Served in 249 Signal Squadron (FARELF) 1967 to 1969
Lt Col Brian Blackwell CBE died 26 January 2018

Brian Blackwell was widely considered to be one of the most promising officers of his generation. To the surprise of many, upon relinquishing command of 11 Signal Regiment in 1979 and seemingly destined for higher rank, he resigned his commission and joined the Northern Ireland Office (NIO). Here, during a twenty year Civil Service career he became fully engaged at the very heart of the NI peace process, his contribution recognised with the award of CBE in 1997.


Brian Allan Blackwell was born, at home, in Coventry on 11 October 1938. He was the first child of John and Annie Blackwell, weighing in at a healthy 10lb. His father was a regular NCO, serving in the Royal Army Service Corps. Following the outbreak of war in 1939, Annie and Brian were evacuated to the Lake District. His father was at Dunkirk and subsequently served extensively in North Africa. It was not until 1945 that the family were reunited, and his sister Barbara was born a year later.
Excelling at school and to the immense pride of his parents, Brian passed his 11+ and gained a place at Bablake School, an Independent Boys' School founded in 1334. It was here that he developed a love of sport, particularly rugby, as well as a strong desire to join the army. On completion of his 'O' levels, he gained a place at Welbeck College, from where he entered Sandhurst in 1957. As a cadet Brian gained recognition as a distinguished athlete and he became a Junior Under Officer. It was at Sandhurst that he met his future wife, Margaret, at a jazz club in Camberley; they were to marry some three years later.


On commissioning in 1958, he spent the next three years at the Royal Military College of Science, Shrivenham, following which his early appointments included a posting to 1 Division Signal Regiment in Verden, where his daughter Nikki was born. Here he quickly gained a reputation as an effective, highly competitive and popular Troop Commander. Returning to Sandhurst in 1965 as a Company Instructor, he again entered fully into competitive life at the Academy, enthusiastically organising rugby tours to BAOR, and at which time younger daughter Jo arrived. After Sandhurst, the Blackwells spent what was by all accounts a happy two years with 249 Signal Squadron in Singapore, before returning to the UK where Staff College beckoned.

  From Camberley, he completed an 18 month Grade 2 staff appointment with the Joint Exercise Planning Staff, HQ BFG.  

Brian's first command tour was to Northern Ireland as OC 233 Signal Squadron in 1972, and events there had a profound affect upon him. The seminal moment was the IRA killing of one of his soldiers in Belfast, which instilled in him a clear determination to play a future role in the NI situation, leading eventually to his remarkable career change some six years later.


From 233 Signal Squadron he joined the staff of MOD (DASD), and then to HQ Training Group, Catterick, as Brigade Major. On promotion in 1977 he assumed command of 11 Signal Regiment. His outstanding leadership skills and larger than life personality soon created a powerful culture of excellence throughout the Regiment which was then operating to capacity, training adult recruits at Catterick and juniors at Ouston. Despite these challenges, having previously embarked upon an Open University degree course he continued his studies, with unwavering commitment. The lengthy journeys between Catterick and Ouston allowed precious study time, but this only marginally reduced the amount of midnight oil still required. He graduated midway through his tour, and on passing the Civil Service exam, he entered the NIO in 1979, in the grade of Principal.

  Sir John Chilcot GCB PC who was Permanent UnderSecretary of State at the NIO between 1990 and 1997 has paid the following tribute to Brian:-

"Brian Blackwell came to the Northern Ireland Office with a great deal to offer. He delivered far more than even we expected. Outstanding was his ability to inject confidence and reassurance in the tightest situations, both at the operational and policy level. His positive effect on others' morale was something I saw from the first, and the whole NI Office was the beneficiary.


A particular quality I appreciated as PUS was his genial and always tactful, though insistent, style of making clear if he thought a potential decision was going in the wrong direction. From routine gatherings, to crisis meetings with the Secretary of State, Brian could always be relied on to speak truth to others however powerful, and to do so in a way that persuaded rather than aroused objection.


It's a rare combination of qualities that brings together outstanding personal, decisive, leadership with unqualified loyalty to the long, hard, collective effort that the Northern Ireland situation required. That combination made Brian's contribution one of especial value. He will be long remembered by the Northern Ireland Office as an invaluable colleague, and a precious friend, in tough circumstances."


Brian retired from the NIO in 2000 but retained close links with the Army and the Civil Service, in various capacities. He was an MOD consultant providing resettlement advice and mentoring for senior officers of all Services, offering in effect a 'cradle to grave service' for many former military colleagues. He was also an external assessor of the NI Electoral Office's Equality Scheme.


No account of Brian's life and character would be complete without reference to his passion for sport. He was an enthusiastic and accomplished sportsman in the traditional sense of the word. On the field he was a fierce competitor and gentleman who excelled at rugby and cricket but he would have a go at anything that involved competition. He was an inspirational leader at the heart of the action. At rugby he captained the Corps team for two years, and played for the army, both in the UK and in Germany. He played his civilian club rugby for Camberley and later became their Vice President. He also represented the army at cricket.


In later life, Brian suffered a long period of ill health and personal tragedy. Indeed as early as 2002, shortly after his retirement from the NIO, Brian's wife Margaret died at the age of 60. He married again, Margaret's second cousin Theresa, a truly loving second marriage that endured as his health deteriorated and he required a full time carer. Sadly in 2014 Theresa died suddenly at home.


Brian's daughters Nikki and Jo remained faithful to his wish that he should stay at home with full time care, and never be readmitted to hospital. Tragically, and devastatingly for Brian, Jo died suddenly in January 2017.


In his final year, Brian's failing health and discomfort did not diminish his commanding presence, his warm engaging spirit, the sharpness both of his intellect and sense of humour, or his enjoyment of a decent glass (or two) of Shiraz. Brian died peacefully at home and is survived by his elder daughter Nikki, and his sister Barbara.