Saturday, January 09, 2010

Ulster says 'whooah'

A request from a reader materialises, asking that I share my views on the Iris Robinson scandal. To be honest, I am not certain that I have much original to contribute. One might paraphrase Dr Johnson and say that it is not so much that the Democratic Unionist Party needs be embroiled in a first-rate scandal, but that it should be done at all. And yet, what a scandal. It meets all the criteria laid out by Conor Cruise O'Brien in that it is Grotesque, Unbelievable, Bizarre and Unprecedented (for more on the phrase Gubu, see here).

By tradition, scandals in Britain were neatly divvied up between the main parties: Tory ones were about sex, Labour ones were about money, Liberal ones were about both. That distinction no longer holds, at least since the era of Aitken and Hamilton (one might see this as evidence of the dilution of the parties' respective identities) - but here is an affair that combines both these elements. It might not quite be on a scale of the Profumo Affair or, my favourite scandal of all, the Jeremy Thorpe Affair (gay sex, a suggestion of blackmail, allegations of attempted murder, chequebook journalism, suspicions of a judicial fix and - most damningly of all in the eyes of the public - a dead dog).

The DUP might feel reassured that Iris is being thoroughly British in combining both sex and money in the scandal. (In the Republic political scandals are almost invariably about money; sex is generally left to the Roman Catholic Church) - and yet there is so much more to this scandal - the fact that we have a 59-year-old woman sleeping with a 19-year-old man, attempted suicide, the strong whiff of religious hypocrisy, even the limitless possibility of Mrs Robinson gags.

And yet, it should really come as no surprise. Preposterousness and the DUP have long been bedfellows. The Robinsons themselves have previous in this area, whether it was their baroquely greedy expenses, or hubby Peter's "invasion" of the Irish Republic in the Eighties. Moreover, the party has already had its own rather tawdry scandals involving, separately, gay sex and, thanks to Baby Doc Paisley, money. But what makes Mrs Robinson's doings so very special is the religious dimension.

It is not simply the flagrant double standard of quoting the Bible to attack homosexuality whilst engaging in something that is condemned in equally strong terms by the Mosaic Laws. Rather, and again the DUP's bedrock of Bible-thumping bigots should take pride in this, it is a triumph of the Calvinistic temperament. Catholics have long liked to kid themselves that they have a monopoly on understanding such matters as sin, guilt, redemption and so on (they've long kidded themselves about other things too, but we'll let that pass for now); and yet if you really want to thoroughly explore the moral complexity and uncertainty of the human condition, nothing beats a Calvinist who has experienced the great and terrible liberation of throwing away their self-imposed (or are they God-given?) moral constraints.

One need only compare Calvinist writers like Byron and Hogg (even Walter Scott, who did a nice line in religiously conflicted villains) with the likes of Waugh and Greene to see what I mean. These lines might apply nicely to Iris's predicament:

to thee the strife was given

Between the suffering and the will,

Which torture where they cannot kill;

And the inexorable Heaven,

And the deaf tyranny of Fate,

The ruling principle of Hate,

Which for its pleasure doth create

The things it may annihilate,

Refus'd thee even the boon to die:
[from Prometheus]

The thing that fascinates is that Iris has managed to encapsulate two great cultural archetypes - the Mrs Robinson type, the religious zealot exposed as a hypocrite, the crooked politician - and behind these lies a greater archetype: the justified sinner who has strayed far from the path of righteousness into the abyss of sensuality. I suggest that only a Calvinist could manage it quite so rigorously or so well.

How will it play out? I'd counsel against the easy assumption that Peter Robinson is done for and that this will see the DUP losing seats. This may well happen, of course, but the Calvinist sense of righteousness is a funny thing. (Actually this should not be a surprise to anyone on this side of the Irish Sea; just look at Gordon Brown in full on self-justifying mode).

UPDATE: [I've changed the ending of this in light of the latest information.] Any suggestion that the repentant sinner might be easily forgiven seem wide of the mark, though. Iris is anathematised, expelled from the body of the kirk DUP. Peter Robinson may well be knifed in the back, all for the good of the party of course. That's politics, of course, with an added layer of religious fervour.


Since I mentioned the Thorpe Affair earlier, I should note an intriguing coda from couple of weeks ago. When the last wodge of official files from 1979 were released under the 30-year rule (mainly showing that Margaret Thatcher was, well, Margaret Thatcher); by far the most interesting detail was the files that were still withheld. These included those pertaining to Airey Neave, Sir Anthony Blunt and Jeremy Thorpe. No reason was given, of course, but one wonders if the decision with relation to Rinkagate might have something to do with this:

In 2002, questions were asked on the BBC programme Newsnight about Jack Straw's involvement in "Rinkagate", after a tape-recording surfaced of Harold Wilson discussing the scandal and saying: "Look, I saw Jack Straw, he's very worried if he were mentioned in this context, he thinks he'll be finished". According to the diary of Barbara Castle, Secretary of State for Social Security, Wilson had asked her to examine Norman Scott's security file to see if it contained any indications that he was working as part of a conspiracy against Thorpe. Straw informed Castle that when he went to examine Scott's file, he found it was missing. The journalist Barrie Penrose has alleged that Straw subsequently leaked information from the file to the media. Straw remains silent on that matter but has denied accusations from Joe Haines, that Wilson asked him to read the files in order to gather information that could be used to smear Thorpe.

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Blogger Sir Compton said...

Good fellow. i think the whole thing boils down to this: it gives ordinary mortals a nice, warm feeling when people gob off and then crash in flames. Any my goodness, hasn't she crashed.

The next lie will be that she isn't "under the doctor" at all, but just skulking somewhere - Chamonix. Good piece on Slugger O'Toole yesterday in which Eammon Mallie put tough questions to Mr Robinson, the point being that his stock has fallen so far so fast that such questions can be put. Robinson reportedly handled it all well, but I am sure it would have been a salutary experience.

9:42 am  
Blogger bill said...

Aye, true that. What strikes me about Robinson, P is that he's managed the double whammy of people feeling sorry for him and people laughing at him at the same time. One can see the authority leeching from him.

12:02 pm  

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