Iris Robinson – in search of an appropriate response

To summarise from http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/northern_ireland/8447383.stm etc:

Iris Robinson, Democratic Unionist Party councillor on Castlereagh Borough Council, MLA and MP for Strangford, got involved with a young man Kirk McCambley, who was the only successful bidder to take on the Lockkeeper’s Inn beside the Lockkeeper’s cottage on the Lagan towpath. She obtained funding from property developers, failed to declare her business interest in the Inn when the Council was considering Kirk’s bid, and had an affair with Kirk.

Some months after they broke up, Iris attempted suicide and told her husband Peter Robinson, also a Castlereagh Borough councillor, but also First Minister, and MLA and MP for East Belfast. Even when he knew about Iris’s failure to disclose her business interests, he didn’t pass the information on to the appropriate authorities. He went to work as usual as First Minister the morning after Iris attempted suicide instead of excusing himself to be with Iris.

This was disclosed in the NI Current Affairs programme, Spotlight, and was based on a piece of whistle-blowing by Dr Selwyn Black, advisor to Mrs Robinson until very recently.

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The whole business is political dynamite. Iris’s reputation as a politician has been totally destroyed, and even if she had not decided to stand down just before Christmas, this would have finished her. Peter, her husband, has at best been tainted by association, and his own alleged (and denied) failure to comply with laws regarding disclosure of financial interests in any of his three political posts (he and Iris are among the DUP’s triple-jobbers) may mean he has to resign as First Minister.

In turn, after the disclosure that DUP members will continue to serve as both MLAs and local councillors or MPs or all three, the DUP has been revealed as a band of opportunistic double-jobbing money-grabbers – consider how they opposed power-sharing with Sinn Fein until they had caused the political near-annihilation of the Ulster Unionist Party and it became to their advantage to enter power-sharing, and consider how they have excluded new people from involvement in NI politics by electing the same people to as many different roles at once as humanly possible. Chickens are now coming home to roost, and the consequences for the DUP could be ruinous, going the same way as the UUP.

So what will replace them? Hardliners will gravitate towards Jim Allister’s Traditional Unionist Voice, which pretends that the abolition of power sharing will be in the interests of Northern Ireland, despite the fact that throughout the 37 years (less two days) of my life, any period where NI has been governed by Direct Rule ministers has led to NI MPs being irrelevant and NI being governed on the same basis as England by English ministers with no love for and no responsibility to NI people. Transport, health and education have all been underfunded, where the Assembly has been able to rectify some of the deficit, and local representatives have been utterly powerless to make any difference in Westminster due to sheer lack of numbers.

Moderates wishing to abandon the DUP will not have an easy choice either. Left-wingers will not wish to be associated with the Conservative Party, so the Ulster Unionist Party will be ruled out, now it is almost inextricably interlinked with the Tories. The Progressive Unionist Party, much as it has moved on since the days when it was quite so closely linked with the UVF, is very small, and may be a step too far.

Personally, I suspect that Alliance may need a new slogan, as it attracts those who come to realise that tribal politics is getting nowhere, and we need a dose of proper politics, politics based on something other than the constitutional status of Northern Ireland and certainly something other than the negative politics of not being the other side. Tiocfaidh ár lá, anyone?

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So much for the politics. It is very easy to sit and crow over the downfall of the Robinsons, especially after Iris’s remarks recorded in Hansard about homosexuality being worse than child sexual abuse (see http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200708/cmgeneral/nigc/080617/80617s02.htm at 5.38pm) – even when you haven’t had two reasonably close friends come out to you in the last year, this was always an idiotic statement which suggested that acting on homosexual urges was somehow worse than any other possible sin. It doesn’t get any harder when you realise that two apparently clean-cut politicians who wouldn’t do anything wrong have been knocked off their pedastals by hypocrisy, and that at least Iris is as human as the rest of us.

And that is the key thing for Christians. Iris Robinson in that sense is every(wo)man. The woman who maybe thought she’d never have an affair, she’d always be faithful to her husband, and got in deeper than she could handle because she wasn’t prepared for the possibility that she might be tempted. The person in a position of power to use money who got tempted to use it for her own benefit because she would never be found out.

Iris needs our prayers. She needs to know that God forgives her. She needs grace stronger than Peter showed her in http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/northern_ireland/8444422.stm where he could have supported her more strongly (sorry, but that’s how I feel). She needs to know that while she could never return to politics even if her health permits her, God’s forgiveness is absolute, he is with her, and her life is not over. Where there is God, no matter how badly you mess up in life, as long as you are alive, God has something worthwhile for you to do that will reflect the talents and abilities he gives you.

And our response is not just to pray for Iris. We need to ask God to remind us that we are no better than Iris, because that is where humility begins. No matter what we do, no matter whom we sleep with, no matter what we are involved with, we are no better than anyone else. The key difference is we are forgiven sinners, and our response is therefore threefold:

1. To pray for Iris as above;
2. To pray to God that we will have the strength to fight temptation when it comes our way, as it will; and
3. To show the same grace to other sinners when they do wrong that God showed us, that regardless of the earthly consequences of their wrongdoing, we will stand with them, support them, and help them back onto the same wagon that we keep falling off ourselves.

I think I would add a fourth one after all: Pray for the ability to abandon hypocrisy, and live as forgiven children of God without fear of being judged for our imperfections. That may be a real challenge in Northern Ireland, where Christians are expected to fit a certain mould of “holiness” that only a very few have the grace to achieve without looking down on anyone else, and for everyone else is pure hypocrisy, pretending to be something they cannot and do not want to live up to but they they think they need to so as not to be rejected. Never mind proper politics, proper christianity and following Jesus, anyone?