Civil servant during Troubles in Northern Ireland

Born: October 24, 1930;

Died: August 1, 2017

SIR John Blelloch, who has died aged 86, was a Scot who played a crucial role in reducing the tensions and the mounting unrest in Northern Ireland in the early 1980s. As Permanent Under-Secretary of State at the Northern Ireland Office from 1988 to 1990 – arguably the most turbulent years of conflict – he played a key role in diffusing the acrimonious relations in the province during the hunger strikes.

Sir John had only just assumed the post when he had to deal with the striking republican prisoners at the Maze prison. They considered themselves prisoners of war and demanded the right to wear their own clothes - although Sir John later recalled that “there had been no question of any dealings on the issue of the right of prisoners to wear their own clothes”.

The negotiations were involved and complex and Sir John proved a cool and determined negotiator displaying an inner strength throughout. Calmly he repeated that there was no question of a negotiated settlement and cogently reminded the prisoners what was available if they came off the protest.

Indeed, the first hunger strike was called off in December 1980 but when Bobby Sands went on hunger strike three months later, Sir John later recalled that this could result in several deaths because of Sands' "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 right 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.

Hewent 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 discrete and dedicated civil servant who had a sharp and agile mind but always remained cheerful, charming and courteous. He was a popular figure with both 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 and played regularly at Sherbourne GC. She and their son survive him; another son died in 1982 while he was a student at Aberdeen University.