Last year the house that I grew up in was put on the market. When I looked up the listing online, the house was almost unrecognizable. In the 1980s the front garden was a small patch of grass surrounded by weedless borders; my mother’s rose bushes snagged plastic footballs and were crushed by leather ones. The most recent owners had put in potted trees and exotics on a bed of beige gravel. In the driveway there was a caravan – for most of my childhood there wasn’t even a car – and there was a new door: white uPVC with an oval, faux-leaded window. The houses in our estate were originally built (in the late 1960s) with doors made almost entirely of glass, and the stairs led straight up from the front door; horror stories were told of children falling down the stairs and through the glass. But before long the wooden door frames rotted, so new doors, all with varieties of privacy-ensuring frosted and patterned glass, were put in.
The rot was not confined to the doors: I remember fascias and soffits collapsing all along the street, the dark, mushy wood pushing out from under the hopefulness of white paint. Above the front door and beneath the window of the ‘small’ bedroom in each house was a panel of tongue-and-groove wood; as I got older, the white paint peeled and was repainted; then this wood rotted too, falling off in wet splinters. In houses where the disintegration was particularly spectacular, it revealed the breezeblocks which were all that really held the houses together.
John McAuley, a builder who lived on the street, tore off his wood panel and replaced it with a mosaic of coloured bricks, long and thin, laid horizontally. And once John had the coloured brickwork, a kind of advertisement for his craft, so it spread. John lumbered and wheezed from house to house with his scaffolding, pulling off wood and putting in certainty, leaving a trail of mortar footprints along the street when he went home for his lunch. By the time he’d finished there was no wood left above the door of any of the hundred or so houses. Then someone decided to put a window in their kitchen wall (‘to let in a bit of light’) where the builder had deemed only cupboards should be. And so John started his rounds again, sledgehammering walls less than fifteen years old, putting in wooden window frames that ten years later would all be torn out and replaced with uPVC.
One morning in the late seventies – I think now it must have been during the European Parliament campaign of 1979 – I was alone in our house. Outside there was a distinctive noise, slow-moving and crackling. Up the street came a flatbed truck. There was no one walking outside, no one tending a garden or going to the shops. Ian Paisley’s voice echoed off the walls, like a station announcer’s. As the truck passed by the house Paisley had a megaphone in one hand and waved with the other. His canvassing was unfazed by the stillness, the blank windows and closed doors. Behind him on the truck was his Democratic Unionist Party colleague Peter Robinson, who had been elected to Parliament at Westminster for the first time just a few weeks earlier. Paisley looked at the houses, full of the expectation of recognition and reciprocation, though all he would have seen was his own watery reflection. Robinson looked straight ahead, his head unmoving, his arm stiff in its wave to nothing.
The sight of Paisley and Robinson stayed with me – partly because seeing them through the window of our house was a marginally more authentic experience than seeing them on television, and partly because it was the first vivid materialization of the politics I came to know. The influence of what they stood for hung over the place at a remove, but ready to manifest itself at any moment, like the sound of the Orange band that paraded around the circle of Dunleady Park every morning on the Twelfth before joining the parade on the Lower Newtownards Road and then heading off to the city centre and the Field.
In David Gordon’s recent book The Fall of the House of Paisley, there is a photograph of Paisley and Robinson being arrested in 1980, having protested at Charles Haughey’s visit to Armagh. The personal geography is the same as on that day in 1979. Paisley is in front, an RUC man holding each elbow; Robinson is a few steps behind. He looks ahead, his jaw set in its smile, his arm straight, held under the shoulder and at the wrist by the RUC man. Always behind Paisley, always waiting, always sure.
Dundonald was a village until the housing estates were built in the 1960s. On the road running eastwards out of Belfast towards Newtownards, just past Stormont estate, it was remarkable in little. It had, and has, a ‘Moat’: what is now a mound on top of another mound and was once a motte and bailey belonging to Richard de Courcey, visited by King John on one of his trips to Ireland. All the historical accounts of Dundonald, written by elderly local historians, dwell fondly on this detail. When they eventually reach the 1960s, they shudder. It was then that the baby boomers needed somewhere to live and so new housing estates, mostly owned by the Housing Executive, were built around the edge of Belfast, extending the city’s sectarian geography in lines radiating out from the centre. People tended to move outwards along the radial which began in their part of the city, and so the Dundonald estates – Ballybeen, Tullycarnet, Cherryhill and Dunleady – were mainly an overflow of east Belfast shipyard workers and skilled labourers.
