Obituary: Professor Dermot O’Reilly, co-Director of ADR NI
This obituary for Professor Dermot O’Reilly, co-Director of ADR NI has been written by Dr Emma Gordon, Director of ADR UK to commemorate Dermot’s enduring contributions to administrative data research.
As many of you will have heard, our wonderful colleague Professor Dermot O’Reilly, died suddenly after a very short illness on Monday 30 October 2023.
The very first time I met Dermot was at the first ADR UK Leadership Committee meeting in late 2018. Many members of this group had been involved in previous attempts to open up access to government administrative data for research. They had every right to feel sceptical that this time it was going to be any different. But I very quickly sensed Dermot was happy to give me and other Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) colleagues the benefit of the doubt because he was fundamentally a very supportive and optimistic person. Underlying this, Dermot also had a very clear sense of how big the prize was for the research community if we were able to progress our ambitions.
What I didn’t know at that time was how long Dermot had been working with others in Northern Ireland to bring about transformational change in how government data can be used for research. It was back in the early 2000s that he began talks with relevant health bodies and the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) to set up Northern Ireland’s first longitudinal study. In 2003, he was involved in securing funding to set up and maintain the Northern Ireland Longitudinal Study (NILS) and the Northern Ireland Mortality Study (NIMS). These launched in 2006, with Dermot as the first Director of the Northern Ireland Longitudinal Study Research Support Unit. Both NILS and NIMS are still running to this day, forming the core (and continually expanding) offer to accredited researchers. Dermot was also Director of the Administrative Data Research Centre Northern Ireland (ADRC NI; a core partner in ADR NI) from 2014 until he died.
Dermot’s background is principally as a health researcher. He has a very long and distinguished publication record, and he received several grant awards from the Medical Research Council over the years to support this research. Dermot was also the first researcher to have a project (reference number 001) in Northern Ireland’s Honest Broker Service, which provides secure access to de-identified health data for the population of Northern Ireland. Working with HDR UK, he was also instrumental in setting up Northern Ireland’s first Secure e-Research Platform.
As a health researcher, there is no particular reason why Dermot would commit so much of his professional career to working with the ESRC to open up access to administrative data. Along with his optimism that he could help bring about constructive change in this area, I think it was also because of his fundamental belief that data needs to be available to facilitate research on the wider determinants of health. He also believed in evidence-informed policy and practice. This is why he built connections with data owners across Northern Ireland that went far beyond health and census data, for example, with the Departments for Education, Communities, Justice and Finance.
Dermot’s experience as a health researcher also benefitted ADR UK. He really understood the value of working with experts by experience to co-produce research, ensuring that the people behind the numbers – the public - had their voices included. In my experience, this practice was embedded much earlier in health research. We are now routinely working in this way with administrative data research also, because of people such as Dermot.
For various legislative reasons, linking health and administrative data has proved difficult to achieve in Northern Ireland to date, although we are making progress in each of the other UK nations. It would be a fantastic legacy to Dermot’s memory if we do achieve this for Northern Ireland, so we can understand the interplay between health and poverty in a way that hasn’t been possible to date. I know his ADR NI colleagues at Queen’s University Belfast, Ulster University and NISRA are committed to ensuring more data held by public bodies in Northern Ireland can securely be opened up for research use. I look forward to continuing to work with them to achieve this.
Emma Gordon, Director, ADR UK
“Dermot will be missed greatly by the health research community. His warm and approachable manner, coupled with scientific integrity and devotion to research, put Northern Ireland on the map. He was a willing and enthusiastic leader of Health Data Research UK who made a lot of friends across the UK. It was a great privilege to work with him and learn from him.”
Professor Andrew Morris, Director, HDR UK
“I am very grateful for the hard work and leadership shown by Dermot at ADR NI. His dedication to the cause of data and evidence to support policy was remarkable. His interest in and passion for using insights from administrative data, in particular, was an inspiration, and I’m grateful for the support and advice he gave me since my appointment earlier this year.”
Dr. Philip Wales, NISRA CEO and co-Director, ADR NI
“Dermot was not just an exceptional academic and health inequalities researcher and advocate for administrative data research, but a dear friend. He cannot be replaced. Stepping into the role as Director of ADRC NI I hope to continue to build on his work, realising the potential for evidence informed practice and policy through utilising linked administrative data and encouraging the next generation of administrative data researchers in Northern Ireland.”
Dr Aideen Maguire, Director, ADRC NI