Gorman, (Sir) John Reginald (1923–2014), soldier, policeman, businessman, civil servant and politician, was born on 1 February 1923 at Mullaghmore House, Omagh, Co. Tyrone, the eldest of four children of Major John Kearney (Jack) Gorman (1891–1980), an RUC officer, and his wife Annette Mary Josephine O’Brien (1891–1966). Both sides of the family were catholic and unionist. Annette was the daughter of Kathleen and Patrick O’Brien, a physician from Midleton, Co. Cork; her sister Veronica O’Brien (qv) became a well-known catholic mystic and spiritual adviser to King Baudouin of Belgium. In 1908 Jack Gorman left his family’s large farm at Gurtishall, near Ballyporeen, Co. Tipperary, for Argentina, where he worked for the national railway company, but returned to the United Kingdom on the outbreak of war in 1914. Commissioned in the Royal Horse Artillery, he won the Military Cross (MC) at the battle of Jerusalem in 1917 and was promoted to major. After the war he joined the RIC and commanded its Phoenix Park depot, which he handed over to Michael Collins (qv) in 1922. Soon afterwards, he moved north and joined the RUC, becoming a district inspector and later county inspector.
John Reginald was educated at Rockport School, Holywood, Co. Down, and Loreto Convent Grammar School, Omagh. He was attending the Imperial Service College in Windsor when war broke out in September 1939 and then moved to Portora Royal School, Enniskillen. In December 1942 he was commissioned into the Irish Guards and trained in England in armoured warfare through 1943–4. Arriving in France two weeks after D-Day, he served as a lieutenant with the second battalion of the Irish Guards in Operation Goodwood, the Allied breakout from Normandy. On 18 July 1944 near Cagny his troop of M4 Sherman tanks ran into four German tanks, one of which was a much-feared Tiger II. Knowing his Sherman was outgunned, Gorman ordered his driver to ram the Tiger, which disabled both vehicles. He managed to emerge from the wrecked tank and commandeer a Sherman Firefly, equipped with a powerful seventeen-pounder gun, which he used to destroy the Tiger and drive off the other tanks. He also helped rescue three wounded men from a burning Sherman and carried them to an aid post. For his actions, he was awarded the MC and promoted to captain. (The spot where he rammed the Tiger is now marked by a memorial to the dead of the Guards Division). In September 1944 Gorman took part in the liberation of Brussels and his battalion led the Guards’ advance to relieve British airborne troops at Arnhem; they overcame stiff resistance to reach the bridge at Nijmegen but were unable to break through to Arnhem. Afterwards he saw further combat in Holland and Germany until the German surrender on 5 May 1945. Although a proud Irish Guardsman, he was under no illusions about the savagery of war: his 2002 memoir recalled with horror the loss of comrades – many incinerated in their tanks – and the slaughter of untrained German troops forced at gunpoint to make suicidal attacks.
After leaving the army Gorman joined the RUC in February 1946 as a cadet officer. Fast-tracked for promotion, he became a district inspector in north Co. Antrim after six months. In 1947 his path crossed that of Rev. Ian Paisley (qv), who had organised a protest against a proposed catholic pilgrimage to a holy well at Rasharkin on the Feast of the Assumption (15 August), which Gorman allowed to go ahead and provided with an RUC escort. On 23 October 1948 at St Barnabas Roman Catholic Church, East Molesey, Surrey, Gorman married Heather Caruth (1924–2017) of Ballymena, who had served with the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force during the war. Her family were Church of Ireland, and there was opposition to the marriage from members of both families. In 1955 Gorman became district inspector in Co. Armagh and was active in countering the IRA’s ‘Border Campaign’ of the late 1950s, uncovering an IRA bomb factory hidden in the basement of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Armagh. During this period Gorman travelled throughout the Republic gathering information, usually equipped with a fishing rod or shotgun to make him seem just like any other sporting country gentleman. He regularly liaised with British Military Intelligence and in 1959 was awarded the MBE.
His work with the intelligence services led him to be recommended for the position of head of security with the state-owned British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC; 1960–63). His duties included investigating politically motivated strikes and trying to prevent illegal gold-smuggling by the company’s aircrew. He also supervised security arrangements for a tour in 1961 of Pakistan, Nepal and Iran by Queen Elizabeth II. During the tour he developed a warm personal relationship with the queen who, impressed by his amiable professionalism, appointed him CVO (Commander Victorian Order). In 1964 he was promoted to BOAC personnel director and successfully cut staff costs and introduced productivity agreements. He became the airline’s regional manager in Canada in 1969, based in Montreal. On 5 October 1970 his neighbour James Cross (1921–2021), the senior British trade commissioner in Canada, was kidnapped by Quebecois separatists. On the same day they also kidnapped Pierre Laporte, the Quebec labour minister, and later killed him. Gorman had become friendly with Cross, who was born in Nenagh, Co. Tipperary, and served with the Royal Engineers in north-west Europe in 1944–5. His policing and intelligence experience proved invaluable in the negotiations that led to Cross’s release in December 1970.
