Peck, Sir John Howard (1913–95), British diplomat, was born in Kuala Lumpur, Malaya (Malaysia), on 16 February 1913, only child of Howard Peck (d. 1940), civil engineer, and Dorothea Peck. The family moved back to England in 1915 and lived in Basingstoke, Hampshire, and in Northamptonshire. From 1922 his father was forced to find work abroad, first in Shanghai and then in Johannesburg. John was educated in Wellington College, where he was head boy, and Corpus Christi, Oxford, where he went on a scholarship. After graduating BA (1935) he entered the civil service and was appointed assistant private secretary to the first lord of the admiralty (1937–9), to the minister for coordination and defence (1939–40), and to the prime minister (1940–46). He was the youngest of four private secretaries to Churchill and the only one to serve him throughout his term as PM. After the war he transferred to the Foreign Office and was head of chancery at the Hague (1947–50); head of the political division of the British Middle East office (1954–6); director general of information services in New York (1956–9); consul general at Strasbourg, and UK permanent representative to the council of Europe (1959–62), when he was a firm supporter of Britain's joining the common market. In 1962 came his first ambassadorial post, to Senegal and Mauritius. From 1966 to 1970 he was assistant under-secretary of state at the Foreign Office and in April 1970 he was appointed ambassador to Ireland.
Peck arrived at a difficult time in Anglo–Irish relations. The Downing St. declaration of 19 August 1969, which sent British troops to Northern Ireland in aid of the civil power, specified that responsibility for affairs in Northern Ireland was entirely a matter of domestic jurisdiction, while the government of Jack Lynch (qv) held that it was also the concern of the Republic. From the first Peck established a strong relationship with Lynch. Ireland was the most interesting posting of his career and he was in his element, firing off letters to London, reading up on Irish history, taking a close personal interest, and developing his own views on Northern Ireland. He visited Lynch frequently but secretly, not using his official car, and told London that these stealth visits were cloak-and-dagger affairs. The taoiseach and ambassador got on well, and Peck repeatedly conveyed Lynch's difficulties to the Foreign Office. In November 1971 he dispatched a long and pessimistic letter, writing that Lynch was frustrated and had little to show for his policy of working with Britain; that the internal situation in the Republic was precarious; and that Britain's law-and-order obsession had to be accompanied by a fresh look at political assumptions. In his memoirs, Peck comes across as entirely sympathetic to Lynch; however, in his private dispatches he was more critical, questioning Lynch's judgement in his choice of ministers and suggesting that ‘honest’ Jack Lynch was more devious than his popular image suggested.
On 31 January 1972 the British embassy in Merrion Square was burned down, in retaliation for the deaths in Derry on Bloody Sunday. The embassy wives and children were evacuated to Britain, but Peck remained in Dublin and was delighted by the prorogation of Stormont two months later. He saw direct rule as breaking the log-jam and felt personally vindicated in the views he had been pushing since taking office when the British green paper of October 1972 acknowledged the ‘Irish dimension’, stating that arrangements for Northern Ireland must take account of the relationship with the Republic of Ireland. Peck retired on 15 February 1973, the day before his sixtieth birthday. Despite rumours to the contrary no special arrangements were made to extend his term, although he indicated his desire to remain longer if possible. His enjoyment in the job, his humour and boyish enthusiasm (as well as a slight tendency to magnify his own importance) are shown in his memoirs when he writes that he travelled so often between Dublin and Belfast that he felt Operation Motorman – the name given to the clearance of the no-go areas in Derry and Belfast – was named for him.
He made many friends in Ireland and had an affinity with the country; on retirement he took the unusual step of settling in Dublin, where he lived the rest of his life. In 1978 he published Dublin from Downing Street, a book of memoirs largely devoted to his Irish term, which included an historical assessment of Anglo–Irish relations from the Norman invasion, and was sympathetic towards Irish nationalism. It reserved special praise for Lynch for preventing the escalation of violence, and blamed the collapse of the 1973 power-sharing executive on the British Labour government's failure to stand up to the Ulster Workers' Council strike. The book was unusually opinionated for a former diplomat; Nicholas Mansergh (qv), reviewing it favourably in the Times Literary Supplement (29 Sept. 1978), referred to its refreshing candour. Peck died in Killiney, Co. Dublin on 13 January 1995.
He married first (1939) the Hungarian-born Mariska Somló (d. 1979). He was survived by his second wife, Catherine (m. 1987), daughter of Edward McLaren, and by two sons from his first marriage.