Steamy affair rocks N Ireland

2010-01-09 10:36

Belfast - A political scandal riveting Northern Ireland has a certain cinematic feel: an affair by 58-year-old woman named Mrs. Robinson with a 19-year-old male lover.

Five separate Facebook groups with hundreds of followers have sprung up, lampooning the affair and comparing it to the 1967 film, The Graduate.

But there is a serious side to the story of Iris Robinson, who also happens to be a member of Parliament and the wife of Peter Robinson - Northern Ireland's government leader.

The BBC reported that Iris Robinson allegedly solicited $80 000 from businessmen so her young lover could open a restaurant - without disclosing the fact to lawmakers.

Iris Robinson has said she would not seek re-election because she was suffering clinical depression that left her unable to function in public life and revealed that she attempted suicide. She also begged forgiveness from her husband, Peter, and the public.

"Everyone is paying a heavy price for my actions. ... I am so, so sorry," she said.

Peter Robinson, who in 2008 succeeded the Rev Ian Paisley as head of Northern Ireland's government and its major Protestant political party, vowed on Friday to stay on following the revelations about his wife.

'She looked out for me to make sure I was OK'

"I will be resolutely defending attacks on my character and contesting any allegations of wrongdoing," Peter Robinson said after the BBC investigative team in Belfast exposed the scandal. He stressed that he hadn't known key details of his wife's affair before the programme.

On Wednesday, Peter Robinson invited four journalists to his home to give his own agonised account of his family's private turmoil - an unprecedented display from a man renowned for an icy demeanour.

The Robinsons neglected to mention the nub of the BBC report: That Iris Robinson's lover, 39 years her junior, had received third-party cash from her that should have been disclosed to Parliament.

The BBC interviewed the former boyfriend, Kirk McCambley, now 21, who had a relationship with Iris Robinson in 2008 that lasted several months. She had been friends with the boy's father, who died earlier that year.

"She looked out for me to make sure I was OK," McCambley told the BBC.

He said Iris Robinson, now 60, gave him two cheques for $40 000 each, but she then asked him for $8 000 back, possibly to donate to the evangelical Protestant church she attends.

The BBC said Peter Robinson was aware of the financial deal - which should have been reported to British parliamentary standards authorities in both Belfast and London. Peter Robinson denies having known about the deal.

Political problems

Even before the scandal, Iris Robinson had caused her husband political problems when she condemned homosexuals as revolting and called on them to seek help from psychiatrists and Christianity.

"Just as a murderer can be redeemed by the blood of Christ, so can a homosexual," she said.

The Robinsons have been married for 40 years and have three grown children. When Iris joined her husband in Parliament in 2001, they became the United Kingdom's first husband-and-wife lawmakers.

The exposure of Iris Robinson's affair had Protestants and Catholics united in gossip on Friday - including at the Lock Keepers Inn, McCambley's thriving cafe on a popular River Lagan walkway.

McCambley himself spent most of the morning standing outside the inn talking on his cellphone. Then he carefully walked across an icy river bridge to a waiting car without speaking to journalists who had also poured into the inn.

"It is just such a surprise, to think with someone so young," said Janice Richards, 33, sipping tea with her baby asleep beside her in a stroller.

Another customer, 43-year-old Carol Blaney, leaned over and agreed furtively: "I know there is the whole political thing. But to me it is the fact he is so young."

Peter Robinson's many political rivals in Northern Ireland have questioned whether he can remain head of a shaky coalition with Irish Catholics - the central achievement of the province's 1998 peace accord. Many within his own Democratic Unionist Party - a movement with a deeply conservative Protestant base - expressed doubts about his political survival as well.

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, the senior Irish Catholic in the coalition, sought an urgent meeting on Friday with Robinson but failed to get one. The two have had an increasingly tense relationship in the past year.

The political tensions coincide with ongoing attacks by IRA dissidents against police and British soldiers in Northern Ireland. On Friday, IRA dissidents badly injured a policeman when a booby-trap bomb exploded under his car as he drove to work.