Sir John Blelloch
Civil servant during Troubles in Northern Ireland
“apparent determination”. Sir John was in a precarious and unenviable position.
The Thatcher government did not feel inclined to lessen its principles and allow the prisoners a chance to end their protests. There had been suggestions that the inmates might be granted some sort of special status but this was an area of much disagreement.
The talks continued during some of the most turbulent years in Northern Ireland. In October 1981 Sir John announced concessions made by the Secretary of State James Prior after 10 prisoners had died. In truth, throughout the discussions Sir John had little bargaining power or flexibility – despite his calm resolve the months proved challenging. Suspicion was witnessed on both sides – Sir John, for example was suspected (wrongly) by the IRA of being a member of MI5.
After the 1998 Good Friday agreement had brought relative peace to the province Sir John was appointed joint chairman of the new Northern Ireland Sentence Review Commission with Brian Currin, a civil rights lawyer from South Africa.
Each case was assessed on an individual basis but the prisoner release policy was a hotly contested issue in the peace process. Sir John had to tread a diplomatic tightrope not to upset the various embedded views and risk terminating progress to the Agreement.
John Niall Henderson Blelloch was born in Edinburgh the son of a colonial administrator in Malaya. He won a scholarship to Fettes and while there was a prominent athlete and scholar and played for the Scottish school boys rugby team. He was to remain close to the school and served as a governor (1992-2002) and president of the Old Fetessian Society.
After national service with the Royal Artillery, Sir John read classics at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.
He went straight into the civil service and joined the War Office in 1954. Within four years he was a principal secretary at the Ministry of Defence and in 1980 was seconded to the Northern Ireland Office to become the senior civil servant in Stormont overseeing such contentious matters as security, policing, criminal justice and prisons.
In 1982 he returned to the Ministry of Defence with the equally demanding job of supervising international security policy. Six years later he returned to the Northern Ireland Office as permanent under-secretary where his balanced advice was to prove instrumental in the slow process towards the Good Friday Agreement.
Sir John, who was awarded the KCB in 1987, was a discreet and dedicated civil servant who had a sharp and agile mind but always remained cheerful, charming and courteous. He was a popular figure with politicians and Whitehall colleagues and seldom got ruffled or irritated. He encouraged new senior appointments to spend some time in their new job under his watchful eye. His successor when he retired in 1990 was Sir John Chilcot.
Apart from serving as a governor at Fettes Sir John was a vice-chairman of the AA and a vice-president of the Cheshire Homes. He married Pamela Blair in 1958 and they retired to Dorset where he pursued his love of golf, playing regularly at Sherbourne GC. She and their son survive him; another son died in 1982 while he was a student at Aberdeen University.