Stormont Inquiry: Is Iris Robinson scandal now history?

Report clears First Minister of wrongdoing, BBC insists ‘Spotlight’ story in public interest

Irisgate: it was the affair that gripped everyone and almost brought down the Northern Executive and Assembly; the long-running story that came close to wrecking Peter Robinson's political career; and the scandal that left his wife Iris mentally and emotionally scarred.

Now with the publication of the report clearing Peter Robinson of any wrongdoing but imposing a firm if ineffectual slap on Iris's wrist, this could be the end of the affair.

Then again, perhaps not.

Peter Robinson feels he still has business with the BBC whose Spotlight investigative team ran the programme in early January 2010.


Property developers

It outlined details of Iris’s relationship with 19-year-old Kirk McCambley and how she raised £50,000 from two property developers so he could take over the Lock Keeper’s Inn on the banks of the


in south Belfast. Robinson is demanding a “fulsome” apology from the BBC but it maintains the story was in the public interest.

Who is right?

Certainly, the public was interested in the story: it had a compelling mix of angles – sex, politics, power and money. The main characters were fascinating too – the First Minister and his “First Lady” wife who was already making headlines with her views on the “abomination” of homosexuality and how gays could be cured.

Then there was Kirk McCambley, son of a late family friend, who became her lover when he was 19 and she was touching 60, and whom she fixed up at the Lock Keeper's Inn with loans of £25,000 each from two of her businessmen friends. Here it must be remembered she took a £5,000 cut for charity. Then there was her special adviser Selwyn Black who provided the information to Spotlight that allowed the story to explode into public consciousness.

Personally, it was debilitating for the entire Robinson family. Politically, it almost did for the First Minister. But through hard neck and grit allied to strategic nous, he went through hell and came out the far side.

A number of other inquiries arising from the programme have been held that did not cause any serious damage to Robinson, and this latest inquiry has exonerated him. No surprise he complained about a media “witch hunt” against his wife who was suffering from mental illness.

He also described as a “technicality” that she was found to be in breach of the Assembly’s code, contending the inquiry was “unnecessary” after she stood down as MP and MLA for Strangford in 2010.

Here, Peter Robinson was correct in that the Assembly could not penalise her in any political way. But, while perhaps having some legitimacy in terms of the letter of political protocols, that contention seems at odds with the spirit of those rules, as found by standards commissioner Douglas Bain, who carried out the inquiry, and by the Stormont committee.

The committee, chaired by DUP MLA Alastair Ross, said Iris Robinson’s failure to register the two sums in the Assembly’s register of members’ interests “was neither technical nor understandable”.

Not a whitewash

Portions of the report are redacted, but Ross insisted it was no “whitewash” and any blacking out was on the advice of the committee’s legal adviser. He said the committee comprised members from all main parties who unanimously endorsed the report.

And it is quite hard-hitting. For instance, Bain found “that a reasonable person when faced with these facts might very reasonably think that the payments were corrupt and that they might influence Mrs Robinson’s actions or votes in the Assembly”.

This assisted in the committee reporting, “Mr Robinson said that the investigation, insofar as it related to Mrs Robinson, was without purpose as the committee cannot impose sanctions upon Mrs Robinson . . . However, given the seriousness of the allegations in this case, and the public concern arising from them, the committee is satisfied that the public interest was best served by having an investigation to establish the full facts relevant to these matters.”

So, the BBC would seem to have won in terms of public interest, regardless of Peter Robinson’s withering portrayal of the media and his understandable defence of his wife.

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty is the former Northern editor of The Irish Times