The DUP’s first lady, Iris Robinson, unexpectedly announced her retirement today. Mrs Robinson, a councillor, MLA and MP as well as the wife of DUP leader and Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson, cited depression as the reason for her decision.
Depression is doubtless rife in Northern Ireland. Societies transitioning from violence typically have high incidences of mental illnesses, including depression, an illness that is often self-medicated with excessive alcohol. While I am not suggesting that Mrs Robinson’s depression is Troubles-related, at the least it may start some public debate about mental illness in a society that desperately needs to have those discussions.
Greater awareness of mental illness is unlikely to be Mrs Robinson’s legacy. Rather, her legacy will be wrapped up in who she is, a prominent member of one of Northern Ireland’s political family dynasties, and in how she has represented Christianity in the public sphere.
The family dynasty seems a permanent fixture of Ireland’s political landscape, both north and south. It has been a DUP speciality with the Paisleys, the Robinsons and the Dodds. I am not suggesting that the members of these families were not legitimately elected by their constituencies. But when particular political parties and even jurisdictions are dominated by family connections, it raises obvious questions about the health of democracies. These questions go beyond ethical questions about employing family members, taking excessive advantage of double-jobbing and generous expenses accounts, and indulging in other forms of nepotism. Is there such a dearth of political talent in Northern Ireland that it is really necessary to rely on your nearest and dearest? And whose fault is this? Should political parties themselves take responsibility for widening their talent base? Don’t Northern Ireland’s voters have any misgivings about family dynasties? If they do, why don’t they stop putting them in office?
After her family connections, Mrs Robinson will be remembered for her comments about the LGBT (Lesbian/Gay/Bi-/Trans-sexual) community. In 2008 on the Stephen Nolan show, Mrs Robinson stated that homosexuality was an abomination in God’s sight. She also claimed that homosexuals could be cured by a good Christian psychiatrist. Mrs Robinson seemed to see herself as representing the correct Christian position on this issue.
There was a time when members of the DUP could say something like this without too much fear of being punished by its electorate. But becoming Northern Ireland’s largest party had placed the DUP in a position where it had to appeal to voters who might not have any religious or moral objections to homosexuality. These voters include people who consider themselves Christians, but do not consider homosexuality a sin.
Mrs Robinson’s remarks highlighted the tension around ‘moral’ issues such as homosexuality within the DUP. It also revealed something significant about the role of religion in the new Northern Ireland. Religion and politics here are becoming more ‘normal’ in the sense that those who have been most politically religious in the past – Protestant evangelicals – are pursuing a non-Troubles-related agenda. In my research on Protestant evangelicals, I found that evangelical special interest groups like the Evangelical Protestant Society and the Caleb Foundation were increasingly focusing on ‘moral’ issues such as homosexuality and abortion, rather than worrying about the Catholic Church or a United Ireland. These evangelicals told me that they were trying to lobby the DUP about these issues, but that this was becoming increasingly tricky as the DUP grew. Mrs Robinson was someone they could appeal to.
Mrs Robinson became something of a figure of fun after these remarks, from secular commentators who mocked her words, to liberal Christians and even some evangelicals who said they did not agree with her. If there ever was an assumption within the DUP that there is a Christian position on a political issue and that they embody it, the reaction to Mrs Robinson’s words demonstrated that there are plenty of people in Northern Ireland who disagree.