A humanistic view of marital infidelity would ask if both partners should take responsibility for one of them wandering. Lucky Peter Robinson; he gets his wife to take all the blame and then forgives her on national television.
Here’s a piece I publish in this morning’s Belfast Telegraph:
Part of the indignity for Iris Robinson is that her disclosures about
an affair contrast with an image which she has presented of herself as
a morally assertive and sexually prim woman.
There have been sexual infidelities in other political families in
Northern Ireland that have not brought people to the extremes of
attempted suicide and public confession.
The striking thing about the confessions we heard last night is that
no clear motive for them was made plain.
Peter Robinson said that part of the motivation was to end speculation
that his personal problems and recent absence from public life were
grounded in illegal financial dealings. And it is clear that he now
wants the media to stop investigating the affair that Iris had.
Spotlight on Spotlight
The Spotlight programme on BBC Northern Ireland has said that it is
still waiting for answers to a series of questions put to the
Robinsons. Presumably, a good result for Peter and Iris would be that
the planned Spotlight programme would be pulled. The Spotlight team
are now faced with the suggestion that humiliating Iris with further
disclosures would be bad for her mental health, and might cost her
If there is any more to the First Couple’s desire to make this
heartrending public confession, other than to morally constrain
Spotlight, then it is perhaps indicative of a naivete about the rest
of the world’s expectations of them.
Iris, in particular, presents herself as almost legalistically religious.
At the time she was having her affair she was pontificating in the
media about the ‘abomination’ of homosexuality.
She brought heaps of grief upon herself over that whole argument.
She was ridiculed in much of the media and lampooned as a ridiculous
hate figure, most colourfully on the Gay Pride parade through Belfast.
Yesterday, on social networking sites, Iris was being traduced as a hypocrite.
It is hard to escape the sense that her own sexual frailties would not
have brought her such pain had she not succumbed to the fantasy that
she was pure and holy enough to dictate right and wrong to others.
You get a flavour of that smugness in the interviews she gave to
writer Lorraine Wylie three years ago for a book described as ‘An
The book included accounts of life lived almost as a soap opera. One
memorable yarn recounts how the Robinsons got so sunburned on holiday
that they couldn’t put clothes on over their tender skin and set up an
arrangement whereby Iris would order room service from under the
bedclothes while Peter hid naked in the bathroom. The outworking of
that, as told in the book, was that Peter ‘glowing like a Sellafield
fish’ misheard his cue to come back into the bedroom and presented his
full glory to the waitress.
Iris also wrote of her fury at the vicious rumours about her marriage
and her husband. She said, ‘it never ceases to amaze me what
imagination can conjure up. I’ve heard my husband accused of
everything from infidelity to domestic abuse and even murder.’
The initial impact of the disclosures on last night’s news appears to
have been highly sympathetic.
God and Conscience
Journalists who were present when Peter Robinson made his statement
were clearly deeply moved by it.
Some will have been reading backwards to the extraordinary flashes of
temper from him in the past year and perhaps concluding that these are
more intelligible against the background of marital stress. And
religious people will note that both Iris and Peter emphasised the
power of God and conscience in their lives. It was guilt which drove
Iris to an attempt at suicide; it is the conviction that God himself
has forgiven her which consoles Peter.
And it is not only sexual indiscretion which Iris has owned up to.
The statement says that she provided financial support for her lover and encouraged others to as well.
But if they talk sometimes as if they are not quite human themselves,
they certainly appear a lot more human to the rest of us now.
Sexual infidelity is human. The grief of a betrayed spouse is human.
And it is human to plead in extremis for mercy from an investigative
media which might drag out the pain, even if it does not unearth more
For Iris, now, political life is at an end.
This is a tragedy for someone who was a gifted parliamentary performer.
Sometimes the focus of her interest appears to have been punitive and
moralistic. A reading of the questions that she has asked in
Westminster over recent years shows a primary concern with the
treatment of prisoners and particularly of sex offenders.
She enjoyed politics. There was something almost exultant in the wrath
which she turned on Health Minister Michael McGimpsey in the assembly
and others. Being married to Peter Robinson may have been a political
advantage to her but it may also have carried considerable benefits to
him too. She seemed to soften him a bit. She was one of the more
colourful and intriguing characters. Life will be much more
embarrassing at church and among her own circle now that it is clear
how human and ordinary she is, but there are people who will like her
the better for it.
The other question is whether her marriage to the First Minister will
survive. He himself says that is not guaranteed and it may be that he
was suggesting that the decision is still more with her.
She described her depressive illness as ‘personality changing’.
If she stays with Peter and accepts his forgiveness and can be happy
there, well and good.
If she moves on, and casts off some of that prissy conviction that she
flaunted so lavishly before, then who knows what she might be?
A potential embarrassment to the party if she no longer feels bound by
loyalty to it?
A wiser better person if she will let herself be ordinary and
vulnerable without feeling the need to expunge your own life when the
ardent facade breaks?
Or will she go into some kind of shameful purda?
Well, now that wouldn’t be the Iris we know at all.