A lurking distrust of conniving women

Wed, Jan 13, 2010, 00:00

Even in the heart of Iris Robinson's Strangford constituency there is strong sentiment in favour of her husband and against their sitting MP, writes FIONOLA MEREDITH

NEWTOWNARDS, THE Co Down market town at the heart of Iris Robinson’s Strangford constituency, is a DUP stronghold. Cautionary Biblical texts – “It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in man” – are prominently displayed outside the town’s many churches, printed on day-glo paper for maximum impact. Grim and impoverished loyalist housing estates are interspersed with pockets of genteel affluence, and that strange social flora is reflected in the town centre, where pound shops vie for space with expensive interiors shops selling Le Creuset saucepans and scented candles, or boutiques with names like Bourgeois. For all that, it’s a tightly-knit community, a closed and careful place, where everyone knows each other’s family genealogy like the back of their hand, and you’re considered a “blow-in” if you haven’t lived in the town for at least three generations.

The bustling town is a microcosm of the DUP’s electoral success in the North: diehard supporters who are Old Testament Paisleyite to their very core, and moderate unionists whose distaste for the DUP’s provocative tactics was eventually overcome by the perceived need for political representatives who could stand up strongly to Sinn Féin.

Few people in Newtownards are willing to speak about the sexual and financial storm engulfing their sitting MP and her First Minister husband. Faces close and freeze up; questions are met with a shake of the head. Yet the support for Peter Robinson – in spite of the allegations of impropriety made against him – is made clear over and over again.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” says one woman crossing the town square. But as she walks away, she calls over her shoulder. “He should stay. It’s her who’s the problem”.

A man queuing for mince in a nearby butcher’s says: “His wife caused difficulties for him – I feel he’s in the clear”. Pensioners Jean and Alfie McKee, on their way to the bank, agree: “It’s more the wife – Peter should stay. The whole thing should have been dealt with in private, behind closed doors.”

Elsewhere Peter Robinson and his advisers may be criticised for the apparently crude PR tactics used to bolster the First Minister’s slipping reputation – for instance, that mawkish card in the background, saying what a great dad he is, as he gave a tearful press conference – but here in Newtownards, the spin seems to be working. The sympathy is for the wronged husband, rather than the errant wife.

In her roles as MP and MLA, Iris Robinson liked to be seen as a woman of the people, and it’s true that she had a reputation as a hard worker for her constituents. But old social and religious codes run deeper, and the sight and sound of a woman in politics in the North still make traditional unionist voters feel a little queasy. And many of the DUP’s core evangelical Christian voters subscribe to the notion of “headship” – the divinely decreed authority of men over women, God’s insistence on a model of male authority and female submission. So it’s easy to see how a surface appreciation of Iris’s assiduous constituency work might quickly give way to the more deeply-held convictions beneath: especially when her affair with a teenage boy seems to confirm the residual fundamentalist mistrust of women’s conniving, sexual ways.

But not everyone is willing to blame it all on Iris. A group of women having coffee in that old Newtownards institution, Cafolla’s Café, following their weekly prayer meeting, say they are willing to forgive and forget. A few tables away, Joseph and Joan Boyd, tucking into Ulster fries, insist that they would give Ms Robinson their vote if she returned tomorrow. “Which politician hasn’t given money to causes they support?” asks Joan. “We could all point the finger. But in my opinion, we should wash our own doorsteps first before we look at anyone else’s”. In a display of the fierce loyalty that underpins the DUP power base, Joseph says that he has voted for the party for 40 years – “and I’ll never change now”. He believes Peter Robinson should never have stepped aside, and that doing so will increase the pressure of suspicions heaped on him. “I’ve a funny feeling he’ll never come back.”

In Crafts for Christ, a Pentecostalist charity shop where you can buy anything from a plastic orange squeezer to a pre-used baby buggy, pensioner and ex-soldier David McConnell is angry. “Well, that’s what you get when a woman gets involved!” he says. “I’ve no sympathy for any politician, thieving left, right and centre with their expenses. I grew up in the back streets of Belfast, but my mother always made sure that God was in the house. Where is God now? The morals have all gone today. They brought it on themselves.”

A short drive up the Newtownards Road takes you to the more chi-chi and discreetly moneyed neighbourhoods of Ballyhackamore and Belmont, in Peter Robinson’s East Belfast constituency. The Paisley family home on Cyprus Avenue is close by, as is the butcher’s shop where Iris first met her lover Kirk McCambley as a nine-year-old boy. At the Jellybean Café, next door to a Marks and Spencer’s “Simply Food” branch (that unmistakeable marker of middle class aspirations) well-dressed young mums spoon organic baby food into their offspring as they sip their lattes. Here, too, there is some sympathy for the sitting MP.

Tina Wallace, who runs a nearby nursery, says that “if you are working in the public eye, then you have an obligation to the public itself.” She says she’s never been a big fan of the DUP. All the same, she adds, “I can understand why Peter Robinson would protect his wife. I don’t really think he knew what she was up to. I’d do the same myself in that situation.”

So far, then, Peter Robinson is successfully drawing on the years of banked loyalty built up among his core supporters. Most seem to be averting their eyes from the messy financial allegations, insisting that he is “a good man, a Christian man,” as the group of women in Cafolla’s Café described him. It remains to be seen if that account will eventually run dry.

What they said

"It's more the wife - Peter should stay. The whole thing should have been dealt with in private, behind closed doors." Jean and Alfie McKee

" I've no sympathy for any politician, thieving left, right and centre with their expenses. I grew up in the backstreets of Belfast, but my mother always made sure that God was in the house. Where is God now? The morals have all gone today. They brought it on themselves." David McConnell

" We could all point the finger. But in my opinion, we should wash our own doorsteps first before we look at anyone else's." Joan Boyd