The Lock Keeper's Inn outside Belfast is an attractive but otherwise unremarkable café. Serving up the usual Northern Irish fare of sausage rolls and stew, it's a place to stop for a quiet coffee after walking along the nearby riverbank. A world away, it would seem, from the bitter feuds of Northern Irish politics. But following a series of remarkable revelations this week, the inn is at the center of a scandal that could threaten the career of Northern Ireland's top politician.
On Thursday, a BBC television program called Spotlight issued a report accusing First Minister Peter Robinson's wife Iris of breaking the law by failing to disclose her financial interest in a 2008 business deal that helped launch the café. The report alleged that Iris Robinson then age 59 and, like her husband, a well-known politician in Northern Ireland had obtained $80,000 from two property developers for a 19-year-old man, Kirk McCambley, with whom she had been having an affair. According to the report, the teenager allegedly used most of the money to set up the café but saved $8,000 to give back to his lover, the appropriately named Mrs. Robinson.
The revelation followed a series of other disclosures about the Robinsons' private lives over the past couple of weeks. On Dec. 28, Iris Robinson, who serves in both the British Parliament and Northern Ireland Assembly, announced that she would be ending her 20-year political career, saying she had been suffering from "serious bouts of depression." Then, on Jan. 6, a handful of television journalists were invited to meet Peter Robinson at his home outside Belfast. Robinson, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Northern Ireland's largest political party, is known for his clinical, dispassionate public image. As the cameras rolled, Robinson appeared to fight back tears as he revealed his wife's extramarital affair and the fact that Iris had attempted suicide last March because she'd been "racked with guilt" over the relationship. The Spotlight program subsequently revealed McCambley's identity and his age at the time the affair began (he's now 21).
The news has stunned Northern Ireland, a staunchly conservative society in which many politicians, particularly those in Protestant-backed unionist parties, see themselves as unofficial guardians of public morality. The Robinsons who are practicing Evangelical Christians were certainly no exception.
Two years ago, Iris Robinson caused an outcry when, during a BBC radio interview, she described homosexuality as "an abomination" and suggested that gay people could be "turned around" through counseling. A few days later, she reiterated her views, telling a TV interviewer that "just as a murderer can be redeemed by the blood of Christ, so can a homosexual." Gay-rights activists accused her of inciting hatred, and scores of complaints were lodged with the police. According to the Spotlight report, Robinson's relationship with McCambley started before those comments were made.
Although Evangelical influence over the DUP has waned in recent years, Evangelical congregations particularly those in rural Northern Ireland still form the backbone of the party founded by the Rev. Ian Paisley in 1971. The couple's standing among these devout members is now likely to deteriorate. "The Robinson affair will be difficult for core DUP supporters," says Gladys Ganiel, a lecturer at Trinity College Dublin and author of a book on Evangelicalism in Northern Ireland. "It certainly doesn't hurt to talk about your faith in public in Northern Ireland politics, and no one has done that more than Iris Robinson. But Evangelical voters expect a certain moral standard, and this [affair] could prove to be a real fly in the ointment."
Although Iris Robinson had already indicated her intention to quit politics before the Spotlight show aired, she now faces calls to resign immediately. As for her husband's political future, much depends on how much Peter knew of the money his wife is alleged to have obtained for her lover. The majority of the BBC's evidence came from Selwyn Black, a former political adviser to Iris, who produced several text messages sent by his employer referring to the business deal and her husband. Black also claims that, during phone calls with Iris, he overheard Peter allegedly advising his wife on how the money should be repaid.
Peter Robinson issued a statement Friday denying any personal wrongdoing: "While I have learned from Spotlight for the first time some alleged aspects of my wife's affair and her financial arrangements, I will be resolutely defending attacks on my character and contesting any allegations of wrongdoing." But that hasn't stopped his opponents from pondering whether he'll continue to have a political future. Reg Empey, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, has called for an investigation into the claims, describing the revelations as being of "deep concern to all those concerned with the integrity of political life and the democratic process."
The disclosures come at a delicate time for Northern Ireland's fragile power-sharing government of Catholic and Protestant parties. Peter Robinson and his Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness of the Sinn Fein party, have failed to reach an agreement over the devolution of policing and justice powers from London to Northern Ireland, despite months of negotiations. Catholic republicans have for years accused the British-run law-and-order system of having a pro-Protestant bias, while Protestant unionists have been reluctant to alter the current setup. The impasse has added to the public's frustration over a perceived lack of progress on a host of key issues.
At the end of Peter Robinson's emotional TV interview on Wednesday, the First Minister said he had no intention of resigning. "I am determined to try and put this issue behind me," he said. "It is my intention ... to continue the work the people of Northern Ireland have entrusted to me." But with the Northern Irish now scrutinizing the Robinson family ever more closely, business as usual looks increasingly unlikely.