Henry George Ferguson
Peter McLachlan (1936 - 1999):
Peter John McLachlan set out to be a civil servant, briefly became a politician, but distinguished himself most through his outstanding work as a leading figure in the fast-expanding network of voluntary and community organisations in Northern Ireland, especially significant in a province with an insecure and fragile political system, ongoing terrorist campaigns and other violence, and the impact these had on society as a whole.
McLachlan was born in Sheffield, son of Rev John McLachlan, sometime Minister of First Rosemary Street Presbyterian Church (Non-Subscribing), Belfast, and educated at Magdalen College School, Oxford, and Queen's College, Oxford, where he read Literae Humaniores (Classics). From 1959-1962 he was an Administrative Trainee for the Ministry of Finance in Northern Ireland. However, a music lover (his favourite recreational activity was playing the piano), he then became Administrator of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain until 1969, though for one year, 1965-1966, he was Personal Assistant to Cecil Harmsworth King, Chairman of the International Publishing Corporation (IPC), then the biggest publishing concern in the world. (King was also the husband of Dame Ruth Railton, the founder of the National Youth Orchestra and also President of the Ulster College of Music, Belfast.) After a spell (until 1972) in the Conservative party's research department, where he looked after northern Ireland affairs at a time of considerable friction between the Conservatives in London and the Ulster Unionists in Belfast (they were formally the same Party), and one year as Executive Director of Watney & Powell, Ltd (political lobbyists), he returned to Northern Ireland, which was in a state of considerable political disruption following the suspension of the Northern Ireland Parliament.
McLachlan was a strong supporter of outgoing Prime Minister Brian Faulkner's attempt to establish a power-sharing executive with the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party. He was elected to the new Northern Ireland Assembly as a member for South Antrim, and became a very active lobbyist (one of his métiers) for Faulkner within and without the Assembly: a senior civil servant of the time described as "indefatigable: an inexhaustible source of questions, motions and legislative amendments", another simply as Faulkner's "main organiser". With such backing, from a man used to Cecil King and Dame Ruth, Faulkner managed just about to come to agreement with his SDLP opponents at Sunningdale in December 1973. At the time this was regarded as an historic breakthrough which nearly never happened, but in a foretaste of what would unfold, McLachlan's reward from more sceptical unionist members of the public was to have his house stoned on the very day, 9 December, the agreement was reached. In the face of widespread political and popular opposition in Northern Ireland in early 1974, the Faulkner Unionists' more real opponents were perhaps on their own side, and the whole power-sharing settlement unravelled. McLachlan later stated that even at the time, he was not surprised.
In 1976 he became involved in a new movement, the Community of the Peace People. This was an organisation founded by two friends, Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams, after an incident in Belfast in which three children (one six weeks old) - nephews and a niece of Mairead Corrigan - were killed when a car ran into them. The car was an IRA getaway vehicle under pursuit by a security forces patrol; its driver had just been fatally shot. The Peace People organised large street demonstrations which sometimes involved over 10,000 participants, and had such an appeal and international profile that Corrigan and Williams were awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace, for 1976. Already in 1977 McLachlan was appointed Projects Manager in 1977, and in 1978 Chairman of the Peace People. The organisation was however not quite at peace with itself, and McLachlan resigned in 1980.
In 1976 he was founding chairman of the Northern Ireland Federation of Housing Associations and in 1980 he became General Secretary to the Belfast Voluntary Welfare Society, which was renamed Bryson House after its headquarters in Belfast (and is today the Bryson Charitable Group). Eventually Chief Executive, he used his network of contacts, his skills as an intermediary and his generally persuasive abilities to work to expand the organisations activities, not least through buttonholing politicians, civil servants - anyone in fact - who could aid his cause. He retired from this position in 1997.
His involvement with voluntary, charitable and other beneficent organisations is easily illustrated by the listing them: they included Belfast Improved Houses Ltd; the Northern Ireland Peace Forum (of which he was Chairman 1980-1982); the Administrative Council of the Royal Jubilee Trusts, the Northern Ireland Projects Trust; the Northern Ireland Federation of Victims' Support Schemes; the Minister's Advisory Committee on Community Work; the Central Personal Social Services Advisory Committee; the Children's Holiday Scheme, Northern Ireland; and Belfast Community Radio. This list is merely representative moreover, he was almost always involved in whatever he did as director, trustee, projects manager or similar - he admitted to being a mere Member of the Corrymeela Community, the organisation dedicated to healing social, political and religious in Northern Ireland and throughout the world.
McLachlan had strong religious convictions, influenced no doubt by his father's non-subscribing Presbyterianism, though in his strong commitment to good works was drawn, in his later years, to the Society of Friends (the Quakers). He was equally at ease in various different social surroundings, and listed as one of his recreations, mediation. Shortly before his death in 1999, this mediating survivor of the failed power-sharing arrangements of a quarter-century before was encouraging the Ulster Unionist Leader, David Trimble (now Lord Trimble and another Nobel Peace Laureate) in his efforts to implement the 1998 Belfast Agreement, described by a leading participant in both sets of negotiations with some wryness as "Sunningdale for Slow Learners", which was at that time no easy project for him.
McLachlan's work and abilities were recognised internationally: he was a Salzburg Global Seminar Alumnus, 1979 (this is an organisation whose purpose is "to challenge present and future leaders to solve issues of global concern") and an Eisenhower Fellow ("for emerging leaders from around the world") in 1986. Domestically, he was awarded the OBE in 1983.
|Born:||21 August 1936|
|Died:||4 August 1999|
Wesley McCann; Rev Dr David Steers
The Guardian obituary,19.8.99; Who’s Who 1991; The Independent obituary 22.9.99; M. Hayes, Minority Verdict; J. Bardon A History of Ulster
© 2023 Ulster History Circle