Iris Robinson scandal – What now? Meaningful Change or Business as Unusual?

image Last night’s BBC Panorama programme on the Iris Robinson affair, ‘The MP and the Whistleblower,’ followed much the same script as the original Spotlight programme. The Panorama showing, geared towards a wider UK audience, merely updated the on-going saga to include yesterday’s most important development: Peter Robinson’s decision to vacate the office of First Minister for six weeks as he tries to clear his name.

DUP colleague Arlene Foster steps into the First Minister’s role, with Mr Robinson pledging that he will continue to work on the critical policing and justice issue. This ministerial switch was allowed due to a special provision stemming from the St Andrews negotiations in 2006.

Frankly, I was relieved that Panorama did not have any further aspects of the scandal to report. The pace of scandal on this island has been hot and heavy as of late. We need to catch our collective breaths, calm down, and recover from the steady stream of shocking revelations.

The string of scandals involving clerical sexual abuse, Liam Adams, and the Robinsons should prompt some reflection on what kind of culture, society and politics we have –north and south – and what sort of future we want to make out of all of this. Here are just a few (of many!) issues arising from the scandals to which it is worth devoting some thought:

· There have been dramatic failures of leadership and judgement within our religious institutions and political parties. Especially in the cases of the Catholic bishops and Mrs Robinson, it is easy to scapegoat individuals. But they were operating within wider religious and political cultures in which they thought they could get away with their actions, and also get away with covering it up. Those cultures need reform.

  • The financial aspect of the Robinson scandal highlights the need for greater scrutiny and accountability of political representatives, especially in their relationships with property developers. The Northern Ireland Assembly has lagged behind other legislative bodies on these islands in establishing robust and transparent monitoring procedures.
  • The way the Liam Adams scandal has played out – with much of the public discussion ignoring the perspective of the victim, Aine Tyrell – must make us ask if the perspectives of victims of all types of child abuse are really taken seriously in the public sphere. That means all of us, not just politicians.
  • The clerical sex scandal has revealed how unhealthy it can be for a religious institution to become entangled with state power. Would the Irish Catholic Church have got away with so much if the politicians and the policemen of the day had shown a lot less deference to clerics?

We can take some heart that sectors of the media have been persistent and have exposed what has gone on behind closed doors, especially when that has involved abuses of power and corruption by our erstwhile leaders. But I am not certain that we can expect the people within flawed religious and political institutions to initiate the reforms needed to improve them. It requires a vigilant and engaged public to hold them to account.

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