Little sympathy for Mrs Robinson as 'fire and brimstone' backfires

There's a good deal of schadenfreude in the news that Iris Robinson, the "fire and brimstone" Loyalist politician, has become embroiled in a sex and money scandal.

Part Presbyterian zealot, part Evita, erstwhile Democratic Unionist Party MP and Northern Ireland's flamboyant First Lady, Iris Robinson, has long campaigned against sin while modelling herself on Scarlett O'Hara. Her eventual downfall following revelations of "cougar" sex with a grief-stricken teenager was so colourful that "tabloid editors on hallucinogens could hardly make it up", says the Irish Times. Even her name was a gift. Coocoocachoo Mrs Robinson.

Any sympathy for Robinson, a mother of three and grandmother who is now undergoing "acute psychiatric treatment", is pretty muted, says The Times. Along with the anger over the damage done to Northern Ireland's fragile power-sharing political structure (see below), there's a good deal of schadenfreude. Dual roles at Westminster and Stormont allowed the Robinsons to rake in £500,000 annually, so the "Swish Family Robinson" enjoyed a lavish lifestyle. "I think I was born in another era," declared Iris as she showed a journalist from the Sunday Herald around her chandeliered, silk-swagged house in East Belfast. Carefully displayed on the Gothic four-poster (with heart-shaped cushions) was some black lacy underwear. Hardly typical of "a God-fearing Ulster wife".

Yet a love of luxury was far from the only beef against Iris, says The Belfast Telegraph. Her fundamentalist beliefs (she maintained it was "the government's job to enforce God's law") caused constant conflict she once condemned homosexuality as an "abomination".

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She was born in 1949 into a working-class family in Belfast. Her father died when she was seven and she cooked and cleaned for her siblings while her mother went out to work. Her attraction to the devout Peter Robinson at Cregagh Technical College was "immediate". They married in June 1970. A co-founder of Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party, Peter became an MP in 1979. But Iris was no demure party wife. Fiercely opposed to the 1985 Anglo-Irish agreement, she hit the headlines as a Loyalist martyr when she was briefly imprisoned for protests. "She delivers the nearest thing to fire and brimstone in a Laura Ashley package that one could ever meet," noted one commentator. Three years later, she entered politics.

It was the "Iris factor" that gave the DUP its oomph in the 2007 Assembly elections, says the Irish Times. There was "a sense of feline deadly purpose... Here was a woman who gave no quarter." But the nuclear fuel that drove her also fuelled her political and personal destruction. The revelation of her love affair with Kirk McCambley, the 19-year-old son of her butcher, in a BBC Spotlight investigation was followed by allegations of financial impropriety. Not only had she used her position to set him up in the restaurant trade, but she had prevailed on two property developer friends to lend him £50,000, while pocketing a £5,000 "kick-back" herself. When the relationship went sour, she demanded the money back, "thinking she had put McCambley in his place".

Robinson believes God has forgiven her for the affair. She must know that "the public may be less generous".

Ireland's introduction to profane politics

You could call it progress of sorts, says The Sunday Times. "Northern Ireland is being convulsed not by a sectarian political row, but by an old-fashioned sex and money scandal." But the situation is still dangerous. Iris Robinson has been cast out of the Democratic Unionist Party and has resigned as MP for Strangford. But no one knows "whether throwing herself on the political pyre will be enough to save her husband or... the precarious power-sharing executive he leads at Stormont".

Peter Robinson, a "hardheaded, capable" politician, is clearly playing for time. He has stepped aside for six weeks (installing enterprise minister, Arlene Foster, as caretaker), hoping to clear his name by establishing his ignorance of his wife's financial dealings. But the damage been already done, says The Times. Robinson has not emerged "unscathed" from revelations that he left an aide to call an ambulance for his wife following a suicide attempt in March, while he put in a jovial turn at Stormont.

It doesn't help that the crisis coincides with a stand-off between the two ruling parties at Stormont, says The Observer. The DUP is at loggerheads with Sinn Fein over the transfer of policing and justice powers and tension is rising: last week, a Catholic policeman was targeted in a car-bomb attack, ramming home the fragility of the peace settlement. But the Robinson scandal has highlighted another issue too, says Iain Martin on what a "grand old time" Ulster's political class has been having since devolution. There was always a price to pay for peace. However £500,000 plus for one couple is surely "rather steep".