There’s a wall in the Northern Ireland Office with photographs of the various secretaries of state in chronological order. It’s a mosaic that tells the story of the British Government’s uneven efforts at dealing with Northern Ireland, from the imposition of direct rule in 1972, right the way through to the completion of the Good Friday Agreement in 2010.
It starts with Willie Whitelaw, that urbane old fixer who Margaret Thatcher would later rely on so much. He was given the job as Northern Ireland was exploding – literally and metaphorically – back in 1972.
During the 1970s and 1980s the figures that followed were often stern-looking types with military bearing. Men like Humphrey Atkins, Tom King and Patrick Mayhew fitted the part perfectly. Occasionally, someone more imaginative was appointed, like Jim Prior, or Peter Brook but there was little political buy-in at the time to progress the dialogue they sought.
After 1997 though, there was a shift. All of a sudden, the line-up on the wall becomes a who’s who of many of New Labour’s brightest stars: Mo Mowlem, Peter Mandelson, John Reid, Peter Hain and (my old boss) Shaun Woodward.
The Kremlinology is instructive. From the 1970s to the 1990s, the Northern Ireland brief was a political backwater, with ministers expected to remain wedded to the grim status quo that Northern Ireland simply needed a sufficiently robust security response to bring it into line.
This approach summed-up Roy Mason’s tenure. In 1979, as the Labour government’s outgoing Secretary of State, he confidently predicted the Provisional IRA were “weeks away from defeat” after spending the preceding three years squeezing them “like toothpaste”.
The legacy of his period as Northern Ireland Secretary (1976-79) is a grim litany of repressive measures and a casual disregard for legal due process and human rights. This was the era of the ‘dirty war’ where pretty much anything went. Torture of terrorist suspects, deployment of the SAS, jury-less trials and even the miasma of state agencies colluding with loyalist paramilitaries. All were sanctioned as part of the war against the Provisional IRA.
Northern Ireland had been an international PR disaster for the British government since the late 1960s and under Mason, there was a concerted attempt to ‘normalise’ the situation. This meant the Royal Ulster Constabulary and Ulster Defence Regiment (recruited locally) assumed a greater frontline role in managing security. That both institutions were almost exclusively Protestant – the RUC was 90 per cent, the Ulster Defence Regiment 98 per cent – and merely locked in a ‘them and us’ mentality for the Catholic nationalist minority was lost on Mason.
But his other legacy – the ‘criminalisation’ of paramilitary prisoners – denying them political status and treating them as ordinary criminals – had even bigger repercussions. Republicans started by refusing to wear prison uniforms. This escalated into a ‘dirty protest,’ where they refused to ‘slop-out’ spreading excrement over the walls in their cells.
Yet Mason and his securocrat agenda were unbending. It is a validation of how hard line his approach became that Margaret Thatcher continued it, leading, as it inexorably would, to the hunger strikes in 1981, where ten republican prisoners starved to death in protest. The propaganda victory became a potent recruiting sergeant for the Provisionals. So violence simply begot further violence and on it continued right through the 1980s and 1990s.
Enter Tony Blair. As Prime Minister, he and a succession of talented ministers, took huge strides in building a political process that cemented a tentative peace accord. It was a repudiation of what had gone before.
The space that politics opened up meant the watchtowers and razor-wire could be pulled down. The soldiers disappeared from street corners and returned home. Mason’s ‘criminals’ were released in their hundreds as part of the Good Friday Agreement (a critical move and one which no Conservative government would have countenanced).
Blair’s deft approach was the victory of politics, dialogue and persuasion over a dunderheaded machismo, personified by Mason. It represented a complete change of emphasis from trying to resolve “the Irish question” – the deepest thorn in the flesh of British politics – through state fiat.
The argument for the defence for the approach taken by Mason, or Thatcher, is that the measures they pursued were harsh, but necessary; a reflection of the temper of the times. Against a backdrop of mayhem and violence what choice did they have but to respond in kind?
But the defence of necessity is often just an excuse for lacking imagination and courage. British government policy towards Northern Ireland from the early 1970s to the late 1980s met Einstein’s classic definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.
To his discredit, Roy Mason was a true believer in this approach. Unfortunately, he was not alone in his myopic, reactionary posturing. As a tenacious working-class MP of a type Labour no longer makes, he will no doubt be warmly remembered by many. But Roy Mason was a truly terrible Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
Moreover, he is a warning from history about what happens when political leadership and ministerial statecraft are in short supply and all that remains is the siren call of received opinion and the might of the state.