As a surprising sex scandal reverberates across in Northern Ireland, Matt Gregg casts a dubious gaze over the question of political morals
I can’t be the only one amused by the fact that, of all the well-documented threats to stability in Northern Ireland, it was something as unremarkable as one woman’s fall from grace which grabbed the headlines, and much of the vitriol, over the last couple of weeks.
Of course, I’m not condoning the behaviour of Iris Robinson. What she did was at the very least dishonest, though probably short of illegal, and she certainly deserves to be held accountable by the public for it. But at the same time, I just can’t help but wonder if the reaction to the whole thing hasn’t been blown far out of proportion.
Mrs Robinson is not the first, and certainly won’t be the last, politician to cheat on their spouse. In fact, she’s not even the most notorious or vigorous philanderer to have graced the political stage in recent years. Politically she has lost everything, but many of her brethren have gone from strength to strength. For some of them, being seen to be sexually virile even seems to be as effective in stirring up support as hitting the campaign trail.
Take a look at Silvio Berlusconi. Arguably one of Italy’s more successful politicians, his larger-than-life personality is perhaps the key reason that Italian voters continually return him to office. Though many Italians are embarrassed to have him as their leader, a great deal more absolutely love his brazen approach.
Berlusconi’s chauvinistic behaviour has never really been in doubt. He is, after all, the man who suggested, with his country deep in recession, that the best way for an attractive woman to find a job was to try and marry his son. Then, in perhaps the most memorable moment of his 2008 election campaign, he sought support because the female members of his right-wing party were far more attractive than their leftist counterparts. With a former Miss Italy amongst their ranks, he may not be too far wrong.
It was therefore not a huge surprise when news of his frequent liaisons with women much younger than himself and his entanglement in a prostitution scandal came to light last year. These allegations, which led to his wife Veronica Lario finally filing for divorce, appeared merely to confirm what many had suspected for a while. AC Milan, the football team of which Berlusconi is owner, weren’t the only ones playing away from home.
Yet far from destroying his career, Berlusconi remains an object of admiration, even jealousy. He is seen as the ultimate chancer; the hedonistic playboy. We just can’t get enough of him. Even allegations that Berlusconi was a frequent purveyor of prostitution failed to topple him, he provides so many with vicarious pleasure. Every man wants to be him; every woman wants to be with him. He’s powerful man, a rich man – a “real man”?
Of course, the fact that Berlusconi also owns much of his national media may be a factor overlooked in the positioning of his playboy image – where even his hair transplants and fake tan are glamorised.
Poor old Iris Robinson. When allegations of her indiscretions came to light, she was whisked away from the public gaze. Instead of brazening it out like Berlusconi and saying, “Why of course, I’m in my ski lodge in Chamonix”, she was committed to a psychiatric ward post-haste.
Robinson set herself up like a Shakespearean tragic figure… or was it the Oedipus tragedy? I can’t remember. Putting aside the raising of funds through her position of influence and her borrowings to help fund a business venture of her toyboy Kirk McCambley, Robinson had already drawn the spotlight on herself with statements such as “homosexuality, like all sin, is an abomination” and asserting that “the government has a responsibility to uphold God’s laws morally” – hardly representative of her political office.
In an age of so called equality, the odds are stacked against her: somehow an older woman with a younger man is still considered more shocking. With hindsight, it’s hard to see who was seducing whom and for what benefit.
Meanwhile, McCambley’s restaurant will forever be on the tourist trail. His business is booming, and he’s paid back the money. He’s being offered photo shoots as a gay icon for bedding her. And he can earn six figure sums per story sold. Having sex with Mrs Robinson was the best piece of publicity Kirk McCambley ever pulled. The more things change, the more they stay the same.