Obituary: Peter McLachlan

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THE COLLAPSE of the power-sharing experiment in Northern Ireland during 1974 drove from political life a generation of creative men and women. Peter McLachlan, then a Unionist Assembly member, was one of many survivors of the crash who felt that future "top-down" political initiatives would fail unless trust, confidence, understanding and creative leadership could be constructed at the grass roots of the community.

For almost a quarter of a century he was one of the most energetic and effective leaders among the province's burgeoning voluntary and community organisations, striving continually to inspire and bring together talented individuals from different backgrounds and persuasions to work for peace, reconciliation and social improvement.

In 1980, he became General Secretary to the Belfast Voluntary Welfare Society, an organisation whose title reflected its Edwardian roots as a worthy charitable organisation much in need of overhaul. The renamed Bryson House provided a hub into which McLachlan's network of contacts brought new ideas for evaluation and action, and from which he hectored politicians, civil servants and colleagues to further his pet projects.

He retired as Chief Executive in 1997, though retaining his association, and was looking forward to the freedom to travel and to pursue his more outre ideas free from the responsibilities of managing the House. Tragically, cancer was diagnosed, and complications set in which increasingly restricted his activities.

Peter McLachlan was a son of the manse whose father, the Rev Dr Herbert John McLachlan, ministered for many years at the historic and prestigious First Rosemary Street Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church in Belfast. A patrician with the common touch, Peter combined strong religious convictions - latterly manifested within the Society of Friends - and an earnestness for good works, with a shrewd insight into human foibles, an instinct for gossip and intrigue, and strength to run the gauntlet of tea and buns.

Born in Sheffield, he was educated in Oxford at Magdalen College School and Queen's College, returning to the province in 1959 - where his family had moved when he was a teenager - to become a trainee in the Northern Ireland Civil Service. His premature departure in 1962 to become Administrator to the National Youth Orchestra said much about his interests and personal qualities: his lifelong passion for music-making; a fervent commitment to the education and development of the young; nonconformity towards the constraints of officialdom; and an urge for new challenges. This maverick spirit was reinforced by a sabbatical in 1965-66 as personal assistant to the buccaneer chairman of IPC, Cecil King.

The emerging crisis in Ulster drew him in 1970 to the Northern Ireland desk of the Conservative Party Research Department, where he set out to oil the wheels of an increasingly fractious relationship between the Conservative and Northern Ireland Unionist parties. The value of McLachlan's skills as a communicator and intermediary was recognised by Brian Faulkner, the leader of the Ulster Unionists, who invited him to stand as a power-sharing candidate for South Antrim in the June 1973 Assembly election. Effectively acting as Faulkner's backbench adviser in the ultimately futile attempt to sustain the power-sharing Executive, he secured the confidence of many of the less "green" elements of the SDLP, such as Paddy Devlin, and the more constructive leaders in the loyalist community - relationships which later stood him in good stead.

In 1975, the moribund Assembly was wrapped up, and, after a brief interlude in the engineering industry, McLachlan threw himself into the peace movement launched by Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan in 1976, for which they were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. (Indeed, the right-wing commentator T.E. Utley unkindly referred to McLachlan as "the peace woman".) In 1977 he was appointed to became Projects Manager, and in 1978 Chairman, of the Peace People, but the organisation had become increasingly weakened and discredited by internal personal and political wrangling. In 1980, following Betty Williams, he resigned to organise a succession of peace, reconciliation and conflict-mediation groups, though always regretting the fate of the original project.

His activities had already begun to diversify. His most recent entry in Who's Who lists well over 30 organisations of which he had been variously founder, chairman, vice-chairman, trustee and, just occasionally, an ordinary member of the management committee. Their range was huge: preserving the unique environment of Belfast's hills; organising a successful bid for the licence to Northern Ireland's first incremental local radio station, Belfast Community Radio; promoting community work education; campaigning for the preservation of Belfast's unique Victorian civic architecture; rehabilitating offenders.

He will be remembered especially as a pioneer in the housing association movement - he was the founding chairman of the Northern Ireland Federation of Housing Associations from 1976 to 1978, and of Belfast Improved Houses, where he served as director until 1997 - and also in the victim support movement, both in Northern Ireland and for Victim Support UK. He was a prison visitor, served on the Eastern Health and Social Services Board, and on the Medical Research Council. He was a UK Eisenhower Fellow in 1946.

Northern Ireland's voluntary and community sector, for all its worthiness, is notoriously self-obsessed, quarrelsome, and inevitably buffeted by the wider political conflict. McLachlan was a healer, a conciliator, and an inspiration. But he had his own agenda, an urge always to be one step ahead of the game, a magpie's instinct for appropriating ideas, and, to some colleagues, unhealthy conservative and unionist dispositions. Rarely was he far distant from any storm that was brewing.

Peter McLachlan was a founder member of the hospice movement, and he spent his last few months in a hospice that he had helped to establish, openly confronting his illness (typically, he had earlier written publicly about his testicular cancer in the Belfast Telegraph), and continuing to plot and plan for the future.

Richard Jay

Peter John McLachlan, politician and charity administrator: born Sheffield 21 August 1936; Member (Unionist) for South Antrim, Northern Ireland Assembly 1973-75; Projects Manager, Peace by Peace 1977-80; Secretary, Peace People Charitable Trust 1977-80; General Secretary/Director, Belfast Voluntary Welfare Society (Bryson House from 1986) 1980-95, Chief Executive 1995- 97, Company Secretary 1998-99; OBE 1983; married 1965 Gillian Lowe (two daughters; marriage dissolved 1992); died Belfast 4 August 1999.