From laying the groundwork for Northern Ireland peace to chairing the Iraq Inquiry: Sir John Chilcot remembered

Sir John Chilcot, who died on 3 October 2021, was a highly regarded public servant whose name will forever be associated the forensic inquiry on the Iraq war which he chaired. His proudest achievement, though, was helping to bring peace in Northern Ireland. Here we share tributes to Sir John, written by people who worked with him during his distinguished career

By Suzannah Brecknell

13 Oct 2021

John Chilcot joined the civil service in 1963, where, according to former cabinet secretary Lord Robin Butler, his talents were soon recognised. “His posting as an assistant private secretary to the home secretary, then Roy Jenkins, in 1966, three years after his joining the civil service, was a standard step for an assistant principal. But the succession of major figures in the civil service and government to whom he was subsequently appointed private secretary is remarkable – Sir William Armstrong, then head of the civil service, between 1971 and 1973, and then successive Labour and Conservative home secretaries , Merlyn Rees and William Whitelaw between 1978 and 1980.”

By this time in his career, Chilcot was seen as a “rising star”, remembers Sir William Fittall, who worked with Sir John in a number of posts.  

“I first met him just before the 1979 election when he interviewed several of us for junior private secretary jobs that were coming up. I found him inscrutable and intimidating – his mind did move extraordinarily quickly – but I must have disguised my thoughts because, soon after the election, I was asked to be the immigration minister’s private secretary. From that vantage point I saw the superbly constructive and creative relationship he had with Willie Whitelaw.”

In the intervals between these private secretary postings, Chilcot held “holding increasingly influential posts in the Home Office and the Cabinet Office,” says Butler.

“His success as head of the police department - as deputy secretary - engaged the trust of the police, which was reflected in his post-retirement appointment as President of the Police Federation. He also gained further experience of civil service management in the Cabinet Office under Sir Robert Armstrong from 1984 to 1986."

Leading the Northern Ireland Office

In 1990 Chilcot was appointed permanent secretary at the Northern Ireland Office. "It was in that post that I worked most closely with him up to our retirements," says Butler. "The message purportedly from Martin McGuinness that “the conflict is over but we need your advice on how to bring it to an end“ led, after many bumps in the road, to the Downing Street declaration and the first IRA ceasefire.

"John Chilcot,  Quentin Thomas and I spent many hours negotiating the final terms of the declaration with our opposite numbers in the Irish government," recalls Butler. "John Chilcot is quoted as saying that 'helping the transition from war to peace was the thing in his career of which he was most proud'.  I share his sentiment.”

Fittall, who would go on to become the general secretary for the Archbishop’s Council and General Synod of the Church of England after retiring from the civil service, also worked with Chilcot at this time. “I had the privilege of working for him in the Northern Ireland Office from 1992 to 1993,” Fittall says. “He had persuaded [Northern Ireland secretary] Peter Brooke that his new private secretary should be someone of seasoned private office experience (I’d already done a second private secretary spell in the mid-80s) given the imminence of a general election. The shadow secretary of state was an Irish nationalist opposed to much of the government’s security policy at a time when the IRA campaign was still extremely active, so we faced the possibility of interesting times. John needn’t have worried. John Major’s surprise win in April 1992 meant that, although Peter Brooke was replaced, it was by the person who had given the PM his first rung on the political ladder, Patrick Mayhew.

“That said, only a fortnight after my arrival in January, we had very nearly lost Peter Brooke as a result of the ‘Clementine’ incident [when at talk-show host persuaded Brooke to sing ‘Oh My Darling Clementine’ on the evening of an IRA bomb]. Shortly before our flight back to London I discovered that Brooke intended to conclude his oral statement by saying that he had offered his resignation to the prime minister.

"I managed to get a necessarily delphic telephone message to John to drop everything and fly back to London with us, which he did. Happily, about an hour after the statement, No 10 announced that the resignation offer had been rejected."

