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.