Belfast Telegraph

President's tribute to Dr John Robb, surgeon and 'voice of reconciliation'


Dr John Robb, founder of the New Ireland Group
Dr John Robb, founder of the New Ireland Group
Alf McCreary

By Alf McCreary

Irish President Michael D Higgins has paid tribute to "the voice of reconciliation" John Robb following his death.

The former Ballymoney-based surgeon and Irish Senator was the founder of the New Ireland Group in 1982, which set out a vision for a society accommodating both the Irish and British traditions.

Mr Higgins said he had learned of Dr Robb's death "with great sadness".

"He 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," he said.

"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."

Dr Robb was educated at Rockport School in Holywood and at Merchiston Castle School in Edinburgh. He made his career in medicine as a surgeon.

He was from a liberal Protestant background and was steeped in an all-Irish tradition. He became a member of the Wolfe Tone Society as early as the 1960s.

When the Troubles broke out in the late 1960s he worked with a wide team of medical experts to save lives and help victims recover from their wounds.

Outside his medical career Dr Robb lobbied strongly for a much wider vision of Irish society, where Gael and Planter could work together and live in peace.

With a number of liberal Protestants and others from different backgrounds, he formed the New Ireland Group, which promoted a vision of society that could bring together those from the main Orange and Green traditions, as well as others.

He wrote and spoke so widely on his dream of a new Ireland that he caught the attention of political leaders in Dublin.

Dr Robb served in the Republic's Senate from 1982-1989, making an eloquent and distinctly northern contribution to debates.

Despite the best efforts of him and his colleagues, the New Ireland Group had little success in shifting the tectonic plates of established political thinking.

He served for several years on Queen's University's senate and brought his characteristic sharpness, insights and humour to the sometimes stolid debates.

He was never afraid to ask questions about the various academic and administrative "elephants in the room" which no one else wanted to mention.

On a personal level, he was a most charming, warm-hearted and well-liked man with high Christian principles and great integrity, being greatly respected by everyone, including those who did not agree with his political views.

In his later professional life he worked as a surgeon in Ballymoney, always fighting hard to preserve the highest medical standards and services for the entire community, which held him in high regard.

He was one of the last of the great figures of the liberal Presbyterian tradition, and although the political icebergs began to thaw more than a little during his lifetime, he did not live long enough to see his vision becoming a reality.

South Belfast SDLP MLA Claire Hanna also paid tribute.

"John was a friend of my family, and he was staying in our home in Galway in 1982 at the time when Taoiseach Charles Haughey asked him to come to Dublin to inform him of his appointment to the Irish Senate," she explained.

"John was an outstanding representative of the liberal Presbyterian tradition in the North, which was willing to engage with all traditions on the island through his New Ireland Group.

"He was probably the leading trauma surgeon in the Royal Victoria Hospital in the awful years of the early Troubles, and he was a doughty defender of our hospitals.

"He had a remarkable intellect, and in middle-age taught himself to speak, read and, unusually, write Irish to a very high standard."

Belfast Telegraph


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