BOAC merged into British Airways in 1974 and the following year Gorman was appointed regional manager for India and South Asia. One of his chief tasks was to secure overflight permissions for Concorde but, such was the fear of the aircraft’s ‘sonic boom’, the negotiations proved tortuous and frustrating and eventually had to be abandoned. At the request of Kenneth Bloomfield, permanent secretary of the Northern Ireland Department of the Environment, Gorman successfully applied for the position of chief executive of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive in 1979. The allocation of housing was one of the main grievances of the civil rights movement in the 1960s and Gorman was intent on ensuring that it was fair and transparent. He was largely successful in this, as he was in improving the quality of the Executive’s housing stock and encouraging tenants to buy their own properties; he believed that wider ownership of property would give more people a stake in Northern Ireland and make them less willing to support political extremists. Gorman also showed considerable courage in standing up to the paramilitary protection rackets that had previously plagued the Executive. Inevitably he had his critics, but few doubted his commitment to public service and he received his share of grudging praise, with Peter Robinson of the DUP describing him as ‘the acceptable face of the Housing Executive’ (Gorman, Times, 95).
In 1986 he moved on to become head of the Institute of Directors for Northern Ireland (until 1995). He strongly encouraged cross-border trade and co-operation, regularly working with Cooperation North, the organisation founded by the Co. Clare-born businessman Brendan O’Regan (qv) to promote peace in Ireland through stronger economic, social, cultural and sporting ties between north and south. In 1990 he roused the anger of unionists when he invited Taoiseach Charles Haughey (qv) to address an Institute of Directors meeting in Belfast, in Haughey’s capacity as president of the European Economic Community.
Gorman was though himself a firm unionist and believed that catholic support for the union was significantly understated. He believed that the UUP should do more to win catholic votes, particularly by distancing itself from the Orange Order. At the request of its leader David Trimble, a politician he came to admire greatly, Gorman joined the party in 1996 at the age of seventy-four and was nominated to the Northern Ireland Forum for Political Dialogue, a body set up in parallel with inter-party talks. His efficient and tactful chairing of the Forum (1996–8) secured him a knighthood in 1998. A strong supporter of the 1998 Belfast Agreement, he was elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly for North Down that year, becoming the first catholic to serve as a senior unionist representative since the foundation of the state. While he accepted that the Northern Ireland state needed reform, he believed that some of the recommendations of the Patten report on policing (1999) went too far and suggested a more gradualist approach. He served as deputy speaker of the Assembly from January 2000 to February 2002. His old-fashioned soldierly bearing sometimes amused Assembly colleagues (he was nicknamed ‘Captain Mainwaring’ after the character in the BBC television comedy Dad’s army), but he was nonetheless a popular and respected figure. No other representative could match his wide-ranging experience in so many fields and he stood out in a political environment in which listening to opponents and conceding that their arguments had merit was rare. He admitted to some admiration for the efforts of the Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams to end the IRA campaign and urged him after the Omagh bombing of 15 August 1998 to dispose of the IRA’s stock of explosives in ‘one big bang’ (Ir. Times, 16 Sept. 1998). When Gorman stepped down as deputy speaker for health reasons in 2002, he was praised for his courtesy, impartiality and commitment to reconciliation by members of all parties, with two of the warmest tributes coming from Alex Maskey of Sinn Féin and David Ervine (qv) of the PUP.
As well as the honours already mentioned, he received the CBE (1974), Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur (2005) and Croix de Guerre (2007); he also served as high sheriff of Belfast in 1987–8. In private life his varied interests included gardening, bee-keeping, fishing, skiing, music and theatre; he was an amateur actor of some ability and won several awards for his performances. Assiduous in keeping up his association with the Irish Guards, he rarely missed their reunions and St Patrick’s day celebrations in Belfast, Liverpool and London. He was also a knight of Malta and regularly accompanied and assisted groups of pilgrims to Lourdes.
He died aged ninety-one on 26 May 2014 in Killyleagh, Co. Down. After requiem mass at St Mary’s Star of the Sea church in Killyleagh, he was buried in the local catholic cemetery. He was survived by his wife and three of his children, Angela, Johnny and Rosanagh; his son Justin (1961–2006) predeceased him. While serving with the Irish Guards in Hong Kong, his son Johnny won the George Cross in 1973 for digging out survivors from a collapsed apartment block.