Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 July 2014

Gail Walker: Iris is now paying the price for her lust...and greed

For the headline writers and the local satirists it is a story beyond their wildest dreams and imaginings.

Take one Mrs Robinson, an attractive, sexy, powerful, older woman. Add in an affair ... with a much younger man.

It is, of course, the plotline from The Graduate, one of the most celebrated films of the 1960s.

And it is also now, in a truly sensational turn of events, the real-life drama engulfing our very own Mrs Robinson and her First Minister husband, Peter.

It is impossible to banish images of Anne Bancroft seducing a very young and naive Dustin Hoffman — though even in the film he is meant to be in his 20s and his would-be amoureuse, her 40s.

Indeed, pastiches of the famous poster with its sensuous stockinged leg — and worse — are already pinging into email inboxes throughout Northern Ireland.

The disclosures of Wednesday evening, when people turned on the tea-time bulletins expecting to see what village in Co Armagh was under the most snow, and were instead confronted by the astonishing — and moving — spectacle of their normally stern-faced First Minister fighting back tears in a 10-minute press statement, were shocking and riveting by turns.

His wife had had an affair. She had tried to take her own life. They were fighting to save their marriage.

But the latest allegation that Iris’s affair was with Kirk McCambley, then 19 and young enough to be her grandson, has added a new level of bizarreness and distaste to the story. Add to that last night’s claims by Spotlight. . .

This sordid tale of money, power and sex is like a Watergate by the Lagan.

Strange enough against the narrow background of general Ulster conservatism, but absolutely unbelievable against the background of the DUP’s evangelical and unashamedly puritanical ethos.

How on earth is this scandal — for that is what it is — playing in the homes of the party faithful in Ballymena and Desertmartin, never mind in the wider population where there has been genuine sympathy for Mr Robinson since that harrowing interview?

Is that sympathy not in danger of being overwhelmed by a wave of ridicule bordering on disgust?

While it could be argued many will feel even greater pity for the unsavoury nature of the circumstances Peter Robinson finds himself in, none the less it appears he is at the centre of it.

And given the extent of the allegations in the programme, the fact that one of those making the allegations had been until recently a confidante of, and adviser to, his wife, and another informant on screen was McCambley himself, it is quite remarkable that the First Minister chose not to address any of those issues in his televised statement.

As regards Iris, herself, even the dynamics of the affair are fraught with ironies. Perhaps it is unfair, but the fact this is an older woman with a younger man will probably make it even more shocking.

However, look at this way. If it had been a 60-year-old man of the world politician who’d been caught having a fling with a teenage girl, there would be howls of outrage, too. So, what on earth could have possessed Iris Robinson, a mum of three, to embark on such, as her loyal husband put it, “inappropriate behaviour”? Why would she risk it all?

Sometimes, there are clues, and going by Iris’s own press statement, this relationship began innocently when she sought to comfort young McCambley following the death of his father.

The heightened emotions of grief, allied to her own fragile mental state, could have led to a loss of perspective. These things happen. But there is a cold core in the allegations which can be summed up in one word. Greed.

Perhaps Iris had literally lost her mind? Depressed people do desperate things. And judging from her statement about this matter she certainly points to her mental illness as the prime factor in causing her to “lose control of my life” and resulting in her doing the “worst thing I have ever done”.

But, of course, that only leads to the question: why was she depressed in the first place?

Could the reckless relationship — to sound like an armchair psychologist — not have been a determination at some level to shatter a life that may have become overly restricted, patrolled as it was by her own ambition, the image that she had created of herself and the expectations of the party’s followers and the wider public?

One error of judgment, though, especially in a private life so closely policed as hers, can lead quite rapidly to other miscalculations. The walls come tumbling down. Iris Robinson’s public career is most definitely over.

The only question remaining is will she also bring down her husband’s. Last night’s serious allegations regarding money and abuse of power cast a darker shadow than confessions of infidelity.

The allegations of financial impropriety need to be not only answered, but completely refuted in full. Otherwise it’s goodbye First Minister.

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