Belfast Telegraph

Monday 22 September 2014

Resignation may mark end of another DUP family firm

Iris Robinson's decision to quit politics due to depression may solve one of the DUP's many double-jobbing dilemmas, writes Alan Murray

Is it the beginning of the end of the Robinson dynasty - or just the end of its beginning? That is one of the questions DUP activists in the Strangford and East Belfast constituencies will be asking this week.

Iris Robinson's announcement that she has decided to call it a day as a high-profile public representative will surprise some outside the Democratic Unionist Party - but few inside it.

Earlier this year the 60-year-old is understood to have endured further medical problems which induced another bout of the type of depression which has afflicted her for a good part of her political career.

Colleagues spoke of her sitting alone on a bench in a scenic area within her Strangford constituency in the summer reading her Bible and wondered whether she would return to politics again in the autumn.

To her great credit, she did and attempted to soldier on in the demanding dual role of MP and MLA. But the strain of work, the often hostile media attention she generated and perhaps major concerns about her medical condition led to her resignation announcement on Monday.

It was Iris who put the 'Swish' into the media-created 'Swish Family Robinson' description of the lifestyle of the First Minister and his wife.

Always impeccably attired, her east Belfast home matched her haute couture image with not an item out of place and rooms individually styled to her exacting standards.

Ever courteous to approach, Iris is well-regarded for her sterling constituency work in the Strangford seat she captured from John Taylor in 2001 - a full two decades after her husband managed to edge Taylor's 1970s Stormont Cabinet colleague Bill Craig out of his East Belfast stomping-ground.

A born-again Christian, Iris's Bible is her compass in matters of moral rectitude and, not surprisingly, she pronounced on homosexuality in a way that outraged those for whom it is a way of life.

Denouncing homosexual practice as an "abomination", she added insult to injury in June 2008 by inviting those who are gay to seek psychiatric help - observations which made her a shoo-in for the UK Bigot of the Year 2008 title as voted by the Stonewall gay rights group.

With combined salaries and expenses from the public purse of more than £500,000 a year, Peter and Iris Robinson are the envy of many of their constituents, but scorned 'fat cat' MPs to others.

One DUP stalwart explained the rationale of his adult children following their refusal to vote for Diane Dodds in the European election. "They just refused to participate in the creation of another DUP family dynasty," said the long-time DUP member.

With the Robinsons, the Paisleys, the McCreas and now the Dodds, the DUP has more than its quota of family-run political franchises and it's something that the Conservatives, which may be the next party of Government - and moreover an electorate enduring a bleak economic climate - appears averse to.

Had Iris not elected to relinquish her grip on her Westminster seat DUP sources in Strangford say she would have faced a contest anyway for the nomination.

Jim Shannon - a fellow Christian and MLA - was planning to throw his hat into the ring, friends say, regardless of whom it may have irritated. It's no secret that he and Iris didn't gel together with the gulf between them more than just the distance between their separate offices in Newtownards.

But with Iris declaring her exit from the stage Simon Hamilton is likely now to feel comfortable to throw his hat into the ring.

There may also be a temptation for her son and office manager Jonathan to seek to exploit his mother's popularity within the DUP's Strangford constituency party and snatch the nomination, but, again, that may play badly with an electorate hostile to further dynastic ambitions.

Whatever the succession, Iris Robinson's decision eliminates one of the DUP's many 'double-jobbing' dilemmas without angst.

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