I just opened an email, with the message “FJH, did you know that Dr Robert Irwin is dead?”
I had to think for a minute. In part because I assumed that Dr Irwin was maybe already dead. And I dont mean that in any disrespectful way. His name will only resonate with people of my age and even in the 1970s. I would have thought of him as an old man. He died this week at the ripe old age of ninety.
So why would the death of a retired medical doctor who served as a GP (general practitioner) on the Antrim Road in North Belfast be noteworthy?
Well as well as being a General Practitioner, Dr Irwin was a “police surgeon” in the 1970s. Called out to some gruesome scenes at the height of the Troubles or taking blood tests from drunk drivers or examining the injuries on suspects held in police custody. When voicing his concerns to the police that there were injuries consistent with ill treatment and torture, the RUC did not exactly want to hear that.
When he went public with carefully collated evidence, he was abused by the police and unionism generally as a “traitor”. Nobody used the term “whistle-blower” in the1970s but thats what he was. The RUC, the British Army, the “spooks” leaked information or simply made it all up and briefed friendly journalists that Dr Irwin was a man with a grudge.
Nevertheless the information he provided led to the old RUC cleaning up its act.
People like Dr Irwin are the true heroes of the Troubles. He was no traitor to Norn Iron. He was not undermining the Police. He was not a spokesman for Terrorism. He was a medical doctor…a Protestant and most likely a unionist, who placed his committment to people above any committment to a political belief.
There is a narrative about “liberal” unionist politicians. Decent men with a natural disposition to be liberal and non-sectarian who were somehow caught up in the Troubles and forced unwillingly into reactionary policies. Take “Sir” Robert Porter who died last year. One time Minister of Home Affairs and later a Judge.
The obituary of good old affable “Beezer Porter” was written by Brian Dimbleby-Walker on Slugger O’Toole. Need I say more?
Can we look forward to a Slugger O’Toole obituary of Dr Robert Irwin? I am not holding my breath. Are you?