Monday, 29 March 2010
“Verily, I say unto you, that the publicans and the harlots go into the Kingdom of God before you.”
- The Gospel according to Saint Matthew, Chapter 21
The second day of Holy Week is properly known as “Holy Monday,” but in the Middle Ages, it came to be nicknamed “Fig Monday,” because the Bible tells of how Jesus preached on the power of prayer under a barren fig tree on the day after His Entry into Jerusalem. As with every day of Holy Week, there are certain readings recommended for the faithful that cover both the events of the Day and also the themes associated with it. In this case, the traditional readings for Fig Monday include the second chapter of the Book of Exodus, the first chapter of the Book of Job and an excerpt from Saint Matthew’s Gospel (24:36 – 26:2.) As I was reading last night from the readings set for Palm Sunday, I came across two other stories of Fig Monday that I began thinking about - after preaching under the fig tree, Jesus went to the Temple, Judaism’s holiest site, where He fell into conversation with the Pharisees. Initially speaking about the legacy of His late cousin, Saint John the Baptist, Christ then told two parables – the Parable of the Two Sons and then the Parable of the Householder. The second was very obviously a reference to His own impending Death, but both dealt with the theme of religious hypocrisy.
Particularly in the Parable of the Two Sons, Jesus grew angry with those who considered themselves “holy people” but failed to act like that in their everyday lives. Reflecting on the life of His cousin, Jesus angrily noted that whilst prostitutes and publicans believed Saint John’s words, those who considered themselves to be religious men failed to act on them. This got me thinking about a recent scandal in Northern Ireland, which I think reflects the very powerful truth of these parables.
For those of you are not from Northern Ireland, or who missed the stories in the international press, on January 8th 2010, a well-known MP for the hard-line Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) called Iris Robinson (60) was exposed for having had an affair with a local café owner called Kirk McCambley (19). The affair had ended sometime before it was revealed on the BBC current affairs programme Spotlight, but the show also discovered that Mrs. Robinson had secured £50,000 in loans from rather dubious property developers to help set her young lover up in business in the affluent region of south Belfast. Once the affair cooled, she suddenly demanded the money back, along with having kept £5,000 for herself in the first place.
In the ensuing scandal, Mrs. Robinson understandably went into hiding – from which she has still not emerged, equally understandable. Her children begged the national press for some compassion for their mother, her Party stripped her of her membership, she announced her intention to step down as an MLA, an MP and a councillor, and her husband, Peter Robinson, leader of the DUP and Northern Ireland’s First Minister, stepped down for six weeks and made an emotional plea to the people of Ulster for privacy, vowing to stay with his wife, after revealing that in the aftermath of the affair being discovered, his wife had attempted suicide and suffered a second nervous breakdown. The liberal Alliance Party called for an investigation into Mrs. Robinson’s financial dealings over the affair and Mr. Robinson’s possible knowledge of them.The Iris Robinson scandal grew to such epic proportions that it even distracted from the news that the brother of Sinn Féin Party Leader, Gerry Adams, Liam, had been suspected of paedophilia and the molestation of his own daughter, but had continued to serve as a republican activist for years.
Some found the glee with which Mrs. Robinson’s public humiliation was greeted, particularly by liberals, the young and the gay community (whatever that means), to be particularly distasteful. After all, here was a woman who had stood by her husband during the worst years of the Troubles and faced numerous death threats for being the wife of a prominent Unionist, she had raised three children, she was a devout member of the Free Methodist Church and a keen supporter of both the Poppy Appeal and fundraising events for Multiple Sclerosis charities. Online suggestions that the Simon & Garfunkel song “Mrs. Robinson” be made Number 1 were decried as cruel, mocking and savage and a plethora of pornographic jokes about the unfortunate politician were swapped by friends in every pub, party and house gathering across Northern Ireland for the next two months.
The reason for this voyeuristic pleasure in Mrs. Robinson’s disgrace and, even, her subsequent mental breakdown, was not initially caused by the news that her lover had, technically, been young enough to be her grandson, but because Mrs. Robinson had – during the time she had actually been having the affair – set herself up as the guardian of ultra-conservative Christian values in what became one of the most infamous interviews ever granted in the British Isles.
A young man in Mrs. Robinson’s constituency of Strangford was savagely beaten one evening by a crowd of yobs, because he either was (or was suspected by them) of being gay. As the victim’s elected representative, Mrs. Robinson was asked for an interview by The Stephen Nolan Show, one of the most popular morning radio shows in Northern Ireland. Bearing in mind that she was being asked to comment on a brutal physical assault carried out on one of her own constituents, the following conversation ensued, to the collective gasp of most of Northern Ireland: -
STEPHEN NOLAN: Do you think for example that homosexuality is disgusting?
IRIS ROBINSON: Absolutely.
STEPHEN NOLAN: Do you think that homosexuality should be loathed?
IRIS ROBINSON: Absolutely.
STEPHEN NOLAN: Do you think it is right for people to have a physical disgust towards homosexuality?
IRIS ROBINSON: Absolutely.
STEPHEN NOLAN: Does it make you nauseous?
IRIS ROBINSON: Yes.
STEPHEN NOLAN: Do you think that it is something that is shamefully wicked and vile?
IRIS ROBINSON: Yes, of course it is, it’s an abomination.
She then went on to equate homosexuality with the sin of murder by saying, "just as a murderer can be redeemed by the blood of Christ, so can a homosexual." And insisting that reputable psychiatrists, on her staff, could ‘cure’ any homosexuals that wanted to be free of their lifestyle, she extended the offer for anyone to approach her parliamentary office for the cure to be provided, free of charge. (It turned out the Royal College of Psychiatrists didn’t exactly agree with her and the doctor stepped down from his job in Belfast’s Mater Hospital.)
