Wednesday, 13 January 2010

You’ve come a long way, baby

Over the years, Americans have gotten used to bible-beating politicians eventually being exposed as adulterers, prostitute-visitors or gay toilet sexers. It’s become such a regular occurrence that people hardly bat an eyelash anymore when they see a conservative politician go from blasting gays by day to schtupping prostitutes by night. But in Northern Ireland this week the usual ‘moralising politician exposed for moral failings’ storyline has been given a new twist. This time, the offending politician is a lady!

As far as I know this is the first time a prominent anti-gay female politician has been caught having an extra-marital affair. It's a proud day for feminism when women can stand toe-to-toe with men in the field of hypocritical bigotry.

Iris Robinson, a rabidly homophobic and self-described “born-again Christian” Protestant Unionist MP, has been caught in an extramarital affair with a 19-year-old boy.This has been big news in the UK, but not because of the affair. In fact, the charge of hypocricy is perhaps the least consequential aspect of the scandal unfolding in Northern Ireland right now. The affair has kicked off a series of events that have been turning quite serious, and could lead to a collapse of the uneasy peace that has existed in NI for over a decade. The sexual indiscretions of the UK's Anita Bryant may not have just been hypocritical, they could have set off a chain reaction that could lead to a return of the violence that plagued the 1990’s.

Iris Robinson is not only a Westminster MP representing the Strangford district in Northern Ireland – she is also the First Lady of Northern Ireland’s regional government – married to Unionist First Minister Peter Robinson. Over the years she’s gained notoriety in the mainland UK for her comments about homosexuality, which she has called an “abomination”. I think it’s safe to say that a member of parliament in mainland UK could never get away with saying such a thing, but of course Northern Ireland is a different story.

The scandal kicked off in December, when Mrs. Robinson suddenly and unexpectedly announced she would leave politics and withdraw from public life because of "prolonged periods of mental illness". Everyone was quite confused until it emerged she had done so because she knew the BBC rwas about to reveal that she had been having an extramarital affair with a 19-year old boy and that she had used her political influence to secure loans for her lover to start his own business, a criminal violation. Then it emerged that her husband the first minister had possibly known about this and tried to cover it up.

This week he “temporarily” resigned, and it is unclear if he will come back. Commentators are worried that if he is finished, it could spell disaster for the delicate process of building up the Northern Ireland home rule that has been going on for the last decade. The 'constituent country' was just about to transfer police and judicial powers to the local level. Given that the whole thing is predicated on a delicate power-sharing arrangement between the Catholics and the Protestants, these developments could make the whole thing fall apart.

It’s been interesting to see the reaction from secular mainland Britain to the fall of an outspoken leader of what is widely considered to be the most religious political party in the British Isles. Needless to say, Mrs. Robinson has never been popular here in England, particularly with the gays (unsurprisingly). British gay rights activists have even taken up the 19-year old lover, named Kirk McCambley, as a hero for exposing the hypocracy of Britain’s most homophobic politician. More than 5600 people have also signed up to a McCambley appreciation society on Facebook. Radio stations across the country have been playing a parody version of the 1967 Simon and Garfunkle song Mrs. Robinson, mocking her for often quoting obscure passages of the bible to justify her homophobic rants while going home and violating one of the ten commandments.

Time will tell how all of this will affect the political situation in Northern Ireland. In the mean time, it sure is an interesting twist on a familiar old tale.

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