Death of Former Member - Expressions of Sympathy

We will now proceed with tributes to the former Member, the late John Robb. Before I invite Senators to contribute, I extend a warm welcome to John's son and daughter, William and Martha, and William's wife, Niamh. They are very welcome. On behalf of the Members of the Seanad, I would like to express again our sympathy to them. I hope that since John's passing they have, in their own way, been able to come to terms with their sad loss.

John Robb had a long and distinguished political and professional career. He was appointed to the Seanad in 1982 by the then Taoiseach Charles Haughey. He served three consecutive terms here, having been renominated by the then Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald. This immediately illustrates the high esteem, on a cross-party basis, in which he was held. He was a committed politician but his duty to his patients was always evident. It has been reported that he would do the rounds of his patients in Ballymoney at 6 a.m. before driving to Dublin. He established the New Ireland movement in 1972 and was a founding member of the New Ireland Group in 1982.

John had a great love of the Irish language and, remarkably, he became proficient in it having only begun to learn it in his 60s. There is hope for us all. I am thinking of myself on that score.

He will be remembered as a man who believed in dialogue, consensus and reconciliation with a deep humanity and who had a desire for a more inclusive Ireland. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.

I rise today to pay tribute to former Senator and colleague the late Dr. John Robb. I was prompted to do this by the distinguished historian, Charles Lysaght, who drew to my attention the unusual fact that tributes had not been paid to John Robb in the Seanad despite his distinguished career. I also welcome his family to the House. His wife Sylvia wrote me a charming letter but said that due to the state of her health and mobility issues, she would not be able to be with us today but his son, William, along with his wife, Niamh, and his daughter Martha are here.

I am the only person in the Seanad to have had the honour and privilege of serving with John Robb. I remember him well. Ramrod straight, always pleasant, and he always looked one straight in the eye when talking. I remember his half-rimless glasses over which he would look at one while he was speaking.

One of my clearest memories of John Robb is in the aftermath of the tragic bombing in Enniskillen. We were in the Seanad antechamber because then, as now, the Chamber was subject to a significant renovation process. The day after Enniskillen, I remember John Robb coming into the Seanad, solemnly walking up to the Cathaoirleach’s desk and placing a red poppy on it. In defiance of Standing Orders but in accordance with the wish of the Irish people, the then Cathaoirleach, Charlie McDonald, took up the poppy and placed it in his lapel. That was a most moving and dignified commemoration of the tragic events in Enniskillen.

John Robb was from Ballymoney, an important fact because he was following in the great Presbyterian tradition of independent thinkers like the extraordinary J. B. Armour of Ballymoney. I think John Robb would have been happy to be placed in that tradition. He was one of a string of northern representatives who were appointed to the Seanad. This is good and healthy for Ireland. We not only had John Robb but we had Gordon Wilson, and, now, I am glad to say, we have Senator Marshall from the unionist tradition in the North of Ireland.

John Robb was educated at Rockport Preparatory School in Holywood, County Down, and Merchiston Castle School in Edinburgh. He then studied medicine in Queen's University Belfast. Like his father, he was a distinguished surgeon. His son, William, is carrying on the family tradition by being a surgeon in Beaumont Hospital.

When the Troubles started, John Robb was a consultant in the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast. He was noted because he treated the bomber and the bomber’s victim with equal compassion and equal professionalism in the medical services he provided. He founded the New Ireland Movement in 1972 and the New Ireland Group in 1982 to promote dialogue, consensus and reconciliation. I was on the board of the Peace Train which ran a train between Dublin and Belfast to highlight the inadequacies of the Sinn Féin position of uniting Ireland by blowing up the main rail link between Dublin and Belfast. We thought that left a little to be desired. He was supportive of that.

He was nominated to the 16th Seanad by Charlie Haughey in 1982. Interestingly, he was renominated by Garret FitzGerald to the 17th Seanad and renominated by Charlie Haughey to the 18th Seanad. That is an interesting reflection on John Robb’s character. The two leaders of the opposing parties both saw him as an appropriate person to be nominated to Seanad Éireann. It has been remarked on the way in which he would conscientiously do his medical rounds in Ballymoney before he came down to the Seanad. He would start off at 6 a.m. but he would also check up on his patients. On one occasion he had a patient who was pretty unwell. On his way to Dublin, he checked in to see how his patient was doing to learn his condition had deteriorated. He turned around and went back up to administer to his patient. That is characteristic of the man.

