Committed advocate for gay law reform

Christopher Robson: 1941-2013

Sat, Apr 6, 2013, 07:00

Christopher Robson, who has died aged 72, said when the Civil Partnership Act was passed in 2010 that he and his partner Bill Foley had spent half of their 35-year relationship as criminals in the eyes of the State before homosexuality was decriminalised in 1993.

Robson and Foley were able to celebrate their civil partnership earlier this year.

Robson was one of the key architects of progress for lesbian and gay people in Ireland over the last 30 years, playing a leading role in gay law reform in 1993 and in securing civil partnership, as well as being centrally involved in other rights areas including the enactment of the State’s broad-based equality law.

Born in 1941, Christopher grew up in Dartry and Ranelagh where he attended Gonzaga. He studied Science among other things in UCD before following in his father’s footsteps and graduating in architecture.

In 1973, as part of his master’s thesis, he and Brendan Walsh analysed the topic of “alphabetical voting” – the tendency of voters’ preferences to be influenced by the candidates’ position on the ballot paper – producing a paper, The Importance of Positional Voting Bias in the Irish General Election of 1973 that continues to be widely cited by political scientists.


Widely respected
He first worked in London before returning to Dublin to take up a post in the OPW. (His father, Harry Robson, had also worked in the OPW in the late 1930s on the Dublin airport building.) In the mid-1980s he transferred to the Department of Agriculture where he was the senior architect. In that capacity he developed many of the designs and standards for farm improvement schemes, including the Rural Environment Protection Scheme.

Widely respected for this work, Christopher Robson became a familiar figure on farms, developing a comprehensive knowledge of farming methods and a deep appreciation for the landscape. He was made an honorary member of the Irish Landscape Institute in 2000.

Robson was a central figure in the struggles for civil rights in Ireland, a pioneer of the promotion of gay rights and a committed trade union activist with UPTCS, later Impact and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. He was a member of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) for 10 years from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, spanning some of the most turbulent times for Irish civil rights.

The ICCL said this week that “he had a profound and genuine commitment to human rights which played itself out in the integrity and decency of his relations with others, including those with whom he profoundly disagreed”.


Aids crisis
Christopher was pivotal in the establishment of several lesbian and gay organisations in the 1980s, including the Dublin Lesbian and Gay Men’s Collectives. When the Aids crisis was bringing havoc to the lives of gay men in the 1980s Robson was involved in the establishment of community organisations (including Gay Health Action – the first HIV/Aids organisation in Ireland) which attempted to address the crisis in the absence of any government support.

This work ultimately led to Robson co-founding Glen – the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network – in 1988 where he continued as a board member until his death. Through Glen, he became centrally involved in the promotion and protection of rights for lesbian, gay and bisexual people in Ireland leading to civil partnership legislation and huge progress towards civil marriage and constitutional equality for lesbian and gay people.

With Glen, and as a founder member of the Campaign for Equality, he advocated successfully for equality legislation which became a model for European legislation on non-discrimination, including the inclusion of non-discrimination provisions in the EU Amsterdam Treaty.

Robson lived in Ranelagh in Dublin and led the successful campaign in the 1980s with the Chelmsford and District Tenants Association to save what is now Ranelagh Gardens from development.

He loved his partner, family and friends and was the eternal host; their home always open and welcoming. The family has a home in Baltimore, Cork, where Robson developed a love of sailing. He was an avid traveller and a noted photographer.

He is survived by his civil partner Bill Foley, his sister Jean, brother Denis and a large circle of Christopher and Bill’s nephews, nieces, grandnephews and grandnieces.