Northern Ireland has been shaken. Not by the usual things: bombs and tribal warfare, but by a sex scandal in high office involving one Mrs. Robinson.
Americans may well ask, "Who is this Mrs Robinson?" Remember the Mrs Robinson in the 1967 movie The Graduate; the older woman who preyed on a young Dustin Hoffman? You're nearly there.
Except this Mrs. Robinson is a British Member of Parliament, and the 59 year old wife of the leader of Northern Ireland's devolved Assembly. She's been caught sleeping with a 19 year old.
The repercussions are truly seismic. This scandal even threatens to derail the greatest foreign policy achievement of the Clinton Administration: the Northern Irish Peace Process. The cuckolded Mr. Robinson was considered by the British and Irish governments the last best hope of putting in place the keystone of the peace process, the devolution of police and justice powers from London to Northern Ireland. As a result of the scandal he has stepped down from office, temporarily for now, but perhaps permanently.
Iris Robinson comes from the old school northern Protestant and Unionist tradition. She knew her lover Kirk since he was 9 years old and has described him as being like another son. But two years ago she plied him with cheques and cash, and a sexual relationship began. The trouble came because, after he ended the affair, she wanted the money back. One of ways she sought repayment was in the form of donations to her church.
And this leads me to another aspect of this sordid tale: hypocrisy. For Mrs. Robinson is no stranger to pronouncements on sexual morality. In 2008 she was interviewed by the BBC after a gay man was beaten up in a homophobic attack in Belfast. She condemned the attack, but also called homosexuality an "abomination" that made her "sick" and "nauseous". She later said, "just as a murderer can be redeemed...so can a homosexual." Gay rights organization, Stonewall voted her Bigot of the Year: 2008.
Mrs. Robinson says she is suffering from severe depression and that she recently attempted suicide. She has been expelled from her political party and is now receiving acute psychiatric care while the police go through her church's files.
She is a tragic figure. But it would be doubly tragic if, after centuries of conflict, the prospect of lasting peace in Northern Ireland slips from sight due to the bewildering actions of this prima-donna of Northern Unionism. And if her husband, Assembly leader Peter Robinson goes, that just might happen.
Though myself a papist tadgh by descent, I have a lot of time for solid northern Unionists like Mr. Robinson. He's trying to remain true to his tradition and build peace. Let's hope this scandal doesn't stop him.
My advice to Mrs Robinson: flick on a page or two from Deuteronomy until you get to the part about seeing the speck in your brother's eye, but not the log in your own.
Then, flick on a millennium or two: the days when gay people can be lynched in the street while the mob's prejudice receives the tacit support of senior politicians are over, even in Northern Ireland.
Good luck with your recovery.
That's where this piece was supposed to end, with double meaning: a semi-sarcastic, semi-sincere, bit of bluster. But I got to thinking...
A lot of the coverage of this incident has little more than self-righteous hectoring and very unsympathetic to Mrs. Robinson. Many commentators in Ireland and the UK are perhaps guilty of the same self-righteous lack of sympathy she showed the victim of the anti-gay attack. If we see hypocrisy in Mrs. Robinson's badly timed comments after after a gay man was beaten up in Belfast, we must be careful not to be guilty of the same insensitivity to her. She is, after all, severely ill, in care and was suicidal. Just because we might not agree with her views on homosexuality, she is entitled to them. If we are sincere in opening someone's eyes to the humanity of gay people, the best way to reach out is not by kicking someone when they're down.
So I want to sincerely wish her a swift recovery. I hope too that Mr. Robinson, a decent man, will help lead Northern Ireland toward lasting peace.