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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Labour is a pioneer in fighting sexism. That doesn't mean there's no sexism in Labour

While we campaign against misogyny, we must not fall into the trap of thinking Labour is above it; doing so lets women members down and puts the party in danger of not taking them seriously when they report incidents. 

I’m in the Labour party to fight for equality. I cheered when Labour announced that one of its three Budget tests was ensuring the burden of cuts didn’t fall on women. I celebrated the party’s record of winning rights for women on International Women’s Day. And I marched with Labour women to end male violence against women and girls.

I’m proud of the work we’re doing for women across the country. But, as the Labour party fights for me to feel safer in society, I still feel unsafe in the Labour party.

These problems are not unique to the Labour party; misogyny is everywhere in politics. You just have to look on Twitter to see women MPs – and any woman who speaks out – receiving rape and death threats. Women at political events are subject to threatening behaviour and sexual harassment. Sexism and violence against women at its heart is about power and control. And, as we all know, nowhere is power more highly-prized and sought-after than in politics.

While we campaign against misogyny, we must not fall into the trap of thinking Labour is above it; doing so lets women members down and puts the party in danger of not taking them seriously when they report incidents. 

The House of Commons’ women and equalities committee recently stated that political parties should have robust procedures in place to prevent intimidation, bullying or sexual harassment. The committee looked at this thanks to the work of Gavin Shuker, who has helped in taking up this issue since we first started highlighting it. Labour should follow this advice, put its values into action and change its structures and culture if we are to make our party safe for women.

We need thorough and enforced codes of conduct: online, offline and at all levels of the party, from branches to the parliamentary Labour party. These should be made clear to everyone upon joining, include reminders at the start of meetings and be up in every campaign office in the country.

Too many members – particularly new and young members – say they don’t know how to report incidents or what will happen if they do. This information should be given to all members, made easily available on the website and circulated to all local parties.

Too many people – including MPs and local party leaders – still say they wouldn’t know what to do if a local member told them they had been sexually harassed. All staff members and people in positions of responsibility should be given training, so they can support members and feel comfortable responding to issues.

Having a third party organisation or individual to deal with complaints of this nature would be a huge help too. Their contact details should be easy to find on the website. This organisation should, crucially, be independent of influence from elsewhere in the party. This would allow them to perform their role without political pressures or bias. We need a system that gives members confidence that they will be treated fairly, not one where members are worried about reporting incidents because the man in question holds power, has certain political allies or is a friend or colleague of the person you are supposed to complain to.

Giving this third party the resources and access they need to identify issues within our party and recommend further changes to the NEC would help to begin a continuous process of improving both our structures and culture.

Labour should champion a more open culture, where people feel able to report incidents and don't have to worry about ruining their career or facing political repercussions if they do so. Problems should not be brushed under the carpet. It takes bravery to admit your faults. But, until these problems are faced head-on, they will not go away.

Being the party of equality does not mean Labour is immune to misogyny and sexual harassment, but it does mean it should lead the way on tackling it.

Now is the time for Labour to practice what it preaches and prove it is serious about women’s equality.

Bex Bailey was on Labour’s national executive committee from 2014 to 2016.