Belfast Telegraph

DUP MLA George Robinson: 'Working in an Army barracks during the Troubles - every morning you checked to see where the bomb was or who was shot'

 

By Donna Deeney

The most probing interviews: George Robinson, East Londonderry DUP MLA, on the threats he faced in his career, surviving a heart attack and his happy 51-year marriage.

Q. You were born in 1941 in Limavady - tell me something of your childhood.

A. My father was Joe Robinson and my mother was Jane. My father was originally from Londonderry and my mother was from Limavady. My father was a soldier who served in the First and Second World Wars and had a big military history which I supposed rubbed off on me to a certain extent. They had a total of eight children - six boys and two girls and I was the eldest. From an early age I was the father of the house because both my parents were ill. My father died from TB when I was 23 and my mother died while she was still fairly young. That put a big responsibility on my shoulders, so our family knew what hard times were certainly.

Q. Earliest childhood memory?

A. We were reared on a farm outside Limavady and I remember doing a lot of farm work from very early on, including cutting turnips on the land, lifting straw and gathering potatoes.

Q. After you left Limavady Technical School, one of your first jobs was at Shackleton Army Barracks in Ballykelly, where you worked for more than 40 years. You were there during the time when the IRA issued a death threat to civilians working for the Army or Police. What was it like going to work in the morning knowing you may not come home again?

A. I served 42 years in Shackleton from when I was 18 years of age, which was before the Troubles started to escalate, and the IRA issued that death threat to civilians like myself. When it came it was a shock and it was very difficult. It was always a worry at the back of your mind but I tried to be resilient. We were right in the middle of it and it was a very real threat. Every morning when you got up you checked the news to see where the bomb was or who was shot because invariably something happened. It was during that particular time that I got married and we had our daughter Caroline and son Alan so I knew I had a family to provide for. It was difficult but I knew I just had to get on with it. We followed all the advice the Army gave us about how to keep safe as best we could.

Q. You were working in Shackleton at the time of the Droppin' Well bomb in Ballykelly, one of the worst atrocities of the Troubles when 17 people - soldiers and civilians - lost their lives. What was it like being inside the barrack in the aftermath of that?

A. Horrific is the only way I could describe what it was like going into the camp that following morning. It was so tough but what could anyone do or say. So many poor souls were murdered alongside civilians from the community who were just trying to have a night's craic when the building came in around them. I remember another time, after a bomb in another army camp, being briefed about security and the officer in charge remarking on how not one civilian member of staff failed to turn up. That stuck out in my mind.

Q. You entered the political arena at the age of 42 in 1985 which is relatively old for a new boy. Was there something in particular that led you to seek election?

A. Former Limavady councillor in the DUP Ernie Murray encouraged me to join and I had no hesitation. I joined and sought election and was successful in becoming a councillor for Limavady Borough, which I was for 28 years.

Q. You were mayor of Limavady during 2002/03 when the Queen made a three day visit to Northern Ireland and came to the North West but not Limavady. Were you very disappointed about that?

A. She didn't come to Limavady, that's right, and I was so disappointed about it. I would have loved to have met her and greeted her as first citizen of Limavady, but it wasn't to be.

Q. You were awarded an MBE in 2015, a day you described as one of your proudest. Did you meet the Queen then and was being in Buckingham Palace all you expected?

A. Unfortunately, I missed out in meeting the Queen then, too. It was Prince William who carried out the investitures when I received my MBE but it was indeed one of my proudest days. It was absolutely awesome being inside Buckingham Palace. The thing that stood out most in my mind were the crowds of tourists from all over the world standing at the gates looking in and there was my family and I being able to walk in. I felt so humbled, there was I - a wee boy from Limavady walking into the palace.

Q. You are a big fan of the Royal Family. Why do you think they are still relevant in today's society.

A. We obviously have to have a head of state and the Royal Family to me epitomised that. I have the greatest respect for all of them. I think they do a wonderful job. I think the contribution they make to society is very valuable, important and extremely relevant.

Q. Who is your best Catholic friend?

A. That's a difficult one. I try to be friends with everyone but there is one person that I consider a deep friend for many, many years and that is a man called Danny Holmes who was a teacher here in Limavady. Danny is a great, great friend of mine. I worked with his father before him for quite a few years in Ballykelly and I have the highest respect for the whole family. While I don't really think about a person's religion, Danny is a Roman Catholic. He is an absolute gentleman and so was his father before him.

