In yesterday’s Irish Times, Fionola Meredith wrote that folks might be surprised that Protestant fundamentalists seem willing to forgive Iris Robinson. Meredith notes that this constituency (I prefer to refer to them as conservative evangelicals) has been quick to condemn what they perceive as the immoral behaviour of other public figures. Why should their reaction to Mrs. Robinson’s behaviour be any different?
Meredith’s column summed up the conservative evangelical reaction with this comment from Free Presbyterian minister Rev. David McIlveen:
“I believe that Mrs Robinson has learnt a great deal through a very agonising tormenting experience. … We can only but pray for them and pray for them with great compassion as we would do for any sinner no matter what sin they have committed; acts we believe are contrary to the scriptures, but we don’t in any way despise them – as individuals we reach out to them.”
The cynical view is that evangelicals’ willingness to forgive all comes down to Mrs. Robinson’s political party. For example, when I was conducting research on evangelicals in Northern Ireland, some told me that they had not forgiven those they called the Sinn Fein ‘terrorists in government,’ who they believed had committed immoral acts.
So for conservative evangelicals, is political affiliation the key difference between forgiving Mrs. Robinson, and forgiving politicians in Sinn Fein or people involved with the IRA?
A less cynical, and simple, answer to that question is ‘no.’ For many conservative evangelicals, the key difference is that Mrs. Robinson has publicly repented for her acts. She has said that she is sorry.
Mrs. Robinson’s critics – those who have called her a hypocrite and questioned the sincerity of her repentance – won’t necessarily accept her confession. But there are not many conservative evangelicals in that camp.
Now, let me be clear that I am not equating adultery and financial corruption with politically-motivated violence/terrorism (take your pick). I am just pointing out that within sectors of Northern Irish evangelicalism, forgiveness is not possible unless the wrong-doer has repented. None other than the Rev. Ian Paisley has preached that message for years. That’s one of the reasons why he once told supporters that the IRA must repent in sackcloth and ashes.
On the other hand, much academic research and philosophising about forgiveness concludes that it takes time. People may intellectually recognise that they should forgive or want to forgive someone, but it can take awhile for their emotions to catch up with their intellect – if ever. There may be some DUP supporters in that place.
But if forgiveness is possible, even if it is more of a process than an event, building trust is another matter.
Dr Selwyn Black, Mrs. Robinson’s former political advisor and the whistle-blower in this whole affair, told the BBC Spotlight programme that although he now ‘felt sorry’ for the Robinsons, he also felt angry and betrayed by what his boss had done.
Dr Black thought Mrs. Robinson’s ability to represent her people had been seriously compromised. He no longer trusted her. Questions about whether her husband Peter Robinson will remain as First Minister and DUP leader also come down to trust.
Today, Mr. Robinson in a way asked people to trust him. He said:
"I don’t believe that I have done anything wrong. I have acted properly at all times. I have subjected myself to investigation. I am prepared publicly to allow the outcome of that investigation to be known.”
Mr. Robinson may eventually be personally cleared in this scandal. But questions about Mrs. Robinson’s relationship with property developers, coupled with the Paisleys’ questionable relationship with developer Seymour Sweeney, have seriously undermined trust in the DUP. And investigative journalists won’t stop digging now.
Yesterday I wrote that conservative evangelicals were unsure about where the DUP was leading them. Now, they must be increasingly uncertain about what the party is doing behind their backs.
(Photo from BBC website)