Sex, Money Scandal Hits N. Ireland Leader

A top leader of Northern Ireland announced today that he's taking a six-week hiatus, following a sex and money scandal involving his wife — a politician in her own right — and a much younger lover. NPR's Melissa Block gets the back story from Mark Devenport, BBC Northern Ireland's political editor.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

In Northern Ireland, a sex scandal linked to possible financial impropriety is threatening to scuttle the power-sharing peace agreement there. The scandal involves the wife of Northern Ireland's Protestant leader Peter Robinson. He's the head of the Democratic Unionist Party. His 60-year-old wife, Iris, admitted to an affair with a 19-year-old. She also admitted helping him raise tens of thousands of dollars to open a cafe.

Iris Robinson is herself a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the British Parliament. She says she'll resign those posts. And according to her husband, Peter Robinson, Iris attempted suicide.

Well, today, Peter Robinson announced that he is temporarily stepping aside as Northern Ireland's first minister.

Mr. PETER ROBINSON (First Minister, Northern Ireland): Iris is receiving acute psychiatric treatment through the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust. As a father and a husband, I need to devote time to deal with family matters.

BLOCK: The BBC's Mark Devenport joins us from Belfast to sort through what's going on. And, Mark, explain first how this sex scandal with this financial component to it was first revealed.

Mr. MARK DEVENPORT (Political Editor, BBC Northern Ireland): Well, it was revealed by a BBC documentary investigation. A whistleblower who had been on the staff of Iris Robinson, who is not only the wife of the first minister but is a member of the Westminster Parliament and of the Northern Ireland Assembly in her own right, revealed all about the affair, the suicide attempt, and more importantly from, I think, the documentary team's point of view, these questionable financial dealings.

BLOCK: And the accusation is not just that she helped raise the money but that she and potentially her husband helped to conceal those funds?

Mr. DEVENPORT: Certainly, there was a sin of commission by Iris Robinson. She was also a member of the local council which controlled the lease to the property in which her young lover was setting up a cafe. And effectively she sat in on the decision which approved that, without declaring any kind of interest, which would be against all our local government guidelines.

It was also against the government guidelines that she didn't declare a financial interest in the loans that she got from the property developers on behalf of her lover.

So far, as her husband was concerned, the documentary investigation alleged that he had also breached the rules by not reporting this activity to the relevant authorities when he discovered it. But he contends that he had done nothing wrong, that he had no duty to immediately report this and that actually he had instructed his wife to get the money paid back from whence it came.

BLOCK: Now, one added dimension here, I gather, is that the Robinson's party, the Democratic Unionists, are seen as socially conservative. I've seen the word puritan used. I think she herself has, in the past, made statements that have been very critical, calling homosexuality shamefully wicked and vile.

Mr. DEVENPORT: Yes. I mean, Iris Robinson, of all the politicians in Northern Ireland, has been one who has, in the last few months, been living in a glass house, sort of waiting for people to throw stones at her. She made that statement on a radio program, that homosexuality was an abomination. She was also, in one interview, critical of Hillary Clinton for sticking with her husband in the course of all the problems that the Clintons had with their marriage. So she hasn't been slow about condemning others.

BLOCK: Now, how does all of this threaten the power-sharing agreement between the Unionists and Sinn Fein, the nationalists, who want to break with Britain?

Mr. DEVENPORT: We have sort of separate difficulties, which were nothing to do with these scandals, over whether local politicians here should be responsible for the police and the courts. So any kind of instability at the top seem to make it less likely that they could sort this out, and that political row has been sort of coming to a head just as these scandals broke.

BLOCK: Mark Devenport, thank you very much.

Mr. DEVENPORT: Thank you.

BLOCK: Mark Devenport is BBC Northern Ireland's political editor. He spoke with us from Belfast.

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