He was not only concerned with northern issues, just as Senator Marshall is not just concerned with northern or farming issues but speaks on a great deal of matters. John Robb objected to the United States arming the Contra forces in Nicaragua and the clandestine arming of the Iranian forces during the Iran-Iraq war. He was passionate about the Irish language. He did not see it as exclusively the prerogative of the nationalist or republican people to have access to the Irish language. I understand he learned some Irish.

My best conclusion is to quote from the tribute paid to John Robb by President Michael D. Higgins. He said: "John Robb was a voice not only for peace but for reconciliation, for recognising all traditions and beliefs on the island of Ireland, and the making of a future in which all in Ireland could share." One could not but be impressed by his deep humanity, and his unstinting efforts to encourage new thinking in politics. At a personal level, he was a joy to meet, always optimistic, an all-islander in the best sense.

To have known him as a friend and regular correspondent was a privilege.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.

On behalf of the Fianna Fáil Party, I welcome John Robb’s son, William and his wife, and daughter, Martha, to the Seanad and to pay tribute to him. Obviously, I did not serve with him but he was an extraordinary human being by any measure, not just in Ireland but globally.

The fact he was appointed, as Senator Norris pointed out, by the then Taoiseach, Charlie Haughey, to the 16th Seanad was not only controversial in Fianna Fáil but also in Northern Ireland. That he accepted the offer showed the character of the man and that he knew there had to be a different way. The fact he was reappointed by Fine Gael shows the character of Garret FitzGerald at a time when politics was not as accommodating and was far more combative in this House and the other House. He was reappointed by Charlie Haughey to the 18th Seanad. The fact he accepted the appointment during the most trying of times in Northern Ireland and in southern politics says much about how he was a man willing to reach out.

The ideas that he is now being honoured for are being talked about again. There is talk again about a new vision for a new Ireland and island. He pioneered those terms when nobody else would even speak about them. That says much about his vision.

He came from a tradition of helping those most in need. His father had been a battlefield surgeon, the worst medical position in which to be involved. That tells one that they have been through more trying times than being appointed to the Seanad. The fact that one has to sit through a battle and help people, many of them drawing their last breaths, tells us he was able to put up with the most trying of circumstances.

As Senator Norris pointed out, not only did he come to do his work here three days a week but he also did his rounds. I can only sympathise with his family in that they were sometimes probably not on the top of the list of priorities.

I am sure in his heart his family were on the top of the list. As we know in politics, the family often suffers more. Priorities, in terms of patients when it came to his work as a surgeon but also in terms of trying to bring an end to the Troubles, were taking up a lot of his time, which I am sure the family would have appreciated. However, the fact that the President, who served in this and the other House, and obviously kept in contact with him, stated that he was an all-islander in the best sense of the word shows that in the words that he used in his time here, and which were new - the idea of a new vision, a new way of doing things other than the slaughter that was happening in Northern Ireland at the time - he was ahead of his time. We could do with him again now, notwithstanding Senator Marshall's election. That we would elect someone from Northern Ireland to this House would show how far we have come.

John Robb was a pioneer and a visionary in trying to bring people together when it was much easier to stay apart. In that respect, I pay tribute to him today. I thank the family for being here.

I welcome the members of the Robb family. It is an absolute privilege and a pleasure to be part of this today to remember a man who certainly was a great ambassador for Northern Ireland. It is lovely to have the opportunity to pay tribute to someone who was charismatic, who was confident and, obviously, a very considered individual. He was a visionary and he certainly was an ambassador for the province and for Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

He was a man I never had the fortune to meet but I have learned about him from colleagues, from people who worked with him, from people who served with him who have given testimonies to him, and some of what I have read about him, and people who touched briefly with him in social gatherings. He certainly has left his mark on everyone.

Interestingly, John Robb was, like myself, a Protestant - a Presbyterian from Northern Ireland. He challenged many of those stereotypes and many of the preconceptions about who he was. He was a man certainly defined by his career as a very successful surgeon through a horrible dark time in Northern Ireland's history and by his service and his contribution to this House. Interestingly, and something which I have great admiration for, as an adult, as a mature male, he learned Irish. I am still struggling with English and I take my hat off to someone who could do that late in life because it certainly gets more difficult as one gets older.

