Hullo Brian, hullo Sue. You know, in a very real sense, it’s quite a turn-up for the books to see our local politics, usually so dully parochial, make headlines as far away as Italy, Spain and Australialand. Not altogether surprising, though, since the Robinson affair has all the elements of great literature or drama – sex, power, money and religion – all tied together in a story that a fiction editor would dismiss as hopelessly far-fetched. It’s all too easy to picture Iris as a modern-day analogue of Blanche DuBois or Emma Bovary. I just hope Larry Flynt isn’t planning an adaptation…
I know I’ve been saying we need to follow the money – and the unveiling of Ken Campbell as a DUP donor points to further investigation of the party’s cosy relationship with developers – but I want to take a little time here to muse on the moral aspect. Because that’s what’s propelled the story into the headlines, and what’s continuing to stoke public interest, and there are a few interesting questions worth teasing out on those lines.
There are a number of reactions I’ve been getting from my unscientific soundings of opinion. There’s quite a bit of sympathy for Peter as the wronged party, which is worth mentioning in itself as he isn’t the easiest person to warm to by any means. Did he not have his own ethical questions to answer, it would be extremely easy to cast Iris as the Scarlet Woman, the Eve who gave him the dodgy apple. Meanwhile, opinion amongst older women seems to be evenly divided between those who find Iris’ dalliance with a teenager to be a bit icky, and those who are busy planning their outing to the Lock Keeper’s Inn to catch a glimpse of Kirk.
One of the more intriguing views I’ve heard is that Iris is a misunderstood woman. She is obviously, the argument goes, a strong-willed and spirited woman, and a woman of that temperament who found herself married to somebody like Peter or Gregory or Willie was always going to chafe against what was expected of her. Iris, who is nobody’s idea of a meek hausfrau, had grown up in a fundamentalist culture that very much values the idea of the meek hausfrau. Even Eileen Paisley, who is nobody’s idea of meek either, has never had the brashness that typified Iris – Eileen, while a substantial and much-loved DUP figure in her own right, has always been content to let Ian have the spotlight and reputedly felt Iris’ style to be a bit vulgar and pushy.
Now, let’s turn to the issue of morality, because this is interesting from a leftist point of view. Most people in Britain, if they’ve heard of Iris Robinson before now, would have done so in connection with her views on homosexuality, which is perhaps why the lefty and feminist blogs I’ve read have usually taken the nasty bigoted woman comes a cropper lmao approach. Well, schadenfreude is fair enough, but let’s tease this out a little.
Marxism has never really developed much of a theory of ethics – there is a bit of one centred around labour relations, but it doesn’t work very well for matters that aren’t related to the workplace. Marxists don’t believe in the concept of natural law, nor do they believe in utilitarianism, so that leaves a bit of a gaping hole on moral, ethical or cultural issues. So what you actually get with a lot of Anglophone Marxism is an exploitation theory of labour, which doesn’t explain much outside of a very narrow field, a concept of oppression largely taken from the anti-colonial movement, plus a sort of sixties-style Roy Jenkins permissive liberalism. This is where Peter Hitchens gets things wrong, by treating sixties liberalism as an offshoot of Frankfurt School Marxism and therefore part of the great communist conspiracy; it would be more accurate to say that, to a large extent, Marxism has adopted the ideas of radical liberalism. I don’t say this in a condemnatory way, just as a point worth discussing.
So, what would a leftist say about Iris Robinson, leaving the money out of it and concentrating on the sex? There is a sort of default position, the kind of thing Tony Benn always says in these situations, that people’s sexual behaviour isn’t political, and it’s a distraction from the real issues. Therefore, we shouldn’t really be interested, even though we are. And, from a permissive liberal standpoint, it’s hard to argue that she’s done anything wrong.
A thoroughgoing sexual liberationist, or a particularly bold contrarian, might fancy the idea of Iris as a transgressive, potentially emancipatory figure who has challenged fundamentalist sexual mores. There are two problems with this. The one is that, since Iris is a moral conservative, even reactionary, it’s hard to link her to any sort of sexual liberationist discourse. It’s doubly hard given that she is not boldly staking out her position, but is deeply penitent.
