Part the first:
Peter Robinson’s dramatic statement today about his marriage has capped a period of feverish speculation, although it isn’t yet ended. We had already had Iris Robinson’s announcement that she was standing down as an elected representative due to her mental health problems, specifically long-term depression which had, by her own account, led her to engage in irrational and self-destructive behaviour. Peter added to this today by remarking that Iris was incapable, in a medical sense, of functioning as a politician, and (together with a written statement from Iris) speaking of her affair and subsequent suicide attempt.
This at least explains Peter’s own erratic behavior over the last while. He had, you’ll be aware, taken some flak for not issuing a statement of condolence on the death of Cardinal Daly, and there was speculation that he was deliberately playing to his own sectarian gallery. Had either the OFMDFM or the DUP prepared a two- or three-line statement immediately, everything would have been fine. But there was three days’ silence, followed by a five-paragraph statement, the first four paragraphs of which were attacks on Peter’s naysayers in the press. Even for a notoriously thin-skinned control freak, this looked a bit off, not least Robbo’s statement that he had been incommunicado over the holidays. This revelation of the depth of family difficulties sheds light on events.
As for Iris… well, one tries to feel sympathy. Certainly I wouldn’t wish mental illness on anyone. But, and this may not reflect well on me, her confession to the sin of adultery seems a bit poetic in the case of someone who’s been so keen in the past to flay others for their personal morality. In particular, Iris will be best known outside the north for her ignorant and hateful comments on homosexuals. It is perhaps worth pointing out, though, that Iris’ position on homosexuality is absolutely mainstream opinion in the Democratic Unionist Party – look at how quickly they washed their hands of Paul Berry after the sports massage affair – and, whoever succeeds her in the Strangford constituency, it is not likely to be Peter Tatchell. Iris’ mistake was to say in the metrosexual Westminster parliament things that you could have got away with at Stormont. On this and other issues, and however energetic she’d been as a constituency MP, I’d consider her contribution to northern politics as basically a negative one. So I do hope she has a recovery and rebuilds her life as a private citizen.
In the wider sense, this is not going to shake Peter’s position as DUP leader. There are, as we know, people in the rural Paisleyite wing of the party who’ve never taken to him. There was widespread derision of his and Iris’ Westminster expenses claims. There has been resentment of their use of allowances to employ members of their family, and of the way that for decades the Robinson family has run Castlereagh council as the loyalist analogue of North Korea – when you drive through Castlereagh, you’re always looking out for a street or public building that’s been named after Peter. There is ongoing speculation about the financial questions to be raised in the upcoming Spotlight programme. But this – this will not harm Peter. Iris’ acknowledgement and repentance of her sin, and Peter’s forgiveness, speaks directly to the evangelical Protestant mindset.
The question is whether Peter wants to go on. He’s been saying that he’ll be back at work in the morning as usual. But in his interview, Peter, who likes to project himself as a hard man, was emotional in a way that I’ve never seen from him. He looked like a broken man. Nobody in the DUP will move against him on the back of this, but he has an out if he wants to take it.
Part the second:
The other bit of our ongoing soap opera is of course the Adams family. I’ve been reluctant to say anything on this, partly because I don’t want to overcommit myself when important facts aren’t known, and partly because the allegations against Liam Adams will soon be sub judice – and some parts of the press have been so free with their allegations that you’d almost think they were trying to prejudice a possible trial.
So I’m going to be very careful. The revelations about Old Gerry scarcely matter now outside the family, as the man is dead and buried, but there was an interesting point in what Gerry Óg said about his mixed feelings on burying his father, that he felt the old man didn’t deserve the tricolour on his coffin as he had besmirched republicanism. This seems to be saying that a republican can’t be an abuser, or an abuser can’t be a republican – which surely isn’t true, as republicans represent a cross-section of our society. It’s also had the unfortunate result of provoking some of the usual suspects into attempting to explain away republicanism as some kind of psychosexual deviation, conveniently letting everyone else off the hook for the Troubles.
As for the case of Liam Adams, I’m going to say nothing at all about the substantive issue which will be before the courts before too long. I will say that so far, Áine and her mother are the only people coming out of this with any dignity. The real issue is about Gerry’s handling of the matter, and I’ll direct you to a thoughtful analysis by Malachi and a more caustic one from Liam.
The first thing to say is that, as well as acting as family spokesperson, Gerry very clearly has two things he wants to accomplish. One is to distance the whole affair from Sinn Féin – in which he hasn’t succeeded – and the other is to establish that this is a family issue. Now, there are a lot of people who don’t like Gerry, and a lot of people who have very good reason not to like Gerry – I’m not his biggest fan myself – but there was quite a bit of sympathy for him at the outset, in terms of what he said about Old Gerry. Rather a lot of that has been frittered away by the Turbine‘s exposure of gaps, evasions and terminological inexactitudes in his account of the business of Liam Adams.
To set this in some context, the level of rape and sexual abuse in Irish society is horrific. The vast majority of this is domestic. Since the Brendan Smyth atrocities came to light some fifteen years ago, there has been a huge shift in attitudes around the issue of clerical abuse, which attracts particular odium due to the breach of trust involved. But this, while bad enough in itself, is dwarfed by domestic abuse where attitudes still lag. And bear in mind also that the new enlightened thinking that you get in respectable southern society has not quite penetrated places like Ballymurphy.