Fittall also recalls the importance Chilcot’s drafting talents as the transition to peace made its slow progress: “In June 1992 John single-handedly prevented political talks with the Northern Ireland parties from collapsing. The issue was whether we had made enough progress in the first strand of talks to move to strand two, at which point the Irish government would join them. Dr Ian Paisley, looking forward to delivering some home truths directly to Irish ministers for the first time, was inclined to agree. But he faced a major split within his party delegation. In a high tension plenary session on a Friday evening we were headed for the rocks until John suddenly produced a form of words which the good doctor accepted. That was John at his finest.

“This was also the period of indirect messages to the IRA trying to persuade them to abandon violence. John was at the strategic heart of this fraught, imperfect and contested business. It is hard to believe that the 1994 ceasefire and subsequent shift by the provisional movement to an exclusively peaceful strategy would have happened without the vision, nerve and leadership epitomised by John.”

Life after the civil service

Chilcot retired from the civil service in 1997, a few months before the Good Friday Agreement brought peace to Northern Ireland.  For five years - 1999 to 2004 - he acted as staff counsellor to MI5 and MI6,  handling complaints from members of the intelligence services about their work and conditions.

He was was knighted in 1994 and appointed GCB in 1998. He led and served on several reviews including one into the use of intercept evidence in courts, and the 2004 Butler Review looking at evidence around weapons of mass destruction.

 In 2009 he was asked to chair a much wider inquiry looking at the decision to go to war in Iraq, and the UK’s role in the country after the war. The secretary to this inquiry was Margaret Aldred,  then a senior civil servant at Cabinet Office.

“I first spoke to Sir John in June 2009 when I was asked to become the secretary to the Iraq Inquiry which was about to be announced by the then prime minister, Gordon Brown,” recalls Aldred, who had also held several senior roles at the Ministry of Defence,“John had asked for someone with knowledge and understanding of the issues to be examined in the inquiry."

Chairing the Iraq Inquiry

“From the outset, John felt the obligations placed on the inquiry very deeply," Aldred says. "He was only too aware of the failure of previous inquiries to satisfy widespread concerns about the issues surrounding the decision to take military action in 2003 and the subsequent actions of the UK in Iraq. While he was always clear that the role of the inquiry was to examine the government’s actions, he also saw the need to reach out and listen to those who had been most directly affected by the deployment of British personnel, service and civilian, in Iraq. For that reason, before the inquiry began taking oral evidence, we arranged a series of meetings with bereaved families around the UK, as well as meetings with veterans and serving personnel.

“In those meetings, John’s compassion for the individuals he met was clear. Although the inquiry mainly heard formal evidence only from ministers and the more senior individuals involved in decisions, John also wanted to hear the views and concerns of more junior officials. During the meetings, some of those who attended commented that it was the first time they had been asked for their views."

The committee agreed the inquiry’s key task was to "establish what had actually happened, to provide a firm foundation for their conclusions; and then to produce a report which would be lucid and comprehensible to an ordinary person despite the complexities of the issues," Aldred continues.

" The aim was to publish a “reliable account” which would be widely accepted. That was coupled with a determination to go wherever the evidence led on the issues within the inquiry’s wide terms of reference, and to publish as much as possible to give all those who wanted the information to reach their own views on the committee’s conclusions. The negotiations with the government on disclosure were protracted and required all John’s skills and patience. What was crucial to the inquiry’s success in arguing that information which would not normally be released should be published was the protocol, agreed with the government at the very start of the inquiry, that the test for the disclosure of official information should be the public interest.

"The inquiry’s task proved to be very considerable and there was much comment and criticism of the time the inquiry was taking to complete its task. But John was always clear that the inquiry would take the time needed to its job fairly and properly, no more and no less."

Among John’s colleagues on the Inquiry was Lawrence Freedman, emeritus professor of War Studies at Kings College London.

“Over the seven years of the inquiry’s work we spent a lot of time together and I came to enjoy John’s company and respect his judgement,” says Freedman. “This was just as well, for without such an assured and collegial chair, the pressure of those years, as our small team laboured to make sense of years of policymaking against a background of complaints about our indolence and whitewashing, might have become unbearable.   

