Great news from East Belfast, where the Alliance Party’s Naomi Long has taken out First Minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson. Great to see an Alliance Party MP elected after 40 years, and 36 years after Stratton Mills, who had left after being elected from the Ulster Unionist Party, retired in 1974.
The Alliance are avowedly non-sectarian, though it has been difficult for them at times for them to maintain their identity. I look forward to seeing how they can shape themselves now on the Westminster stage. It is also a gain for the Liberal Democrats, with whom the Alliance are aligned.
Peter Robinson won his seat here in 1979, in a close three-way contest against the Ulster Unionist Party’s William Craig and the Alliance Party’s Oliver Napier, with less than a thousand votes separating the three candidates, and till tonight, it was considered a solidly safe seat for the DUP. As a hung parliament is likely, and the DUP will need someone to be able negotiate any arrangements, his leadership may well be on the line quite soon.
Well, ding dong, the witch is dead.
The Times/Ladbrokes seat predictor currently put the Conservatives six seats short of a majority. Suppose this prediction is accurate. It ignores a few details about Northern Ireland. They predict a seat for Sir Reg Empey, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, standing in alliance with the Conservative Party, which really puts the those elected as Conservatives at 321. South Antrim should really have been coloured as blue as any Conservative predictions in Britain. They also predict a seat for Rodney Connor in Fermanagh–South Tyrone, who has pledged to take the Tory whip under a loose arrangement. Add to that then the four predicted Sinn Féin seats. By their abstention, they bring the figure required for a majority to 324, rather than the standard figure given of 326.
The Conservatives would then be only two seats short of a majority, and could very reasonably expect to form a government. But to be secure, to sure of not losing any confidence motion, especially if the predictions are a little high for the party, they could turn then to the eight predicted seats of the Democratic Unionist Party. They would most likely guarantee some measure of relief from the expected public sector cuts to Northern Ireland. It would be a major turn around in Peter Robinson’s fortunes, whose position was in doubt only a few months ago. It would also consolidate the Conservative government’s Unionist stance on issues of disagreement in Northern Ireland, which could potentially have repercussions for any further negotiations.
We tend to instinctually think that it is the right and honourable thing for a Minister to do to resign if there has been a hint of wrongdoing. It’s frequently said of Irish Ministers that they don’t take fall on their sword and take that ultimate responsibility, often for faults that are later forgotten. People wonder why it is that we don’t have this in our culture; after all, Peter Mandelson does it all the time.
Sometimes, though, it isn’t the best thing to do. In the case of Peter Robinson, after hearing that had left some of his wife’s financial dealings undisclosed and only revealed them now that he was being investigated by Spotlight and Panorama, many people felt that his position was untenable. Then, we wondered if it would be worth it, given the instability that exists already in the process of devolution. Given that there is at least some professional relationship and understanding between Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, this would be set back if a new DUP leader were to succeed him. This new leader would not as strong a figure within Unionism as Mr Robinson. And he would have to be put to a vote of the Assembly, jointly with Martin McGuinness, which could not be secured at this impasse.
Then consider the human element of the story. Iris Robinson’s affair and the financial impropriety that followed cannot be laid at the hands of her husband. When he found out about it, she was in a state of mental distress and suicidal.
Under these circumstances it should really be enough that he did everything mostly right. As I said elsewhere, I would not like to think that I’d have acted much differently in a similar situation.
Also, given the increasing suspicion that Gerry Adams concealed knowledge of his brother’s paedophilic abuse, the Robinson affair has been put in some perspective.
The six-week break from his duties, with Arlene Foster now as Acting First Minister (progress as some small level to have a woman in the office), he can allow the investigation to continue. The report may find minor misdemeanours, but nothing to warrant his resignation. He might be subject to censure by the Assembly, but nothing more. This will bring us up to 22 February, with the Westminster election expected in May. Hopefully enough time to put this behind, and allow the DUP and UUP/Conservatives to focus on minimizing the impact of Jim Allister and the Traditional Unionist Voice, which does not really have the manpower to launch a serious attack on a unified DUP.
