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Robert Simpson (1923 - 1997):
Medical practitioner, politician, writer

Robert Simpson

Robert Simpson was a man of wide interests and accomplishments. Besides his medical practice, he was active in politics for many years, including being the first Minister for Community Relations in Northern Ireland, until his relatively liberal political views counted rather against him in the whirlpool of political developments in the early 1970s and his two decades of public service as a Member of the Northern Parliament came to a rather abrupt end. He was also was a keen writer with a wide gamut of interests, medicine, travel, humorous prose, travel, and poetry, who published widely throughout the world, but remained closely tied to his roots in Ballymena, where he was able to pursue his myriad interests.

He was born at Craigbilly (or Crebilly as it is also known), near Ballymena, on the fertile fifty-acre farm of his parents, Samuel and Agnes. He attended Ballymena Academy, but forsook the physically demanding life of a farmer. Instead he graduated MB, BCh, BAO from Queen's University, Belfast in 1946. He was appointed House Surgeon at Belfast City Hospital in 1947 and Resident Anaesthetist at Leicester Royal Infirmary in 1948 but returned to Ballymena in 1949 and became a general practitioner. 

He entered politics in 1953, standing as the Ulster Unionist candidate for the Northern Ireland Parliament in the constituency of Mid Antrim. He was elected unopposed, as he also would be at the elections of 1958, 1962 and 1965, and would win in 1969. Naturally enough, he frequently spoke in Parliament on Health and Agricultural issues and in 1965 was the representative of the Northern Ireland Parliament at the annual conference in New Zealand of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, the body which aims to promote parliamentary democracy and understanding of democratic governance.

His political ecumenism was not something he concealed and he was firmly on the liberal wing of Unionist politics. In 1962, for example, the nationalist Belfast daily The Irish News, reporting on the annual Twelfth of July celebrations throughout Ulster, wrote: "It was not the same hysterical drum-beating, flag-waving political demonstration that we have been used to in the past, but had more of a carnival atmosphere on Continental lines, with the teenagers not waving so many Union Jacks but wearing sun-glasses and crazy-coloured hats." There was support for this outlook with a number of Orange leaders supporting such a change. In Ballymena, Simpson (as was the unwritten rule, as an Ulster Unionist MP he had to be a member of the Orange Order and a Mason as well) said that there was a growing feeling in mid-Antrim that the Twelfth of July commemorations should be regarded as a religious pageant rather than as a political rally. On 19 January 1965, he was one of the backbench MPs who signed a motion in support of Prime Minister Terence O'Neill's controversial invitation to the Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) Seán Lemass, to Belfast for a face-to-face meeting, which had taken place on 14 January. Many Unionists were opposed to this "summit" inter alia while the Republic of Ireland maintained in its Constitution and rhetoric its desire to annex Northern Ireland into it, severing the Union with Great Britain, and O'Neill, mindful that such opposition from his Party and Government would have probably prevented the meeting, told virtually no-one about it until the meeting was imminent, although there was widespread public support, such as from the firmly Unionist newspaper the News Letter, which recommended that O'Neill explore the possibilities of co-operation with the Republic on matters of mutual concern such as tourism, transport and trade.

At the end of the 1960s, after a period of some economic prosperity, Northern Ireland suffered the outbreak of more and more sectarian violence, and two distinct tendencies developed within the Ulster Unionist Party, which had been the sole governing party in Northern Ireland since the foundation of the state. One the one hand were Prime Minister Terence O'Neill and his supporters, who were seen as reformist, on the other, Brian Faulkner and his supporters, who were seen as more conservative. Simpson was one of the former. One proposed reform was to the aspects of the electoral law, which still did not fully extend the "one man one vote" provision to local government, where unlike Parliamentary elections, business or property votes still existed. In February 1969 Simpson was opposed for the first time in Mid Antrim, in what was known as the "Ulster at the Crossroads" general election, which O'Neill had called against a background of a sharp rise in violent outcomes to political demonstrations, including a notorious incident at a little-known location, Burntullet, when a Civil Rights march was attacked by hardline unionists with the apparent collusion of police personnel. Simpson, despite the growing fragmentation of the Unionist Party, was nonetheless returned with a resounding majority of 10,249 votes to 2,124 against a Northern Ireland Labour candidate, Robert Galbraith. However, for the Unionist party generally the results were rather ambiguous: the pro-O'Neill wing received 27.6% of the vote, the anti-O'Neill wing 20.6%. O'Neill resigned in April.