Malachi points out that, if Gerry was a bishop, he’d have had to resign by now. This hits the nail on the head. We’re not talking about something like the Robert McCartney murder, where the Provisional organisation actively covered up a crime committed by one of its members, forensically cleaned the scene and ensured that nobody present had seen anything. No, the bishops criticised in the Murphy report were not criticised for things they had done, but for things they might reasonably have done but didn’t. Gerry admits to handling things badly, which is more than Bishop Drennan of Galway has done; but, were he in a different position, that wouldn’t save him.
Gerry’s preferred narrative is one of him popping up from time to time, either having a quiet word with the brother or having a quiet word with someone else about the brother – quietly having him expelled from the party, for instance, without telling anyone why. It’s not implausible in its own terms; the trouble is that Suzanne Breen, who evidently smells blood, has been labouring mightily to undermine this narrative. She hasn’t yet produced a smoking gun, and maybe never will, but has certainly put a lot of question marks over Gerry’s version of events and has managed to trap Arthur Morgan in a direct lie. It all chips away at the edifice.
And yet, I don’t think this does spell curtains for Gerry’s leadership, for a number of reasons. The obvious one is, who’s going to use this against him? On the unionist side, it will provide Sammy Wilson with a few bad-taste jokes for the DUP conference, but they aren’t competing for support with Gerry. The SDLP can’t use it, for a reason I’ll get onto. The dissidents might, but it’s not as if they have much of a base or an attractive alternative.
To return to the context, we should note that these allegations date from 1987 and yet it’s only now that the police are actively pursuing them. This is not just a matter of the police in the 1980s not being as sensitive to sex abuse allegations as they are now. It also relates to the situation that prevailed in west Belfast and similar areas, where the RUC effectively did not bother with ordinary crime. The RUC policed the IRA, and the IRA policed ordinary crime. It did so using a rough-and-ready system of penalties ranging from verbal warnings via beatings to shootings and exilings, with the occasional execution of especially serious recidivists. Some readers will recall a case in Derry many years ago of a predatory paedophile, a seriously bad man who was said to have raped large numbers of children in his area. That ended when the IRA burst into his home and blew the man’s legs off, leaving him to bleed to death. It is worth recording that this action was extremely popular in the local community, and indeed many in the local community had lobbied for drastic action.
That was an extreme case. Mostly it operated on a less dramatic scale. I actually have a story similar to Liam’s, of an elderly relative who was having trouble with young hoods; someone in the republican movement was spoken to (the person involved is dead, so I can’t check, but I have a feeling it may have been the Sticks rather than the Provos); a warning was issued and the trouble stopped. For people accused of sexual abuse, shooting and exiling would have been expected. In the case of Liam Adams, it could be asked – in fact, it is being asked – whether he avoided summary punishment by dint of being Gerry’s brother. One does not condone this attitude, one merely notes it. But liberal critics of Gerry, such as the SDLP, can’t take this tack, because our modern human rights thought is very much against punishment shootings and exilings.
The angle that would most interest republican critics, who read Suzanne Breen avidly, is the spook angle. In the nature of these things, there is no actual evidence of spookery. What there is is the commonsense observation that if the cops received a report of this nature relating to a close relative of Gerry’s, the spooks would certainly be interested, and their track record in the north would be not to bring these crimes to a possibly doomed court case, but to compromise or recruit individuals. That is just an observation of the spooks’ MO during the Troubles; anything beyond is pure speculation. But, after Scap and Donaldson, Gerry really doesn’t need his inner circle to look any flakier.
I will make one further observation about Gerry’s future. I don’t think this will hurt his electoral prospects, not least because of the lack of an alternative. But you will remember that, following the McCartney murder, it was predicted by some that PSF would be badly damaged electorally, and in particular Alex Maskey, who had done a lot of the flak-catching around the case. In the end there was a limited impact in Short Strand, and no detectable impact anywhere else. This has a lot to do with the disposition of PSF voters – and remember, Gerry is sitting on a 70% vote share in West Belfast – to get very defensive if you press the attack beyond a certain point, and especially if notorious anti-republicans are jumping on the bandwagon. Despite the heroic stance of the McCartney sisters and the massive sympathy for them, there came to be a widespread attitude that this was being used by hostile outsiders as a stick to beat the community. That’s a very difficult mentality to break.
No, Gerry leading the party that he leads, and with the setup of the peace process being what it is, the chances of him being pushed out are minimal. Like Peter Robinson though, he has an out if he wants to take it. And, even though he’s a mere youngster of 61, his comrades may start thinking about a medium-term succession.
These family dramas, whether the family be Robinson or Adams, do however all point in one direction. That is that, both at party and Executive level, there is a greater shift of authority to the Deputy First Minister. Since recent polling indicates that Martin McGuinness is easily the most popular politician in the north – even amongst Protestants – that may soothe some nerves. But a peace process held together by Martin’s force of personality… an interesting prospect.