Our house was in Dunleady Park, across the dual carriageway from Ballybeen. Most of the people who lived in the estate came from families that had no previous experience of home-owning. Many would send their children to grammar schools that they could never have attended themselves. They were a mixture of white-collar and blue-collar workers, and most, though it was probably not apparent to them then, were living through the last relatively prosperous years of heavy manufacturing in Belfast. By the 1980s many of the men had been made redundant (in the first quarter of 1982, for example, there were around 10,000 redundancies in Northern Ireland, mostly in construction and manufacturing). Men who had worked regular shifts in factories now came and went at unpredictable times of the day to jobs as security men, window-cleaners and taxi-drivers. Or they joined the RUC or the UDR.
Dunleady Park is laid out in the shape of a noose, and when it was built the houses on the outer edge of the loop were the last in east Belfast before farmland began. The builders were Fraser Developments Ltd, whose founder, Fred Fraser, became one of the most influential developers around Belfast and Derry. The Belfast Telegraph quotes another property developer, Eric Cairns, as saying that the softest thing about Fred Fraser was his teeth. There was much resentment in Dundonald at what was perceived as his ability to build houses first and get planning permission later. As those who lived in his existing houses found themselves having to improve and repair them, new Fraser homes crept up the contours of the Craigantlet hills above Dundonald.
Paisley and Robinson travelled anti-clockwise around Dunleady Park in 1979. On the evening of 17 October 1988 Norman McKeown drove clockwise, past our house from about six doors up, with his wife in the passenger seat, on the way to get a Chinese takeaway. I was reading the final scene of Antony and Cleopatra, for a tutorial the next morning, as they went past. The mercury-tilt switch attached to the undercarriage of the car set off the bomb when they braked to turn left up the hanging rope of the noose. Mrs McKeown, in her dressing-grown, was thrown out of the car’s front windscreen. Apart from a few cuts, she was not injured. Her husband was still alive when I, and many others, got there. She screamed and he groaned quietly. I think that he died before the ambulance came.
I know the exact date only from looking it up in Lost Lives, the book which lists the deaths of those killed in the Troubles. It tells me what was said at the time. The IRA stated that Norman McKeown had supplied security shutters to the RUC and that he was targeted for that reason. They also claimed he was a UVF member, which his family denied. Most people had a good idea of who was ‘in’ what. No one thought Norman McKeown was ‘in’ anything.
1988 was a bad year. It was the year of the Gibraltar shootings, and then the attack by Michael Stone at the funeral of the Gibraltar dead in Milltown. Stone was a local. The day after Stone’s attack a slogan appeared on a gable wall in Ballybeen facing the dual carriageway: ‘Three Taigs killed by one Stone’. Then two British Army corporals were attacked and killed at the funerals of those whom Stone murdered, also in Milltown. Six days before Norman McKeown was killed Ian Paisley disrupted Pope John Paul II’s address to the European Parliament. Paisley denounced the Pope as the Antichrist and was thrown out of the Parliament, as he had hoped he would be.
After the ambulances had gone on the night of Mr McKeown’s murder, neighbours stood around in the dark. They cried and swore. One man there went to the same church as my family. In my teenage years he had coached me at football, and at Sunday Bible classes he had preached the Gospel to me, illustrating the patterns of evangelical conviction on a flipchart borrowed from some office. As we stood in the orange glow of the streetlights he pushed his glasses up to the bridge of his nose and spoke with authority and calmness, suggesting that the Provos could not have found Norman McKeown on their own. ‘You never know who is living in your midst,’ he said. He looked up and down the street.
To my knowledge there were only two Catholic families in the immediate area, plus one ‘mixed’ marriage. When Lost Lives was published in 1999 I borrowed a copy from a university library in England. In the middle of the book are plates of photographs. The first one I came across was titled ‘Grieving relatives of Edward McHugh, a Catholic man shot by loyalists in his east Belfast home in 1993’. The photograph is of Gerard McHugh and his mother. I think of Gerard travelling home for the funeral. In Brendan Murphy’s photograph Gerard holds his hand over his mouth. His eyes are swollen. His mother hides her face on his shoulder. Gerard was a few years older than me. On a portable mono tape player, balanced on a wall, he had introduced me to Stiff Little Fingers, since I was a little too young for their heyday. He explained the politics of Two Tone. I went with him to CND and anti-apartheid rallies, trying to impress him. His father was shot in the hallway of their home late on the night of 30 May 1993.
Lost Lives says of Edward McHugh’s murder that it was carried out by the Red Hand Commando and that they attempted to connect Edward McHugh to a bomb attack five years earlier – the IRA bomb that had killed Norman McKeown less than one hundred yards from the McHughs’ house. A man was charged in connection with Mr McHugh’s murder, but the charges were withdrawn. It may be that the ‘man’ who was involved in the killing of Mr McHugh had listened to punk and ska with us.