In April Simpson made a speech in which he set out his support for one of the most central reforms demanded: "If we are going to accept British standards in general we must accept them in toto. That is how I see the granting of one man one vote. I think it should be accepted as a British standard that one should not go out to sink the boat in which one happens to be sailing." In September he was appointed Additional Parliamentary Secretary at the Office of the Prime Minister (a special appointment for him), and the following month came his appointment to the new post of Minister of Community Relations. He immediately resigned from both the Orange and Masonic Orders, to demonstrate non-partisan credentials (some saw this as mere window-dressing, or even simple political opportunism, but he did it nevertheless), and took seriously the matter of promoting contacts and making friends across the two communities. He declared that "people must ultimately see that somehow the two communities are going to have to live side by side if only because they have nowhere else to go."

One of his schemes for promoting cross-community contacts reflected Simpson's strong interest in the arts. It involved inviting individuals from many and varying artistic backgrounds and from across the entire population of Northern Ireland (primarily selected as being representative of the "two communities") to bon vivant evenings of high-quality gourmandry at a fine hotel near Belfast Airport. He was assisted in this by the Chairman of the new Community Relations Commission (who while a little concerned at what he saw as Simpson's lack of an imaginative approach to his ministerial brief, saluted his essential decency and amiability). The Chairman would later write that these occasions, while without doubt convivial, did not really "get down from the philosophical plane to actual business". In any event, when Prime Minister Chichester-Clarke resigned in March 1971, Simpson left the Government, which was now headed by Terence O'Neill's opponent, Faulkner, and the convivial evenings came to an end. Simpson's assistance was also sought in the manner of intervening on behalf of a prison inmate, a promising young artist who had been prosecuted for assaulting policemen during political demonstrations. He wished to continue painting in prison, and was facing some practical and regulatory difficulties. The Community Relations Chairman, reporting this to Simpson, cited to him a work of the Irish poet WB Yeats, and "what happens to rulers who fall foul of artists". Simpson withdrew from parliamentary politics in 1972, when the Northern Ireland Parliament was suspended. He had been created a Northern Ireland Privy Councillor in 1970.

He had always maintained his medical practice, and after leaving the National Health Service in 1986 continued with occupational medicine and medico-legal work. He also applied his medical knowledge to his prolific writing activities, contributing regularly to World Medicine; a weekly medical column was widely syndicated under the pseudonyms such as Dr John Barfoot or Dr David Blue, and also published articles on agriculture and describing his wide travel experiences, which took him all over the world. He keenly cultivated his extensive garden in Ballymena where his arboretum comprised over 250 species (and was once featured in a Channel 4 television programme), and was a member of the Irish Tree Society. His interest in music motivated his involvement, as Vice-President, fund-raiser and administrator, with the annual Ballymena Festival Music, Speech and Drama, a competition along the lines of the traditional Ulster féis. He was also founder Chairman of Ballymena Round Table (a charitable society) in 1951; Vice-President of the County Antrim Agricultural Association from 1960; and a founder member of the Royal College of General Practitioners in 1952.

Simpson's writing embraced poetry, including a piece he dedicated to Seamus Heaney, the distinguished Irish poet and a friend since the convivial Community Relations dinners in the early 1970s, on the occasion of Heaney's appointment as a Nobel Laureate in Literature in 1995. Simpson alludes in the piece to their common rural background in northern Ulster, "one a Planter, one a Gael" (that is, one a Protestant and one a Catholic). Simpson has been described as a true son of Ballymena, having what many see as the typical Ulster Scot's characteristics of openness, honesty, a bluntness of speech in a distinctive North Antrim accent, though having a self-deprecating humour. As Minister of Community Relations he was summed up as a decent man who in taking up a post unpopular in unionist sections of Ulster society, was risking being regarded less as an influence for reconciliation and better community relations, than an agent of appeasement, which showed a humane and cultured outlook and no little courage.

In the 1960s the Belfast News Letter published a piece by Simpson, The Last Squire of Craigbilly: A Christmas Eve Ghost Story. This relates the legend of Henry Hamilton O'Hara, Squire of Craigbilly Castle near Ballymena, who at midnight on Christmas Eve, on his favourite white mare, rides the road from the graveyard of Ballymarlow Church to the Kennel Bridge (near Simpson's Craigbilly home), jumps the white gates and disappears into the water below. (A more gruesome version depicts the ghostly rider headless, another version features the Devil complete with clanking chains.) The O'Haras of Craigbilly Castle were a notorious line of blackguards, gamblers, abusers of alcohol, and gross maltreaters of women. The last squire's Christmas Eve ride is well-known to the local population, and Simpson, seemingly an antiquary of local lore, was often asked about the ghost. He would reply that one day he would be laid out for the last time within fifteen feet of the squire in the dark churchyard at Ballymarlow and had no desire to say anything which he might be forced to regret at a later date.

After his death he was indeed interred near Henry Hamilton O'Hara, the last Squire of Craigbilly, in St Patrick's Church Graveyard, Ballymarlow, Crebilly Road, not far from his birthplace.

Born: 3 December 1923
Died: 8 April 1997
Richard Froggatt

Wesley McCann