Obituary: Ralph Erskine, Authority on British Wartime Code Breakers and Northern Ireland Lawmaker
Ralph Erskine, who died at the age of 87, was the first legislative counsel for Northern Ireland and the world’s leading historian on the work of British wartime codebreakers at Bletchley Park.
Rskine’s expertise in Bletchley Park has come to eclipse what has been an extraordinarily successful and demanding legal career devoted to drafting the law of Northern Ireland, from the establishment in 1973 of the Northern Ireland Assembly until ‘in the 1990s.
This included legislation resulting from the Anglo-Irish Agreement, signed in 1985 by the British prhymeinister Margaret Thatcher and then taoiseach Garret FitzGerald, who gave Dublin an advisory role in the internal governance of Northern Ireland.
The agreement established the Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, made up of officials from the United Kingdom and Ireland, giving the Irish government an advisory role on political, security and legal matters, including the administration of the justice. He also worked to improve cross-border cooperation.
But paradoxically, Erskine’s work on a groundbreaking deal that brought North and sCloser to each other, he caught the attention of the Provisional IRA, who chose him as their prime target, and in the late 1980s he and his family were rushed out of at home at night as part of a major RUC operation.
During this time, Erskine forged a reputation as a leading historian of the work done by British code breakers at Bletchley Park during World War II – with historians, documentary makers and writers. ask for their opinion on a subject which, for security reasons, was only belatedly disclosed to the general public.
While the security concerns regarding Bletchley Park were gone, those raised by the threat to Erskine from the IRA complicated matters considerably. His mail was addressed entirely to his Stormont office and his home address was never disclosed, while the few people who trusted his phone number got used to conversations that lasted precisely a minute or less, to prevent the IRA from finding him.
Thomas Ralph Erskine was born in Belfast, where his father Robert was a baker, on October 14, 1933. He contracted tuberculosis as a teenager, which led to 18 months in a special tuberculosis ward, where many patients with whom he befriended are dead; he was unable to run for a bus until his late twenties. He studied law at Queen’s University, Belfast and was called to the Bar of Gray’s Inn in February 1962, although he never practiced, having joined the Home Office in 1955 before joining the Northern Ireland Legislative Drafters’ Office, as it was then. known, two years later.
In 1972 Erskine was appointed first legislative drafter, a title was later changed to first legislative adviser, and from that point on he was responsible for drafting all legislation relating to Northern Ireland for the Northern Ireland and UK office ggovernment until his retirement in 1992.
He had formidable intelligence as a lawyer, but carried his knowledge lightly and was especially kind to junior lawyers in the office, freely sharing his wisdom.
Ralph Erskine and Michael Smith’s book has been hailed by an authority as “absolutely the best book ever written on codebreaking at Bletchley Park”.
His expertise was highly regarded internationally and highly sought after by his counterparts in various Commonwealth countries.
He was equally generous with his advice on the work of British wartime codebreakers, believing that it was better for the information published to be accurate rather than allowing errors to enter the public domain and become accepted wisdom.
He has published over 70 articles in academic journals and chapters in books by other authors, and was co-editor with Michael Smith of the book Action today (now reposted by Biteback as Bletchley Park Code Breakers), which included chapters from a number of top code breakers including Mavis and Keith Batey, Rolf Noskwith, Edward Simpson, Derek Taunt, Jimmy Thirsk, and Shaun Wylie.
The book was described by Whitfield Diffie in the Times Higher Educational Supplement as a “remarkable collection of essays.” Leaves a person in awe of the complexity of Bletchley Park and its impact on both the World War and our post-war world ”.
While Louis Kruh, editor-in-chief of the academic review Cryptology, said it was “absolutely the best book ever written on breaking the code in Bletchley Park”.
Despite his poor health in his youth, Erskine was an expert skier.
Ralph Erskine married, in 1966, Joan Palmer, physiotherapist, with whom he had a son and a daughter; they all survive him.