In the suburbs of Belfast the new houses, gardens and green spaces spoke of normality – work, leisure, school and holidays. It was our parents’ generation who brought the language and thinking of sectarianism with them. Some saw their new houses and estates as an escape; more chose to recreate the patterns of their childhoods. The new evangelicalism which seeped from sixties America into mainstream Northern Irish Protestant churches, and then into newly formed congregations (such as the Elim Pentecostal churches or Paisley’s Free Presbyterianism), was a parallel for the disjunctive experience of having had a childhood in the terraced houses off the Lower Newtownards Road or Sandy Row, and an adult life in a newly built house in an ‘Avenue’, ‘Drive’ or ‘Way’. Evangelical Christianity was a modernization, a religious way of being which broke with the old churches. The slow shift, especially in working-class areas, away from the UUP and towards the DUP had the same momentum. The DUP, strange as it seems, was contemporary.
My parents moved to Dundonald in 1973 from a house they had bought in north Belfast because my father, having served his apprenticeship in the shipyard, got a job as a machinist in the Rolls-Royce factory which made parts for aircraft engines on the outer edge of Ballybeen estate. They had no connection with the east of the city. Both found it a strange and unsettling experience and for years they yearned for the south of the city, the Donegall and Ormeau Roads of their upbringing. In the midst of its expansion old Dundonald tried to hold on to the vestiges of its landowning-farmer County Down Presbyterianism. This was the nostalgic version of Dundonald lamented by the local historians. It was a version of Dundonald repeated each week on the Dundonald page of the Newtownards Chronicle, a crime-and-paramilitary-free news zone. For a generation the children of established Dundonald families and those of the new arrivals had subtly different accents, each with remnants of country or city. By the time Ballybeen was finished, and Fraser Developments had built up on the hills on the north side of the road in the late eighties and nineties, the old version of Dundonald was so quaintly out of date that everyone could feel they owned it.
The Rolls-Royce factory opened in Dundonald in 1966. It was a vast machine-shop making parts for aircraft engines. On the outside the building was long and low, white with black window frames and supporting girders, designed as though the architect had a postmodern feel for Tudor half-timbers. Inside it smelled of oil and cut metal. The machines were enormous: the small parts they turned out were measured in thousandths of an inch, cut and checked by hand and eye. In the early seventies my father brought home a piece of yellow card, about six inches long and three inches wide, with small vertical rectangles cut out of it in an irregular pattern. It look liked the music for a mini-pianola. It was a computer programme. Where previously machinists had been given three-dimensional drawings of parts to be sized and shaped, now they slid the perforated card into a slot in the machine and watched it do what they had done.
By 1976 the Rolls-Royce factory was closed. It had employed around 780 people, and other businesses had been built around the site. The work that had been done at Dundonald was transferred to Derby. Rolls-Royce’s public rationale for the move was cost-cutting. There was a union in Rolls-Royce, but its influence was outweighed by that of the UDA. Andy Tyrie, leader of the UDA from 1973, was a Rolls-Royce employee.
On New Year’s Day 1973 a car carrying Catholic workers to Rolls-Royce was ambushed by the UDA outside the factory. One man, Jack Mooney, died. In November 1974 another Catholic employee was murdered while waiting in Newtownards for a lift to take him to the night shift. Earlier in 1974 workers in the factory had been at the centre of the organization of the Ulster Workers’ Council strike. The importance of the UDA in the culture, and maybe the closure, of the factory was hinted at in an article in the New Scientist in 1976: ‘Some of those who will now find themselves jobless were among the most vocal and articulate of those who then violently denied Britain’s, and Parliament’s, right to rule.’
Chief among those the New Scientist would have had in mind was Tyrie. By the 1980s he was full-time leader of the UDA, toying with the idea of an independent Northern Ireland and talking non-sectarian politics. In an interview with Barre Fitzpatrick for The Crane Bag, Tyrie threw Fitzpatrick off course with his admiration for Charles Haughey, his apparent socialism and his insistence that he was guiding the UDA away from violence. Fitzpatrick told Tyrie that, given Tyrie’s views, he could hardly believe he was talking to the leader of the UDA. ‘Would you listen to me if I was working in Rolls-Royce?’, Tyrie asked. By that stage no one was working in Rolls-Royce. Tyrie’s conviction that the days of Big House unionism should be brought to an end and that working-class Protestants were being taken for a ride was rhetorically, even morally, right. But he was either incapable of delivering his convictions or he was a hypocrite. The UDA went on importing weapons through the 1980s, and the Ulster Freedom Fighters – the name under which the UDA carried out attacks – went on killing Catholics. Tyrie eventually resigned his UDA position in 1988, after a bomb was found under his car.
