The sudden death at 83 of Sir George Quigley is a reminder of the underappreciated value of the really top class civil servant. No faceless bureaucrat during the long years of Direct Rule at the department of finance and elsewhere, he had an equally beneficial afterlife in the public and private sectors, serving among other posts as chairman of the Ulster Bank and Bombardier locally. Personally he was a warm hearted and easy communicator and a liberal minded Presbyterian who had no difficulty thinking outside traditional boxes. Unlike most of his peers, George didn’t hesitate to get involved in the much neglected creative side of small p politics, especially but by no means exclusively on the economy.
In retirement along with Ken Bloomfield, he set a standard for constructive debate and policy making from which politicians fall so far short. The all island dimension held no terrors for him, rather the contrary. He was leading exponent of economic reform and the need to create a new skills base for high value industry. He was the leading campaigner for low corporation tax. He didn’t shrink from making and attracting criticism over the state of politics. His complex recommendations for managing parades were rejected. As chairman of Irish- British Studies who can argue with the verdict he gave less than two years ago on the “unfinished”political prospects?
That word ‘Unfinished’ is crucial. It chimes well with the stark paragraph withwhich Professor Thomas Bartlett concludes his magisterial Ireland, published in2010. Having made the point that ‘Overall, …. Catholics …. generally havevastly improved their position in the Northern Ireland state’, he goes on: ‘Onthe other hand, there remains a very large loyalist underclass, poorlyeducated, mostly unskilled and socially disadvantaged who harbour a belief thattheir position in Northern Ireland had drastically slipped, and that theirculture is no longer valued …. While such a large reservoir of hatred, rancourand resentment remains in Northern Ireland, it is hard to feel optimistic.Equally, because the devolved structures were expressly designed to reflect andperpetuate the sectarianism that was at the heart of the Northern Irelandstate, it is only possible to feel a sort of nervous confidence .
..barring a sharp discontinuity, it seems likely that, for a considerable time to come, across the board, though with notable exceptions, our electoral process will in effect reflect an ethnic carve up, reinforce the phenomenon of identity politics, and play to the zero – sum tune
Right up to the end in his eighties, the shortcomings of the Assembly did not dishearten George Quigley. He was a paradigm of practical idealism and expertise who leaves a yawning gap in the public life of Northern Ireland