Pillar of North's public sector and industry
George Quigley: honoured by Queen Elizabeth with a CB in 1982 and knighted by her in 1993
George Quigley: The range of tributes paid to Sir George Quigley, who has died aged 83, bear witness to the long and wide-ranging contribution he made to public life throughout Ireland.
A pillar of the Northern Ireland civil service, industry and a range of public bodies, Sir George’s legacy is truly remarkable. His close associates, like those who worked under him, speak warmly of a thorough professional who brought a rare breadth and depth of experience to the many positions he held with distinction in a career lasting more than 50 years.
That he did so with unfailing courtesy underscores his deserved reputation as one of the great gentlemen in an era when such qualities are increasingly held to have fallen victim to a colder, harder ethic.
Even the most junior of staff members in the many organisations he served recount examples of his decent manner. “He was always very gracious, no matter what your place,” said one former colleague whose name would scarcely be known to Sir George himself. “He was always on a level with everyone.”
After joining the Northern Ireland civil service, Sir George rose in 1974 to the position of permanent secretary of what was then Manpower Services, a position he held until 1976. He worked in a similar capacity across a range of departments – department of commerce from 1976-79, department of finance until 1982 and then at the remodelled department of finance and personnel from 1982-88.
He went into the private sector as deputy chairman of Ulster Bank Ltd for a year until 1989 before taking the chair, which he held until 2001.
At the same time he served as a director of Short Brothers, joining the company in 1989 and becoming chairman in 1999. It is now Bombardier Aerospace and is Northern Ireland’s biggest manufacturer. In addition he was a director of National Westminster Bank, NatWest Trustees (later its chairman between 1997 until 2002) and a director of Independent News and Media (UK) from 2001 until 2010.
He was honoured with a professorial fellowship at Queen’s University, Belfast, from 1988-1992 and later served on the board of the Institute of British-Irish Studies at University College Dublin. Among his many honorary awards are doctorates from Queen’s, from where he graduated and earned his PhD, as well as from the University of Ulster and the Open University. He was elected to the Royal Irish Academy in 2007. Further awards were presented to him from a range of professional bodies in recognition of his managerial record in private industry.
He served on the council of the Northern Ireland division of the Confederation of British Industry between 1990 and 1994 and also devoted his wide expertise to the Northern Ireland Economic Council from 1994 until 1998 and the Northern division of the Institute of Directors for four years until 1994.
Sir George also served on a range of public bodies, many of them charged with some of the most testing and sensitive responsibilities in the politically difficult years before and just after the signing of the Belfast Agreement. His appointments reflected a sense of the esteem in which he was held by government.
He was a member of the Fair Employment Commission for Northern Ireland from 1989-93 as well as the Review of the Parades Commission which rules on contentious marches and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority for two years from 1997.
Having established a reputation for fairness, thoroughness and reliability with various governments, Sir George was also asked to witness loyalist arms decommissioning in 2010. His matter-of-fact description of the event to BBC radio shortly afterwards: “One saw the explosives being detonated, the guns being carved up, the bullets being meticulously counted. The abiding impression that I was left with was that this was a very professional, meticulous process and nobody could be in any doubt that these weapons had been put indubitably beyond use.” It was a comment typical of the man – grammatical and politely calm in spite of the extraordinary circumstances.
His already varied contribution to public life was not limited to Northern Ireland.
He was committed to the Northern Ireland Centre in Europe from 1997-99, to the Institute of International Trade of Ireland for the two years until 2001 and with Co-operation North, the body that promotes the development of business, cultural and social links between the two parts of Ireland. Sir George also was closely involved with the Economic and Social Research Institute Dublin from 1999 until 2002.
Although an Ulsterman and a devout Presbyterian, he was not a man to be hemmed in by others’ limitations, preconceptions or presumptions.
He was radical, believed passionately in cross-Border and cross-community initiatives, convinced of the mutual advantage these offered. His radical bent was a match for the likes of TK Whitaker, but unfortunately he had no Stormont equivalent of Lemass to work with. His pressing for a cut in Northern Ireland’s corporation tax rate to match that of the Republic was but one of the many stands he took.
He often lauded the progress evident at Stormont since Good Friday 1998 and St Andrews 2006 but always urged those elected to Parliament Buildings to view the new institutions as a means to a better future and not merely an end in themselves.
He was honoured by Queen Elizabeth with a CB in 1982 and knighted by her in 1993.
He was devoted to his personal pursuits including reading, gardening, historical research and music, and to his wife and soul mate, Lady Moyra, who succeeds him. He died on Sunday after taking ill at his local church in Helen’s Bay, Co Down.