Whether it was the silicon chip or the UDA that brought redundancy to the Rolls-Royce workers, Tyrie saw the changes coming in unionism, though the transformation was slow and patchy, and what replaced the stolid Ulster Unionist Party was not a new labour movement but rather the DUP. In the Strangford constituency, which Dundonald and Ballybeen were part of up until the 2010 general election, the Ulster Unionist Party’s John Taylor was MP from 1983 until 2001, when Iris Robinson of the DUP – Peter Robinson’s wife – won the seat. The DUP rose more quickly in the adjacent Belfast East constituency. There Peter Robinson won the Westminster seat in 1979, displacing William Craig of the UUP by sixty-four votes. From then on, through the protests against the Anglo-Irish Agreement and the falterings of the Good Friday Agreement, the DUP out-manouevred the UUP in our part of Northern Ireland and beyond. When Peter Robinson took over from Ian Paisley as First Minister of the devolved Northern Ireland Assembly in 2008, all that standing behind, that waiting with the fixed smile and the echo of Paisley’s fervour, seemed to have paid off.
Peter and Iris Robinson were constant political presences in and around east Belfast, Dundonald and Ballybeen. In 1986, when Peter was Mayor of Castlereagh Borough Council, the Council opened an ice rink in Dundonald, a building forever associated locally with his political abilities. The ‘Ice Bowl’ was a curiosity, given that Northern Ireland and ice skating didn’t have much of a common history. But it was a success – the revenue it brought in meant that Castlereagh levied the lowest rates of any council in Northern Ireland. Peter later had a leisure centre in the borough named after him. Iris was elected to the Council in the late 1980s; she was mayor twice.
I moved from Dundonald to England in 1989, at the age of twenty-one. Around the same time, my parents moved into a smaller house in the next street. Before leaving, I only got the opportunity to vote in one general election and one by-election. In 1986 all Unionist MPs had resigned to force by-elections that they hoped would collectively serve as an unofficial referendum on the Anglo-Irish Agreement. The choice in that election, in the Strangford constituency, was between John Taylor and ‘Peter Barry’. The real Peter Barry was the Irish foreign minister who had helped negotiate the Agreement. His avatar was Wesley Robert Williamson, who changed his name by deed poll to Peter Barry and stood in the four constituencies in which the other political parties decided not to stand against unionists in the forced elections. I don’t remember voting then. The general election was in 1987. There were only three candidates in Strangford: John Taylor, Addie Morrow of the Alliance Party, and Imelda Hynds of the Workers’ Party. My vote registered as one of the 1,385 received by Hynds. Taylor won comfortably with 28,199 votes. There were local elections as well. I usually voted Alliance in those.
I don’t remember my parents ever voting. My father says he voted, but neither of my parents engaged with politics. When the British Labour Party leadership was contested in 1988 my father was a member of two unions, a legacy of his employment and redundancies. Since my father wasn’t going to use either of his postal votes, I was able to cast them for Tony Benn; neither my father nor the Labour Party noticed. My parents’ unwillingness to engage with politics annoyed me. They stayed away from ‘things’ and warned me against getting involved in ‘things’, and they kept their heads down. As a teenager I saw this as passive, supine even. Now it seems brave, humane and intelligent. Their generation had had the tail end of the sixties cut off just as they were beginning to enjoy them. My parents moved to Dundonald not just out of convenience but as part of a sometimes forced, sometimes near-instinctive movement of people around the city in the late sixties and early seventies in a search for safety. And safety meant segregation. I thought their nostalgia for pre-Troubles Belfast was a weakness; now I understand the strength it took to hold on to that nostalgia and to use it as a defence against the easy acceptance of orthodox politics. So when they didn’t vote, even though they complained about the corruption and stifling attitudes of politicians, it was more than inactivity and more than quietism. Eventually, for me, it was a lesson, one that took a long time to learn. Not voting, like not going to Eleventh Night bonfires or Twelfth of July parades, was an effort of will, a decision.
On 5 June 2008, Peter Robinson took over from the retiring Ian Paisley as First Minister of the Northern Ireland Assembly. On the following day, Peter Robinson was in Downing Street to meet the Prime Minister. That same day, speaking on Stephen Nolan’s radio programme on BBC Northern Ireland, Iris Robinson described homosexuality as an ‘abomination’ and offered to put gay people in touch with a psychiatrist she knew, a Christian, who could ‘turn’ them.
Maybe Iris was courting publicity. Maybe she was compelled by, or at least publicly asserting, her evangelical conviction. Despite their professed religious beliefs, the Robinsons were often regarded within the DUP as outsiders – they had never been part of Paisley’s Free Presbyterian Church, for example, preferring instead to attend Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle, a massive Elim Pentecostal church on the Shore Road in north Belfast. The difference in emphasis is small but significant. The Free Presbyterians are keenly aware of their renewal of the reformist, and specifically Calvinist and Lutheran, tradition. The Elim churches are part of a much more populist and American form of charismatic faith. The two tendencies overlap in much of their evangelical language, but the intellectually light, plain-speaking pentecostalism of the Elim churches seems better fitted to the Robinsons than Paisley’s seventeenth-century rhythms.
