know from the actions I took how annoyed I was. I think Iris has to deal with this and I don’t want to infringe on any of her legal rights. She must answer for herself when she is able to do so. But I want to maintain my marriage.
Q: Over the years there have been all sorts of allegations about your relationship with developers. Have you yourself ever taken or received any money from developers?
A: I think every politician gets those kinds of accusations. I know hundreds of business people, I have worked for hundreds of business people and never in all of my political career have I taken one penny for myself ... not one penny.
Q: I think people also found it odd, and difficult to understand, that only a matter of hours after Iris’s suicide attempt we saw the clip of you at the dispatch box in the Assembly in fairly jocular form.
A: I think it says something about the disposition of the Spotlight team that during the course of a day, where at First Minister’s questions I had dozens of questions put to me, that they go out of their way to find the one answer which was given in a humorous way.
Let’s be clear what happened. I stayed with my wife throughout the evening, having received medical advice as to what we needed to do, and on medical advice, having left her asleep and with trusted family members, I then went into the Assembly.
There was a deliberate attempt being made to indicate that I had been heartless.
During the later course of the day people who were attending Iris said they should seek further medical advice and concluded that she should go into hospital.
We both think she was dealt with properly and I think it is pretty low journalism to try and suggest other than that.
The other half of that is if I hadn’t gone into First Minister’s questions some would say he cannot do his job, so I lose either way.