Page last updated at 18:50 GMT, Wednesday, 6 January 2010

When the personal becomes political

By Martina Purdy
BBC NI political correspondent

Peter Robinson has been subdued over recent weeks
Peter Robinson has been subdued over recent weeks

Peter Robinson sat hunched, his arms crossed, his head bowed.

He looked like a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders.

But as he got up to speak, he was unusually jovial: laughing and joking.

This was just a month ago, at a public event in his constituency.

It had been assumed his initial demeanour was due to the problems of the political process. It turns out that the burden was much more personal.

A burden he so publicly revealed on Wednesday in a press conference held at his east Belfast home when he spoke of hurt, betrayal and devastation over his wife's affair.

With the Robinsons, the personal and the political have long been entwined and the betrayal was not just by a wife but by a protégé whose career he had helped mould.

This was a side to Peter Robinson not normally seen, a man with a trembling lip and faltering voice.


It was not what many expected to hear. There's been speculation that Mr Robinson was in fact going to quit politics himself due to questions being posed about his wife and her shock announcement she was stepping down due to mental illness, what she described as "personality changing" depression.

Such a scenario was exercising the minds of key players in the process who wondered what his departure would mean.

Now the question is: what does it mean that he intends to be back in the First Minister's office in the morning?

The easy answer is it means that a DUP leader wedded to the Paisley legacy of power-sharing with Sinn Fein stays.

The question that is more difficult to answer is how the public will respond.

If he wins public support and sympathy, his gamble to speak to the media about his marriage problems will have paid off.

But there are risks involved and it could yet backfire.

How this plays in the party and in the DUP strongholds will determine the real impact of all this on the political process.

Personal and political

Iris Robinson announced she was leaving politics in December
Iris Robinson announced she was leaving politics in December

Peter Robinson's personal crisis however comes not just amid political crisis with his Sinn Fein partners, but also as he attempts to lead the party into a difficult general election, which is less than six months away.

One wonders if anybody in the DUP would want his job just now. Would Nigel Dodds, the DUP deputy leader, want the kind of pressures that come with being DUP leader and First Minister right now?

Having seen the kind of pressures that the most high profile power-couple in Northern Ireland have faced, would anybody want the job?

As the Paisleys and now the Robinsons, who employ their three children, have found out, the limelight can scorch. The Robinsons have had a terrible year, having to face the controversy over MPs' expenses and blazing tabloid headlines referring to "swish family Robinson."

Since their marriage in 1970, they have shared the same political outlook. And during their 40 year partnership, she has moved from the supportive political wife to a formidable player in her own right as MP for Strangford.

Now Iris Robinson is returning to the background while her husband fights for the job many wouldn't want, but one he waited so patiently to take.

He won't go easily.

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