The Week in Ethics: “Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me. Aren’t you?”
Today the Northern Ireland Assembly’s Committee on Standards and Privileges began an official investigation into Peter Robinson, the leader of Northern Ireland, and his wife Iris Robinson, a member of the House of Commons and Northern Ireland Assembly. Mrs. Robinson is embroiled in a scandal involving an affair she had in 2008 with a then-teenager and loans she obtained for him to start a business but did not report.
Aside from dealing what may be a death blow to her husband’s career, her actions have jeopardized the uneasy coalition government called the Northern Ireland Executive created as a result of the Northern Ireland Peace Treaty in 1998. Today, resisting calls to resign, Peter Robinson declared his innocence in any wrongdoing, and said he will temporarily turn over some of his duties as First Minister to a colleague. He indicated he will use the next six weeks to clear his name, help his wife heal, and maintain his involvement in key negotiations for the government.
Mrs. Robinson, who has described herself as a “born again Christian” had already announced on December 28, 2009 she would be resigning from politics saying she’d been battling mental illness and depression for years. Her next installment of candor came early last week when she revealed that she’d had a brief affair and tried to commit suicide after it. The bombshell hit on January 7, 2010 when the BBC revealed that her affair had been with a then 19-year old Kirk McCambley and that she’d gotten two businessmen to make loans totaling ₤ 50,000 that she hadn’t reported to help McCambley start a cafe. Sympathy turned to derision, and jokes linked her to the role Anne Bancroft played seducing Dustin Hoffman in the 1967 movie, The Graduate.
There are many ethical issues here beyond her infidelity and the impact on her marriage and family including: how she used her influence and leadership as the wife of the First Minister of Northern Ireland at a time in its history when trust, credibility and integrity are essential in moving the various parties forward; her failure to comply with the code of conduct for an elected official; not being transparent in financial dealings; her abuse of power (as an older woman with title, political clout and authority) by having a sexual relationship with a teenager 40 years her junior and the harm that might cause him; and if she should have resigned sooner.
Even if Peter Robinson is exonerated in not knowing about his wife’s financial dealings or failure to report what he knew, his political battle will be far from over. Vulnerability is a dangerous thing in politics. Beyond the question of what will happen to the Robinsons, is the larger question of what will happen to the fragile peace forged in Northern Ireland after decades of conflict and all the people who have worked so hard to gain and preserve it?
Gael O’Brien, January 11, 2010