Obituary: Dr Robert Simpson

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The Independent Online
Robert Simpson was a true son of Ballymena, the Co Antrim town where he spent his life as general practitioner and which he represented for 20 years in the Stormont Parliament. He spoke with the Scots accent typical of the area and exemplified the qualities of that hardy race: openness, honesty, a bluntness of speech relieved and lightened by a lovely self-deprecating humour.

As the eldest son of a small farmer be would have inherited 50 fertile acres but had no inclination for the back-breaking slog, though he was deeply immersed in the ways of the countryside.

He was educated at the local academy and at Queen's University, Belfast, where he qualified in 1946, setting up his plate in his home town and known to all and sundry as Doctor Bob. When he entered politics in 1952, a Unionist nomination - and with his Protestant background there was no agonising over which party he would choose - meant a guaranteed seat. In fact for all the elections until 1969 he was returned unopposed. Yet his open ecumen-ism was there from the outset and he was a staunch upholder of liberal Unionist politics.

When he was appointed Minister of Community Relations under the premier James Chichester-Clark he resigned from both the Orange and Masonic Orders, in order that he might be seen to be non-partisan, and set about promoting contacts and making friends across the two communities.

To that end, with the help of Maurice Hayes, then director of the Community Relations Commission, he instigated a series of dinner parties attended by well-known figures in the arts and academic circles, among them the young Seamus Heaney, like himself born on a small farm not 30 miles from Ballymena. Hayes relates how these convivial gatherings eventually collapsed under the weight of vintage hospitality generously provided by Paddy Falloon, a well-known hotel proprietor. But the friendship with Heaney survived and when the poet became a Nobel laureate last year Simpson, no mean hand with the pen himself, was moved to celebrate the occasion in verse:

What's more our fathers unac-


Buying and selling sleek milch cows

On the same Fair Hill, bartered,

teased and coaxed

Clinching deals with a handslap, re-

vived with hot dinners at McIlwee

These two men, unacquainted, went

their separate ways

One a Planter, one a Gael.

Before his inclusion in government Simpson had been a firm supporter of Terence O'Neill's reformist policies and opposed to the hardline Unionist faction whose fugleman was Brian Faulkner.

This was notable in his advocacy of "one man one vote", the abolition of the business or property vote which still existed in Northern Ireland. In a speech at Stormont in April 1969 he had said:

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 especially when that would mean destroying our good name and the livelihood of those we represent.

In the crucial Stormont election of 1969, known as the "Ulster at the Crossroads" election, candidates were divided into "pro" and "anti" O'Neill, labelling the moderates against the "last-ditchers". Simpson was firmly on the side of what he saw as the angels. It was this clear consistency of purpose which made him an obvious candidate for Community Relations under O'Neill's successor and standard-bearer, Chichester-Clark.

This allegiance effectively ended Bob Simpson's career in politics, because two years later, when Faulkner took over the premiership from Chichester- Clark, he was unceremoniously sacked from the Cabinet along with another leading O'Neill supporter, Phelim O'Neill, then Minister of Agriculture. The split with Faulkner was far from harmonious and, a year later, Simpson resigned both his seat and an active role in political life, a decision he never regretted.

For he had several other intensely rewarding strings to his bow. Until his death he was a regular and prolific contributor to all manner of journals and periodicals, writing on medicine and agriculture but especially on the self-financing travel which took him across the world, to the Antipodes, South Africa, Russia and the palaces of Rajasthan. The canny Ballymena thriftiness is never too far away. In enthusing over the cathedral at Reims he remembers to mention the nearby Logis de France where you pay for the room, not the number of occupants, a considerable saving! A weekly medical column widely syndicated went under the pseudonym Dr John Barfoot.

His other lively interests were his two-acre garden in Ballymena where he specialised in trees, of which he had over 250 species, and music. He was one of the moving spirits in the annual Ballymena Music Festival, a competition along the lines of the traditional Ulster feis. As fund- raiser and administrator he saw the festival as an instrument of harmonious co-operation between the two communities, a leitmotiv of his life's endeavour.

Roy Bradford

Robert Simpson, medical practitioner and politician: born 3 July 1923; MP (Unionist) Mid-Antrim, Parliament of Northern Ireland 1953-72; PC (Northern Ireland) 1970; married 1954 Dorothy Strawbridge (two sons, one daughter); died 8 April 1997.