Finally, the most consistently used charge is that of hypocrisy – how dare she castigate gays while at the same time being guilty of the sin of adultery? Up to a point, I take it. But there’s a problem here, in that she may indeed be hypocritical, but many of those charging her with hypocrisy are doing so in bad faith. Ian Paisley or Pastor McConnell may fairly charge her with hypocrisy, but if you yourself don’t believe in the sanctity of marriage or the family unit, aren’t you holding her to a standard you don’t believe in?
What I think is worth doing is looking at Iris’ transgression in terms that she, and those around her, would understand. You see, you may not believe in sin, but Iris certainly does – indeed, Pentecostalists are not just about banging tambourines, but have an extremely vivid and dramatic concept of the physical reality of Sin. And if you don’t grasp how these people think, you can’t grasp why they do and say what they do and say. In any case, I take the phenomenalist approach that just because something doesn’t exist doesn’t mean it isn’t worthy of study.
But, sticking to the sin question, there’s an interesting divergence, theological in origin but filtering through into the culture, between Catholic and Calvinist approaches to sin. Catholic thinking of course holds that there is such a thing as original sin, but one is not permanently in a state of sin. When you’re baptised you become innocent. However, sin being a chronic aspect of the human condition, you’re bound to fall into sin again at regular intervals. The Catholic Church having had nearly two thousand years to turn its hand to socially useful answers to these problems, it’s got the trifecta of confession, penance and absolution.
It’s important to note that this is a social, indeed a public, affair. Theologically speaking, the priest is the intercessor on behalf of God – the honest broker, if you will – but in ecclesiological terms also represents the community of Christ. The process involves confessing your sins to somebody, somebody who can make an assessment of them and respond to you, and it’s theoretically possible – though in practice it’s almost unheard of – for the priest to say no, your sins are so serious that they aren’t forgiven. And penance is important as an outward token of your repentance of your sins.
Calvinism – which is the theoretical framework of Norn Iron fundamentalism – operates a system that is not unlike the Catholic one in its basic concepts though it works out very differently in practice, and again I’d recommend Turgon’s piece for more detail. The departure point is that once you’re saved all your sins are forgiven, but again, you keep falling back into sin and are constantly in need of repenting your sins. But there is no intercessor – the middleman is taken out of the picture in favour of the believer’s personal relationship with God. The Calvinist universe scorns things like the ritual of confession with the same lofty disregard as it scorns incense or icons. If you fall into sin – which can be anything from losing your temper to having an impure thought to committing murder – you have to ask forgiveness directly of God, via the medium of prayer. And, if you sincerely repent, you will be forgiven.
This is the conceptual universe inhabited by Iris Robinson. Having committed the sin of adultery, she has to seek forgiveness of both God and Peter. Since God can see directly into her heart, it’s arguable that Peter would be the tougher proposition. Getting yourself right with the Lord and regaining the trust of those around you are quite different tasks. The fundamentalist’s relationship with God may be a personal one, but that’s not to say there is no social aspect – peer pressure in the fundie community can be both intense and severe, drawing on Calvinism’s steely attitude to sin, and that peer pressure is ultimately the only safeguard against some Jimmy Swaggart type who falls from grace, repents and then falls again six months later.
And this, you see, is where important cultural differences come in. We know of the much-discussed phenomenon of Catholic guilt, and its attendant vices of glibness and hypocrisy. Less discussed is Calvinist guilt, the result of setting yourself an impossibly high moral standard and being directly accountable to the Almighty when you inevitably fail to live up to it, thus leading to an existential crisis. This may explain, and of course I’m generalising wildly here, why the stereotypical Catholic lie is all about evasion and fudging, with at least an attempt at verisimilitude, while the Calvinist lie can be shocking in its blatancy – lying your head off, not least lying to yourself, being a reflex reaction to the existential crisis. That’s why I find it striking that Calvinist ideas, while not irrational in their own terms, and originating in a rationalism critique of baroque Catholicism, can so easily open the door to quite wild irrationalism.
And so (putting on the cod-psychological hat) if you have highly emotional people, brought up in a culture that views sin in such vivid colours, finding themselves having committed quite serious sins and then compounding those sins by covering them up over an extended period – that’s the sort of background that could almost be designed to provoke psychotic episodes.
 Here I have to enter the usual caveat about Irish Catholicism, which consists in large part of sub-Calvinist Jansenism with a strong admixture of folk religion, and often has quite a loose connection to orthodox Catholic theology.