As fellow Senators have said, he was nominated by successive Taoisigh, who obviously saw a quality and something unique in this man. John Robb was a man who presented no threat to these Houses or to Northern Ireland. In fact, quite the opposite, John Robb was a man who was completely comfortable with his own identity and his culture and who was prepared to challenge and to establish the thinking and to further the ambitions that he firmly believed in. Interestingly, we all need to learn and understand this because many think they understand people and culture and they actually do not. It is about respect and about not believing the preconceptions one has and not believing often what one learned about people. I found in this House that when one sits down and talks to and engages with people, nine times out of ten they will say, "We did not think you thought that. We did not think you had that opinion." That is the reality. It is about sitting down and learning about other people.

It has been a privilege and a pleasure for me to serve in this House and to follow such a man as Dr. John Robb. Sometimes we need to take calculated risks and be able to see the bigger picture. This was an individual who definitely saw that bigger picture. Often a prophet is never recognised in his own land, and Dr. John Robb was one of those prophets. He certainly had a vision and it is still alive today. It is as relevant today as it was in the 1980s when John Robb was here.

He was here when Northern Ireland was going through very difficult times. Hopefully, we have left those times behind. Hopefully, we will never go back to those times. I would urge everyone, in this House today, and especially the leadership in Northern Ireland politics, to reflect on John Robb's contribution to this House, to this country, to Northern Ireland and to the Republic of Ireland, and to learn and take inspiration from him. If we look at an example of leadership, if we are to be leaders and if we are in a position to lead, it needs to come with the thinking that one will take and embrace calculated, measured risks.

I welcome John Robb's son, William, his wife, Niamh, and his daughter, Martha. I would remind them that Senator Niall Ó Donnghaile is also here from the North and it is good, and it does bring something. I suppose that is the thing about the Seanad. This House facilitates the whole of the island and the discussion and it brings something really positive to the table. The exchange of ideas and learning across the island is to the benefit of everybody who is represented in this House.

John Robb was a pioneer in his working and political life. As a medical doctor, he sponsored new and innovative ideas and served the public, especially those who were hurt in the conflict and in need of urgent medical attention in hospitals. His diligence to those hurt in the conflict was reflected in his approach to politics. With others, he set up the New Ireland Group and the New Ireland Movement. I note "New Ireland" in the name of both organisations. That is what John Robb wanted to achieve.

He was a new islander. In the tradition of another north County Antrim man, and a liberal Presbyterian, the Rev. J. B. Armour, who campaigned for Home Rule before partition, John Robb grew to love the Irish language, learned it and spoke it. He brought his refined and sharp mind to the need for a new and agreed Ireland and he was a man of peace.

He was dedicated to reconciling the people of this island in the most difficult days of the conflict, and when "peace" was a word that was rarely heard or used. He was often in the company of republicans and was very relaxed advocating his vision for a new Ireland. He did that in the Seanad when he was a Seanadóir here from 1982 to 1989. His vision of a new Ireland based on respecting and uniting the two main traditions on this island undoubtedly influenced those he met and those he spoke with. With others, he helped to lay the foundations for the peace we enjoy today and for the working relationship, however fraught, between unionists and nationalists.

He was an original thinker and he made an invaluable contribution to peace and reconciliation for a new island and for that, we are all grateful. May he rest in peace, while his legacy lives on away beyond.

I welcome members of the Robb family to the Chamber - William, his wife, Niamh, and Martha.

I did not know John Robb, but the fact that he was appointed to the Seanad in 1982, in probably the most difficult times in Northern Ireland, the island of Ireland and east-west relations, showed that Charlie Haughey saw the potential in a man of peace who had, as somebody else said, a Rolls Royce mind. Let us look at what happened. He was able to articulate a Northern Ireland unionist voice in a Chamber that many saw as probably hostile to Northern Ireland. It is exactly what is happening here today. Senator Marshall has a unionist perspective - the Senator is very welcome. He brings a voice to this Chamber. I see Senator Ó Donnghaile from Belfast as well, who brings a republican nationalist perspective. That is very important. John Robb would have very much favoured that discourse within this Parliament. There is a great need now to extend those types of parliaments. I note the Senate in Stormont was open until 1972.

