By Brian Feeney (for Irish News)
Primary definition some experts call it.
Politicians use it all the time. They take the initiative,call a press conference or issue a statement in which they present their definition of a controversial issue. The press and electronic media then react to that definition which becomes the story. Peter Robinson performed this sleight of hand trick brilliantly last week.
Aware of the imminent BBC Spotlight programme, he grabbed the initiative and upstaged the programme by defining the issue as a personal and family tragedy in a carefully choreographed presentation. reading a prepared statement in his home, complete with schmaltzy card to ‘Dad’ prominently displayed behind his shoulder.
He’s still trying to play that card. In Monday’s statement he claimed he’s stepping aside “to devote time to family matters” and get over the “time of great personal trauma”. Except that the great personal trauma was 10 months ago when his wife attempted suicide and he didn’t take any time off at all but turned up in Stormont jokily answering questions ho urs after the event, If s at least 13 months since he discovered his wife had solicited money from a property developer and a builder. It was Peter Robinson w ho brought all this out into the open a t a time of his choosing.
The real issue at stake here is the abuse of political power by his wife a nd to what extent he was complicit in the knowledge of her financial dealingwhich he keptto himself since December 2008. So far the response of the other politicalparties,especially the DUP’s partner in the Stormont administration Sinn Fein, has been supine. They’re apparently prepared to go along with a mickey-mouse inquiry which Robinson himself set up with terms of reference Robinson established - ridiculous.
True - Sinn Fein have called in the Committee on Standards and Privileges and Robinson has notified the Westminster committee which would have la unchedan inquiry anyway. Big deal - but that’s not going to get near the nub of the matter. All of this messing about misses the essential questions which the DUP’s tormentor Jim Allister has correctly asked. How was it so easy for Iris Robinson to go to a property developer and get a 25,000 cheque made out to someone he’d never met? Had she ever done anything like this before and if so,how often and over what period oftime? What exactly was her financial relationship with the late Fred Fraser and indeed other developers? Demanding a cut of #5,000 doesn’t sound as if she was motivated exclusively by lust.
Since the 1980s eyebrows have been raised at the proliferation of Fred Freser’s developments in outer south-east Belfast in the context of stated DoE policies about a green belt and a road strategy for southern approaches to Belfast. What was the role of Cestjereagh council in considering those matters? What was the nature of Fred Fraser’s relations with that council?
All these questions require a full-blown judicial inquiry by a high court judge who can examine the financial dealings of the Robinsons, both of them, because the public won’t accept blaming Iris for everything - especially when she’s not around to defend herself. That means examining bank accounts, property portfolios, tax returns and any relevant transactions of the couple. If Peter Robinson is serious about exonerating himself, then that is the only type ofinquiry that will suffice to restore public confidence. After such an inquiry, Peter Robinson can really stand before the public vindicated.
Alongside such a judicial inquiry the local government auditor must immediately open an inquiry into Casttereagh Council, its tendering procedures, methods of awarding tenders and the council’s relations with property developers. The fact that the council has dragged its feet about supplying minutes of meetings which are public documents is itself an indication that there is something amiss, not in the documents but in the council’s attitude to its requirement to be accountable to the public.
So far politicians have fallen far short of what should be expected of them. Establishing a so-called ‘official’ inquiry into the Spotlight allegations is nonsense because it misses the point entirely and comes perilously dose to accepting Peter Robinson’s self-serving ‘primary definition’ of the problem.