Obituary: Sir Robin Kinahan

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The Independent Online
Robin Kinahan was one of the last of fthe "auld dacency", the county elite of Northern Ireland, to have occupied a prominent position in the Orange Order when, in the Seventies such an association was no longer fashionable.

Like Sir George Clark, who was Imperial Grand Master of the World Orange Council, and whose family firm, Workman and Clark, once rivalled Harland and Wolff as a world builder of shipping tonnage, he belonged to an older tradition of robust British allegiance which reached its apogee in the massive popular opposition to Home Rule in the Ulster of 1912.

The family, originally from County Cork, set up a whiskey distillery in Dublin, where his great-great-grandfather was Lord Mayor in 1853. Yet despite his deeply rooted Unionist and Orange background Kinahan deplored and discouraged any form of sectarian bigotry. In the family firm, Lyle and Kinahan, wine and spirit merchants, there was a large contingent of Roman Catholic workers and Kinahan was always delighted to relate how they turned out to cheer him as, on 12 July, he walked with his lodge to the "field". Such tolerant scenes were common in the days before Sinn Fein dominated the parades issue.

After school at Stowe he went straight into the family firm with a Vintners' Company scholarship which took him to Oporto and Bordeaux, where he acquired fluent local French and a formidable knowledge of the wine trade. In Germany, when war broke out in 1939, he joined the Royal Artillery, the 8th Anti- Aircraft Regiment, serving briefly in France before the Dunkirk withdrawal, then in the air defence of Coventry and London before ending up in Burma under General Slim.

Kinahan's first entry into politics was as a councillor for Oldpark Belfast, where in 1948 he defeated the Labour activist Billy (later Lord) Blease. He served in the Belfast Corporation for 10 years before becoming a Stormont MP for Clifton. His opponent was a hardline Protestant but with the help of both Jewish and Catholic electors he scraped home by 45 votes and five recounts. His career at Stormont lasted only a few months. He saw his chance of becoming Lord Mayor which in those days carried an automatic knighthood. So he resigned from Stormont and seized it, becoming Belfast's second youngest first citizen from 1959 to 1961. In 1963 he left the Corporation to devote himself to his growing business interests.

The achievements of which he was proudest during his term in Belfast office were the establishment of a crematorium against the united opposition of all the main churches; and the banning of pigs in the backyards of many of the working-class houses of the city.

When Lord Mayor he continued to strike the open-minded, cross-community note which in the Sixties had brought about an attempt - unsuccessful - to have him expelled from the Orange Order when he attended a Catholic wedding and funeral. He received Cardinals in the City Hall and made a point of visiting fellow mayors in the Irish Republic.

From then on politics was largely abandoned for business; with extraordinary success, for he acquired a portfolio of directorships covering most of the major Ulster companies from Inglis (bakers) and Gallahers, E.T. Green (millers) to Abbey Life, the Eagle Star and Nat West. Standard Telephones and chairmanship of the Ulster Bank were added to his bag and in 1961 the family firm Lyle and Kinahan was taken over by Bass Charrington and the Kinahans acquired Castle Upton with 300 acres not far from Belfast airport. The castle, re-designed by Robert Adam and had its origins in a 13th-century monastery. When Robin Kinahan bought it for pounds 53,000 it was in a ruinous state with the courtyard used for piggeries.

His wife Coralie, whom he married in 1950, was a de Burgh, from one of the oldest Anglo-Irish families and an established painter of distinction. Under her expert artistic guidance they set about restoring the castle to its proper state and character, a residence to match their eminence in the commercial and social world.

Kinahan's last excursion into politics was in 1972 when he agreed to join Willie Whitelaw's Advisory Commission which was meant to give some veneer of accountability to Direct Rule, and had been rejected by Unionists. He did so with expressed misgivings which turned out to be justified - the whole concept collapsed.

In personal terms Robin Kinahan was a man of great charm and a warm engaging manner, who inspired lasting loyalty in those he worked with. An old-established Ulster Banker recalls the day, 30 years ago, when, as a diffident junior, he was summoned to the chairman's office to discuss some new aspect of business. To his surprise and grateful delight Kinahan proposed that they settle the matter over lunch at the then exclusive Ulster Club.

With his multifarious company commitments Kinahan was an efficient chairman. Business was quickly dispatched. Everyone had to have done his homework. He loved commerce and once said: "It's not just the money. I can't altogether dismiss ambition. There is a special satisfaction in getting to the top."

He achieved that ambition and combined it with a large involvement in charity work when his appointment as Lord-Lieutenant of Belfast during 1985-91 set the final crown on his civic career.

His wife and he published a joint autobiography with the cheeky rhetorical title Behind Every Great Man . . . ?

Roy Bradford

Robert George Caldwell (Robin) Kinahan, businessman and politician: born 24 September 1916; ERD 1946; MP (NI) for Clifton 1958-59; Lord Mayor of Belfast 1959-61; Kt 1961; chairman, Inglis & Co Ltd 1962-82; chairman, E.T. Green Ltd 1964-82; chairman, Ulster Bank Ltd 1970-82; Vice Lord-Lieutenant for Belfast 1976-85, Lord-Lieutenant 1985-91; married 1950 Coralie de Burgh (two sons, three daughters); died 2 May 1997.