As I stood in the weekend snow and read the words inscribed on the plaque which marked the official opening by the Mayor of Castlereagh last May of the Lock Keeper’s Inn on the banks of the River Lagan, I couldn’t help but think of Peter and Iris Robinson.
Here by the picturesque river near Shaw’s Bridge is where it began. A tiny nondescript 19th century cottage converted into a café has become the centre of an incredible political scandal.
In the sub-zero light of another week, the First Minister of Northern Ireland is skating on the Lagan’s thinnest ice.
He has no way of knowing at what moment the ice may crack beneath his feet. He is on his own now, the rest of us in anticipation of his downfall watching from the river bank.
Will he slip and be consumed by the freezing waters? Or will he defy the elements and survive another day? Peter Robinson is running out of time to prove himself before the court of public opinion. His political life and the future of the Stormont Assembly and Executive are on the line. It is a toss-up as to which the fractured ice will consume first.
The First Minister and the Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams have not their sorrows to seek in 2010 for very different family reasons. The revelations surrounding Robinson and his wife have stunned everyone. Adams is facing awkward questions about his brother Liam. Both men have serious personal problems at a time of crucial political importance for the future of Northern Ireland. But, amid the frenzied mood of the moment, can we stand back and ask one cold dispassionate question. What exactly has Peter Robinson done wrong?
On the evidence presented, he does not appear to have committed a hanging offence. Even if he failed to persuade his wife to register her bizarre investment in the Lock Keeper’s Inn, how serious a misdemeanour would that be? On current experience at Westminster, it might be most likely met by an MP’s abject apology or censure.
We should not forget that even the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition were required to repay expenses and neither resigned nor were asked to do so. Northern Ireland MPs from all parties have paid back thousands of pounds from their original expenses claims and are still in office. Square this behaviour against Peter Robinson failing to advise his wife to own up to her extraordinary financial dealings.
The real problem for Robinson is not the seriousness of the claims against him. It is in the political circumstances in which he finds himself. He heads a party which sees its register of interests not at Westminster or Stormont but in the Book of Leviticus. It is also only months away from the most difficult of general election battles.
As First Minister, he is the key figure in the current deadlock over policing and justice. His negotiating position is now weakened.
He knows that if the Executive collapses — and Sinn Fein might trigger that any day now — a new Assembly election would be a political nightmare for his party. Finally, his abrasive, judgemental style with the media and his political enemies is coming back to haunt him.
If this were elsewhere in the UK or in the Republic, and wrong were proved, I suspect the First Minister might be severely rapped over the knuckles by some parliamentary ombudsman or accounts committee.
Robinson says he has no intention of falling on his sword. Indeed, it would not surprise me if he convinced Stormont’s investigative lawyer of his innocence. But will he survive the frozen river of Ulster politics?
The bottom line for any major political party is whether the leader is a winner or loser at election time.
That is why Labour in Britain is so concerned about Gordon Brown.
As Robinson struggles to clear his name, his future is out of his hands. It rests with the DUP members of the Northern Ireland Assembly. If they cannot see him confidently and successfully leading them into the general election, then the ice will crack before him and we will watch him helplessly founder on that frozen river.
Meanwhile, the Sinn Fein leader stands accused of being economical with the truth about his relationship with his brother Liam. Questions are asked as to what Gerry Adams knew and at what point about his brother Liam’s alleged paedophile behaviour. Why did Liam Adams continue to have such a high profile in Sinn Fein if, as Gerry Adams claims, he sought to have him ousted at the earliest opportunity?
Sinn Fein and its president are far from convincing in their answers. Adams has dug some deep holes for himself with his vague and confusing recollections.
If he cannot answer legitimate questions convincingly about his relationship with his brother, then his credibility too will be damaged. Like Robinson, Adams looks morally wounded, but I suspect it will take more than has been revealed so far to bring down the island’s longest-standing party leader.
Adams is too much the architect and guru of modern-day Irish republicanism to be ditched abruptly. He does not have the same standing in the south as he once enjoyed and he is overshadowed here by Martin McGuinness but he remains Sinn Fein’s international box-office attraction.
My hunch is that he will survive any crisis of confidence over his leadership. Who would have believed that the two most powerful figures in politics would have found themselves in such great personal difficulties at this stage of their careers?
As events unfold almost by the hour we can say one thing for certain. Peter Robinson and Gerry Adams are not the men today that they were yesterday.