Bell, Sir William Ewart (1924–2001), rugby international and civil servant, was born 13 November 1924 in Belfast, son of the Rev. Dr Frederick George Bell, an ordained minister of the presbyterian church, and Margaret Jane Bell (née Ewart), a qualified teacher. He was the eldest of three children: a sister, Margaret, was next and then a brother, Derick. He attended Randalstown public elementary school, Co. Antrim, and boarded (1936–42) at Methodist College, Belfast, where he was a brilliant student, becoming head boy and captain of the 1st XV. He was awarded an exhibition in Senior Certificate and won an open scholarship in mathematics to Wadham College, Oxford. There also he played for the University rugby team, and captained the College 1st XV.
In 1946 he joined the staff at Cheltenham College and taught mathematics for two years, playing rugby for Cheltenham. However, in 1948 there came a decisive change of direction and he was appointed to the Ministry of Health in the Northern Ireland government. In 1952 he was transferred to the Ministry of Commerce and was promoted, first as assistant secretary (1963) and then as secretary (1970). Throughout the 1950s and 1960s he worked in industrial development and promotion, and during this period Northern Ireland was very successful in attracting new investment from the United States and Europe. Companies such as Dupont, Goodyear, Montsanto, ICI, Courtaulds, Hoechst, and many others established plants in Northern Ireland during those years. He deserves substantial credit for these successes as well as encouraging the diversification of the economy away from its dependence on linen, shipbuilding, and agriculture.
His remarkable grasp of figures and his pertinacity in getting to the root of problems were characteristics of his tenure in Commerce, and it was no surprise when he became permanent secretary in the Ministry of Finance in 1976, and then head of the Northern Ireland civil service (1979–84). These were particularly difficult times and included the damaging and divisive hunger strikes, culminating in the deaths of ten of the prisoners. Ewart Bell was faced daily with decisions which literally were matters of life and death for many people. His integrity and his evenhandedness guided various secretaries of state through almost impossible situations, and were inspirational to all who worked with him and for him. He was the first head of service to be appointed as second permanent secretary to the Northern Ireland Office. In this capacity he attended meetings of senior civil servants in Whitehall and advised on all matters connected with the province. His distinguished service was recognised by the award of a CB (1978) and a KCB (1982). These honours were fully earned and well deserved, but he was a modest man and was always diffident about using his knighthood.
Bell's love of rugby football continued on his return to Northern Ireland, and he played (1949–54) for Collegians, including the outstanding Collegian side which won the Ulster Senior Cup and League double in 1950–51. After some excellent performances for Ulster he made his international debut as wing forward against France at Ravenhill in 1953. He went on to play in all four championship matches that year, and also for the Barbarians. His services to Collegians included the offices of captain, president, and Ulster branch representative, and in later years he played a major role in the amalgamation of the Collegians and NIFC clubs to form Belfast Harlequins.
He was an Irish selector for four years from 1966 and chairman of the selectors for a season. Elected president of the Ulster branch in 1974–5, he was a member of Committee (1975–93), president of the IRFU (1986–7), and trustee of the Union. He represented Ireland on the International Board (1987–93), was chairman of the board (1992), and was elected chairman of Rugby World Cup (1993). He presided over the 1995 world cup in South Africa, and one of his finest hours occurred when he conducted the final ceremonials of that contest at the side of President Nelson Mandela. He played his full part on the global stage and his performance was flawless. His services to rugby were recognised when he was inducted into the Rugby Writers of Ireland Guinness Hall of Fame in 1995. Next to rugby in his affections came golf, and he was a long-standing member of Knock.
He was a most influential member of the board of the Methodist College till his responsibilities at Stormont forced him to retire. In 1985 he was appointed to the honorary post of treasurer of QUB, and along with the vice-chancellor and the bursar helped to pilot the university through some very difficult financial waters. Queen's conferred on him an honorary LLD. He also served as a director of the Ulster Bank (1985–95) and believed strongly in promoting good relations between the North and South of Ireland. He was a member of the board of the International Fund for Ireland and a member of the Irish Sailors and Soldiers Land Trust (1985–99).
Church and, above all, family were fundamental in his life. He served as a member of Committee in Belmont presbyterian church for fifty years, and he and his wife were loyal members of the choir for forty years. In appearance he was tall and distinguished, and when he spoke he invariably commanded respect. He died suddenly in Stranraer, Scotland, on 2 January 2001.
He married (1957) Dr Kathleen Ross Boucher, daughter of Frederick Joseph Boucher, company director, and Kathleen Agnes Jeanette Boucher (née Knowles). This was a notably happy alliance and they had two daughters, Hazel (b. 1958) and Dorothy (b. 1965).