Speaking on Stephen Nolan’s show that day, Iris anticipated a hostile reaction to her comments (several times she used the word ‘pilliored’, presumably meaning ‘pilloried’), but she knew that this would be because she was ‘living the life of a Christian’ and thus had to speak, on the basis of scripture. ‘Moral standards have gone to the wall,’ she said. Listening back to the programme is an infuriating and melancholy experience. A kind of intellectual and ethical suffocation hangs over Iris’s self-assertion, seeping into her constant pauses and repetitions. She sees a BBC conspiracy at work; she believes she is being set up.
On 28 December 2009 Iris Robinson issued a statement saying that she was standing down from her various political roles because of severe depression. Just over a week later, Peter Robinson called a few reporters to his house in Gransha, on the edge of Dundonald. They were given a written statement by Iris. It explained that she had had a brief affair in the midst of her psychiatric difficulties. The statement is a painful read, partly because it is hard not to see political machination intertwined with some genuine personal trauma, all of it tugging on the fabric of evangelical faith. In its twists and turns, the self-reproach and the certainty of Christ’s forgiveness, the dead language of pseudo-psychology and the terror of public reproach, her statement reaches into the deep hollowness that terrified me in evangelical meetings I went to during my childhood and teenage years.
Iris was not present for the publication of her confession. After the reporters had been given Iris’s account, Peter Robinson sat in his study and read his own statement. I listened to it several times. Each time I found it more odious. It was self-justifying and utterly lacking in compassion for his wife, who was left to wait for grace to be bestowed by the Christ she had asked for forgiveness.
When I talked to my mother in the New Year, Iris Robinson’s retirement merited only a passing, sardonic remark. But she rang me on the night of Peter Robinson’s statement. I tried to persuade her of the politics of it. I suggested that the cheesy card which was placed strategically on the shelf to the right of Peter Robinson’s head as he read his statement (‘Dad, no matter how tall I grow I will always look up to you’) was designed to reinforce the image of a wronged family man. Similarly, Peter’s distancing of himself from his wife was the first step in a campaign to keep his job. My mother had no sympathy for either of them. And she said she’d heard there was more to come.
She was right. The BBC Northern Ireland current affairs programme Spotlight had been preparing an exposé about the Robinsons; Peter knew about this, and his statement included the following:
I accept that the press have a job to do and they must be free to do it. I know there will be others who, no doubt, want to dredge up every lurid detail. They will get no help from me.
After hearing this, the BBC brought forward the Spotlight broadcast. Peter Robinson, in trying to stymie the programme, had given it currency. At around five in the afternoon on the day on which the programme was to be shown, the phone rang. My mother never calls before 10.30 in the evening, but she wanted to tell me that a woman on the bus had told my sister that Iris’s affair was with a nineteen-year-old. It was well known, apparently, around town.
We don’t get BBC on our satellite-less, cable-less, indoor-aerielled television in Dublin, so I followed the live comments on Slugger O’Toole’s website. My mother gave me a short and outraged version of it once it was over. ‘He’s finished now,’ she said. You would have thought so.
The Spotlight programme had good sources. Their main informant was Selwyn Black, who had been employed as Iris Robinson’s political advisor but seemed to become more of an all-round personal assistant. The main narrative of the programme was based on the text messages from Iris that Black had saved on his iPhone. Black and the BBC reporter were shown poring over these in rehearsed wonderment. Black’s background, like that of the psychiatrist Iris had recommended in her 2008 interview, mixed psychology and Christianity. He had served as a Methodist minister and as a trauma counsellor. In the programme he showed a finely honed capacity for the drama of contained outrage, and his annoyance at Iris’s behaviour, in having a teenage lover and then lending, or gifting, money to him, was sublimated into small quivers of his cheek muscles.
The story was this. Iris Robinson was close to Billy McCambley, who owned a butcher’s shop in east Belfast (Select Cuts in Ballyhackamore – a very good one, apparently). Before his death Iris promised Mr McCambley that she would look out for his son Kirk, whom she had known since he was a young boy. Her care for Kirk turned into a sexual relationship. She told Kirk, who was at a loose end, about an opportunity to run a café, the Lock Keeper’s Cottage, the franchise for which was up for tender through Castlereagh Borough Council. Kirk’s was the only tender. Iris arranged a loan of £50,000 for Kirk, to get him started in business. The money was donated in equal amounts by two property developers, Ken Campbell and Fred Fraser. When Iris passed the money on to Kirk, she asked for £5,000 back for herself. Iris, an elected member of the Council, was in the Council chamber when the decision was taken to award the contract to Kirk. For Spotlight this lack of a declaration of an interest was crucial in that it was in contravention of the House of Commons’ rules and regulations. Castlereagh Borough Council was later to begin an investigation into whether any of its rules had been broken. Equally, the programme suggested that, once he found out about this arrangement, Peter Robinson, under the ministerial code for the Northern Assembly, had a duty to declare his wife’s financial interests.
