Born: April 22nd, 1939
Died: October 3rd, 2021
Civil servants don't spring instantly to mind when we think of peacemaking but Sir John Chilcot's role in the Northern Ireland peace process demonstrates the vital importance of public officials who are prepared to advocate bold moves. Since his death from kidney disease earlier this month aged 82 he has been remembered above all for his 2016 report on the Iraq War. But his proudest achievement was his contribution to the Northern Ireland peace process. As permanent undersecretary in the Northern Ireland Office from 1990 to 1997 he oversaw back-channel contact with Sinn Féin when it was a high-risk endeavour. When that channel was exposed in November 1993 it looked as though it might topple the British government.
Chilcot was in the official box in the House of Commons when then secretary of state for Northern Ireland Sir Patrick Mayhew stood up to explain what had been going on. "My heart was in my mouth," he recalled in an interview last year. "It wasn't known whether the House of Commons would call for . . . [Mayhew's] head on a platter and possibly John Major's as well." Instead, as Chilcot recalled, MPs rose up to say, "Thank God. This is the right thing to be doing." Chilcot felt a sense "of immense relief and . . . elation really, that it really looked as though the thing was going to take wing and, who knows, succeed."
Working closely with secretaries of state Peter Brooke and Mayhew, Chilcot played a decisive part in initiating and sustaining the peace process. Two key moments illustrate his approach.
After retired MI6 officer Michael Oatley met secretly and on his own initiative with Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness in late 1990 or early 1991, he reported the meeting to Chilcot and told him republicans were open to peace. A different permanent undersecretary might have been dismissive. Instead Chilcot built on Oatley's meeting by advocating a bold and risky initiative: the appointment of a British intelligence officer to open a secret back-channel to Sinn Féin. In doing so he worked closely with MI5 officer John Deverell, the director and co-ordinator of Intelligence Northern Ireland.
A second key moment arrived in late February 1993 when Deverell brought Chilcot a message. Purportedly from the republican leadership, it said: "The conflict is over but we need your . . . advice on how to bring it to a close." Chilcot and Deverell had to decide how to present the message to their colleagues: ". . . the first thing of course was to make sure that the secretary of state was made aware of it, but [we had to consider] how to handle it on a wider Whitehall basis and how much credence to put on it."
There was much debate as to whether the message was genuine (it wasn’t) but Chilcot did not rest great weight on this: “It didn’t matter so much whether it was a true bill as coming straight from the IRA as that it opened the door a little bit to constructive dialogue and to response. So we in effect decided to take it as if it was valid.” By taking this approach Chilcot and Deverell opened the way to rapid progress and ultimately to an IRA ceasefire.
Born in Surrey in 1939, Chilcot was the son of Catherine and Henry Chilcot, the latter an artist. He won a scholarship to Brighton College in 1952 and in 1957 won an open scholarship to Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he studied modern and medieval languages. After graduating in 1960 he began work on a PhD, but didn't complete it. Instead, in 1963, he joined the UK civil service, beginning his career at the home office. He married Rosalind Forster, an artist, the following year.
His professional involvement with Northern Ireland began at an early stage. As the civil rights campaign got under way in the 1960s, Chilcot was in charge of the Northern Ireland desk in the home office, overseeing relations with the unionist government in Stormont. He felt that the home office did not give the civil rights campaigners the hearing they deserved. He had moved on from the Northern Ireland desk by the time troops were deployed in August 1969, but was called back in to draw up contingency plans for direct rule from London.
In the 1980s he dealt again with Northern Irish affairs as head of the home office police department, which included counterterrorism. He retained a strong interest in Northern Ireland and when the position of permanent undersecretary became vacant in 1990 he jumped at it.
Chilcot retired from the Northern Ireland Office in December 1997 but never stopped working. Successive governments called on him to take up a series of public roles, including a five-year term (1999 to 2004) as staff counsellor to MI5 and MI6, handling complaints from members of the intelligence services about their work and conditions.
In 2009 he was appointed by then British prime minister Gordon Brown to chair an inquiry into the Iraq War. From the outset Chilcot asserted the independence of the inquiry. Brown had said the inquiry would conduct its business in secret until it reported, but Chilcot ensured that its work would be as public and transparent as possible, including the holding of public hearings to which Tony Blair was called to testify. Chilcot pushed hard for the release of all the evidence the inquiry needed, including the release of 30 notes between Blair and US president George W Bush. He faced strong resistance but eventually succeeded. The documents included a damning letter from Blair to Bush, in July 2002, in which Blair stated: "I will be with you, whatever", suggesting he would back a US decision to invade Iraq under any circumstances, thus undermining his own public statements on the need for UN backing for a war.
Confounding the expectations of some that he would be a "safe pair of hands" and would produce a whitewash, Chilcot's report presented a penetrating analysis of what went wrong. It confirmed that the UK had not exhausted the possibilities for a peaceful resolution when they went to war, that the legal basis for war was far from satisfactory and that the UK's actions undermined the authority of the UN Security Council. Unusually for a public inquiry, it located much of the responsibility at the top. It went some considerable way to satisfying public and political demands for a clear apportioning of responsibility.
The report stimulated British policymakers to address weaknesses such as groupthink and prompted the development of guidelines for encouraging “reasonable challenges” to established ways of thinking.
In working towards an inclusive peace settlement aimed at bringing an end to large-scale violence in Northern Ireland, Chilcot successfully presented a “reasonable challenge” to some long-established ideas about Northern Ireland among British policymakers. As permanent undersecretary in the Northern Ireland Office he played a central role in stimulating innovative thinking and bold action.
That the permanent undersecretary in those difficult early years of the peace process was an imaginative public servant with vision and nerve who was personally committed to the search for peace was vital. In his own understated way he was probably the single most important driver of the peace process on the British side.
His interests included medieval troubadour music, opera, walking, reading and travel. His home was in the wilds of Dartmoor, where he lived with Rosalind, who survives him.