Normalisation of Northern Irish Politics

Let me make this clear from the outset... I'm not a fan of Mr. and Mrs. Robinson; he represents the constituency that I currently live as both an MP and an MLA, while she currently represents the area that I work in at a council, assembly and parliamentary level, and I have encountered them numerous times in numerous settings since I was at school. It's not primarily the brand of politics that they represent, but the manner in which they have tended to conduct themselves in the past, including, particularly on her part, a very vocal profession of faith whilst showing little public grace. She has, I will admit done some impressive work for local constiuents, but even in that I would, at time have been critical of how she has gone about that.

In the past week, however, I have had to rethink my attitude to them and to politicians in general. First came Mrs. Robinson's announcement that she was standing down from political life because she was struggling with mental illness, or to be specific, depression. Given the huge tabboo on the discussion of mental illness in public, particularly in the more conservative environment of Northern Ireland, this was a huge admission, and, I believed, both highly commendable and courageous.

Subsequently those thoughts flew out of the window as I joined the rest of the chitterati in grumbling about Mr. Robinson's lack of statesmanship in the wake of Cardinal Cahal Daly's death. But I didn't know what was going on behind the closed doors of the Robinson household.

Then came yesterday evening's bombshell... I missed the early evening news and so was only alerted to what was going on by the buzz on facebook... some sympathetic but most of it almost gleeful. Watching the footage of Peter Robinson delivering his prepared statement and answering subsequent questions however, I found little to laugh about. I was deeply moved and saddened. And that seems to have been the broad attitude in the statements by most public figures, although the reported response by gay campaigner Peter Tatchell (and note I say "reported" response) seems to be almost as ungracious towards Mrs Robinson as she was towards homosexuals 2 years ago.

Of course, after my initial sympathy, the more cynical part of my brain kicked in asking "why now" and whether the admission of depression now seemed so courageous, or was it a softener for this and more to come? And was Mr. Robinson actually putting a bit of political distance between himself and his wife in advance of further revelations, whilst painting himself as the wounded party standing by his woman. We will see...

But then I caught myself on, and remembered that yesterday was potentially the most momentous day in Northern Irish politics since the Provisional IRA decommissioning with the bulk of the UDA, the largest paramilitary grouping in Northern Ireland, finally, verifiably decommissioning their weapons.

Yet all of that came a very poor second on the news agenda, facebook comment and coffee break chatter to the Robinson scandal (Indeed on the NI politics page on the BBC as of today 7/1/2010 at 4.30pm they haven't even bothered updating the feature on the decommissioning of UDA weapons to take account of the fact that it has actually happened, but the page is littered with material on the Robinsons). I awoke this morning to locally lad and libdem Lembit Opik (no stranger to a bit of scandal himself) on Radio Ulster (from around 1 hr 9 mins 12 secs) questioning whether the media had got their priorities right, only to then be quizzed by interviewer Maxine Mawhinney as to whether he knew the Robinsons personally and had he seen signs of this scandal emerging. Given that was the standard of coverage on Good Morning Ulster, the supposedly serious morning news magazine, I didn't hang around to find out what the contributers to the Nolan show had to say on the matter.

But then again, is this not a sign of the normalisation of politics here in Northern Ireland. It only seems to be scandal that raises the political temperature in most of the rest of the UK (if not the western world). There is nothing that the British media, and the reading/watching public love more than a big juicy sex-scandal, and if there is financial jiggery-pokery involved, even better. And the erstwhile broadsheets are no better than the long-time tabloids. As the size of the papers has standardised so has the focus of the "news" within them. And such stories are meat and drink to 24 hour rolling news channels and internet news providers, because speculation and informed or uninformed comment (they're generally not choosy) can fill an infinite amount of time/space. Real political breakthroughs, such as the UDA decommissioning, just don't do it any more...

The one uniquely Northern Irish element to this "affair" was the prominent position of religious language, particularly the word forgiveness, and allusions by Mr. Robinson to prayer when he said he "asked for strength to bear this" every morning. There has subsequently been a degree of discussion on the subjects of grace and forgiveness in the public media. I must say however, that the most interesting expression of grace, in my eyes, came from the man who shares Stormont Castle with Mr. Robinson and yet has been publically at odds with him recently, Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, who said:

"Nobody watching the interview by Peter could fail to be moved by the obvious hurt and pain being experienced by the Robinson family.
"Despite Peter's public role he is entitled to privacy as he and his family seek to deal with this matter. I wish them well as they seek to rebuild relationships away from the public glare."

Some chance...


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