Development & Alumni Relations Office 

William Stout (born 22February 1907; died 18 March 2005)

The Irish Times

William (Bill) Stout, who has died, aged 98, had a distinguished career in the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) and was the first official in its history to rise through the ranks, from clerk, to become a permanent secretary, the most senior grade.

In his last term at Sullivan Upper School his headmaster had suggested to him that he should be a candidate at the first entrance exam for the new service, so that he could spend a year as a civil servant, to give himself time to decide what he really wanted to do.  He entered the service in 1925 and evidently liked what he saw, as he stayed 47 years.  While working in the civil service, he studied for an external degree in economics (BCom) at Queen’s University and for membership of the Chartered Institute of Secretaries.

A physically imposing, fit man, he played both rugby and cricket for Holywood and played golf at Holywood, Knock and Royal County Down Golf Clubs, at the height of his powers playing to a handicap of three.

He brought the same robust enthusiasm to his work where his keen intelligence and sound judgement marked him out early on as a high flyer.  Although his workload was frequently enormous, he always gave the impression of being relaxed and reflective, and of having plenty of time to talk through problems with his staff.

He was excellent at delegation, setting out goals with clarity and precision; and when it came to reviewing progress, those working for him knew that he could unerringly come up with a key question no one else had thought of.  At which point he would give a broad smile of satisfaction and say: ‘Let’s think about it further’.

He was appointed a principal in the Ministry of Home Affairs in 1943, assistant secretary in 1954, senior assistant secretary in 1959 and permanent secretary in 1961.  In 1964 he moved to be permanent secretary in the Ministry of Health and Local Government and from 1965 to 1971 he held the same post in the Ministry of Development. 

One of the most important aspects of his work at Home Affairs was the close co-operation he built up with the Home Office in London.  He established close ties of friendship with the legendary Sir Charles Cunningham, permanent under secretary at the Home Office, which were to last until the latter’s death a few years ago.  He also had a good relationship with his counterparts in Dublin.

When he was permanent secretary in the Ministry of Development he frequently travelled to Dublin to discuss cross-Border transport with the permanent secretary of the Department of Transport and Power, Thekla Beere.  He was pleased that the press did not learn about these visits as he felt that they would be unable to resist the temptation of using the headline ‘Mr Stout meets Miss Beere’.

His arrival at the top of the Ministry of Home Affairs coincided with the IRA campaign of the late 1950s and early 60s, which meant that he worked closely with the minister, Brian Faulkner and later Bill Craig.  He well understood the complexities of the interface between politics and administration and it is a mark of the respect in which he was held that both these very different politicians were subsequently to insist on his following them into other ministries.

Firstly, Craig took him to be the first permanent secretary of the newly established Ministry of Development, which was to carry forward an ambitious programme of infrastructural development aimed at enhancing Northern Ireland’s attractions as an industrial location.  There was a large programme of work including modernising transport, roads, housing and local government and creating development commissions for Antrim, Craigavon and Derry.

It was a turbulent period, involving, amongst other things, long and difficult negotiations with landowners.  After one such marathon session, a life-long teetotaller, he claimed to have created a world record for the number of orange juices consumed in one night.

In the hectic years of 1968-69, ministers of development came and went: Billy Fitzsimmons, William Long, Ivan Neil and Brian Faulkner.  He was the constant in the situation.  With his colleague, John Oliver, the second permanent secretary, Stout supported Faulkner in the mammoth task of the reshaping of local government and the setting up of the Housing Executive, both tasks being achieved in a little over a year.

When Faulkner became prime minister in 1971, he appointed Bill Stout head of the security unit within the Cabinet Office.  His main task was co-ordinating the activities of the army and the RUC.  As the army was controlled by London, this required considerable skill and diplomacy.

His retirement, on reaching the age of sixty-five, came at the same time as direct rule and many of his friends in the NICS believed at the time that his association with security had robbed him of the recognition he deserved.  He himself never expressed the slightest disappointment.  He had been awarded the CB in 1964.

In retirement he continued his interest in his family, travel and golf, which he continued to play until well into his 90s.  After 65 years of marriage, his wife Muriel, died last year.  He is survived by his son Robert, daughter Margaret, four grandchildren and two great grandchildren.


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