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 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.