Country general surgeon dedicated to politics of conflict resolution

John Robb: born February 24th, 1932; died February 14th, 2018

John Robb: a scion of the North’s Presbyterian Liberal tradition and a passionate voice for a more inclusive Ireland.

John Robb: a scion of the North’s Presbyterian Liberal tradition and a passionate voice for a more inclusive Ireland.


John Robb, who has died in a Portstewart nursing home after a long illness, was a scion of the North’s Presbyterian Liberal tradition and a passionate voice for a more inclusive Ireland.

When the Troubles erupted, Robb was working as a consultant in Belfast’s Royal Victoria Hospital. He treated many of the initial gunshot victims. Professionally, he saw it his duty to treat the bomber and the bomb victim equally.

But what he saw led him into the politics of conflict resolution. Never a unionist, it caused him to question himself and his background. He suggested to his fellow-Protestants that they foresee and embrace a role for themselves in a united Ireland.

Robb established the New Ireland Movement in 1972. Later he was a founder member and convenor of the New Ireland Group in 1982, the primary aim of which was to promote dialogue, consensus and reconciliation. Often espousing views which were controversial and uncomfortable, he challenged those perpetrating violence as well as those who remained silent in the face of it. Charles Haughey asked him to be a member of Seanad Éireann. He served three consecutive terms as senator between 1982 and 1989, being reappointed by Garret FitzGerald in a sign of the esteem in which he was held.

John Daniel Alexander Robb was born in Downpatrick, elder of two sons to Jack Robb, county surgeon in the Downe Hospital, and his wife Jessie (née Wilson).

He was educated at Rockport Preparatory School in Holywood, Co Down, then Merchiston Castle School in Edinburgh. His school record for running the mile stood for almost 30 years.

After school, he was uncertain as to career path. He considered business and spent a year in a food-processing business. Then he entered Queen’s to study medicine.

Loathing of discrimination

After qualifying, he worked in a number of hospitals. He also travelled widely. With some university contemporaries, he drove to South Africa.

It was the time of apartheid. Working in a whites-only hospital, then one that only treated blacks, fostered a loathing of discrimination and segregation. It also gave him experience of treating gunshot wounds.

He spent the longest portion of his career as surgeon, between 1973 and 1992, in the Route Hospital, Ballymoney. He was one of the last of the era of country general surgeons whose wide surgical repertoire allowed them to treat most people in their local hospital.

He believed hospitals should be in the community and was an energetic campaigner against hospital closures. However, when he felt the Route had become no longer viable, he supported the building of the new Causeway Hospital outside Coleraine, to serve a wider area.

He was a long-serving member of the Viking Surgeons, an organisation which brings together surgeons working in remote acute hospitals in Scotland, the North and Scandinavia. He sought the establishment of a national surgical training programme in “remote and rural surgery”, for hospitals where the surgeon had to be a generalist.

In his practice, patients always came first. As a surgeon, he was known for his care for those round him, and willingness to go to his patients. He once operated on a patient on a table in the parochial hall on Rathlin Island.

During his time in the Seanad, he would first do the rounds of his patients in Ballymoney at 6am before driving to Dublin. On one such occasion, concerned about a patient, he rang to inquire before the sitting began. Hearing the man had deteriorated, he immediately returned to Ballymoney.

Irish language

As a senator, he did not just raise northern issues. He supported the legalisation of contraception. He queried the United States’ arming of the right-wing Contra forces against the socialist government in Nicaragua, and its clandestine arming of Iranian forces during the Iran-Iraq War.

The Irish language was another passion. He believed it belonged to the whole community. In his 60s he learned it, and became fluent. He felt Irish history had been omitted from his education, and sought to rectify that by reading avidly as a younger man. In this his parents-in-law encouraged him. They had served in China as missionaries with the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.

After retiring, he stayed mentally and physically active, pushing himself to the brink of exhaustion with long walks.

In 2001, he wrote his hope for the future of northern society: “All men and women are different, each is unique and all are part of the same humanity. How then do we find, develop and liberate into the fabric of our society the talents unique to each citizen so that no one feels alienated and all have feeling of ownership of how their society should develop.”

He is survived by his wife Sylvia; daughters Susie and Martha; and sons Daniel and William. He was predeceased by his brother James.