Wednesday we found out about the sex, yesterday we found out about the money.
Last night the BBC ran the Spotlight programme that is assumed to have prompted First Minister Peter Robinson’s interview on Wednesday about his wife Iris’ marital infidelity.
The programme revealed that Mrs Robinson secured a £50,000 loan for her then 19-year-old lover Kirk McCambley. The money was used to help him start the Lock Keeper’s Inn café on the Lagan towpath in Belfast. Mr Cambley was awarded the contract to run the café by Mrs Robinson’s Castlereagh Borough Council, as he was the only applicant who met the council’s criteria.
Spotlight concluded that Mrs Robinson broke at least five rules in the Councillors Code of Conduct.
Mr Robinson knew about his wife financial shenanigans before he knew about the affair. He took steps to rectify what she had done, but it seems he was willing to cover-up behaviour that should have been reported.
Has the Robinson brand been irrevocably tarnished by these events? By extension, will the DUP brand also suffer when the Robinsons’ acts are weighed up alongside those of Ian Paisley Jr. and his developer-friend, Seymour Sweeney?
It may come down to what ultimately matters to DUP voters. A book by Belfast Telegraph journalist David Gordon, Fall of the House of Paisley (Gill & Macmillan, 2009), sheds some light on that.
Gordon quotes a DUP source in the aftermath of its failure at the Dromore by-election in February 2008, who puts the party’s poor showing down to voters’ disgruntlement at the ‘Chuckle Brothers’ relationship of Rev. Paisley’s and Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness. The source claims that most Free Presbyterians in the district would have voted for Jim Allister’s Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV). The source also says voters were put off by what they interpreted as the character flaws of Ian Paisley Jr (page 178):
‘Another issue that undoubtedly had a negative impact was the Ian Paisley Jnr stuff. Church going Protestants who would be traditional DUP voters always regarded the DUP as a party that would have integrity. They were very concerned about a series of events that occurred where there were allegations made against Ian Paisley Jnr which caused people concerns. That also impacted negatively with the traditional church-going rural Protestant voter base of the DUP. The perception was that there were issues here.’
When I conducted my own research on evangelicals in Northern Ireland, those who voted for the DUP said they did so in large part because they were a party they could trust, with politicians who wouldn’t tell lies like all the rest.
Mrs Robinson’s attempts to get the money back from Mr McCambley when their sexual affair ended may be especially damaging. She did not seem to want to repay the two developers who had agreed, at her request, to fund Mr McCambley’s business venture. Rather, she requested that one cheque be paid to her, and the other to the Light n’ Life Free Methodist church in Dundonald, which is pastored by Mr Robinson’s sister.
Is it possible that some evangelicals could interpret Mrs Robinson’s foiled donation to the church as an attempt to buy God’s favour, or to use the church to relieve her guilt about what she had done, or even to keep the money in the family? The Spotlight programme implied that she regarded the developers’ money as a personal gift to her to do with what she wished.
On the other hand, what both Robinsons said about repentance, humility and forgiveness on Wednesday (and I am not in any way questioning their sincerity) should press all the right buttons among the DUP’s conservative evangelical supporters. Evangelicals really do believe that forgiveness, restoration and reconciliation are possible.
But with this latest blow, will conservative evangelicals still be able to think of the DUP as a party that has integrity? I am not sure how the tension between evangelicals’ capacity to forgive, and possible feelings of betrayal, will play out.
In Fall of the House of Paisley, Gordon describes the evangelicals of the DUP grassroots as ‘confused,’ shaken by what their party has done, and unsure about where it is leading them.
(Photo from BBC website)