As promised, we turn to the latest revelations in the Sunday Turbine, and Suzanne Breen has been on rare form this week. The lead story is one of further allegations about Iris’ sex life. Now, I’ve been arguing that the money issue is more important than the sex issue, though the combination of the two is toxic; and it’s not hard to see prurience and a little sexism at work in the prominence given to Iris’ infidelity. Perhaps, though, it’s more accurate to say that they matter to different kinds of people. The money issue, which I’ll return to momentarily, has the potential to harm the DUP with the electorate; the sex issue plays to the DUP cadre, which contains an unusually large proportion of Free Presbyterians. (The Robinsons are not themselves Wee Frees but Pentecostalists, but that doesn’t really matter.)
The point here is that one instance of adultery from Iris would be bearable, as long as she sincerely repented and sought Christ’s forgiveness. Serial adultery, on the other hand, would threaten to put her into the category of Scarlet Woman. It doesn’t help that the rural Wee Free element in the party, brought up to see Dr Paisley as quite literally God’s anointed leader, has never fully trusted Peter; nor does it help that they already have, in the rock-like marriage of Ian and Eileen, a ready-made example of what a Christian love story should look like. Suzanne reports that Big Ian is furious, and well he may be – when Rev McIlveen goes into the studios to talk about Peter’s position, it is difficult not to hear His Master’s Voice. Two points here. Firstly, you’ll remember the romance between Rhonda Paisley and Sammy Wilson, which was scuppered by Papa Doc on the grounds that he couldn’t have his daughter marrying a divorcee. Secondly, while the big man shares Iris’ robust views on homosexuality, he would not be amused by her holding forth on this subject while simultaneously being guilty of the sin of adultery. Ian is many things, but a hypocrite he is not.
Suzanne further gives us a revealing pen portrait of Iris, which certainly rings true to anyone who’s had exposure to her. A passionate woman, you might describe her as. It may be worth having another look at her authorised biography, Iris: An Intimate Portrait by Lorraine Wylie, certain episodes of which may appear in a new light now. The Wylie book is a sort of Calvinist version of Barbara Cartland; Iris’ real life appears to have been more of a Calvinist Jackie Collins potboiler. There’s also a choice selection of Iris’ best quotes.
Finally, Suzanne goes into the general politics of the thing, which is what I want to have a closer look at, especially as regards the money aspect. I’ve said right the way through that the really damaging aspect is the perception of corruption, especially given how incestuous the north is. For instance, when the initials FF and KC appeared in Spotlight, referring to the property developers involved, I instantly knew who the programme was referring to; my second thought was that it was lucky for Fred Fraser that he was dead. Iris asking Ken Campbell for a £25,000 cheque to help set her fancy man up in business looks bad enough; it looks doubly bad if she’s simultaneously lobbying for a development of Ken’s in Newtownards; nor does it help that the relevant planning authority, Ards council, was controlled by the DUP. In a political sense, whether corruption can be legally proven is neither here nor there; the important thing is the perception of corruption. Peter says that he wasn’t aware of some of the things in Spotlight, and that Iris, currently under psychiatric care, isn’t giving any coherent answers; nonetheless, it would be as well for him to get himself some answers soon.
There is a broader element here, too, in the developer-friendly regimes in DUP-led councils such as Ards, Castlereagh and Ballymena. Peter has always been immensely proud of Castlereagh council under his leadership, especially in Castlereagh long having had the lowest domestic rates in the north. This was achieved mainly by providing the bare minimum of council services (having a relatively affluent population without much demand for said services helps) and by having a few big money-spinning assets like the Dundonald Ice Bowl and the modestly named Peter Robinson Leisure Centre. But Castlereagh was also known as a developers’ paradise. That huge swathe of territory from Four Winds out to Carryduff, falling within the boundaries of Castlereagh, was effectively developed by Fred Fraser; Fred was also very churchy, and known to be close to high-ups in the DUP. As we’ve seen with Seymour Sweeney’s ventures in north Antrim, this chumminess has the potential to look extraordinarily bad for the politicians involved.
And here’s where we turn to the electoral considerations. At the 2005 general election, the DUP won nine seats while the Official Unionists were reduced to one, Lady Sylvia Hermon in North Down. And they might have hoped to consolidate their enormous lead given that the OUP’s one big idea, a pact with the British Tories, was bitterly opposed by the Labour-supporting Lady Sylvia, who is so popular in North Down that if she stands as an independent she’ll probably wipe the floor with any Unionist or Tory put up against her. Indeed, the Toryboy element of the OUP is positively frothing to have Sylvia kicked out of the party.
But you have to weigh against that the mass defection of over a third of DUP voters to Jim Allister’s Prodiban insurgency. Factor in various local scandals, of which this is the biggest, and those nine MPs don’t look so invulnerable, notional majorities notwithstanding. If enough DUP voters defect to the TUV, the catchily named Ulster Conservative and Unionist New Force doesn’t even need to boost its vote; it only needs to hold its own to slip through the middle. No wonder David Trimble, in his interviews, has been struggling manfully to suppress a big cheesy grin.
There are three DUP MPs – Gregory Campbell in East Derry, David Simpson in Upper Bann and Singing Willie in South Antrim – whose seats would look vulnerable to UCUNF on that basis. In North Antrim, Jim Allister is determined to stand and win against whichever Ian Paisley the DUP runs – the fact that the DUP hasn’t yet decided which one will run is telling. Papa Doc is visibly old and frail, while Baby Doc is damaged goods, and given the DUP’s long dominance in North Antrim, a narrow victory would still be immensely damaging.
Moving to greater Belfast, Deputy Dodds should be safe enough in North Belfast since the TUV won’t run against him for fear of letting Gerry Kelly take the seat, and Jeffrey Boy is safe as houses in Lagan Valley. The Robinsons’ seats of East Belfast and Strangford should be rock solid, but that dominance might look a bit shaky the more this scandal unravels. Not only that, but a new candidate will have to be found in Strangford, with the apparent choices being Jim Shannon (main interests: shooting wildlife and speaking Ulster Scots), Jim Wells (a blow-in from South Down), Simon Hamilton (who, terrifyingly, seems to aspire to being a young Gregory Campbell) and Michelle McIlveen (who has the kiss-of-death distinction of being Iris’ protegée). None of these appears really inspiring, but at least the DUP couldn’t possibly have the cheek to nominate Gareth Robinson (relation).
The final constituency is East Antrim, where I won’t even venture an opinion. The MP there is Sammy the Streaker, who I would have thought is terminally lacking in credibility. But then, the voters of Larne and Carrick elected Sammy, so obviously I don’t know anything about how their thought processes work.
One caveat, though, is that the TUV don’t look to have many candidates (then again, the DUP started out with just Ian Paisley and William Beattie) and UCUNF would also need to acquire some plausible candidates to take advantage. This isn’t as easy as it looks. The Official Unionists have a recurring weakness for nominating retired colonels, or David McNarry. They are also, under the terms of the Forza Nuova pact, required to hand over half their candidacies to the minuscule Ulster Tories, and God only knows what candidates they will generate. It’s a bit like Fianna Fáil forming an alliance with the Christian Solidarity Party, and handing over half of their candidacies to whichever wingnuts the CSP wished to nominate.
One thing’s for sure, though. The days when any moron with an orange sash could get himself elected and have a seat for life are over. And about time too.