Oliver, John Andrew (1913–2006), public servant and writer, was born 25 October 1913 in east Belfast, the fifth child and eldest of three sons in the family of Robert John Oliver and his wife Martha Elizabeth (née Sherrard). Both parents were from farming backgrounds in north Co. Londonderry; the father had moved to Belfast to work in the linen department of Belfast's biggest shop, Robinson and Cleaver. John attended St Jude's primary school on the Ormeau Road, and then in 1926 won a City of Belfast scholarship to go to Royal Belfast Academical Institution. His time there was very happy, and he maintained a lifelong relationship with the school; for many years he served on the board of governors, of which he was chairman (1970–77). As chairman, and as secretary of the Association of Governing Bodies of Voluntary Grammar Schools, Oliver prepared the grammar schools' furious response to changes to secondary education recommended in the 1977 Cowan report.
Oliver left 'Inst' to read modern languages in the Queen's University of Belfast (QUB); he spent a year studying in Bonn, Germany, with shorter periods in France and Switzerland. He graduated in 1936 and entered the Northern Ireland civil service the following year. Since 1929 the civil service had been recruiting graduates at assistant principal level, with the intention that they would in due course form the top administrative cadre; Oliver was the first recruit who had not come from an English or Scottish university. He joined the Ministry of Labour and was quickly given responsibility for a newly created Council of Social Service. In June 1940, after the outbreak of the second world war, a new Ministry of Public Security was established, and Oliver became private secretary to the minister, John Clarke MacDermott (qv). Officials worked night and day to link police and civil defence and other agencies in efforts to keep the population safe from expected German attack; large-scale evacuation of children and women was planned and air-raid shelters constructed.
In 1944 Oliver moved to a new ministry, Health and Local Government, established to deal with the many aspects of community life affected by the recommendations of the Beveridge report of 1942 (central to the establishment of the welfare state in the United Kingdom). He made a considerable reputation for himself as he helped to set up a very complex public health and national insurance system in the province in time for a nationwide launch on 8 July 1948. Oliver helped to organise, inter alia, sanitary inspection, slum clearance, and provision of better public housing, and somehow found time to research and write up a thesis on the philosophical underpinning of the concept of the welfare state, for which he was awarded a doctorate by QUB. Oliver was selected for a year's secondment to attend the Imperial Defence College, and spent 1955 in London and travelling in Europe and the Middle East, learning about national and international problems. He was promoted several times in the civil service before being made permanent secretary of the Ministry of Development in 1964 with responsibility for administering transport, planning, roads, housing, water, sewerage, local government, and new towns.
In an autobiographical essay, he denied that he had influenced the prominent Scottish architect Sir Robert Matthew who prepared an influential regional plan for Belfast, adopted in 1963, but Oliver's interest in the local environment and knowledge of the region were clearly represented in the implementation of the plan, if not in its conception. He was proud of his work on other high-level planning initiatives on road networks and water supply, and his expertise was recognised when he was made an honorary member of the Royal Town Planning Institute.
Oliver was charged with reforming planning services and local government, just at a time when these aspects of public life were beginning to attract criticism from nationalist politicians and commentators. In 1966 he set up a review of the structures of local government, and with his considerable experience of dealing with all levels of official governance in the province, made a huge contribution to the Macrory report of 1970. It was the major regret of his career that progress on reforming local government was undertaken too late and too slowly to stop the groundswell of complaint becoming open antagonism to the structures of the Stormont administration, as the Troubles began in the late 1960s. However, his initiatives eventually resulted, inter alia, in the creation in 1969 of the Londonderry Development Commission, which took responsibilities away from the seriously compromised and intransigent local council.
He oversaw the establishment of the Housing Executive in 1971 and root-and-branch reforms of other public services, notably planning, but a great deal of his energy went on dealing with the disastrous impact of violence and political turmoil. He was warned that his name was on an IRA death list, and politics affected even the basic structure of the civil service; in 1973 he was made permanent secretary of the Department of Housing, Local Government and Planning, a new department carved out expressly to provide an extra ministry to balance the numbers in the power-sharing executive set up by William Whitelaw (qv). In 1975 Oliver was the longest-serving permanent secretary in Stormont and an obvious choice to become chief adviser to Sir Robert Lowry (qv), the chairman of the Constitutional Convention, which deliberated in vain to try to find some new system of democratic government that would satisfy all demands in Northern Ireland. Oliver's retirement from the civil service in 1976 must have been a welcome escape from the demands of the convention's democratically elected delegates, but he did not really retire. He wrote Ulster today and tomorrow (1978), a useful summary of the constitutional options then in question.
During 1979–80, he spent six months in Rhodesia supervising elections; his contribution to the political changes there was acknowledged in the award of the Rhodesia Medal and the Zimbabwe Independence Medal. He chaired a review of the management of Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital (1981–2), and he and his wife participated fully in community and voluntary work in their adopted home in Cumbria, England. Even in his seventies, after he had resigned from all the committees on which he had been serving, Oliver was still active in a second career as a consultant, researcher, and writer. In 1991 he published Girl, name forgotten, a collection of short stories based on his great interest in his own family history and in local history, and wrote Aspects of Ulster (1994), carefully crafted essays on subjects such as genealogy, the merits of grammar schools, and his lifelong back troubles. He was working on final proofs of a book of travel essays, Come away with me (published 2006), when he died in Yorkshire on 28 May 2006. He was survived by five sons and by his wife, Stella (née Ritson). They had been married since 1943. Oliver requested that his ashes should be returned to lie in the graveyard in Magilligan, Co. Londonderry, with his mother's people.
His memoirs, Working in Stormont, published in 1978 by the Institute of Public Administration in Dublin, was John Oliver's valediction to the service in which he had spent a lifetime. His career in the Northern Irish civil service started at a point when the last remnants of the pre-partition structures were still clearly discernible, and lasted through the years of unchallenged rule by Stormont politicians and up to the experience of direct rule by British ministers and the Northern Ireland Office. His insider's analysis of how all of these changes, as well as the devastation wrought by the Troubles, affected policy and practice in the offices of the public service is of lasting historical value. At the same time, it must be acknowledged that Oliver, though attempting to write objectively, was not in fact an impartial observer. He was central to many of the important developments which shaped life for the population of Northern Ireland, and believed that he and his colleagues and staff had done the best they could, in circumstances acknowledged by all observers to have become tragically difficult. His patriotism and loyalty to the people from whom he derived his own identity paralleled his attachment to the traditions of empire and public service in the British mode. He believed, however, that both his dissenting heritage and his training required that opponents of that tradition and identity should be treated fairly.