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Top civil servant held key role during hunger strikes

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Dedicated: Sir John Blelloch

Dedicated: Sir John Blelloch

Dedicated: Sir John Blelloch

Sir John Blelloch, who has died, was a senior civil servant who played a key role in dealing with the hunger strikes and other issues in Northern Ireland during some of the worst years of the Troubles.

He passed away on August 1, aged 86, from complications arising from Alzheimer's disease.

John Blelloch was born in Edinburgh in 1930 and educated at Fettes College. After National Service he read classics at Gonville and Caius College Cambridge.

He then spent 25 years with the MoD and the War Office before becoming deputy secretary at the NIO in 1980.

He was in post for only a few weeks when he had to deal with republican prisoners on hunger strike at the Maze. They viewed themselves as "prisoners of war" and demanded the right to wear their own clothes.

Blelloch found the hunger strikes a considerable personal strain, but he showed inner steel in squaring up to the challenges.

Sir John later recalled that there was no question of a negotiated settlement but suggested, in typical Civil Service language, that the prisoners were reminded what was available if they came off the protest.

The first hunger strike was called off on December 18, 1980, but when Bobby Sands went on hunger strike three months later Sir John recalled that this was more likely to result in a death or deaths because of Sands' "apparent determination".

Even after four hunger strikers died by June 1981, there was little progress towards a solution. Blelloch told the Boston academic Padraig O'Malley for his book Biting At The Grave that the big problem was for the Government, while adhering to its principles, was to find a fresh statement that would give the prisoners a chance to end their protests.

When the hunger strike ceased on October 3, 1981, partly due to pressure from the families and clergy, 10 prisoners had died. Only three days later Secretary of State James Prior announced concessions, including the right to wear civilian clothes.

There was personal tragedy too for John Blelloch when his son Niall died at Aberdeen University in 1982 after a student prank went wrong.

In the same year he returned to the MoD in London as deputy secretary, and later became second permanent secretary.

In 1988 he was posted again to the NIO as permanent undersecretary when it looked like a political solution to the Troubles might emerge.

After the Good Friday Agreement he was appointed joint chairman of the new Northern Ireland Sentence Review Committee with Brian Currin, a South African lawyer who had helped to set up that country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Sir John rarely talked about the hunger strikes but when he did, he found that most people could name Bobby Sands but few remembered that a total of 10 men had lost their lives.

Sir John is survived by his wife Pamela and their remaining son Ian.

Belfast Telegraph