Trouble at the top

More than corruption revealed in Northern Ireland, writes James Turley

The shaky political regime in Northern Ireland is reeling from political scandal. And what a scandal it is - with inter-generational sex, dirty money and mental illness involved, and at the heart of the rightwing establishment in the province as well. It is the stuff of soap operas.

Of course, the scandal centres on Peter Robinson and his wife, Iris. He was, until January 11, when he stood aside, Northern Ireland’s first minister and leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, the province’s largest loyalist party with strong links to Protestant churches, in particular the Free Presbyterians. Iris Robinson was both a United Kingdom MP and a member of the Northern Ireland assembly (she announced late last year her retirement from politics and she has since been expelled from the DUP).

Known as ‘swish family Robinson’, the couple were reported last year to have received £571,939.41 in salaries and expenses, with an additional £150,000 going to four family members. Both are notoriously rightwing. In the late 1980s Peter Robinson was one of the founders of Ulster Resistance, a short-lived paramilitary organisation with links to murder gangs such as the Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force. Iris Robinson is a born-again Christian, a strong advocate of the Iraq war and like her husband an out-and-out homophobe. In 2008 she caused outrage after branding homosexuality an “abomination”. Iris Robinson famously recommended that gay people should get psychiatric help. Denying that she was prejudiced she told an interviewer that “just as a murderer can be redeemed by the blood of Christ, so can a homosexual”.

Peter Robinson gave a press conference on January 6, in which he revealed that his wife had had an extra-marital affair in 2008, and later attempted suicide. Iris Robinson was 57 at the outset of the affair; her lover, Kirk McCambley, was only 19, and grieving for the loss of his father, a personal friend of the Robinsons.

The lurid scandal was a common talking point; however, it did not truly blow up until two days later, when an investigative piece by the BBC’s Spotlight programme alleged that Iris Robinson, quite apart from conducting this affair, had arranged two loans of £25,000 from local property developers, so that McCambley could renovate and open a restaurant. Fred Fraser, who is now dead, was one of the richest developers in the province; Ken Campbell, has enjoyed substantial support from Iris Robinson, who lobbied on his behalf in favour of lucrative developments in her constituency at roughly the same time that the loans were being sought.

The restaurant, meanwhile, was owned by Castlereagh council, a dilapidated lock-keeper’s cottage with a cafe attached. The tendering process, then, involved seeking the approval of local government - something Iris Robinson could provide some traction on. McCambley picked up the permission, and promptly did up the cafe. It has been a success story, turning over £250,000 in its first year, and McCambley was honoured in a competition for young entrepreneurs. All went swimmingly.

All, that is, except the sexual relationship between himself and Robinson, which disintegrated towards the end of 2008. Robinson changed her mind about the money, which she had previously offered to McCambley in return for a £5,000 cut. Now she wanted all of it back, though half was to go to a local church.

According to the BBC, and the DUP leader himself, the first Peter Robinson knew about his wife’s affair was last March, when she attempted suicide. In the aftermath, she confessed to the affair, as well as the tangled financial arrangements involved (though he denies knowledge of this, the Spotlight programme alleges otherwise). The Robinsons attempted to pay back the money in secret, and apparently succeeded - but the resignation of a key aide and close confidant to Iris, former RAF chaplain Selwyn Black, provided the BBC with a sensational scoop in an attempt to draw a line under his own intimate involvement in the scandal.

The timing could not have been worse for the DUP. The set-up in Northern Ireland is presently a power-sharing deal between the DUP and the least likely of allies - Sinn Féin, the political incarnation of the Provisional IRA and the most powerful nationalist/republican force in the province. Winning the 2007 election, the DUP nabbed the top job of first minister, which went to former leader Ian Paisley before he handed the torch on to Robinson.

The common project which allows such divergent political formations to pursue such an alliance is, necessarily, one whose premises neither party accepts - the hammering out of a relatively stable, peaceful political set-up that will neither disenfranchise Catholics and other predominantly nationalist/republican sections to the point of rebellion, nor cut too drastically into the inherited privileges of the Protestant/unionist/British-Irish side (and preserve the hegemony of the British state, of course).

