They say that truth is stranger than fiction. Certainly, in the film, the young lover Mrs Robinson chose to seduce was at least old enough to have left university. And Anne Bancroft, we must remember, was only in her mid-thirties when ’The Graduate’ was made.
Northern Ireland’s real life Mrs Robinson turned sixty last September. Her paramour was a nineteen year old butcher’s son from Belfast, for whom she abused her position in order to secure £50,000 of business start-up capital!
Last night’s Spotlight programme unfolded a torrid tale, which, had it not involved Northern Ireland’s most high profile political couple, would have been perfectly at home on the Jeremy Kyle Show.
For the tabloids, the headlines write themselves. A First Minister made cuckold by a boy! An aging seductress called Mrs Robinson! But beyond prurient interest in the seamier details, the political connotations are grave.
On the basis of Spotlight’s allegations, Iris Robinson is clearly guilty of serial impropriety and illegality. The £50,000 which she procured for Kirk McCambley was not declared in the registers of interest, either at Stormont or Westminster. In addition, she did not declare an interest when Castlereagh Borough Council awarded a lease to McCambley for the business which Robinson had bankrolled, the Lock Keeper’s Inn.
The programme also revealed that the Strangford MP demanded a £5,000 cut of the capital which she secured for McCambrey. It did not explain the basis upon which Mrs Robinson asked for the money. Neither was it entirely clear whether Iris’s former lover was required to pay back only the £45,000 which was left, when she pulled the financial rug from under him, after their affair had ended.
The suggestion of material wrongdoing by the First Minister, Peter Robinson, is rather more abstract. He became aware of the financial arrangements into which his wife had entered, before he learned about the nature of her relationship with McCambrey. By failing to alert the authorities to wrongdoing, he abrogated his duty to act in the public interest.
Beyond a protracted debate about parliamentary regulations, Peter Robinson has been seriously damaged by this episode. Jeff Peel calls on the First Minister to resign. It would be the honourable course to take.
Clearly Robinson’s ability to act in the public interest has been compromised and trust in the First Minister has been damaged. Whether Iris understood the exact moment of what she was doing is debatable. It is fair to suppose, on the evidence available, that the woman is neither particularly stable nor very bright. Peter, on the contrary, was well aware of the seriousness of her actions.
Indeed he took charge of the damage limitation exercise, from the moment he learned about the £50,000. Selwyn Black, the whistleblower who exposed this entire torrid business, made it quite clear that Peter prompted his wife to ensure that the £50,000 was returned to its original sources, through solicitors, so that his fingerprints were not on the money. She had had a confused scheme whereby half the money would benefit a church, seemingly in order to assuage her guilt.
Subsequently Peter Robinson learned the full extent of his wife’s relationship with McCambley. She attempted to commit suicide. Eight hours later Selwyn Black, summoned to the Robinsons’ home, called an ambulance and Iris was hospitalised. Her husband had long since left for work where he took First Minister’s questions, joking about his city background as he answered a query about agriculture.
This is the same character whom we were invited to accept as a broken but dedicated family man, attempting to do the best for his wife, two nights ago.
In the wake of the Spotlight documentary, the viewing public are no longer under any allusions as to the true genesis of the Robinsons’ crisis.
Iris Robinson has been ill. She has suffered from depression. Goodness me, she even attempted to commit suicide. But her decision to withdraw from public life was directly prompted by an imminent scandal. It was the first exercise in damage limitation.
Peter Robinson meanwhile has orchestrated events over the past week in an attempt to rescue his dignity and career from a situation which he recognises as execrable. He is an arch-manipulator and cynicism about his motives is entirely understandable.
Of course people react differently to different situations, but it is instructive that the crisis for Peter Robinson reached a crescendo just as the Spotlight documentary threatened to air. When his wife actually attempted suicide, it was business as usual.
‘Robinsongate’, to borrow the inevitable phrase from Jeff, has an added dash of sex, but otherwise it’s all too reminiscent of the Paisleys’ downfall. Sleaze, greed, dirty money and the involvement of property tycoons.
Many within the DUP have a deeply ingrained victim complex, and no doubt the sense that the media is set against them will flourish, after this latest scandal. But over many years the party has chosen continually to emphasise its apparent moral rectitude. Its representatives have been the first to judge others by puritanical criteria. The party richly deserves all that it gets, now that it has been proven that its leadership is thoroughly corrupt.
The First Minister, for his part, is irreparably discredited. As long as he stays in place, Northern Ireland’s reputation will continue to be damaged.
He can hold on for the time being, but the electorate will not forget. It awaits its chance to punish the DUP for its years of hypocrisy and bankrupt ideas.