If I’m honest, there was a moment when I wondered whether an article I'd written for yesterday’s Belfast Telegraph, criticising Peter Robinson’s conduct after Cardinal Daly’s death, might not have been rather badly timed.
Watching the television broadcast, during which the First Minister issued a statement about his wife’s affair and subsequent suicide attempt, was a disconcerting experience. It felt like an intrusion on personal trauma. It was difficult not to react, instinctively, with sympathy and pity.
For the time being, the public mood, and media reaction, has swung, predictably enough, in the Robinsons’ favour. But the truth is that the about turn hasn’t been as dramatic as one might expect and neither has it been universal. There remains a degree of cynicism about the timing of these revelations and the sequence of events which led to the First Minister’s statement. The curious formulations which Robinson used to respond to financial allegations did little to dispel a sense that there is more of this story to come.
When I revisited the contents of my article, in light of what we had learned, I wondered whether it impacted upon any of the points which I had made, or invalidated my criticism of the First Minister and the DUP / Sinn Féin carve-up. Honestly I believe that the thrust of the piece stands scrutiny.
It WAS fair to expect a response, issued on behalf of the DUP leader, to Cardinal Daly’s death. Robinson’s response WAS characteristically petulant and the media’s cynicism WAS conditioned by contradictory messages, sent out over months and years, by the First Minister and his party.
Although the Robinsons’ crisis has blown up in the media over a period of days, it is important to remember that for the family, the apogee was nine months ago. Iris Robinson announced her withdrawal from public life after Christmas. Peter Robinson became ‘out of circulation’ over the weekend. But the events which apparently led to all this trauma took place in March last year, and the period immediately before.
In addition, there remain lingering suggestions of financial impropriety. Clearly, although the BBC had been summoned to the Robinson’s Dundonald home in order to film a carefully scripted statement, its journalists did not feel that all the questions which they had raised were satisfactorily answered. Today, Bobballs hints at a link between Iris’ lover and public money issued by Castlereagh Borough Council (Iris is a prominent councillor).
A Spotlight documentary, due to be screened on the BBC, is now the focus of frenzied speculation, which previously centred around the First Minister’s possible resignation.
There are a number of sets of circumstances which could explain why Peter Robinson withdrew to his family home this week. Few would excuse his failure to respond, in timely fashion, to Cardinal Daly’s death.
There may, for instance, have been issues pertaining to Iris’s affair which were not known to Peter in March last year. Some of these matters might have been financial. Their disclosure might even have been prompted by a forthcoming Spotlight documentary.
If the Robinsons wished to take charge of a set of events which were spiralling out of control and limit damage to Peter, then they would have been hard pressed to deliver a more effective piece of crisis management. If the revelations end here, then the First Minister will probably emerge from the episode with his reputation undamaged, and a little more time in which to solve the policing and justice impasse.
But there remains a widespread suspicion that the story has not yet reached its conclusion.
For now, your chosen interpretation of the Robinson saga is likely to be determined by the view you previously held of the couple. Supporters will choose to see a flawed, ill woman and a brave husband, struggling to come top terms with events which have reached a sudden crescendo. Opponents will suspect an exercise in media manipulation, timed to halt a story which was quickly gaining momentum.