In God she trusts
With her glossy red lipstick and sculpted hair, Iris Robinson, wife of Peter Robinson, is often likened to Cruella de Vil. But there is more to the DUP's only woman MP than a famous husband and immaculate coiffure. Interview by Fionola Meredith
In the waiting area of Iris Robinson's constituency office, a huge pile of back copies of Wallpaper* – the self-consciously cool international design magazine for trendy urbanistas – vie for space with an equally large stack of The Ulster Scot, a local publication featuring websites like www.prodsabroad.com, where Ulster-Scots ex-pats can stock up on their Union Jack hats and King Billy orange wristbands. It's a weird culture clash that tells you all you really need to know about the Democratic Unionist Party MP for the Strangford constituency in Co Down.
Married to DUP deputy leader Peter Robinson for 36 years, Iris Robinson is half of one of the most recognisable couples in Northern politics. They are a striking pair. While Peter's grim-faced demeanour is strangely at odds with his spiky, boyish haircut and jolly ties, Iris is immaculately, almost intimidatingly, well-groomed. Political wags liken her appearance to a Disney villainess in the style of Cruella de Vil, with her glossy red lips and sculpted hair. You sense that her interest in interior design extends to the creation of this formidable personal façade.
But Iris Robinson in the flesh is very different to the cartoonish public persona. Screeching to a halt outside her office in her beloved Mini Cooper, she rushes in late on a cloud of expensive perfume, clasping a pile of constituency work to her chest. Busy, busy, busy – that's Mrs Robinson. It's what defines her.
Although she is one of only three women MPs in the North, and a senior member of the DUP hierarchy, she is known for an unwavering focus on her constituency rather than for eye-catching interventions on constitutional affairs. In fact, one senior broadcast journalist in Belfast says that both Robinson and Lady Sylvia Hermon, the only Ulster Unionist Party MP, are highly resistant to being interviewed. It's strange: Iris doesn't strike you as a lady who shuns the limelight. Why does she leave the meaty business of constitutional politics to the DUP big boys?
"I don't always like to push myself," she says. "I get my moments, but mostly I just keep my head down. I love my work, I'm almost like a social worker, with a calling to just help people. I believe I am honoured to do what I do."
There's no doubt that many of her constituents love the glamorous granny who rules over this particular corner of the North. A huge gift-wrapped present awaits opening on the sofa in her office, and a few minutes into our conversation we're interrupted by Robinson's secretary, bearing an expensive bunch of flowers, another token from a grateful constituent. (Stage-managed? Quell that cynical thought.) "Oh my glory!" Iris smiles beatifically. "Of course, you don't look for it, but I'm in such a blessed position. I rely on my reputation as a worker and people really do show their thanks." She adds quickly, "Obviously not by backhanders though."
Both God and Peter Robinson loom large in Iris's worldview. Born Iris Collins in 1949, she met her man as a teenager, when they were both students at Castlereagh College in East Belfast. She was wowed by his political savoir-faire. "I was 17 and Peter was 18. He was a great influence – I knew when I met him that he was very different from other young men. He had a politically astute eye on what was going on in the late 1960s. When we went out together the bug transferred to me."
She made the leap into electoral politics in 1989, when she was elected to Castlereagh Borough Council. It wasn't an easy decision. "I prayed a lot about it, and I got a wonderful verse – the Lord would give me a victory over my enemies and make them a footstool. So I grabbed that little verse and went forward. It was an inspiration, it really clinched it with me."
Like many other evangelical Christians, Iris's conversation is peppered with biblical references. And given her enthusiasm for creative homemaking, it seems curiously apposite that her opponents be envisaged as footstools.
Robinson evidently idolises her husband. They have been married for 36 years and have three grown-up children. Some of her husband's implacable political opponents might be surprised to hear that "the one thing that Peter is so wonderful about is that he would never, ever hold grudges. He's such a forgiving man, and a very quiet, private man outside his politics".
According to Iris, having a husband already immersed in politics made it harder for her to get involved. "It's much more difficult to go into politics yourself. There is that anxiety that if you stand you'll make a fool of yourself and does that then rub off on him? I was afraid of standing and getting three or four votes. Yet I actually topped the poll, and I stood in an area separate from Peter so I wouldn't be accused of getting in on his coattails. But it didn't matter because people still accuse you of getting in on his name."
Iris is always responding to these imaginary critics, carping at her good fortune from the sidelines. Recalling her early married life in the terraced council house on the Protestant Cregagh estate where she was born, she says, "Some people said it was disgusting that we were holding onto that house when Peter was an MP. Then when we moved, you were accused of getting above yourself." And yet Robinson remembers her days there with the greatest fondness, her voice slipping into the old East Belfast twang: "In the Cregagh estate, I was very much involved, people knew me. But we had to go, we had no choice – word came that we were going to be attacked. Otherwise I would still be there today. Leaving was a real wrench."
Although Iris is a faithful political servant of the party leader, the Reverend Ian, neither she nor Peter are Free Presbyterians. "No, no, no. I'm a Pentecostal. I go to Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle [one of the largest churches in Europe, on the Shore Road in North Belfast]. A lot of people are under that misapprehension. It's rather sad, because there are so many diversities within the party. No disrespect, we're all brethren and sisters in the Lord, but the media seem to lump us all together."
Suddenly she's all sweetness and light. "At end of day there are only two kinds of people in this world, those that believe and those that don't. When Christ came into world, he brought no Catholic or Protestant labels, no denominations. That's Man's making and design. As far as I'm concerned, you're my sister or brother, it doesn't matter which label you might fall under."
That tone of big-hearted Christian tolerance quickly evaporates when she turns her attention to the party's critics – especially those south of the border. Until recently, when she was part of a DUP delegation to a meeting of the British-Irish Interparliamentary Body in Killarney, Robinson hadn't been to the Republic since the infamous 1986 Clontibret incursion in Co Monaghan, when her husband led a loyalist invasion party into the town. He was eventually fined £15,000 for unlawful assembly. "One day, the truth will come out on all that," says Iris darkly – but evidently it won't be today.
"I think there's an awful lot of hypocrisy and double standards that abides within the Republic of Ireland," she says. "I take it very badly when I am lectured about inclusivity. Look at the Republic and look at the demise of the Protestant population there, look at the representation in Dáil Éireann. Don't lecture me about that when we are very well-covered in terms of the representation in Northern Ireland, among all the various parties."
Both politically and personally, it's as if Iris Robinson lives in a world of polar opposites, a black-and-white universe where people are either entirely with you or absolutely against you. In many ways, that's the typical DUP siege mentality: a single-minded (and much-vaunted) commitment to their loyal core support; a fiercely oppositional approach to all who fall outside that category. That 'everybody hates us, we don't care' rhetoric only strengthens their conviction of their own righteousness. It's a unique ideological space where the deeply conservative Iris evidently feels right at home.p