Anne Enright

Iris Robinson is, at the time of writing, under acute psychiatric care in a Belfast hospital, after a BBC Northern Ireland documentary revealed that she had, at the age of 59, solicited £50,000 from two property developers to help fund a business run by her 19-year-old lover, Kirk McCambley.

She has some experience of the mental health profession. In June 2008, days before she embarked on the affair, she said on the radio: ‘I have a very lovely psychiatrist who works with me in my offices and his Christian background is that he tries to help homosexuals – trying to turn them away from what they are engaged in.’ This was the interview in which she caused outrage by calling homosexuality ‘an abomination’. The ‘lovely psychiatrist’ was not Selwyn Black, who also worked in her offices and eventually shopped her to the BBC, but a consultant from Belfast’s Mater Hospital, who took a career break shortly after her remarks were made.

Selwyn Black has lectured in counselling at the University of Ulster, and his Christian background is that he has also worked as a Methodist minister and RAF chaplain. He specialised in the victims of trauma, of which there are many in Northern Ireland, and has given talks about the problem of compassion fatigue. He certainly suffered some kind of fatigue from working with Iris Robinson. Her remarks about homosexuality struck him as ‘bizarre’, in that the interview took place on the day her husband, Peter Robinson, went to Downing Street to accept the role of First Minister of the Northern Ireland Assembly ‘and there really was a sense that Iris had stolen his thunder’.

Black, who was hired as her political adviser, does not say when he decided to keep, rather than delete, Iris’s text messages, the intimacy of which is startling. He has, at any rate, more than 150 of them still on his phone. ‘Just cut links with Kirk,’ she texted in the autumn of 2008. ‘God’s word was very clear on it. He was reasonably OK. I am not.’ Also: ‘Everything is a reminder. Wherever I go. My home, my church, my car, my music and of course the roads we drove.’ Despite the ardency of these messages, it was not until he saw the couple together that Black realised what had gone on. ‘I had an increasing sense that this relationship was much more than I had ever construed and that it had huge consequences for all concerned.’ It is hard to blame him for being so slow; the boy was only 19. Iris had been hiding in plain sight. Black’s emotions may have been, in the circumstances, quite strong.

He was a man trained to listen, but not to this. Iris may have talked this way to everyone – religious people can be so intense – but it is possible that not all of them wanted her to. Did Black find the intimacy of her messages seductive, before they became unsettling? What was the drama between them? The key may be in his response to an instruction, sent from Florida, about the £50,000 Iris wanted back from Kirk, now that the relationship had soured. Black was to assign ‘25k [to] Light and Life Free Methodist Church Dundonald, and other to me.’ To which Black thunders: ‘Where is god in all of this?’

If Iris Robinson is attracted to the role of penitent, she has the rest of her life to play it out. It is tempting to wonder whether she ever acted it with her husband, who is described as ‘controlled’, ‘cold’, ‘taciturn’, ‘shy’. The hope must be that her current psychiatrist can tell the difference between a state of mental health and a state of grace. Let us also hope that he does not vote for the Democratic Unionist Party.

She was born Iris Collins in 1949. Her mother was called Mary and her father was called Joseph. He was a demobbed soldier who died, just before her sixth birthday, of a chronic illness contracted on active service in the Far East. Iris, who describes herself as ‘Daddy’s girl’, was, she says, devastated. As the eldest daughter in a family of seven, she was used as a ‘substitute mother’ by Mary, who went out to work to ‘keep the family together’: destitution meant the family being split up among relatives or by social services. It was a core value; Iris Robinson has done much since then to ‘keep the family together’, sometimes in unusual ways.

At 16, she enrolled at Cregagh Technical College, where she ignored the most handsome boy in the school in order to win him. They kissed for the first time when she was 16 and Peter Robinson 17. They married four years later, in 1970. These were the early days of the Troubles. In 1971 Peter Robinson became politicised when his friend Harry Beggs was killed by an IRA bomb. He was an early member of the DUP founded by the magnificent fundamentalist preacher Ian Paisley.

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