'Trauma is one thing personally, but to do it in public made it difficult'
As Peter Robinson prepares to welcome world leaders, his personal and political rifts seem to be behind him
Peter Robinson is sitting in a leather armchair in his Stormont Castle office, in a trim-fitting suit. It has been a good week for the First Minister: he and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness returned from China to hear David Cameron say the G8 world leaders will come to Fermanagh next summer. Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel down by Lough Erne, and Northern Ireland on the world map for good reasons.
It doesn’t seem like almost three years since “Irisgate” convulsed Ireland and made headlines beyond these shores. In January 2010 it was revealed that Robinson’s wife Iris had had an affair with 19-year-old Kirk McCambley, and it was alleged she had persuaded two businessmen to bankroll McCambley’s cafe beside the Lagan river.
The controversy almost destroyed the First Minister, his family and a still-fragile administration. But Robinson, employing deft tactics, such as allowing his colleague Arlene Foster to stand in for him as First Minister, laying down an effective back-me-or-sack-me challenge to a DUP group that threatened to oust him, and displaying plain bloody-minded courage, came out the other side.
“It was the most difficult period of my political and personal life. It’s one thing to have to go through that kind of trauma on a personal basis, but to have to do it in a very public way, and to do it at a time when the very existence of the Assembly was at stake, made it a very difficult period for me – one I would not want to live again.”
Robinson is still annoyed by the way, in January 2010, the BBC’s Spotlight programme in Northern Ireland broadcast disclosures about his wife and sought to bring him into the loop of the allegations; allegations that, he says, “have melted away”.
“I still wait for an apology from the BBC, but I suspect it will never come. It does not surprise me the mess the BBC is now in.”
He indicates a reconciled Robinson household. “There is certainly no difficulty in terms of our relationship,” he says of Iris, who has since attended a number of public engagements with her husband, including the Dublin Castle banquet for Queen Elizabeth in 2011. But beyond that Robinson believes his home life is nobody else’s business.
Another relationship that has survived is the one with McGuinness. They don’t have the natural warmth that was evident between Ian Paisley and McGuinness, who were dubbed the Chuckle Brothers.
Yet the title of the Brothers Grimm doesn’t quite suit Robinson and McGuinness either. The pair do business together, occasionally with a shared smile.
When they recently went to Casement Park for the GAA game to commemorate Michaela McAreavey, people in the ground “went out of their way to speak to me and to indicate that they were pleased to see me”.
He was impressed with Michaela’s widower, John McAreavey, whom he met for the first time. “I think, in the new era we are attempting to build, that it is important that we try to stretch ourselves and to have the highest level of respect for each other’s traditions.”
So does he like McGuinness? “I don’t think you could have had an arrangement that has lasted as long as this without us being able to have a good relationship. It has worked, in my view, to the benefit of the people of Northern Ireland as a whole.”
There have been recent spats between the DUP and Sinn Féin around the origin of the Troubles. Nationalist commentators frequently criticise unionists for refusing to acknowledge that unionist discrimination was a significant factor in the start of the Troubles. Some unionists deny there was any discrimination or argue that the conflict was simply about the IRA seeking to achieve a united Ireland.
Robinson’s view is that there is no point perpetually reheating such arguments when there can never be agreement. Deal with the “here and now”, he says. Talking about the peace process, he offers: “For instance, if the Deputy First Minister and I had been sitting down attempting to agree a common version of history we would still be there, and we would never achieve it, nor indeed would we achieve agreement if we were to determine what the final outcome for the future would be.”
Robinson says that he is also “sceptical about truth and reconciliation commissions and that kind of thing” because he does not think it is possible to get agreement on the past. Equally, he doesn’t want the past rewritten to suit a republican version of history. Referring to the recent 25th anniversary of the IRA bomb that killed 12 people in Enniskillen and injured more than 60 others, he says, “I don’t think they will be allowed to do it, because every time they attempt it, anniversaries of events come up that remind them of what their past was.”
This is the weekend of the DUP annual conference. It’s at the La Mon Hotel, another venue that resonates of the dark days of the Troubles. Twelve people died there in an IRA bombing in 1978; many more were injured. His keynote address is today. He’ll be 64 after Christmas. Has he any thoughts of retirement? The nondefinitive answer seems to be “not for a while”.
“I am still feeling strong, still enjoying doing what I am doing, and I still feel that there is a lot yet to achieve. There undoubtedly will come a time when I feel it is appropriate for me to hand over. I want to ensure that we do that when we have a very stable Northern Ireland, when the union is strong and when the party has grown and consolidated its position.”