Iris’s relationship with Kirk then began to cool. She told her husband about the money, but not about the sex. Selwyn Black was used to try to negotiate repayment of the money. Ken Campbell was to be repaid in full. Fred Fraser had died not long after he gave Iris £25,000; what was to be done with his half, assuming the money was returned, was the subject of some discussion. Iris suggested at one point that Fraser’s portion of the money was to go to the Light ’n’ Life Tabernacle in Dundonald, which is part of the Free Methodist Church, an American church that has a long history but a relatively recent presence in the UK. Its pastor in Dundonald is Peter Robinson’s sister. This possibility was discounted, allegedly at Peter’s insistence. All of this happened around the end of 2008. Not long after, Peter found out about Iris’s affair, supposedly from a letter. Iris attempted suicide. The programme pointed out that her suicide attempt late on the evening of 1 March 2009 was followed by Peter’s appearance in the Assembly a few hours later on the morning of 2 March. Spotlight showed him bantering on the floor of the Assembly.
I got a little obsessive about the Iris story, and I wasn’t the only one. Kirk McCambley temporarily became a peculiar kind of celebrity. His café was extremely popular. There was a Facebook site celebrating his political and sexual achievements. On YouTube there was a satiric version of Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Mrs Robinson’. And there was an unsuccessful campaign to get the original recording of the song to number one in the charts.
On BBC Northern Ireland news, the day after Spotlight, a reporter was sent to what looked to be Connswater Shopping Centre in east Belfast. It is the kind of place where reporters go for an easy vox pop. An old man was interviewed as he sat on a bench while shoppers passed by. He had a wrinkled face, flat cap and dusty tweeds. It was as if he had been sitting there for several decades waiting to be interviewed on television as a typical man in the street. He had, presumably, been asked what he thought of Iris. He said that maybe she shouldn’t have said that about ‘the gays’, and he looked straight at the interviewer and nodded. A firm, and short, opinion. And not what I expected.
My mother called again. She had read a ‘book’ about Iris’s affair. It turned out to be a pamphlet which came free with the Sunday Life, a gossipy tabloid under the wing of the Belfast Telegraph: a fictionalized account of Iris’s affair written by Gail Henderson and titled The First Lady of Lust. My mother read a bit to me over the phone.
When I eventually got to read it myself, I found that The First Lady of Lust is a mixture of political reportage and Mills & Boon, and in that, at least, appropriate to its content. As well as using the information from Spotlight, Gail Henderson makes use of Suzanne Breen’s 2008 interview with Iris in the Sunday Tribune, published just before Peter Robinson took over as leader of the DUP and Iris became ‘First Lady’. Everybody writing about Iris Robinson in the days and weeks after the scandal read her interview with Suzanne Breen. Everyone found it bizarre in its cosiness and scattiness.
Iris clearly enjoyed the interview. She talked about the decoration of her home (each room themed and designed by Iris, with wall frescoes by a local artist). She coyly picked up lacy black underwear from the Gothic four-poster bed. She was girlish. ‘“Oh, Peter’s been at the blackcurrant and vanilla balls!” she laughs.’ There were other oddities. Iris seemed to have some kind of belief in astrology, despite her evangelicalism. She also had a taste for conspiracy theories, something that surfaced briefly in her attacks on the BBC and Stephen Nolan. Iris told Breen that Princess Diana may have been assassinated by ‘the government’ because she was about to marry a Muslim – perhaps a case of over-identification with a glamorous female public figure and the cataclysmic consequences of a love affair with the ‘wrong’ person. She said with confidence that Peter’s steak was once laced with rat poison by ‘nationalist’ chefs in a Belfast restaurant. She believed that the British government had spread false allegations about her husband’s domestic violence to discredit him when he was protesting against the Anglo-Irish Agreement.
On 12 January, after the Spotlight programme, Peter Robinson announced that he was to stand down as First Minister for six weeks. Arlene Foster, a relatively recent defector from the UUP to the DUP, took over as Acting First Minister. During that time an enquiry into Peter’s role in his wife’s financial dealings with McCambley was to be conducted by a barrister appointed by himself. Over the next few weeks Peter Robinson negotiated an agreement with Sinn Féin on devolution of policing which got the Executive in the Assembly working again. Meanwhile the DUP was able to adapt Peter’s discomfort into the rhythm of tit-for-tat politics in Northern Ireland, occasionally reminding Gerry Adams of the allegations of child abuse against his brother. This meant that during the talks on policing the leaders of both parties had a scandal in their families aired in public. If I was Iris I’d see a conspiracy.