"Our first challenge came as the panel was formed. Prime minister Gordon Brown had told parliament that the inquiry would conduct its business in secret until it reported. This position was untenable. Attitudes had changed since the Franks Report into the origins of the Falkland War. Before we had even met as a group John had spoken to us all. He handled the matter, as he would often do so later when there were disputes with the government, firmly but without confrontation. He simply described to the PM how the panel would go about its work, which would include public hearings.

"The hearings introduced John to the viewing public. He came over as polite and affable, choosing words with care, inviting witnesses to be forthcoming rather than pressing them in cross-examination. In all this he seemed an archetypical civil servant. There were frequent comparisons with Sir Humphrey Appleby from ‘Yes Minister’. John certainly knew his way around Whitehall and had an unnerving habit of lapsing into Latin or even Mediaeval French if the mood took him during our internal deliberations.  

"More serious were the regular suggestions that his role as member of the establishment was to protect those responsible for the Iraq war. To ensure that there could be no claims of a cover-up we agreed as a panel early on that it would be vital to include in our final report all the evidence upon which we based our conclusions. We underestimated how long this would take. The demands of declassification, especially when we asked for cabinet minutes, intelligence assessments and Tony Blair’s communications with George Bush, all took time. So did the compilation of what turned out to be a 12-volume report."

Publishing - and learning from -  the Iraq Inquiry report

As the months passed, demands from the media and the government for us to get a move on intensified, Freedman says. "John refused to be panicked or rushed. Despite the pressure, which led to him being doorstepped and followed down streets by journalists, he avoided getting dragged into public arguments and kept the inquiry on track. He never grumbled about the pressure or lost his good humour. He was confident that our ‘reliable account’ would do its job and was determined that it would show that our criticisms were not only well founded but had been reached fairly.  

"All John’s qualities came together the day the report was released on 6 July 2016. As John’s statement was going to be all that most people knew of our conclusions it was drafted with immense care. But what made the difference was John’s delivery. The care with which he had conducted himself throughout the inquiry, his evident integrity and seriousness of purpose, the lack of polemics and grandstanding, and, yes, the establishment credentials, added to the drama of the occasion. The public got the report that they had been waiting for and, in its length, coverage, and detail, some explanation of why it had been necessary to wait."

The report totalled some 2.6m words, and in the Ministry of Defence a team of 20 officials began work to read all 12 volumes – they allowed themselves 10 days to do this – and distill the key lessons for government. Though his role has chair had ended, Chilcot remained committed to helping these officials – led by Roger Hutton, then the MoD’s director Chilcot.

Writing in a tribute published shortly after Chilcot's death, Hutton describes getting to know Sir John in 2016 as a great privilege. “He was selfless in his support of our work, giving of his time freely and always ready with a word of encouragement. He leaves a profound legacy which continues to imprint itself on the minds of many of today’s policy-makers,” Hutton says.

“I recall in particular the help Sir John offered to two conferences the MoD Chilcot Team arranged to promote the learning from the report. He made a keynote address on each occasion, and his star quality brought in a larger and more senior crowd than might otherwise have been the case. His accounts of his own career, and of the good and less good in public policy that he had encountered, were spellbinding, memorable and often wryly funny. 

“We developed a number of interventions based on the learning from the Iraq Inquiry report, largely in training and development, but also in the form of the short publication, The Good Operation (TGO, which Sir John warmly welcomed). 

"I’m reasonably confident that the lessons that so often bore Sir John’s name have become pretty well-established across the national security community, and to a certain extent beyond. And though I’m no longer an integral part of that world, I’m also confident there’s a lasting Chilcot legacy, particularly with regard to groupthink and reasonable challenge. Good decision-making is often about doing things differently than might otherwise have been the case, or even not at all, and judging success against those criteria is difficult. But suffice to say that the ‘Chilcot Checklist’, which can also be found in TGO, is an essential post-Iraq Inquiry methodology for dividing good policy-making wheat from bad policy-making chaff.”

John Chilcot died on 3 October 2021. “Sir John devoted his life and talents to public service not only during his time in the civil service but in the many other posts which he held following his retirement,” Lord Butler says. “The list of those posts demonstrates the extent of his reputation for judgement, integrity and discretion.  His career provides an example of which our profession can be proud.”

Roger Hutton's tribute  - A Man of Great Substance - can be read in full here
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