Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 3 September 2014

Did childhood tragedy lead to downfall of Iris?

Inever ever thought I’d write these words — they were about as likely to come out of my mouth as “Isn’t Bill Oddie a national treasure!” — but I feel sorry for Iris Robinson.

The latest round of news stories and rumours have focused on how far Iris’ ‘panicking’ teenage boyfriend went to get himself out from underneath the mountain of texts, phone calls, emails and love letters his increasingly over-attentive old lady showered upon him. This kind of talk must be deeply humiliating for the onetime glamour girl of Northern Irish politics.

Those media outlets who had fun presenting the 59-year-old as a powerful, sexually charged ‘cougar’ (most of them outside Northern Ireland it has to be said) have replaced their Anne Bancroft-inspired portrayals with those of a desperate old women hounding a young guy for sex and love and being horribly, publicly rejected in the process. Iris has gone from Mrs Robinson to Miss Havisham within a week, and for a woman who has nurtured her public image with such fastidious attention, that must be a truly hurtful experience.

There’s no doubt that Robinson sowed the seeds of her own downfall. Her puritanical Presbyterian moral code, which she used to casually refer to other human beings’ harmless and victimless behaviour as sinful, could only support her as long as she was lucky enough to enjoy an existence so idyllic that she was never tempted to stray beyond its parameters.

But that was never going to be the case; life broke her heart at just six years old, when the reported daddy’s girl lost her father. I can’t help wondering if the early loss of that solid, towering figure who for so many children provides the first set of ethical beliefs pushed her later into the arms of a church, a political party and a husband who promised a definitive answer to every moral question.

I’ve long felt that Iris was trying almost pathologically hard to be a number of impressive things — a hard-working politician, a glamourous older woman, a devoted wife, a doting mother and an upstanding Christian. I don’t know if it was the crushing pressure of maintaining all of these personas which left her psychologically fragile, or if her attempt to keep all balls in the air was a symptom of an unbalanced sense of self and a fanatical need to be appreciated, but I always felt that the house of cards would collapse one day.

And if she did have a deep-set neediness, the allegation that she sought affection and validation from men other than her husband — including a possibly less demanding, more easily awed teenager — wouldn’t be too surprising.

Iris Robinson knew from an early age that life can throw you a curveball, that grief, frustration and stress can affect your behaviour in all kinds of irrational ways. Yet she carried on clinging to the austere moral guidelines of the devout Family Robinson, keenly voicing her unflinching disapproval of all kinds of innocent people, until those guidelines led to her own disgrace.

Did it ever strike her that a more compassionate and tolerant society than the one she had so long championed might find a way to forgive her own transgressions?

I suspect the thought might have flickered in her head. But the political, religious and familial fortress she had built around herself made it impossible for her to ever say it out loud.

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