This spring, as the general election got closer, the media outside Northern Ireland lost interest in the Robinson story. The local media, however, were obsessed with the whereabouts of Iris. Officially she was under psychiatric supervision and ‘in the care of the Belfast Trust’, a form of words which eventually seemed designed to allow that she might not actually be resident in Belfast. There was a report that she had been seen in London.
In early April a new story about the Robinsons emerged. Peter Robinson had paid Fred Fraser £5 for a strip of land which gave access to part of the Robinsons’ garden. Fraser had the land ‘left over’ from a development close to the Robinsons’ house and fronting on to an access road. A piece of land including this strip and part of the Robinsons’ back garden was later sold by them to another developer for £459,000, though within this deal the particular piece of land bought for £5 was also sold for £5. Peter Robinson’s argument was that he had thus benefited in no way from the transaction. He gave an interview to the BBC on 2 April 2010 in which he accused the BBC and his political opponents, who were pressing the issue of the land deal, of being ‘liars’. Robinson was ragged and rattled in the interview, and equally tetchy when he was asked about the deal at an election press conference. A photograph of Fraser perched on the bonnet of a white Porsche, with a flute of champagne in hand, did the rounds of the newspapers.
In Dundonald two more local planning issues became part of the campaign. One involved a development of houses at Knock Golf Club. With the support of Peter Robinson and his son Gareth (who is also a councillor in Castlereagh and sits on the Council’s Planning Committee), the plans for this scheme were passed even though the Council’s principal planning officer, according to newspaper reports, had written a note stating that he was ‘of the opinion that this application should be refused’. A mile or so away, Ken Campbell, one of the two donors of the seed capital for Kirk McCambley’s café, was given permission to build a petrol station on what was designated a ‘landscape wedge’ (intended to ‘provide protection for valuable open areas’). The ‘wedge’ is managed by the Hanwood Trust. Peter Robinson is a former chairman of the Hanwood Trust. Iris Robinson is a former director. Gareth Robinson is on the board and is company secretary. The board also includes Frankie Gallagher, who is spokesman for the Ulster Political Research Group, which advises the UDA, and Tommy ‘Tinker’ Taylor, a loyalist ex-prisoner. Taylor is reportedly the partner of Sharon Skillen, the DUP candidate who eventually won the election to replace Iris Robinson on Castlereagh Borough Council. Sharon Skillen, as it happens, gives her electoral address as Dunleady Park.
None of this looked good for Peter Robinson. An endearing local free magazine, BT16plus, run by Martin Gregg, unsuccessful Green Party candidate for Iris’s vacant council seat, encouraged voters to ask candidates where they stood on the Knock Golf Club issue. Gregg was eliminated on the second count, but his campaigning may, even accidentally, have caught a slight mood shift in the electorate. The narratives of Knock Golf Club, the petrol station and the £5 deal are not straightforward. None of them have conclusively shown any wrongdoing by the Robinsons. However, the recurrence of stories about the Robinsons’ involvement in the realm where planning and politics meet gave a local flavour to the British media’s recent enthusiasm for picking over MPs’ expenses and connections. Previously this might not have mattered in Northern Ireland. There was no particular reason to believe it would in the 2010 election either.
In late April my mother calls.
‘How are you?’
‘Fine. I was thinking of voting.’
We discuss the possibilities. I assume that she will probably want to vote for Trevor Ringland. He is the candidate of the new UUP–Conservative grouping, a former Ireland rugby international, and a solicitor. My mother worked as a secretary in a solicitor’s office for over twenty years and has a great respect for the profession. I tell her that Ringland is probably the one to vote for if there’s to be any chance of Robinson losing the seat. But I wouldn’t vote for him – he’s too business-focused, I say, hoping that this will carry some weight. I know by her hesitation that she isn’t going to vote for Ringland anyway. I think then that she might be tempted by David Vance of the Traditional Unionist Voice. I’ve read that he has been campaigning hard against Robinson. She might like his combativeness. His election leaflet outlines the salaries and expenses claimed by the Robinsons (£571,939.41, it says) in one year. She pauses. I realize that she’s already made up her mind.
She tells me a story. My niece goes to a girls’ grammar school in east Belfast. The girls had a talk from Naomi Long, who was then Lord Mayor of Belfast and a former pupil of the school, and who is now the Alliance Party candidate in Belfast East. My niece was very impressed.
‘Well, it would be great to vote for Naomi Long,’ I say. ‘But she won’t win.’
‘I’ll vote for her anyway. I’ve never done it before. I don’t know how you vote but I suppose I’ll manage.’
A few years ago my mother took my nephews to see a club football match at Windsor Park. There was no one else to take them that day. Her family, and my father’s, would have been Linfield supporters, and I was taken to matches before my teens took me other places. My mother had never been to a football match. She always left the room when it came on the television. But at Windsor Park, a dowdy, downbeat stadium with a tiny crowd, she got hooked. I went with her to midweek matches when I was teaching in Belfast. She started going to every home game. Then she found ways to get to away games. Soon she had started going on trips to Old Trafford. The same thing happened with the Irish cricket team – she has been going to all their home matches too. Late in life she has developed a facility for new things. She’ll manage voting.