It makes sense in the same perverse way that the Party of Order, which united staunchly monarchist supporters of rival royal houses, was able to administrate the Second French Republic. At present, no Northern Irish political arrangement can survive without the participation of the DUP and Sinn Féin. The eclipse of the more ‘moderate’ Ulster Unionist Party by the hard-line DUP, as well as that of the ‘moderate’ nationalist Social Democratic Labour Party by Sinn Féin, indicates the extent to which deep divisions persist in Northern Irish society, and indeed have become aggravated, as the peace process has hit obstacles. The solution, according to Tony Blair, is devolution - the trademark New Labour method of ducking the national question.

Most devolution details, incredibly, are now dealt with - with the exception of the police. Sinn Féin formally abandoned its boycott of the Northern Irish police in 2007. Yet a long and gory history of police collusion and participation in anti-Catholic and anti-republican attacks - most infamously the murder of Pat Finucane, Bobby Sands’ solicitor, which the British state has now acknowledged took place with the involvement of the Royal Ulster Constabulary - means progress is slow-going on this point. Now, the DUP is in disarray. On top of his wife’s expulsion from the party, Peter Robinson has handed power over to Arlene Foster for the next six weeks, as he attempts to ‘clear his name’. If the BBC’s allegations are upheld, he will find this difficult in the extreme - the assembly’s ministerial code of conduct requires that he immediately inform the authorities of legal infringements of which he is aware, infringements in this case which he has allegedly chosen to cover up.

In Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin is in the ascendant. It overtook the SDLP in terms of Westminster seats in 2001, and gained another MP in 2005. It is the second largest party in the NI assembly behind the DUP. Most alarmingly for loyalists, Sinn Féin topped the poll in the 2009 European parliament elections, both in terms of the final result and first preferences. There is a general election coming up, and, should more allegations surface between now and then, the DUP could lose votes to the UUP and the balance of power could shift considerably, with the slim possibility that Sinn Féin will be the largest party among the Northern Irish delegation to Westminster.

Of course, it may not all go so well for the nationalists. A general election success, even if it were to come about, would bring out contradictions in Sinn Féin’s politics. Its MPs still refuse to take their seats, but this would surely come up for re-examination; meanwhile, unusually propitious political conditions would provide an incentive to speed up the discussions on devolution, so an assembly election can be called (the current assembly is formally a ‘transitional’ body, and it is unclear under what conditions or what timescale an election can be called to it). All of this could lead to disaffection among the more ‘traditionalist’ elements of Sinn Féin, and potentially a split.

Whatever the fortunes of Sinn Féin, it is probably safe to say that the left will not do well out of this. A worthy article, from the Irish Socialist Party, the Irish section of the Committee for a Workers’ International, places the focus squarely on the sordid relationship not between Iris Robinson and Kirk McCambley, but that between Robinson, Fred Fraser and Ken Campbell. For comrade Gary Mulcahy, the author, the scandal is important because it “has unearthed ... how out of touch the political establishment is [and] the extremely close relationship between them and wealthy business people.” He adds: “The parties in the assembly executive are responsible for procuring huge public contracts to private companies with a guaranteed profit. Their policies of privatisation, even if not directly linked to bribes or ‘donations’, reward the rich at the expense of working people.”[1]

Firstly, there is the bleeding obvious problem that the “extremely close relationship” between politicians and capitalists is ... well, bleeding obvious. This scandal has unearthed precisely nothing - especially given the revelations from over the Irish sea about MPs’ expenses. To the extent that this earlier scandal had an impact on political parties in Northern Ireland, the evidence of the European elections shows the vote going no further to the left than the now thoroughly institutionalised Sinn Féin. The problem is not that the broad masses are unaware that bourgeois politicians are venal, cynical and corrupt - the problem is that this awareness amounts to nothing if the working class does not recognise the need to politically struggle against bourgeois politics and the state, and that there is no left group well enough organised or politically armed to direct this struggle.

Corruption is criticised in strictly moralistic terms; on the other side, the SP comrades assure us that their “representatives [will] live only on a workers’ wage and are fully committed to fighting for the rights of working class people.” That is very honourable of them, of course, and in line with the ethics of the workers’ movement - but where is the systematic critique of Stormont politics?


  1. www.socialistworld.net/eng/2010/01/1102.html