Obituary: Sir Ian Sinclair, KCMG, QC, senior government legal adviser

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Born: 14 January, 1926, in Glasgow. Died: 8 July, 2013, in Hampshire, aged 87

SIR Ian Sinclair was a clear-headed and pragmatic lawyer with a precise and agile mind. He could marshal an argument to substantiate a policy that had emanated from Downing Street with consummate dedication. Sinclair was articulate and knew exactly the right word to use in a given – and often contentious – situation. His clarity of mind and command of the most intricate detail during the European Economic Community negotiations in the early Seventies was heroic.

When Sinclair was legal adviser at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) he also became embroiled in the early complexities of the Falklands crisis. Sinclair firmly advised Margaret Thatcher after the Argentine invasion to hold her hand and not immediately declare war. That allowed time for negotiations to continue and the Task Force to prepare. Sinclair carefully persuaded the prime minister that it would be diplomatically unwise to declare war on Argentina. His wise counsel prevailed.

Ian Mactaggart Sinclair was the son of a Glasgow businessman who attended Glasgow Academy before going to Merchiston Castle School in Edinburgh where he won the Scott Essay prize. At the age of 16, he went up to King’s College, Cambridge, to read law. But in 1944 he volunteered for the Intelligence Corps, seeing service in Burma. In 1946, Sinclair returned to Cambridge, where he graduated with a double first. He then took the Bar finals and joined the FCO. His first major challenge was the UK’s ill-advised invasion of Egypt during the Suez crisis. Sinclair spent three years in the embassy in Bonn, which made him a committed European all his life.

It was, therefore, a prudent move to recall Sinclair to London to take part in the first attempt to negotiate Britain’s entry into the EEC. When that failed, he was posted in 1964 to New York, where he joined the UK mission to the United Nations and to the British Embassy in Washington. In 1974, Sinclair returned to London to join Edward Heath’s negotiating team for entry into the EEC. It was a tortuous process to reach an agreement for the Treaty of Accession – the smallest detail had to be ironed out and Sinclair had to write papers to satisfy sceptics in Europe that the UK’s entry would not provide a backdoor entry for the United States. Then he had to placate French farmers on the common agricultural policy. By his industry and grasp of the minutiae of every clause – it is said that Sinclair got four hours sleep a night for two years – the UK joined the EEC in 1973.

Sinclair’s next major challenge at the FCO came in 1982, when Argentina invaded the Falklands. From the outset, he persuaded Mrs Thatcher to confine her initial actions to working within the UN charter and to limit armed hostilities to the Falklands region. American policy was to dispatch General Haig on a hectic shuttle diplomacy mission. The UN was deeply divided and a more bellicose attitude by the UK could alienate the UK immediately. Sinclair’s calm diplomacy did much to ensure more prudent action.

By the time the Task Force set sail, it was excellently prepared and the UK had the backing of the UN Security Council (which Sinclair had helped to draft) that demanded Argentina withdraw immediately.

Sinclair also evolved the plan for a military exclusion zone around the islands, which would make any Argentine ships vulnerable to attack. The British government made it clear that the measure was “without prejudice to the right of the United Kingdom to take whatever additional measures may be needed in the exercise of its right of self-defence”. The controversial sinking of the Argentine cruiser the General Belgrano outside the exclusion zone caused Sinclair much anguish. Significantly, his opinion was not sought as he was flying south to the Falklands at the time.

Sinclair had given invaluable advice throughout his career at the FCO. After the Falklands conflict, he felt Mrs Thatcher’s more questioning approach to European affairs was at odds with his own beliefs and he took early retirement 1984. Sinclair returned to the Bar, specialising in public, international law and sovereignty disputes. He served on the UN international law commission for five years and was a visiting Professor of International Law at King’s College, London.

Sinclair was a member of many senior legal arbitration committees and published several international law books. He remained a keen angler and golfer all his life and was an ornithologist of much repute, having made a particular study of sea birds. He was made a KCMG in 1977.

Sinclair married Barbara Lenton in 1954: she died six weeks before him and he is survived their daughter and two sons.