Ben Lowry: Hastings and Hayes helped keep NI functioning during Troubles

Sir William Hastings, who died this month aged 89
Sir William Hastings, who died this month aged 89

Two men who both played a key role keeping Northern Ireland functioning during the Troubles have died in recent weeks.

Billy Hastings, the tourism pioneer, was 89 when his life came to an end in mid December, and Maurice Hayes, the leading public servant, was 90 when he died just before Christmas.

The late Maurice Hayes, who died this month aged 90, seen in 2008

The late Maurice Hayes, who died this month aged 90, seen in 2008

I briefly spoke with both of them on a number of occasions. I also have a clear recollection of the last times that I saw them, because in both cases they were in their late 80s yet were alert and energetic.

Sir William Hastings was beaming and chatting and standing upright with a drink at a reception near Bangor last summer.

Dr Hayes was a similar age yet did not seem frail when he gave an interesting lecture at Queen’s University on health policy five years ago.

Twice over recent years I spoke to Dr Hayes about his report on the future of health provision in Northern Ireland.

It was released almost 20 years ago, and issued what then seemed the radical finding that the Province needed to cut its number of hospitals.

This is now a standard view, that has been reiterated by multiple subsequent expert reports: yet local politicians have still not implemented its findings, because they have helped fuel the public perception that it is an act of Dickensian wickedness to close a hospital (never telling people that the said hospital might have bad health outcomes).

Dr Hayes seemed wearily unsurprised at the political failure to do what needs to be done. But he was a diplomat and, it seemed, an optimist, who rather than wallowing in problems and failure seemed to want to help push along constructive things insofar as he could.

Sir William Hastings showed his far sighted nature a decade ago, when I interviewed him for this newspaper about the tourist potential for Northern Ireland of the then negligible Chinese visitor market.

He said NI had failed to tap the Japanese market.“From time to time I see Japanese golfing parties here, but they seem to go to Scotland more.”

We needed to avoid that mistake with the Chinese market, he said.

“Even though only a small percentage of the Chinese can travel overseas, that represents huge numbers that could one day be as important as the Americans,” he said.

I remember during my childhood that hotels such as the Culloden had a security hut at the entrance. Many hotels were attacked by bombers intent on destroying the economy.

It is a tribute to Sir Billy that he kept hotels open through that time.

And it is a tribute to Dr Hayes that he was one of the key people who helped keep government going in those dark days.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

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