The result of Mrs. Robinson’s interview was widespread fury, with street protests being held against the politician, who was now dubbed “The Wicked Witch of the North”. To make matters worse, at a Parliamentary committee meeting in London not long after, Mrs. Robinson then went a step further and said that she thought homosexuality was comparable to paedophilia, before correcting herself - actually, it was worse: "There can be no viler act, apart from homosexuality and sodomy, than sexually abusing innocent children.”
Even the most zealous of Bible-thumping Ulster evangelicals quailed at that last pronouncement, because given the tidal wave of nausea that was sweeping the entire island of Ireland in the wake of the Ryan Report into the abuse of thousands of children in southern Catholic care homes, it was extremely dangerous to downplay paedophilia in any way, shape or form - even more so than it had been before. So inexplicably extreme was she that some pundits began to question Mrs. Robinson’s mental stability, but her gallant husband, the First Minister of Northern Ireland, swept in to defend her by declaring that she had spoken God’s Word and people shouldn’t be surprised about that. The centre-Right Ulster Unionist Party, the liberal Alliance, the Social Democratic and Labour Party and the hard-Left Sinn Féin all hurried to condemn her and to query the First Minister’s ability to function as protector of Northern Ireland’s Equality Laws.
The scandal had just about calmed down, replaced by a quieter simmering dislike for Mrs. Robinson – from the liberal intelligentsia, who seemed surprised to discover that people like her still existed, let alone thrived; from the steely, level-headed common sense of Belfast’s working-class women, who didn’t like the idea of anyone downplaying child abuse, no matter how many quotes from Leviticus they came armed with, and of course, from gay rights’ activists. And, then, in January, the news of her mental breakdown, financial corruption and affair with a private school-educated teenager who she had set-up in business before financially blackmailing him when he stopped sleeping with her, burst across the screens and front pages of the United Kingdom like a story out of garish soap opera.
I was having dinner with my friend, Scarlett, in Belfast, when I received a text from my eldest sister, saying “Have you heard about Iris Robinson? LMAO.” As I walked back to the taxi later, I heard an elderly gentleman walking past with his wife and he muttered angrily to her, “Well, you know the gays are just going to love this!” And love it, they - and 90% of the population - certainly did.
Throughout the ensuing weeks, whilst I definitely laughed at some of the highly hilarious jokes sent to me, I tried my best not to comment on the Affair of Iris Robinson. It was too obvious, too easy and, apart from anything else, just a little bit too weird and too sad.
In the first place, whilst I had found her comments about homosexuality as nauseating as the next man, I suppose there is a streak of haughtiness in me, regrettable at times, useful at others. I say that because I can’t honestly say that I was upset or unduly angered by them when they were made on The Stephen Nolan Show. As far as I was concerned, anyone who has those kind of opinions is foolish, prejudiced and ill-educated and I have no desire to engage with them further. Undoubtedly, that is arrogance on my part, but it certainly saved me some of the heartache and fury that some of my friends – of either sexual orientation – felt at Mrs. Robinson’s vigorous attack on their lifestyle, friends and loved ones.
Rather than taking any vicarious delight in Mrs. Robinson’s ruin, beyond laughing at a few bon-mots (the funniest of which came from Matthew Sayers, Emily-Rose Conlon and, surprisingly, my grandfather), I actually found the whole thing quite tragic. In the first place, I cannot even begin to imagine how unfathomably awful it must have been for her three children – all of whom were older than their mother’s adulterous lover and all of whom now had to face the heartbreaking indignity of watching as their parents’ marriage was dissected across every newspaper in the Kingdom (allegations that this was not the first of Mrs. Robinson's lovers sat side-by-side with the old rumours that it was an abusive marriage) and they also had to watch as what was left of their mother’s tattered reputation was systematically shredded by both Left and Right. Secondly, I was more worried that the crisis of the Executive caused by her financial misdeeds and sheer stupidity might derail an already-fragile provincial government and, thirdly, I thought how embarrassing it was for both Unionism and Christianity that this woman had appointed herself the public guardian of its values in days gone by.
Fig Monday’s parables teach of us of the danger of empty noise, even if that noise is cloaked in piety. Mrs. Robinson's Christian ranting, piece-by-piece, provided the rope from which would be weaved the metaphorical noose that would hang her reputation and her family’s. She set herself up as the mouthpiece of Biblical literalism and by doing so (particularly when her own private life was in such appalling state) she ensured that when her own laundry was washed in public, people would land on her with the same savagery and lack of compassion that she had shown to the poor young gay man whose legs were broken and face smashed in her constituency.
Thinking about it today, I think how true the Fig Monday parables are. Like the second of the two sons, Mrs. Robinson answered “Yes” to the Christian message, but she didn’t carry out the promise. She lacked charity, she lacked compassion, she lacked wisdom, mercy and love. She was quick to point the finger at others, accusing all around of her abomination and corruption; tragically for her, she ignored the Bible’s warning about casting the first stone.
The greatest of Christianity’s figures after Christ is undoubtedly the Virgin Mary and she showed a character that was the opposite of the self-satisfied noise of the likes of Mrs. Robinson. Saint Luke records that, faced with the wonders of the Incarnation, the Virgin “kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.” Saint Iranaeus praised the Virgin for her miracles “wrought in silence.” Mary showed a grace and a dignity that the likes of the Pharisees and Mrs. Robinson lacked entirely. A little more charm, a little more honesty and a heck of a lot more dignity might have served Mrs. Robinson better than her arsenal of Biblical quotes.