Right, the BBCNI Spotlight special on the Robinson family has just finished. Here is a précis of the story.
Firstly, Mr X has been named. This was Kirk McCambley, who I’d not heard of, although his late father Billy was a well-known butcher in east Belfast. Billy was a close friend of Iris Robinson, and after his death Iris took a maternal interest in young Kirk. This relationship slowly morphed into a sexual relationship. At the time Iris was 59 and Kirk was 19 – if you’ll forgive me a moment of levity, coo coo ca-choo, Mrs Robinson! The sexual relationship lasted some months before ending acrimoniously.
This, so far, is all consistent with what the Robinson family had revealed. It is also well established that Iris has been quite seriously ill – there is no question over her mental health problems, only over how convenient the timing of her resignation was. And this is the crux of the matter – the Spotlight team were interested mainly in following the money.
This revolves around young Kirk going into business for himself as a café proprietor, something he’s made a bit of a success of. This success is all the more striking given that he had no business experience beyond working in his dad’s butcher shop, and no money behind him. This is where it starts to look a bit fishy, and the interviews with Kirk McCambley and with Iris’ former political advisor Selwyn Black raise some awkward questions.
The first thing was the matter of Kirk winning the lease at the Shaw’s Bridge restoration project. On the most charitable interpretation, this is Iris wanting to give Kirk a leg up and letting him know of an upcoming opportunity. However, the lease was in the gift of Castlereagh Borough Council, the personal fiefdom of the Robinson family, and it doesn’t look as if Alderman Iris Robinson declared an interest.
The other big issue was Kirk’s lack of startup capital. By his account, Iris sorted that for him by soliciting two cheques of £25,000 each from two prominent property developers, Ken Campbell and the late Fred Fraser. Kirk says that, on handing him the fifty grand, she then asked for a cut of five grand cash in hand, which would constitute a pecuniary interest in Kirk’s business project. Then, when their relationship ended, she asked him for the remaining £45,000 back, the money to be split half for herself, which she would then forward on to Ken Campbell, and the other half to the Dundonald church she attends, where Peter Robinson’s sister is the pastor. Again, there is no sign of a declaration of interest.
A picture was painted of quite an intense period of a few months between the end of the affair and Iris’ breakdown and suicide attempt, punctuated by negotiations with Kirk about the money. At some point Peter discovered the financial imbroglio and took charge, carrying out quite a complicated juggling act – returning the money to Mr Campbell and to the Fraser estate; keeping Iris’ behaviour quiet; and keeping his own hands scrupulously clean. Peter is a sharp customer, and knows the rules for public representatives. It helps that Iris’ statement keeps the blame squarely on her side of the fence.
So, that was the gist of the programme, and we await to see what the DUP have to say about it. But what does it mean politically?
The first thing to remember is that the north is a small place. Politicians and business people know each other very well. There are lots of informal links, and especially in the fundamentalist community it’s quite common for business deals to be concluded on a handshake, without the need for anything so vulgar as a contract. The only way you can guard against corruption is to have government transparency and a press that does its job. On both counts the north has been lacking.
The second thing is an important thing to understand in terms of how evangelical Protestants think. Although sexual morality is important, the sex thing is not nearly as politically important as the money thing. Lots of people, outraged by what Iris said about homosexuals, will be enjoying a little schadenfreude, but there aren’t many of those people in the DUP. (There is of course a thriving gay subculture in the DUP, but it’s very heavily closeted.) Iris having committed the sin of fornication does not matter as much as how she handles it, and a penitent Iris asking for God’s forgiveness is textbook. It’s a mistake to think that fundamentalists are intolerant of human frailty – they assume sin to be a fact of life and are more interested in how people deal with their sinful behaviour, whether or not they repent it.
No, the money issue is the important one, in that it has the potential to damage the DUP. What did for Big Ian, if you’ll remember, was the relationship between Ian Jr and Seymour Sweeney. That the Paisleys would lobby for a local businessman is what you’d expect from elected representatives, particularly those belonging to the Developers’ Unionist Party. But add Junior’s lobbying to the involvement of Seymour Sweeney in building Junior’s holiday cottage, and his further involvement in the purchase of the enormous DUP advice centre in Ballymena – Junior couldn’t be shown to have engaged in corrupt practices, but it all started to smell a bit bad. Given popular attitudes towards the Swish Family Robinson, one cannot count on the public to cut them more slack than they cut the Paisleys.
From this point of view, and this is something Peter Robinson understands very well, rules on disclosure of interests are not only there to protect the public. They also protect public representatives by keeping them relatively honest. Iris may not have actively swung political favours for the pecuniary benefit of her fancy man, but the perception that she may have done is still really really bad. And however scrupulously Peter has managed to keep his own hands clean, he is so closely associated in the public mind with Iris that he will have a tricky tightrope to walk.
In the end, I suspect that it will be a question of honesty, and whether he’s able to convince the public that he has behaved honestly. To return to the Adams affair, the fundamental problem for Gerry is not that he wasn’t shopping his brother to the RUC when his organisation was at war with the RUC; nor is it that he kept the issue quiet during delicate points in the peace process. Gerry may well have had good reasons for keeping his family issues quiet, and we’ve never really expected him to be searingly candid about anything. The problem for Gerry is being caught out lying and obfuscating when there is no compelling reason for him to do so. Peter Robinson will have that example to bear in mind.