Sir Robert Kidd

Former head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service
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The Independent Online

Robert Kidd was head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service between 1976 and 1979. He was remarkable as an Ulsterman, as an Irishman and as a public servant, and for his personal humanity and goodwill. He had the rare expertise and authority of the top civil servant, but he loathed self-importance and related happily to children. To meet him was to encounter authenticity.



Robert Hill Kidd, civil servant: born Belfast 3 February 1918; Second Secretary, Department of Finance, Northern Ireland 1969-76; Head of Northern Ireland Civil Service 1976-79; CB 1975; KBE 1979; married 1942 Harriet Williamson (three sons, two daughters); died Belfast 28 February 2004.



Robert Kidd was head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service between 1976 and 1979. He was remarkable as an Ulsterman, as an Irishman and as a public servant, and for his personal humanity and goodwill. He had the rare expertise and authority of the top civil servant, but he loathed self-importance and related happily to children. To meet him was to encounter authenticity.

He was one of a dozen assistant principals who were recruited to the NICS after the Second World War and who reached their career peaks just as Northern Ireland was imploding. The crisis became a professional tragedy for them. But at another level they had an opportunity to develop, adapt and create. In the Stormont Department of Finance Bob Kidd had a central part in managing this activity.

The Kidd family had had a wholesale leather business in Belfast. They were Non-Subscribing Presbyterians (comparable to Unitarians), and it may be that Bob Kidd owed much of his temperament to that tradition.

He was educated at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution ("Inst"). It was common then for Ulster Protestants to enter Trinity College Dublin, and Kidd won the first entrance scholarship of his year at Trinity. He studied Classics, winning a first class degree and gold medal, and a university studentship that allowed him to complete a BLitt in 1941. Throughout his life Kidd was the academic as well as the activist. He owed much to Trinity, and it was there that he met Harriet Williamson. They married in 1942 and went on to celebrate happily their diamond wedding.

Between 1941 and 1946 Kidd served in the Army, at first in the ranks, later with a commission in the Royal Ulster Rifles and the Intelligence Corps. He became a major while serving in the South-East Asia Command. When the war ended he could have become a university Classics teacher, but instead joined the Northern Ireland Civil Service, an effective organisation which was recruited on a similar basis to the Home Civil Service, and in 1947 was normally headed by Englishmen, Scotsmen and Trinity graduates.

Stormont's political structure had been created under Lloyd George's pragmatic Irish settlement. Lack of political consensus was built into it, but in the war years there were also great shortages of Exchequer funding. After 1945 the Government accepted that Northern Ireland should have parity of services with Great Britain and that its need to make up leeway should be recognised. For the first 20 years of Kidd's time with the Ministry of Finance these were the accepted principles, and their dynamic effect was increased by the post-war welfare state. There was still scope for debate with Stormont spending departments, and with the Treasury, but it was a period of very rapid improvement in all Northern Ireland public services.

It became a special interest of Kidd to work on the creation of the Ulster Museum, the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum and a purpose-built Public Record Office. His ministry directly financed all three and was responsible for any legislation. During the early Sixties a series of reports were obtained from external experts which justified new NI initiatives to the Treasury. Kidd was personally involved with the Lockwood Committee in 1965, which reported in the wake of Robbins, and led to Northern Ireland's second university's being located at Coleraine rather than Londonderry or Armagh.

However Northern Ireland's basic lack of political consensus remained. Kidd and his contemporaries had thought that tensions were dissolving in the generous world of Sixties collectivism. It did not work out: the location of the second university itself became a community football.

The later part of Bob Kidd's official career was overshadowed by Ulster's "Troubles". In 1969 he became Second Secretary of the Ministry of Finance, and after 1972, when Sir David Holden was committed to the Northern Ireland Office and the new mechanisms of Direct Rule, Kidd became de facto Permanent Secretary. He became head of the NICS in 1976, and from that point, till he retired in 1979, he was immersed in the fallout of high politics. He was knighted in 1979.

It may be that this first retirement was a relief. It was certainly a new start. Sir Robert Kidd became a director of the Allied Irish Bank, and chairman of its NI board. Between 1980 and 1984 he was a pro-chancellor and chairman of council at the New University of Ulster. This was the complex period when its amalgamation with the Ulster Polytechnic and the creation of the University of Ulster was being brought about.

Kidd's bonds with the whole of Ireland also made him a natural Northern Ireland chairman for the peace-building charity Co-Operation North (now Co-operation Ireland). During later years he remained chairman of the Ulster Historical Foundation and a trustee of the Scotch-Irish Trust of Ulster. Such activities illustrate Kidd's gifts and interests more vividly than any account of his official career, but it is typical that his public life and his private character were all of a piece.

Arthur Green

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