Sir Robin Chichester-Clark

Posted By: August 20, 2016

Obituary. Irish News (Belfast).Saturday, August 20, 2016

On November 11 , 1968, brothers Robin and James Chichester-Clark met in the library of their ancestral estate at Moyola Park, Co Derry.

With Robin writing on his knee, they drew up a list of reforms for housing, voting and local government.

It was Armistice Day, and just a month since a civil rights march in Derry had ended in violence as police used batons and water cannon against protesters.

The injured included West Belfast MP Gerry Fitt and the images were flashed around the world, putting a spotlight on the Unionist regime for the first time.

Robin, then Westminster MP for the constituency of Londonderry, and his older brother James, minister of agriculture at Stormont, showed their proposals to prime minister Terence O’Neill.

Six months later James would force the resignation of O’Neill and succeed him as the fifth and penultimate prime minister of Northern Ireland.

Between them the brothers went some way towards reforming Unionist rule in the late 1960s and early 1970s, responding to demands of the civil rights movement and resisting pressure from Ian Paisley and other extremists.

“Robin believed he was the first Unionist MP to criticise Paisley, doing so at a Twelfth field in 1966,” Colin Armstrong, visiting research associate in history at Queen’s University, Belfast, said :“Chairing a meeting at Glengall Street during the general election of that year he suggested that the party should do more to confront the threat posed by Ian Paisley. The party’s general secretary, JO Baillie, told him not to worry. He was sure that Paisley would be certified within a year.

“The next year saw not Paisley’s departure for an asylum but Robin’s brief suspension from the Orange Order for attending the requiem Mass for Colonel Conolly MacCausland MC, a distinguished Irish Guards officer, and Catholic convert.”

However, the Chichester-Clarks’s actions came too late to prevent the Unionist monolith, that had stood since the 1920s, collapsing under the weight of its internal divisions and the forces unleashed on the streets.

Soon Robin would follow James out of politics as direct rule was imposed.

He would later say he believed he achieved more in his work for charity than as a politician, in the process becoming good friends with Seamus Heaney, who shared his love of the wild boglands of south Derry.

Sir Robert (Robin) Chichester-Clark was born in January 1928 at Moyola Park, the family’s 450-acre estate near Castledawson, named after his Dawson ancestors who developed much of central Dublin.

Both his father and grandfather were MPs for Londonderry before him and his grandmother Dehra Parker was also a Stormont MP – the only woman to hold a cabinet post under the old Unionist government.

Robin grew up largely under her care and inherited her passion for the arts and politics.

He attended the Royal Naval College in Dartmouth and Cambridge University and worked briefly as a journalist and in public relations.

His political career began aged 27 when he was elected MP for Londonderry City and County, the second-youngest member of the House of Commons.

At a time when Ulster Unionists at Westminster were closely allied to the Conservative Party, Robin served as a government whip and shadow cabinet member.

He was denied a post in government in the early 1970s due to delicate relations between London and Stormont and declined a role in the Northern Ireland Office under direct rule.

He decided not to stand again for election in 1974.

In later years he worked in business and helped found the reconstructive surgery charity Raft.

He was also a driving force behind the Arvon Foundation, which promoted creative writing, and through poet Ted Hughes became friends with Heaney, who had been born within walking distance of Moyola Park.

More recently he used his political contacts in London to try to secure support for the Ulster Orchestra.

His second wife, Caroline, said he loved Ireland and its people and it pained him greatly to see it in strife.

“He was courageous, he was loyal, he was warm, charming, quick-witted, funny and irreverent, but he was a man of virtue and integrity and he cared deeply about the state of the world and tried to make it better,” she said.

“Although he was of the Protestant ascendancy class, he saw the equality of all rights as the way forward.”

Sir Robin Chichester-Clark died suddenly on holiday in Norfolk on August 5. He was 88.

He is survived by his wife Caroline, his five children, and his sister Penelope Hobhouse, a historian of garden design.