The Mrs Robinson affair

Does the fixation with Iris Robinson's psychiatric state reveal social prejudices?

It's the kind of story that the tabloids pray for. The affair between Iris Robinson, MP and wife of Peter Robinson (the Northern Ireland Assembly leader), and the then 19-year-old Kirk McCambley has a strong cast of characters: the dying butcher, his strapping son, the powerful statesman and his wayward wife, all brought to their knees. Is it the drama and pathos of a Greek tragedy, or more Jackie Collins?

The temptation to stereotype is almost irresistible. Yet in doing so, society has exposed as much of its own prejudices as the private lives of the protagonists.

So what makes this "scandal" quite so scandalous? Is it the affair or the age difference?

The parallels between the seductive Anne Bancoft's filmic Mrs Robinson and her real-life counterpart are too obvious to avoid. Both are attractive, successful married women in their fifities embarking on illicit affairs with young men.

Yet while Bancroft's glamorous femme fatale character stalked the dreams of a generation of pubescent boys, Iris is all too painfully, embarrassingly, real. She is presented not as a glamorous adulterer, but as an unfaithful wife. Out of control, even deranged, she is in need of urgent psychiatric treatment, and certainly too ill to appear in public or talk to the press. We have had to latch on to her psychological condition in order to stay the shock, and this informs and conditions our understanding of her behaviour.

In a statement to the Today programme, a spokesperson for Peter Robinson announced that his wife was "receiving acute psychiatric treatment from the Belfast Health Trust", and that "the information was being made public following speculation about her health and whereabouts".

I do not doubt that Mrs Robinson has genuinely suffered from depression. What is striking is the centrality of her psychological state to the story. Galen, a prominent physician from the 2nd century, wrote that hysteria was a disease caused by sexual deprivation in particularly passionate women. This "illness" was given particular credence by the Victorians. Two hundred years later, are we subconsciously accusing Mrs Robinson of having the "wandering womb"?

Ugly as it is to admit, had the roles been reversed and a man of equivalent standing been caught playing away with a teenage nymphet, the affair would have been met quite differently. I don't doubt that there would be widespread moral disdain, but there would also be kudos. From Ronnie Wood to Tiger Woods, you do not have to look far for examples.

In this case, Mr Robinson has not emerged unscathed. He too is subject to trial by vox populi. Commenting on Radio 4, Robinson's predecessor, Lord Trimble, pronounced that the First Minister "would be gone in days because he has lost his authority". Faint shades of the Shakespearean cuckold, of the logic that a man who cannot control his household surely cannot be trusted to lead?

So who is the victim? The 19-year-old boy (now 21)? I think not. The cuckolded husband? Perhaps. As for Iris Robinson herself, it is difficult to sympathise with a woman who proudly states that homosexuality is worse than child abuse.

No. Sadly, in this instance, the victim may well be the fragile devolution that Northern Ireland has fought so hard to build.

 

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Who "speaks for England" - and for that matter, what is "England"?

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones.

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones. It trotted out Leo Amery’s House of Commons call from September 1939, “Speak for England”, for the headline on a deranged leader that filled a picture-free front page on David Cameron’s “deal” to keep Britain in the EU.

Demands that somebody or other speak for England have followed thick and fast ever since Amery addressed his call to Labour’s Arthur Greenwood when Neville Chamberlain was still dithering over war with Hitler. Tory MPs shouted, “Speak for England!” when Michael Foot, the then Labour leader, rose in the Commons in 1982 after Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands. The Mail columnist Andrew Alexander called on Clare Short to “speak for England” over the Iraq War in 2003. “Can [Ed] Miliband speak for England?” Anthony Barnett asked in this very magazine in 2013. (Judging by the 2015 election result, one would say not.) “I speak for England,” claimed John Redwood last year. “Labour must speak for England,” countered Frank Field soon afterwards.

The Mail’s invocation of Amery was misconceived for two reasons. First, Amery wanted us to wage war in Europe in support of Hitler’s victims in Poland and elsewhere and in alliance with France, not to isolate ourselves from the continent. Second, “speak for England” in recent years has been used in support of “English votes for English laws”, following proposals for further devolution to Scotland. As the Mail was among the most adamant in demanding that Scots keep their noses out of English affairs, it’s a bit rich of it now to state “of course, by ‘England’. . . we mean the whole of the United Kingdom”.

 

EU immemorial

The Mail is also wrong in arguing that “we are at a crossroads in our island history”. The suggestion that the choice is between “submitting to a statist, unelected bureaucracy in Brussels” and reclaiming our ancient island liberties is pure nonsense. In the long run, withdrawing from the EU will make little difference. Levels of immigration will be determined, as they always have been, mainly by employers’ demands for labour and the difficulties of policing the borders of a country that has become a leading international transport hub. The terms on which we continue to trade with EU members will be determined largely by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels after discussions with unelected bureaucrats in London.

The British are bored by the EU and the interminable Westminster arguments. If voters support Brexit, it will probably be because they then expect to hear no more on the subject. They will be sadly mistaken. The withdrawal negotiations will take years, with the Farages and Duncan Smiths still foaming at the mouth, Cameron still claiming phoney victories and Angela Merkel, François Hollande and the dreaded Jean-Claude Juncker playing a bigger part in our lives than ever.

 

An empty cabinet

Meanwhile, one wonders what has become of Jeremy Corbyn or, indeed, the rest of the shadow cabinet. The Mail’s “speak for England” leader excoriated him for not mentioning “the Number One subject of the hour” at PM’s Questions but instead asking about a shortage of therapeutic radiographers in the NHS. In fact, the NHS’s problems – almost wholly caused by Tory “reforms” and spending cuts – would concern more people than does our future in the EU. But radiographers are hardly headline news, and Corbyn and his team seem unable to get anything into the nation’s “any other business”, never mind to the top of its agenda.

Public services deteriorate by the day, George Osborne’s fiscal plans look increasingly awry, and attempts to wring tax receipts out of big corporations appear hopelessly inadequate. Yet since Christmas I have hardly seen a shadow minister featured in the papers or spotted one on TV, except to say something about Trident, another subject that most voters don’t care about.

 

Incurable prose

According to the Guardian’s admirable but (let’s be honest) rather tedious series celeb­rating the NHS, a US health-care firm has advised investors that “privatisation of the UK marketplace . . . should create organic and de novo opportunities”. I have no idea what this means, though it sounds ominous. But I am quite certain I don’t want my local hospital or GP practice run by people who write prose like that.

 

Fashionable Foxes

My home-town football team, Leicester City, are normally so unfashionable that they’re not even fashionable in Leicester, where the smart set mostly watch the rugby union team Leicester Tigers. Even when they installed themselves near the top of the Premier League before Christmas, newspapers scarcely noticed them.

Now, with the Foxes five points clear at the top and 7-4 favourites for their first title, that mistake is corrected and the sports pages are running out of superlatives, a comparison with Barcelona being the most improbable. Even I, not a football enthusiast, have watched a few matches. If more football were played as Leicester play it – moving at speed towards their opponents’ goal rather than aimlessly weaving pretty patterns in midfield – I would watch the game more.

Nevertheless, I recall 1963, when Leicester headed the old First Division with five games to play. They picked up only one more point and finished fourth, nine points adrift of the league winners, Everton.

 

Gum unstuck

No, I don’t chew toothpaste to stop me smoking, as the last week’s column strangely suggested. I chew Nicorette gum, a reference written at some stage but somehow lost (probably by me) before it reached print.

Editor: The chief sub apologises for this mistake, which was hers

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle