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.

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