Mr Robinson’s QC is not good enough

So the First Minister is defying his critics and demanding a speedy resolution of the crisis swirling around his head. In doing so, he is attempting to keep as much control as he can over events. But what he’s actually agreeing to do in response to the investigation is far from clear. Is he implying that he might resign or withdraw if a QC’s investigation he himself has asked for finds he broke the law or the parliamentary rules by failing to report Iris’s financial dealings with her young lover? Lambasting the BBC for “smears and innuendo,” he has rejected slower options: defamation action against the BBC “which would take years” and an inquiry by one of the standards watchdogs “ which would take months.” He may yet be unable to avoid the latter, especailly if someone makes a complaint against him.

Here is his pledge. “ I have to concentrate on clearing my name speedily. I’m advised the smears by association cannot be sustained. I am happy to answer the question if there was any obligation to disclose.. I am happy to abide by the outcome of the investigation rather than the smears and innuendos by some section of the press.”

Peter Robinson may have come out fighting but he won’t have silenced his critics. Iris Robinson remains an MP tonight. From Mr Robinson’s interview, it is not clear that her conduct will be investigated in full. If so, this is either a staggering ommission, or an inquiry is about to launched into her alone.

He says he was “shocked by some elements in the Spotlight programme “that put an obligation on me.. and that Iris had a duty to disclose details of the financial arrangements.” In his brief account of what he understood had happened up to the time he had seen the programme he says: “ I was told she had assisted a young man and that the cheques had been paid directly to the enterprise. I insisted that the repayments be made directly to the individuals, through a solicitor.” But was that enough? “The only information I had was that There was no obligation on me on the basis of what I knew. That was completely new to me”.

But why did he not ask her to come clean at the time? She was no mere postie , channel or conduit for the two donors. Or why did he not ask Selwyn Black what was going on. when he was plainly lumbered with the fixing ? Mr Robinson will have to allay the impression that he wanted to keep his own hands clean and avoid the murky details.

On the wounding charge that he abandoned Iris after her suicide attempt to answer Assembly questions, his reply is more convincing. Iris was “lucid “ when he left her to go to the Assembly. The family had called a doctor earlier and accepted medical advice to let her sleep before taking her to hospital. Perhaps he was a little detached at the time, understandably in the circumstances. But he was assured she was cared for.

What now? He is prepared to “act in accordance with the investigation”. But he doesn’t say how he will act and unfortunately he doesn’t seem to have been asked. Possible responses to a critical report could range from an apology to the Houses or Houses to resignation. This is too vague

Why should Mr Robinson himself stipulate how he should be investigated? Sir Reg Empey may be right, that both Robinsons still might face “ a plethora of investigations.” A complaint could – indeed should – be made to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards John Lyon to which the commissioner would be bound to respond. Iris’ conduct seems so glaring that this is surely inevitable in her case. On Peter, the investigation need not take long. This might still be necessary whether or not the local QC appointed reaches a firm conclusion. It is still the better course, as this is the commissioner’s statutory function.

The FM and DFM still haven’t talked, though each now knows how the other is proceeding. .Martin McGuinness is asking the departmental solicitor to investigate the implications for the joint office. Mr Robinson wasn’t consulted though would have given his approval if asked, he says. The no speaky must be a nightmare for officials to handle.

What we now need to know are the terms of investigation by a QC and a time scale. This it seems will be handled by officials – just like Direct Rule.

Finally, why an embargoed interview? This is a local anachronism in the age of continuous news. In this case, there are no markets waiting to close or grieving relatives to inform. The media should not have submitted to this minor attempt at news management, the second in as many days.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London