Roy Mason who has died aged 91 was Northern Ireland Secretary of State from 1976 to the end of the Labour government in 1979. He was “short in stature and long in self confidence “ as David McKittrick rightly described him. He even designed his own peculiarly vented and lapelled tight fitting light khaki suits. When I last met him a few years ago at the launch of a Northern Ireland stamp, he was eloquent about his collection. He retained heavy police security at home and on the road for many years after his retirement .
Proud of being a blunt Barnsley lad, he was temperamentally at odds with the Irish love of long discourse for its own sake. This fed through into his firmly law and order approach, as in an early news conference when he rashly promised to “send the terrorists reeling.” His style was in sharp contrast to the hand wringing of his predecessor Merlyn Rees who had presided over the disaster of the UWC strike and its aftermath which included an IRA ceasefire. For much of 1975, sporadic talks between IRA representatives and British officials took place, punctuated by continuing violence. The IRA seemed to have thought that the British might now be prepared to withdraw (there had been plenty of talk about it), and the British government believed that the IRA were becoming stretched to the point of defeat. If so, both were delusions, although arguments continue about whether that truce was a lost opportunity.
By the time Mason took over from Rees in September 1976, paramilitary violence was reaching a new peak that as it turned out, was never exceeded. Nearly 600 were killed in 1975-76. The period featured a terrible upsurge of loyalist murders, the IRA’s Kingsmills massacre followed by Harold Wilson’s announcement of an SAS deployment in south Armagh, and the assassination of the British ambassador to Dublin. Shortly after the Labour government was succeeded by Thatcher in 1979 came the Warrenpoint massacre and the Mountbatten assassination. That spelled out the ultimate failure of a mainly “security “ approach. Mason’s time was the last and perhaps the only period when the British government seem to have thought straightforward military defeat was viable.
Mason also took initiatives in economic development. The extremely costly de Lorean car project was his baby and as much of a failure as his security policy. Gerry Fitt, blaming Mason for over harsh security policies and with Gerry Adams breathing down his neck in West Belfast , voted Labour down in the vote of confidence that brought Thatcher to power after the 1979 election. A whole new learning curve began from zero.
The best that can be said of Roy Mason was that he was a committed and determined politician who followed his own star. His predecessor Rees who was a deeply conscientious man was no less committed. They were both examples of a basic problem that bedevilled British policy throughout, up to 1994. This was a fundamental lack of consistency and continuity of approach which left Northern Ireland over exposed to electoral cycles and to the personal approach of ministers, none of whom started out with much knowledge or interest in our affairs. Mason placed excessive reliance on his background as Defence Secretary and had I believe, as little respect for our politicians as he had for the paramilitaries. His shade might be forgiven for both.