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Peter Robinson has emerged from his trials as softer but stronger man

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DUP leader Peter Robinson is kissed by his daughter Rebekah after his poll topping election to East Belfast at Ards Leisure centre

DUP leader Peter Robinson is kissed by his daughter Rebekah after his poll topping election to East Belfast at Ards Leisure centre

Niall Carson

First Minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson celebrates with a hug from daughter Rebekah after topping the poll in the east Belfast count at Newtownards Leisure Centre in the Northern Ireland Assembly elections

First Minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson celebrates with a hug from daughter Rebekah after topping the poll in the east Belfast count at Newtownards Leisure Centre in the Northern Ireland Assembly elections

First Minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson, pictured with daughter Rebekah, puts on an id braclet after he was asked for id before being allowed to enter the count at Newtownards Leisure Centre in the Northern Ireland Assembly elections

First Minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson, pictured with daughter Rebekah, puts on an id braclet after he was asked for id before being allowed to enter the count at Newtownards Leisure Centre in the Northern Ireland Assembly elections

Northern Ireland first Minister Peter Robinson has a wrist band put on him by his daughter Rebekah as he arrives at Ards Leisure centre where the count for his East Belfast Assembly seat took place

Northern Ireland first Minister Peter Robinson has a wrist band put on him by his daughter Rebekah as he arrives at Ards Leisure centre where the count for his East Belfast Assembly seat took place

Niall Carson

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DUP leader Peter Robinson is kissed by his daughter Rebekah after his poll topping election to East Belfast at Ards Leisure centre

There's a telling photograph taken just after his re-election which shows DUP leader Peter Robinson being kissed by his pretty dark-haired daughter Rebekah. A fairly clichéd election scene there - winning candidate being warmly congratulated by a family member.

Except that this one strikes you as something much more heartfelt than the standard peck on the cheek by a proud political daughter. For Peter Robinson - and for his family - this was a moment not just of political, but of personal, resurgence.

Just over a year ago who would have put money on it? The Swish Family Robinson (as the media had taken to calling them) were at the centre of a scandal and a personal turmoil that - whatever you think of the man's politics - you truly would not have wished upon your worst enemy. For his sons and his daughter it must have been hellish.

His 60-year-old wife's affair with a lad young enough to be her grandson had made salacious and smirking headlines right across the world.

But it wasn't just the unlikely romance in itself that made it such a story. Or even the fact that questions were being asked about the start-up funding for her young lover's towpath café.

It was that MP Iris's image had hitherto been uncompromisingly, smugly holier-than-thou. She quoted scripture on a radio phone-in show as she infamously described homosexuality as an "abomination" and "vile".

As for Peter, he was seen as the coldest fish in local politics. (And given the shoal we have to choose from, that was something of an achievement.)

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Stern and sneering, he seemed perpetually angry. He regularly wore the tight-eyed expression of a man sucking on a pickled chilli. That his political hardman image was badly punctured by the scandal and by the turmoil of those months is beyond question.

But ironically what has emerged is not just a more human, softer persona but a tougher, stronger personality.

At the time I remember describing Peter Robinson as a lame duck leader. His electoral humbling by Alliance's Naomi Long seemed to bear that out.

I suggested that if the UUP were to get their act together (they didn't; no surprises there) they would capitalise on DUP difficulties. But the moment passed and then a strange, unforeseen thing happened. Peter Robinson began to show his human side. Maybe he always had one and had just kept it firmly in check. The telling thing is this new compassion - there is no better word - did not, and does not, seem contrived or put on.

Talking about suicide victims, about the deaths of young people and especially after those two high-profile cases which so touched us all - the murders of Michaela McAreavey and Ronan Kerr - you could hear real empathy, genuine sympathy in his voice.

In an interview this week he concedes (with some understatement): "I think that clearly people change because of the experiences they have in life and perhaps they become more understanding when they are faced with difficulties."

In fact this is not always the case. Sometimes people emerge from their difficulties embittered and broken. Sometimes the ice crusts even harder on the heart.

The new softer Peter Robinson (sounds a bit like a toilet roll ad, I know) is the sort of politician he and his party would have sneered at a couple of years back. Yet he's also now the very picture of a triumphant and secure party leader.

Who would have thought it would have turned out like this?


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