Business leader and public servant for more than 50 years
Liam St John Devlin – Born; January 31st, 1924. Died; October 22nd, 2017
Liam St John Devlin became deputy chairman of Allied Irish Banks in 1974 and remained in that role until his retirement from the position in 1992
Liam St John Devlin, who has died at his home in Baltimore, Co Cork, aged 93, was a well-known – although notably modest – member of a significant generation of 20th-century business leaders, and was closely associated with Irish commercial life and with public service in his native county and country for over half a century.
Born in Cork, he was the eldest of 10 children of George Devlin and Mary Atkins. After attending Christian Brothers College, he went to University College Cork at the age of 16 on a scholarship, and took his MSc in chemistry there at the age of 20. Thereafter, he did a H.Dip.Ed. and taught in a vocational school for a year. He then became managing director of Melina, the family cosmetic business which had been founded by his mother, and which continued in existence until his father’s death in 1970.
He was for many years a member of the Cork Harbour Commissioners, where his scientific background ensured that he was given responsibility for ensuring that that the most up-to-date safety provisions were attached to the proposal to build an oil refinery in that harbour. After the government took over the British and Irish Steam Packet Company in 1965, and renamed it B&I, he was appointed its chairman, and he remained in that position until 1974, when he was appointed executive chairman of CIE, a position he held for the following decade. His other directorships at various times included those with Irish Shipping, the Jones Group (which was floated on the Stock Exchange in 1970), and the Rohan group, to which he was appointed by AIB when that company also secured a stock exchange listing.
A particularly significant appointment was to the board of the Munster and Leinster Bank and, following its merger with two other banks, he became deputy chairman of the new entity, Allied Irish Banks, in 1974. He remained in this role until his retirement from that position in 1992.
That responsibility coincided with the period when the strained relationship between former taoiseach Charles J Haughey and AIB came under scrutiny at the Moriarty Tribunal. Mr Devlin gave evidence to the Tribunal that it was the senior management of the company – rather than the board – which dealt with Mr Haughey’s banking issues at the time. While this policy risked being misunderstood, Mr Haughey’s subsequent migration to another bank proved it to have been probably the most effective option for AIB at that juncture.
His public service contributions over the years were notable, not least his chairmanship of the Public Service Organisation Review Group set up in 1966 by his fellow Corkman, Jack Lynch. That report became known as “Green Devlin”, to distinguish it from his later review of pay scales in the civil and public service, known as “Red Devlin”.
As the historian Joe Lee has pointed out, “Green” Devlin’s insistence that promotions in the public service should be based on merit rather than merely on seniority, while not perhaps as practicable as Devlin had hoped it would be, was revolutionary. No doubt for this reason it evoked considerable foot-dragging among senior civil servants, who feared that they would lose out if the old seniority system was abandoned, and who argued for a considerable time thereafter, with all the power of inertia at their command, that they were too busy to implement it.
There was a singular irony in the fact that that the initial role of the Department of the Public Service (whose creation Devlin had suggested) had little to do with the promotion of dynamic organisational functions, as he had recommended, and everything to do with controlling public service staff numbers and incomes. Indeed, as Lee noted, instead of tackling the fragmentation identified by Devlin, the civil service continued thereafter to grow in size and incoherence, and his recommendations for reform of the systems of promotion that reflected ability rather than seniority considerably longer to implement.
He retained close ties with his native city, and helped Bishop Lucey of Cork in the establishment of a mission in Peru, for which he was awarded a Papal knighthood. He was also later awarded an honorary doctorate from UCC.
He had developed an interest in sailing in the 1950s, and the boats he owned included a Rankin dinghy (built in Cobh), an Enterprise, and a Folkboat. After 1982 he moved to Dublin, and then, following his retirement, moved to Reengaroga, near Baltimore, to a house which he and his wife Una had built in 1973. At the age of 70, in a retirement which never lacked for activity, he completed a computer course in University College, Cork, and thereafter gave computer lessons for a number of years both to children and to adults in West Cork.
He is survived by his wife Una (née Gallagher), his children Maeve, Hilary, Niall and Anna, his sister Raphael (Darer) and his brother Dan Devlin.