It looks likely now that Peter Robinson will have to resign as leader of the Democratic Unionist Party and as First Minister of Northern Ireland. SDLP leader Mark Durkan suggested as much this on Morning Ireland today, and given the cover-up for ten months of his wife’s inappropriate financial dealings, this seems a reasonable assessment. That they are both MPs makes his position more politically unviable. Even if Mr Robinson were cleared of any wrongdoing, it would be difficult to continue to govern while such suspicions remained.
My own clear preference for his successor is Jeffrey Donaldson. He was first elected as MP for Lagan Valley in 1997 for the Ulster Unionist Party. He opposed the Belfast Agreement, against the will of then party leader David Trimble. After the 2003 Assembly election, he eventually left the UUP, and soon joined the DUP.
I had presumed that he might be close-minded, and was surprised and encouraged when I heard him speak in person for the first time. It was a debate of the Hist, Trinity College’s debating society, in October 2005, with the motion That Unionists have been let down by the process. Despite the favourable wording from his point of view, he gave quite a conciliatory speech, in which he apologized on behalf of the Protestant community in Northern Ireland for the wrongdoing and discrimination against Roman Catholics. He spoke twice more in the Hist since then, was always warm when meeting students in the college, and has appeared a number of times on Questions and Answers and other programs, showing a genuine interest in engaging with those south of the border.
While Nigel Dodds is the party’s Deputy Leader, we would have much more to hope for from Jeffrey Donaldson, and he do hope there is a contest for the position.
I was reluctant to make any comment about the Iris Robinson story when I first heard it, particularly given the background of mental instability. But as the facts emerged, and particularly the timing of events, I do think it worthy of comment. Whatever sympathy I do have is tempered by the fair criticism of hypocrisy.
We know from Peter Robinson’s statement that the affair happened before March 2008. It was then on 30 July that Iris Robinson, MP, MLA, said in a House of Commons committee (at 5.38 p.m.) on sex offenders, “There can be no viler act, apart from homosexuality and sodomy, than sexually abusing innocent children.” Though she deservedly got the flack for that, her husband, First Minister Peter Robinson, later backed her up, saying, “It wasn’t Iris Robinson who determined that homosexuality was an abomination, it was the Almighty”. At the DUP party conference in November, Peter Robinson made light of his wife’s tendency to ignore political correctness.
I can’t but be reminded of senior US Republican Party figures who fell into disgrace last year after their adulterous affairs emerged. We had Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina and Sen. John Ensign of Nevada, both of whom admitted to having affairs in June 2008. Both were members of the religious organization, The Family, which has a record of helping its members cover up affairs, covered by Jeff Sharlet. Both voted to impeach President Bill Clinton after the Monica Lewinsky affair. Both oppose allowing gay couples to marry or granting them any legal recognition, leading them to be termed supporters of family values (though neither made comments on the issue as bigoted as those of Mrs. Robinson).
Of course there is no necessary contradiction between opposition to homosexual relationships, either in the absolute sense or in legal recognition, and having an affair, except, of course that the same book cited to condemn the former includes a prohibition on the latter in the Ten Commandments. What really came to mind about Mrs. Robinson’s subsequent comments on hearing of her affair with a 19-year-old man were words from the scripture, the Gospel according to Matthew, Chapter 7, Verses 1–5:
1Judge not, that ye be not judged. 2For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. 3And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? 4Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye? 5Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.
She made her bigoted remarks, which her husband backed up, after they had come to terms with her affair. Was it a warped case of the lady doth protest too much?
I wish the Robinsons no particular ill will. What I would particularly hope is that those who had previously listened and paid heed to Iris Robinson in condemning the relationships of others will think carefully about and re-evaluate such reckless utterances.
Correction: It being the beginning of the year, when I read that she’d made her comments about homosexuality in 2008, I put that in the category in my mind of “last year”. It is, of course, nearly two years (it didn’t feel as recent as that), before her husband found out about her affair, but after she had started it.