For a brief moment this year, Iris Robinson was at the eye of her own personal media storm. The controversy centred on remarks made concerning the mental health of homosexuals. She suggested that homosexuals ought to have psychiatric counselling to help cure their ‘disorder’.
The subject raised important questions not only about the problem of homophobia in Northern Ireland, where the PSNI recorded a 3.2 % increase in homophobic incidents and recorded one murder alongside 53 assaults and woundings in the past year, but wider issues of free speech and what some perceive as the marginalisation of Christian belief.
The Strangford MP and wife of First Minister Peter Robinson has since attempted to draw a line under events, subsequently claiming her remarks were misrepresented. But she refuses to show contrition in the aftermath, stating, ‘I make no apology for what I said, because it’s the Word of God … and if anyone takes issue they’re taking issue with the Word of God.’ The subject is emphatically not up for discussion.
Yet the public uproar, evidenced by mocking Iris costumes worn at Pride week in Belfast, makes it clear this will follow Mrs. Robinson for the foreseeable future.
Iris Robinson is no stranger to controversy. In November 2007 she was suspended from Stormont for a day for unparliamentary, though some felt fair, remarks directed at Health Minister, Michael McGimpsey. In a debate over the draft budget, she accused Mr McGimpsey of ‘lacking the bottle to make decisions.’ Speaker Willie Hay, a fellow member of the Democratic Unionist Party, barred her from the chamber for twenty four hours.
An evangelical public servant
It is clear that her evangelical faith is integral to her role as a public servant. It was her desire to ‘serve those who couldn’t help themselves’ which drove her to join Reverend Ian Paisley’s DUP after leaving Castlereagh Technical College. She is quick to cite ‘those in the media who use their own bigotry to castigate those in Christian circles’ as a pet peeve. A practicing Pentecostal Christian, she is actively involved with the Multiple Sclerosis Society, amongst other charities. Some consider her prickly public persona at odds with this religious streak.
Perplexing as it seems, Mrs. Robinson’s zealous beliefs and directness are probably her greatest asset and simultaneously her Achilles heel.
Her Strangford constituency, which she represents in both Westminster and Stormont, contains a sizable evangelical community. They have proved receptive to Mrs. Robinson’s views on issues such as abortion and homosexuality.
However, as recent events demonstrate, such views also ensure a fractious relationship with a generally secular media, whilst potentially alienating other elements of the electorate. However, it must be noted she draws support from a much wider group than merely the evangelical community. One should certainly be wary of writing her off simply as a religious extremist.
It cannot be overlooked that she holds top positions in the country’s biggest political party and as such is a major political player. She is the DUP Deputy Chief Whip and Health Spokesperson. Moreover, she is married to Peter Robinson, Ian Paisley’s successor as both DUP Leader and Northern Ireland First Minister. Mrs Robinson herself won 56.5% of the vote in her constituency in the 2005 general election, with a majority of 13,049.
That is what made the remarks, made in June on BBC Radio Ulster’s popular Stephen Nolan Show, and the ensuing police investigation all the more potentially embarrassing for the party. Some critics feel that Mrs. Robinson’s strong position within the party ensures that a public retraction or apology will not be forthcoming anytime soon.
A strong female figure
In a field overwhelmingly dominated by men it is hardly surprising that Mrs. Robinson is no shrinking violet. One could surmise that her toughness has been essential to her survival as a public representative since first being elected in 1989 to Castlereagh Borough Council. In the 2005 elections a paltry 19% of candidates fielded in Northern Ireland were female. This statistic makes for dismal reading especially when compared to a national average of 23%.
Mrs. Robinson is quick to point out that there are a number of factors which would deter young women who aspire to a career in politics. She identifies the media treatment of Republican Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin and, closer to home, the tone of the campaign against fellow unionist Arlene Foster in Fermanagh as indicators that the media is more ‘critical’ where female candidates are involved. She doubts that it would help or encourage any woman to pursue a career in politics.
From this list a sense of pride at her achievements in a hostile field can be detected. She takes some satisfaction from the fact that attitudes are changing, albeit, slowly. The admiration that several members of her office staff expressed for her handling of a busy schedule when I phoned to arrange our interview and the numerous satellite surgeries made available to her constituents indicate a relentless commitment to her electorate and a formidable work ethic. Indeed, she seems to relish the challenges facing the Executive.
The future of the party
When asked if she believes the Democratic Unionist Party can hold on to its diverse electorate as the executive becomes less divided along sectarian lines and increasingly focused on bread and butter issues such as education and health, she replies, ‘We have as a Party always earned the respect of our electorate as these issues have been at the fore.’
Chief amongst her current concerns are ‘the underspend of Direct Rule Ministers over 30 years and the unfair price structures for energy compared to the rest of the UK.’
So our interview ends, for as Mrs. Robinson informs me, she has constituents to attend too. There is very little love lost between herself and the media. She has fought hard to reach her position and it is clear that she will not easily relinquish it no matter how great the public uproar. It would seem she lives to fight another day, unrepentant and unfazed.