At the time, in my area in north County Roscommon, we had a Senator called Thaddeus Lynch, who served in the Northern Ireland Senate from 1941 to 1949, while at the same time, former Senator Peter Timothy Lynch, his brother, served in that Seanad as well. It is something most people do not even know about. It was only when I was talking to his grandson that he told me about those aspects of these people. I am trying to say that we do not realise the power of relationships and relationship building that has happened in this Seanad since the foundation of the State.

We need many more voices from Northern Ireland in the Seanad because they are very welcome. They challenge a narrative, as John Robb challenged that narrative back in 1982. It was probably a cold House for him to come down to in Dublin in the height of the Troubles. He was a man of principle, a man of peace and a man of huge intellect who was able to overcome the boundaries. People in his community were probably asking him what he was doing selling out and coming down here and recognising this Parliament. At the time, he was also coming into a State that was dominated by the Catholic Church. We did not have the enlightened, pluralist society that we have now. That was important.

Maybe it is time to look at a Northern Ireland senate, to have a second senate like a citizens' assembly. It would provide that space for businessmen and people from all walks of life without having to go through a general election. There is a huge opportunity there. I have seen what has happened and, as I said, I was in Westminster on Monday night. There is a huge generosity on the island of Ireland and there is a huge generosity in the United Kingdom towards Ireland. That could be a second space - an upper house. I know Scotland and Wales only have one chamber but maybe there is an opportunity there to bring people in who would normally not get involved in politics. I see Senator Norris, who has been here for many years. He may not have been elected to the Dáil, although I am sure he would be-----

I would not want to be. I love the Seanad.

The Senator brings a voice which is very welcome. I did not know John Robb but I think he would have approved of what has happened in the Seanad in recent years. It is much improved. Senator Marshall was elected to this Seanad. He was the first directly elected unionist, he was not appointed by a Taoiseach, and he was elected by Sinn Féin votes and cross-party votes. That is something unique-----

-----and that is something following in the tradition of John Robb. Each and every one of us owes it to the memory of John Robb to do more on a cross-party basis, North-South and east-west, and the two islands will be much better places.

I welcome the Robb family here today. I did not know their father, I admit at the outset. From reading about his life, I know that at the time he came to Seanad Éireann he was a trauma surgeon from the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast and he knew exactly the country he was dealing with and exactly the conflict that was going on in his part of the country. He took the brave step of sitting in this Parliament. I recently had some friends from Northern Ireland in this House who were from the Orange tradition. One of them said to me at the gates of Leinster House as he left that when he came down here he thought that when he walked in he would burst into flames. He said that we are not really bad people and John Robb clearly saw that.

He taught himself the Irish language, and I note The Irish Times referred to the fact that not only did he teach himself to read and speak it, but that he was quite an accomplished writer in the Irish language. That is some achievement. He was clearly a man who wanted to go beyond just being a Member of this House. He wanted to experience the culture and the tradition that we claim to be our own down here. It is people such as John Robb and Linda Ervine who have grasped the Irish traditions and culture and made them their own and for that, he will never be forgotten.

He blazed a trail for others who followed him, coming down here and representing the North of Ireland. The most recent addition to this House and one of the finest Senators in it is my colleague, Senator Marshall, who comes from the same tradition and has the same relaxed view I would think. Although I never knew John Robb, it would appear he had a relaxed view of how he would integrate into a system that was predominantly republican down here at the time.

Having lost my own father I know there is never a good time to lose one's father. Dad is Dad even if he is 80 or 180 - it makes no difference. The Robb family will miss their father dearly but they should know that this country owes him a debt. That debt will never be paid but we are grateful to him for what he did.

I will finish by saying that blessed are the peacemakers, for he was one of the trailblazers for peace in Ireland. May he rest in peace.

Ba mhaith liom cúpla focal gairid a rá mar gheall ar shaol John Robb agus an tionchar a bhí aige sa Teach seo agus atá orainne go fóill sa Seanad. I welcome and thank the members of the Robb family who are here today and I thank Senator Norris for ensuring we had the opportunity to reflect on the life of former Senator John Robb. Like other Members, I did not know him personally, but as has been reflected adequately today, we all feel his legacy and his input as a result of our presence in this Chamber. It is not just Senator Marshall or I, but all of us. We all benefit from what he brought to politics and, in particular, to this House because the great strength of Seanad Éireann is that at times it has been and, as Senator Feighan said, it can be reflective and representative of Éire and I hope it has been so today. It can be reflective and representative of all of us and our complex and layered diversity in the wonderful tapestry, to be recognised, appreciated, celebrated and loved by people, such as John Robb when they come to a place such as this to argue for dialogue, peace and, as Senator Marshall said, for risk taking, which is always necessary, whether in the midst of conflict or indeed emerging from that conflict.

