By Tom McGurk (for the Sunday Business Post)
It is very tempting to ridicule the extraordinary state of affairs that has crashed down on the Robinson family.
Throughout the years, Peter Robinson - never one of life’s warmer creatures - has been buoyed by his wife’s unfailing support.
A bizarre mixture of Sarah Palin and Laura Ashley, Iris Robinson has been exactly the sort of person that only a place as politically dysfunctional as the North could throw up and elect to high office.
It is not possible for this writer, who witnessed the emergence of the DUP in the 1970s, to forget the naked level of sectarianism that flowed through its veins.
Among the ‘weapons’ used to outmanoeuvre the Ulster Unionist Party down the years was its political wink andelbow language of anti-Catholicism.
It opposed every political attempt to resolve the crisis for 30 years, and this resulted in a political wasteland in which paramilitarism flourished and hundreds died. By the time it achieved the ‘cream’ of political office, the North had been reduced to a political slum.
Morally, too, it always situated itself on a self-erected high ground, from where it could service both its Bible belt and fundamentalist wing, as well as lecturing anyone else who cared to listen.
Paisleyism began in the 1950s as a religious mission, and it turned political in the 1960s with the emergence of ecumenism and liberal societal values.
As post-war economic forces in the North began to deconstruct the old unionist political monolith, Paisleyism attempted to halt the slide.
Two generations later, it all came crashing down on the back of its leader’s wife breaching her political representative legal requirements in order to fund her teenage lover’s business career. Truly Faustian.
One wonders how the DUP ‘Ballybackwards’ will swallow this story of adultery, corruption and naked greed? Were the DUP a normal political party, Mrs Robinson could retire and her husband might survive, on the basis that he could argue to colleagues that his loyalty to her temporarily overcame his better political judgment. But the DUP is not a normal political party. Its unique politicoreligious structure, which for so long protected people with attitudes like the Robinsons’, will now almost certainly abandon him.
Quite simply, all of this could not have come at amore difficult political moment for Peter Robinson, given both the deepening crisis within power-sharing over the devolving of justice and policing to the North and the extent to which the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) party led by Jim Allister is eating into traditional DUP support. To make matters even more difficult for Robinson, time is not on his side, with Britain’s general election only months away.
At his press conference last week, Robinson tried to brazen out the unanswered questions, and to implicate the BBC in a campaign to smear him.
However, he is a man with too many political enemies to imagine that this will suffice. When the small print of the sensational facts of his wife’s behaviour disappears from the front pages, the emerging political fallout is likely to make a severe impact on senior members of the DUP.
Primarily, their consideration is the question of what impact the scandal is likely to have on the upcoming competition for votes between the DUP and TUV.
In the meantime, the immediate question is - given that the Iris Robinson affair looks like it has many more press miles in it - how can the party ever shake it off while her husband is still its leader?
Interestingly, Allister is raising, not the personal morality issue, but the integrity issue. On the party’s website, under a headline proclaiming ‘Time for absolute candour’, he wrote: ‘‘I have no desire to comment on the personal difficulties afflicting the Robinson family but, following the Spotlight programme, there are public interest questions which now must be investigated and addressed with utter transparency and candour. The history and ease of obtaining funds from developers is one such area requiring thorough investigation and explanation.”
For some time, there have been questions around the operation of Castlereagh Borough Council and the levels of extensive property development it sanctioned.
It must be said, there is no evidence so far that they behaved in any inappropriate way, other than the recent revelation. Viewers of last Thursday’s BBC Spotlight programme will have been struck by Mrs Robinson’s demand for stg5,000 in cash, out of the stg50,000 she borrowed for her lover from two leading property developers.
According to newspaper reports earlier this year, the Robinsons together received stg571,939 a year in various salaries and expenses. For some time, there has been criticism of their lifestyles, which include expensive homes (one in Florida, an apartment in London and a large mansion currently under construction in Belfast) and Mrs Robinson’s taste in flashy, expensive cars. Last year, for example, it was revealed that they claimed parliamentary expenses of stg30,000 for food alone, over a period of four years.
But the biggest loser in all of this may yet be power-sharing. This weekend, Sinn Fein was due to meet to discuss the refusal - yet again - of the DUP to agree to the devolution of justice and police. The meeting was postponed, but the crisis is growing.
For Sinn Fein - given that this formed part of the St Andrew’s Agreement signed by the DUP - this is essentially now a crisis for the British and Irish governments.
Post-Paisley, there is now growing hostility, if not indifference, within the DUP to power-sharing.
Many would prefer direct rule, simply to get Sinn Fein out of government. Nor is the crisis within the DUP on the devolution of policing and justice made easier by the TUV depiction of it as ‘‘something which, on principle, should never happen, so long as there are terrorists in government’’.
This weekend, the North’s power sharing arrangement is hanging by the most slender of threads.
Iris Robinson may have unleashed a series of unexpected consequences that will bring down a political construct that took years and millions of political man-hours to erect. Nobody is the winner in of all this.