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Bloody Sunday, election, Irish, Ireland, British, Ulster, Unionist, Sinn Féin, SDLP, Ahern, Blair, Irish America

When Iris met Peter

(by Suzanne Breen, Sunday Tribune)

When Iris met Peter, she knew instantly he was 'the one'. She was 16-years-old, taking a shorthand and typing course at Cregagh Tech in east Belfast; he was a year older, studying English and maths.

"He was very handsome, he stood out from the other boys," she recalls. "All the girls danced attention on him. My strategy was to ignore him. I'd walk past him, nose in the air. It worked. He noticed not being noticed and asked me out."

Their first date was in a Wimpy bar where Iris ordered a knickerbockers glory she was too nervous to eat. The one and only hiccup came months later when Peter expressed "doubts" and asked for a break. "I was devastated," says Iris.

"I couldn't sleep nor eat. I lost a stone in a fortnight. I was too proud to phone him but every morning, I'd wait on the road and secretly watch him going to work on his scooter. My mother said, 'there's plenty more fish in the sea'. And I said, 'I don't want fish, I want Peter.'"

Iris got her man: "One evening, Peter appeared on his cream Vespa. 'I'm sorry, take me back', he said." More than four decades later, the days of Vespas and Wimpy bars are long gone. In June, Peter will succeed the Rev Ian Paisley as DUP leader and First Minister, and the Robinsons will become the North's premier political couple.

They live in an impressive white villa on the outskirts of east Belfast. "Come to lunch and bring the baby!" says Iris. She has three grown-up children. "A hysterectomy at 34 stopped me having more. I love babies. Even now at 58, I'd have one if I could," she says. A hand-painted tea-set is waiting as a gift for my three-week old daughter.

Iris is very much a woman's woman, curling her legs up on a chair, mug of coffee in hand, chatting spontaneously. "Oh, Peter's been at the blackcurrant and vanilla balls!" she laughs, pointing to a half-empty jar on the kitchen dresser. "He has a terribly sweet tooth."

The mother of all Union Jacks – bigger than those over government buildings – flies in the Robinsons' front garden. The opulence of their home is striking. Curtains of wine and gold silk rising into a central coronet; towering Chinese vases; hundreds of china figurines and sculptures – Marie Antoinette inches away from the Last Supper. Chandeliers hang in every room – "I think I was born in another era," Iris says.

Each room is themed: the dining room is Oriental; a sitting room is old English; the bathroom is Italian; one bedroom is Scottish, another French. "I designed them all myself, it took years," Iris says. A local artist painted wall frescos: a Tuscan landscape in the bathroom, an African one in the porch.

The Robinsons' bedroom has a massive four poster Gothic bed with heart-shaped cushions. Then, there's Iris's lilac dressing room. She blushes trying to hide black lacy underwear lying on the bed for a function later that night.

Hundreds of photographs are scattered throughout the house: of the Robinsons on happy, family occasions, or with VIPs – the two Georges (Bush and Best) feature prominently. There are no photos with the Paisleys on show.

The Robinsons have a study each. Peter's is a sombre, masculine room of leather and dark wood, dominated by a 64" flatscreen TV – to watch his beloved Chelsea and Spurs – and other high-tech gadgetry.

DVD box sets of the Sopranos and West Wing disclose the DUP leader designate's favourite series. "I prefer old movies myself," says Iris. "Anything with Bette Davis, or Katherine Hepburn. My favourite film is 'Gone With the Wind'. Scarlett O'Hara is wonderful – what a spirit!"

Rows of books line Peter's study and hallway: biographies of Nelson Mandela, David Trimble, Hitler, Churchill and almost every political leader of the last century; pristine tomes of Marx, Darwin, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy; histories of the IRA. The memoirs of Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton are the latest additions.

Iris's study has a hand-carved 10ft high, three ton stone fireplace which she had specially designed. The hand-printed wall-paper is emblazoned with the Latin quotation, 'Non magni pendis quia contigit' (one does not value things easily obtained).

A card sent last year by Gerry Adams is on display. Iris had given Adams, Martin McGuinness, and three Sinn Féin female Assembly members copies of her biography. Adams was the only one to formally acknowledge the gift. 'Comhghairdeas!' (congratulations) declares the card he delivered on the Robinsons' wedding anniversary – Adams learned the date from Iris's book which, he wrote, he found "interesting".

Peter Robinson has insisted his relationship with Sinn Féin will be more businesslike than Paisley's – the chuckle brothers' days are numbered. "But Sinn Féin has a mandate," says Iris. "If Peter and I are at any event attended by Martin McGuinness and his wife, I will be gracious.

"I believe the Union is much more secure than before. I know what terrorism has done and how hard it is for victims – those bereaved and injured in the La Mon bomb are my constituents. But the bible says love your enemy like you love yourself, turn the other cheek, pray for those who abuse you. Jim Allister (Traditional Unionist MEP) may jump and scream about it all he likes but that's scripture.

"Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness are on my prayer list. I'd like to see them redeemed by Christ – and there are born-again Christians in McGuinness's family." Although evangelical Christians, the Robinsons are Pentecostalists not Free Presbyterians.

Peter was always tee-total. Iris used to take the odd glass of red wine but has stopped: "It set a bad example to others. Now, I sit with my pineapple juice, and Peter with his glass of diet coke." Socialising is restricted mainly to eating out at the homes of friends. The Robinsons rarely visit restaurants.

"We have to be very careful," Iris says. "About 10 years ago, we had a meal in a restaurant on the outskirts of Belfast which had a very nationalist staff. Peter ordered a steak. They put rat poison in it. He suffered internal bleeding and was extremely sick."

It's only when on holiday in Florida that they can relax: "We can't even go for a walk together in Northern Ireland because Peter would have to bring his police bodyguard which would ruin it. In the States, Peter can even come to the shopping malls with me. We prefer holidaying in America to Europe – it's English-speaking and the food is excellent."

Iris has met Hilary Clinton but hopes she won't become US President: "No woman would put up with what she tolerated from her husband when he was president. She was thinking only of her future political career. It's all about power and not principle."

Princess Diana is someone Iris admired: "It's possible she was murdered. The government is capable of that ruthlessness. They set up people for assassination who could have caused them trouble here like Billy Wright (loyalist paramilitary leader). By marrying a Muslim, Diana would have embarrassed them."

In a cream leather jacket and red dress, Iris is a far cry from the stereotypical staid DUP matron. She says she realised the importance of a stylish wardrobe when her husband was on trial in Drogheda in 1986 for leading a loyalist invasion into Clontibret.

"In court every day, the media focussed on what I was wearing so I decided clothes would be my camouflage. I wore bold colours to hide my inner nervousness. I wore a big purple ski suit one day and an emerald green tartan skirt and sweater another day to show the Republic didn't have a monopoly on that colour. On the last day I wore a black dress with a white blouse and bows tied in front like a judge's gown."

Apart from her court trips, Iris refused to cross the Border for years in protest against Articles 2 & 3. Since the peace process, she has visited the Republic on Assembly business and wants to build relations with "a friendly foreign state".

Iris's admiration for her husband is boundless: "Peter's abilities and skills are recognised by all political parties and civil-servants. Talk of a night of the long knives with Peter organising a coup against Doc (Paisley) is rubbish. He has been a patient and uncomplaining man, a loyal servant to the leader.

"He has sacrificed so much for the party. For decades, Peter has been a prisoner in his own home, working on the computer, drawing up documents or planning election strategy to 4 or 5 am."

Iris is also annoyed at long-standing rumours that her husband beat her: "This malicious lie was started by the (British) government in an attempt to blacken Peter's name when he was protesting at the Anglo-Irish Agreement. It took root because I was in hospital 17 times during that period with gynaecological problems."

Politically, Iris says she's "much more emotional" than her husband. She became a councillor in 1989 and Strangford MP in 2001. She has the largest percentage vote of any Northern MP. "I recognise I'm not the brightest light in the chandelier when it comes to debating constitutional issues. I leave those to Peter. My forte is helping people. I fight for my constituents like my life depended on it."

She was "disappointed" when Paisley didn't offer her a Stormont ministry last year: "I'm not saying I'd have accepted but it would have been nice to have been asked. I was delighted for Arlene (Foster) despite the fact she'd only joined the party. I'm fond of her and she's done a very good job."

So will her husband make Iris a minister when he takes over at Stormont?: "Peter wouldn't want to be seen to be favouring me and I'm perfectly happy with my position chairing the health committee at Stormont." She claims she finds Ulster Unionist Health Minister, Michael McGimpsey "an impossible, rude man" and she's told him so.

Iris says she's "blessed" with her husband. They have "the occasional tiff" but "never let the sun go down without making up". They complement each other as a couple: "As a Virgo, I'm a perfectionist. Peter is a typical Capricorn – solid, reliable and hard-working. Though he is a poor driving instructor," Iris says.

"When he was teaching me, he raised his voice. I pulled over, got out of the car, and told him I'd make my own way home. I didn't think he'd let me but he just drove off and I'd to walk miles!" Nowadays, Iris likes nothing better than motoring along in her black and cream soft-top mini on an open road with Patsy Cline or country gospel playing.

Her husband is a Dylan fan. "Peter wrote a few protest songs himself in the 60s, and he still sometimes plays the guitar," Iris says. The First Minister designate and his wife just could spring a few surprises.

April 23, 2008
________________

This article appeared in the April 20, 2008 edition of the Sunday Tribune.

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