Lives Remembered

Sir John Blelloch: Key British official during hunger strikes

Sir John Blelloch was a key official in the Northern Ireland Office during the Maze hunger strikes

JOHN Blelloch was a key official at the Northern Ireland Office during one of the defining periods of the Troubles.

As a new deputy secretary, with responsibility for security and prisons, he was dispatched to the Maze in 1980 to deal with a hunger strike involving seven republican inmates over political status.

While the protest ended after 53 days, a second hunger strike the following year would result in 10 deaths.

State papers released in Belfast last year reveal some of Blelloch’s thinking at the time.

In transcripts from an interview with Boston-based academic Prof Pádraig O’Malley in 1986, he said the government had approached both hunger strikes in the same way and rejected suggestions that had prisoners been offered their own clothes in 1980 the protests could have been avoided.

He claimed that the second hunger strike “was more likely to lead to a death or deaths than the first one if only because of (Bobby) Sands’ own apparent determination”.

On the question of whether a deal could have been reached before the death of the fifth hunger striker, Joe McDonnell, Blelloch said the “problem was seeing whether we could find some fresh statement of the government’s position which abided by our principal objectives which we adhered to throughout the hunger strike but nevertheless constituted some kind of opportunity for the prisoners to come off it”.

He added: “As far as I remember the delay on that was actually getting final agreement to the text of what might be said, which was not easy, and in the event McDonnell died before that process could be completed and of course thereafter it collapsed.”

John Blelloch was born in Edinburgh in 1930 and studied at Cambridge before beginning a career in the civil service.

He spent most of his career at the War Office and Ministry of Defence apart from his secondment to Northern Ireland from 1980-82, and a further two years as permanent under secretary from 1988.

A decade later, after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, he wasalso appointed joint chairman of the new Sentence Review Commission along with South African lawyer Brian Currin.

The role saw him oversee the hugely emotive issue of early release of paramilitary prisoners.

Blelloch, who retired to Dorset and was awarded a knighthood, died aged 86 from complications of Alzheimer’s disease on August 1.

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Lives Remembered