It may have been painful, but Peter Robinson did the right thing
Of all the ways which a man like Peter Robinson, with his decades of experience in the most fraught political environment, found open to him as options faced with catastrophe in his private life, the option he ended up choosing would easily have been the least appealing.
It has turned out, though, to be the only right one.
He could have appeared with his unfaithful wife, Iris, at their garden gate, holding hands, admitting some “inappropriate behaviour by her”, and pretending everything was back to normal.
He could have hunted down the rumour-mongers through the courts by means of injunctions and super injunctions, endlessly deferring any admission of what had taken place.
He could have fallen back on Iris’s resignation statement and pretended that the difficulties were all down to her depression.
He could have pleaded that “politicians deserve private lives, too”.
Or he could have simply stonewalled, even at the risk of damaging his political standing as First Minister.
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What he chose to do would be the last item on any of our lists.
A face-to-face interview, on national television, describing — and living through again in our living rooms — the kind of hurt and emotional devastation which all of us without exception most dread and, if we are among the lucky ones, have no concept of how we would survive.
Iris was posted missing, probably due to illness, certainly by design. Earlier she had distributed her own statement to journalists invited to their home, but she was not to play a role in the very public dissection of her very private mistake.
It was her husband who came, remarkably, both to praise her and to defend her, at least as regards her contribution over years to public life, and to their life together.
In faltering voice, he said: “I admit that my immediate impulse was to walk away... from my marriage. I felt betrayed after almost 40 years of being happily and closely bonded together... over time and on calmer reflection I set her inappropriate behaviour against 40 years of bringing up our children — often alone... having to live with the threats and dangers my position visited upon my family...
“Those were 40 years during which she supported me more than any person could reasonably have been expected to.”
Has there ever been a statement by a betrayed spouse as extraordinary as this? The weighing of decades of support and self-sacrifice against the kind of cavalier behaviour which, however brief, can irretrievably damage a relationship. The balance of hurt against hope.
It is a forensic description of repair, and with sound and pictures, it is all the more potent and moving. At several moments Robinson was close to tears, clinging onto his composure.
Viewers would have spotted the card behind him with the inscription: ‘Dad, no matter how tall I grow, I will always look up to you.’ Had it been placed their by some wily spinmeister? I doubt it. There wasn’t much stage-managed about this homely workroom.
Robinson’s interview was a sensational exposure of the human being behind the politician, behind the hard man, behind the caricature, behind a figure many in our community feared at one time and some may still do. Yet it was an exposure completely to his credit and one which will considerably enhance his standing.
The Robinsons have always been figures of fun — the Swish Family Robinson, the religious fanatics, the Clontibret warlord and the gaybashing targe. Except there was always much more to them than the easy, lazy, media stereotyping.
It’s only now that the marriage is in difficulties that the depth of feeling they shared — which will come as a surprise to many — is very obvious for all to see. Undemonstrative (remember that clumsy kiss on his first day in office), starchy, religious, stern (but with very protected inner lives), the pair (ironically) mirror so many relationships in Ulster.
Almost as an aside, in response to questions about his political future, after his harrowing statement — nearly as painful to watch as it would have been to compose — Robinson placed his personal anguish in the context of the single most challenging week in our recent history as a community emerging from war.
Twelve hours after his wife had attempted to kill herself and he had discovered her infidelity, he was at the despatch box as First Minister. The following weekend Sappers Patrick Azimkar and Mark Quinsey were murdered at Massereene Barracks in Antrim and days later Constable Stephen Carroll was shot dead in Craigavon.
Robinson, with Martin McGuinness, acted decisively and in unison to preserve order and restore confidence and stability to a shaken community.
That context is almost impossible to comprehend. How one might behave in everyday life in offices or schools or on the factory floor with a similar drama playing out along the nerves and in the heart is difficult to imagine. Most of us, I think, wouldn’t give a damn.
But it is a measure of the man that he was able to climb over his own torture — for that it quite clearly was — to behave in exactly the right way at the right time.
In his private life, too, as a husband, Iris could have asked for no more. Last night, he told us he had forgiven her, that he would give no assistance to anyone seeking to dredge up any lurid detail, that he hoped those who judged her would so with mercy, that he loved her.
As Peter Robinson steps out with his fragile wife on, as he put it, a “road without guarantees”, once again he is behaving in exactly the right way at the right time.