Naomi Long shouldn’t really have had much chance of getting elected. Oliver Napier of the Alliance Party came close to winning Belfast East in 1979, when Robinson won the seat for the first time. Back then there was a two-way split between the unionist candidates. Napier was third, just over 900 votes behind Robinson. In subsequent elections the gap widened considerably: Robinson was more than 11,000 votes ahead of Long in 2005.
I read all the political commentary I could find in the weeks before the election. Trying to inject a bit of excitement into the process, journalists discussed Vance’s and Ringland’s chances. A few mentioned the boundary changes in the Belfast East constituency. These meant that Dundonald and Ballybeen had been taken out of the Strangford constituency (Iris’s seat) and into Belfast East (Peter’s seat). In normal circumstances, this should have given Peter Robinson additional votes.
On the night before the election my mother calls again. ‘You won’t believe who was here last night.’ She tells me how DUP canvassers went around the street knocking on doors. Peter Robinson, she said, waited for his staff to make sure he would be welcome before he went up to a door. In her description Robinson is a spectral figure, darkly dressed, immobile, skulking. The canvasser at her door was given his leaflet back.
‘Enjoy voting,’ I say.
‘Oh, I will.’
On the evening of 6 May the coverage of the general election on the BBC website is, of course, obsessed with the maths of the potential coalition in Westminster. Nothing much seems to be happening in the Northern Irish constituencies. I can’t get interested in David Cameron, so I go to bed.
My wife is out. She comes home and wakes me up, telling me Belfast East is very close. I get up, but with no belief that I’m about to hear anything other than Peter Robinson announcing his own vindication. We listen to RTÉ radio. There are moments of confusion. Several times the result is about to be declared and is then delayed. There are suggestions that Peter Robinson is to ask for a recount. And it gradually becomes clear that Naomi Long is close to winning. I still assume that, like the inexorable logic of cup football, the underdog will perform gamely and lose. The results are read out in alphabetical order:
Naomi Long (Alliance) 12,839
Mary Muldoon (SDLP) 365
Niall Ó Donngahile (SF) 817
Trevor Ringland (UCUNF) 7,305
Peter Robinson (DUP) 11,306
David Vance (TUV) 1,856
‘You should call your mother.’
It is nearly one in the morning. ‘It’s a bit late. I’ll talk to her tomorrow.’
At 7.11 in the morning I receive the first text I have ever had from my mother: ‘Unbelievable robinson has lost naomi long has won’.
I call her that evening. She tells me about going to the polling station; about keeping her head down going past people she knew who were canvassing for the DUP; about filling in the ballot paper. Having managed this in the morning she persuaded my sister to vote in the evening. By this time she was an old hand, and showed my sister what to do. As they waited for my sister to vote they met a neighbour. They confessed to her that this was their first election voting. The neighbour said: ‘Well, you have to vote this time.’ My mother took this to be a sign of general anger with Robinson, and began to believe that Naomi Long might win. My sister thought it as likely that they were being reminded to vote for Robinson.
In any case, my mother is right to say it is ‘unbelievable’ that Naomi Long won. The Alliance vote increased by 26.2 percentage points. The DUP vote fell by 19.6 percentage points. The boundary change might have been expected to help the DUP, or even the TUV: Ballybeen, and Dundonald in general, added more solidly unionist votes to what was already the most Protestant constituency in Northern Ireland.
My parents had lived in a ‘Fraser Home’ and then seen the evidence of Fred Fraser’s overly-close relations with the Robinsons. They had lived through the violence which the DUP always condemned but simultaneously echoed in its language. They had heard the gospel taught in increasingly condemnatory ways, as all congregations tried to keep up with the evangelicalism of Paisley’s Free Presbyterians. They had lived through unemployment and the devaluation of their labour while hearing rumours of the corruption and wealth of politicians and paramilitaries. They had seen the small flickerings of self-improvement, which living in an estate and having your own house promised, parodied by the flaunted wealth of the Robinsons. I think they had had enough. So they voted.
I ask my mother if she will vote again. ‘Oh yes. I can’t wait.’
The house that I grew up in was sold this year for £149,000.
The site of the Rolls-Royce factory is now owned by Sainsbury’s. They have plans for a supermarket and hotel. The plans have the support of Castlereagh Borough Council.
Behind the ex-Rolls-Royce site the small factories have gradually transmogrified into the Carrowreagh Business Park. It’s the usual story – from making real things to selling intangible services. Until recently the work going on in the Business Park included a call centre for the British National Party.
The next Assembly elections are due to take place in 2011.
Read more in The Dublin Review issue No. 40 Autumn 2010.