From what I understand, John Robb was not afraid to take risks, and that was not just in terms of entering this institution but, as Senator Conway-Walsh said, he was comfortable and engaged in the company of republicans at a time when it was not easy. He was among a small band of people from within the unionist, Protestant and loyalist tradition who reached out and equally accepted an invitation to engage and listen to republicans. If we do John Robb a service today, it is not just to remember and reflect and if we are to pay real tribute to his legacy, it is to continue to think, challenge and engage.

In that spirit, I say very respectfully that I appreciate the fact that John Robb and others like him have been Members of this institution over the years and I celebrate and welcome the fact our colleague, Senator Marshall, from the unionist tradition is here because that is the kind of Ireland I want. I want a kind of republic that will ultimately represent and reflect all our traditions, whether new or more established. Let us not think either that it is not sometimes a challenge for Northern nationalists or Northern republicans to be in this House too. It is a time when politics is in flux and we need to continue to understand and listen to one another and to appreciate where we are at and the challenges facing us. If we are true to the challenge that people such as John Robb and his contemporaries, whether republican or unionist at the time, have thrown down to us now, it is to ensure that we continue to listen to each other and ensure that Ireland in all of its wonderful complexity is represented and, importantly, asserted in this House.

Ar an gcéad dul síos agus mar fhocal scoir, ar mo shon féin agus ar son an Tí, ba mhaith liom mo chomhbhrón a dhéanamh le teaghlach an Dochtúra John Robb agus go mór mór cuirim fáilte roimh a chlann, William agus Martha agus Niamh, bean chéile William, agus bronnaim mo chomhbhrón ar Silvia, a bhean chéile. Cén cineál duine a bhí in John Robb? Fear uasal, fear síochánta, fear polaitiúil, dochtúir, fear agus fear céile a bhí ann agus go mór mór, fear a raibh radharc d'Éire nua aige.

In remembering John Robb today, those who did not know him have recognised and admired the work he did as a doctor, a politician and a citizen. Táimid ag céilliúradh a shaol, a life well lived. We send our sympathies to William, Martin and Niamh, who are here today, and to his wife, Sylvia. In remembering, let us cast our minds back to when John Robb was a Member of this House. We are fortunate today that we have peace and reconciliation on this island. We can celebrate Senator Ó Donnghaile and Senator Marshall being here without really making much of it. John Robb was appointed to the Seanad at a time of great conflict in our country. What he did and what he stood for should never be forgotten in the history of this House or the history of Ireland. I do not say that lightly. As Senator Mark Daly rightly said, we remember his acceptance of the invitation to become a Member of Seanad Éireann and what that represented and stood for at a time of great uncertainty in our country. He had a professional career, a personal life and a political life. He married these together and wove them into a life that had a vision of peace and reconciliation, and of all of us coexisting without being worried about whether we wore a green, orange or white jersey, what our religious hue or background was or where we came from. The work he did as a medical man, the people he met and how he met them shaped his life and his vision. We should always remember and reflect on history so that we can learn from it for the future. Today, all of us on this island have an obligation to the legacy of John Robb to remember what he did, his dialogue and engagement, and what he represented. The former President Mary McAleese spoke about building bridges but we could argue that it was Dr. John Robb who began the bridge-building, opening of minds and the changing of a cultural attitude, be it through the peace train or whatever. We remember him and are grateful for his service in this House. We thank him for accepting the invitations of two Taoisigh.

When we look at the New Ireland Forum report and what has thankfully happened in our country, we are lucky and privileged to be in a position as Members of this House to express our gratitude to John Robb and his family for the sacrifices he made, his ability to reach out and for the promotion of a new type of Ireland which we have today, an inclusive one. I thank his family for being here. I thank Senator Norris and other Members of the House for organising the visit and the tributes today. I am conscious that, as Senator Craughwell said, níl sé básaithe ach ag fás i bParthas na nGrás. In remembering John Robb, our duty is to continue his work.

Members rose.
Sitting suspended at 1.25 p.m. and resumed at 1.45 p.m.