Q. Your son Alan is also a DUP politician. Did you encourage him in his career choice or did you advise against it?

A. To a certain extent I left it up to him but he took to it so naturally I didn't have to influence him in either direction. He is a councillor with Causeway Coast and Glens now but he was the last Mayor of the old Limavady Borough Council before it was dissolved. There can't be many families who have had both the father and the son who have been Mayor of the town they live in so that is quite an achievement, I suppose.

Q. Your wife Ann is often seen at your side at public events - even into the small hours at the election count centre, she remains steadfast. You seem very close as a couple. After 51 years of marriage - what's your secret to keeping the love?

A. I don't know if we have a secret recipe but we are still totally devoted to each other. We married around a year after I first asked her out which was when we were 23 and 22. Ours is quite a funny story because I actually went out with her sister first. That didn't work out but then I noticed Ann and it was love at first sight. Right from the time we met, from when we got married, from when we had our children, Ann has always been 100% supportive of everything I have done and that is still the case. We celebrated our golden wedding anniversary last year which was a wonderful thing to be able to do and we are both very grateful for the years we have had together.

Q. What are you like at home? Are you domesticated in any way?

A. It is just Ann and I at home now and I would most definitely say I am domesticated. We share the chores between us without hesitation. Ann does the washing and ironing and I do the cooking and cleaning. It is a recipe that has worked well for us and the idea of doing housework is not something I have ever had a problem with. When you are in a partnership I think it is important to share everything equally. It certainly has served us well for the 51 years we have been married.

Q. You are one of the older members of the Assembly. Any plans to step down?

A. I am in perfect health and I am able to carry out my work on behalf of my constituents as well as anyone so I don't see any reason to consider retiring. I'll leave that up to my party leader but I do feel well able to do the job. I don't feel my age and I don't think about it too much. It is not how I would define myself so my plan is to just keep going for as long as I can.

Q. You once said there were too many MLAs and since then the number has been cut. Would you like to see further reductions or is the current quota correct?

A. I think we have hit it right at the present time.

Q. Has politics taught you anything about yourself, and if so, what?

A. It has taught me the importance of looking out for other people and to put others above yourself, which is something I do like doing. I especially like to look out for pensioners. I think they deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. I think politics has taught me to be caring towards the people who come to me for help but I think that is something I have always tried to do all my life. Being in politics has made me more aware of the difficulties a lot of people have to face in their day to day lives. If by being an MLA I am in a position to help alleviate those difficulties then I think it is important I do that to the best of my ability and that is something I try to do every day.

Q. You are not one of the high profile names in the DUP but you are always in the background. For people outside of your constituency what are the big political issues that drive you?

A. The Health Service means so much to me. I sat on the Health Committee and I really enjoyed that. I loved getting stuck into the big issues. I know Committees can get lambasted from time to time but there is an awful lot of good work that gets done on committees.

Q. You have had your own health issues in the past. You had a very serious heart attack in 2004 and subsequently a double heart bypass. That must have been a scary time for your family, did you consider that maybe that was the time to step down?

A. It actually had the opposite effect on me because rather than considering stepping down it motivated me. I was back at council and back at the Assembly within five months of getting my by-pass. It was a very frightening experience nonetheless. I woke one morning at 6am with the pain in my chest, crawled out of bed, rang my brother who had me at the out of hours service in Limavady within five minutes. The doctor on call was waiting on me, realised immediately what was wrong, stuck two big needles into my stomach and told me to lie down. Ten minutes after she told me I had had a massive heart attack and the ambulance arrived blue lights flashing and I was transferred to Altnagelvin, where I stay for five weeks before being transferred to the Royal Victoria. The ambulance crew told me on the way to hospital that she saved my life and without the two injections she gave me I wouldn't have lasted 20 minutes.

Q. When you do retire, will you be able to relax and take it easy? What do you enjoy outside of politics?

A. I love spending time with my two grandchildren - Alan's daughter Sienna (4) and Caroline's daughter Zara, who will be six in May. We have a grandson, Ashley, as well but he is in Australia so we don't get to see him as often as we would like. Ann unfortunately doesn't like to fly, she is terrified of it.

I am very passionate about football so being able to attend more matches of Limavady, more so Coleraine, would be great. From a spectator's point of view Coleraine would be my preference because they play in the bigger league and against teams like Glenavon and Crusaders. I love all football so the idea of being able to attend more matches does appeal to me.

Much as I do love football the idea that I could will be able to spend more time with Ann when I do retire is the thing that appeals to me most of all.

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