Obituary: Lord Mason of Barnsley
He was Secretary of State for the North who cracked down on paramilitaries, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards
Published 26/04/2015 | 02:30
When I made a passing comment about Roy Mason in the 1980s to a London-based Irish diplomat, he glowered and told me of his recent introduction to Mason in the House of Lords. Hearing his Irish-language first name, Mason said: "I'll call you Paddy."
"If he calls me that again," said the ambitious young high-flyer, "I'll punch him."
When I had the occasional drink in a Lords bar with Gerry Fitt - the socialist republican ex-leader of the SDLP, who had abandoned Belfast for London when his house was firebombed by the IRA - I avoided mentioning Mason, whom he called 'that wee fucker'. Gerry was convinced that - as Secretary of State successively for Defence and the North - Mason had created the conditions that brought about the hunger strikes and thus gave a new lease of life to the IRA and Sinn Fein.
Martin McGuinness put it more directly. "Mason beat the shit out of us," he said, a view with which many unionists would have shared, which is why Mason was a hero to the bulk of them and I grew used to their wistful regrets that he hadn't been able to keep doing it.
No one was neutral about Roy Mason. A pugnacious Yorkshireman whose father had been crippled in a pit accident, he went down the mine himself in 1938 at the age of 14, where he stayed despite repeated attempts during the war to join the RAF. A National Union of Miners branch official at 23, he got a union scholarship to the London School of Economics and at 28 became Labour MP for Barnsley, his home town.
Always on the right of the party (he was anti-unilateral-disarmament and pro-Common Market), he was a pragmatist who made enemies among the miners by opposing militancy, defending pit closures he thought economically necessary and being an implacable enemy of communists and of Arthur Scargill, another son of Barnsley.
As Secretary of State for Defence he had advised against ordering troops to face down the loyalist strike that would bring down Sunningdale. He learned from that debacle and did not join Harold Wilson and Home Secretary Roy Jenkins in aspiring to withdraw from the North. As the Irish and American governments were covertly pleading with Wilson to hang in there and avoid what they feared would be an island-wide blood-bath, Mason ordered the SAS into south Armagh. When Wilson resigned in 1976, Jim Callaghan replaced the hand-wringing Merlyn Rees with Mason, chosen, in the words of Bernard Donoghue, the new prime minister's close aide - because he was a "right-wing toughie… appointed with the broad instruction to keep the lid on the Irish cauldron".
Mason faced down Paisley and a second loyalist workers' strike and took a similarly hard-line with republican paramilitaries. However though there was a reduction in violence hailed by unionists, even constitutional nationalists were shocked by Mason's apparent toleration of excessive force by the security services. He failed to act on a report that exposed police ill-treatment of terrorist suspects and his refusal to budge on political status for terrorists led to the dirty protests which led to the hunger strikes that undermined the SDLP.
"Ulster has had enough of initiatives," he famously said in 1976, but he made desperate efforts to create jobs for the disadvantaged that included contributing the then enormous sum of £50m into attracting the De Lorean car plant to West Belfast in a doomed venture.
Despite his tough measures, Mason failed to persuade more than two unionists to vote for the Callaghan government in 1979 when it faced a no-confidence vote moved by Margaret Thatcher. Gerry Fitt could have saved it, but driven by loathing of Mason, he and Frank Maguire, the independent nationalist MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, flew to the House of Commons just to abstain. Maguire would die suddenly in 1981, creating the golden opportunity for Bobby Sands to become an MP.
In opposition, Mason had the satisfaction of preventing Arthur Scargill from having him unseated. There could have been another mighty battle between them during Scargill's disastrous strike in 1984-5, but Mason's hopes of becoming head of the National Coal Board foundered on the irony that though Thatcher thought him 'not one of us', Chancellor Nigel Lawson thought his effectiveness would be diminished by the National Union of Miners' resentment of his failure to stop pit closures in the 1960s.
"Like a hard wee rubber ball, he kept bouncing," said unionist Lord Laird of Mason. And so he did after 1987 in the House of Lords, which he attended assiduously until 2012. He died last week at 91, still happily married and grounded in his home town, the epitome of the unapologetic, no-nonsense (sometimes rude) Yorkshireman, who never indulged in angst about possible bad decisions made in impossible jobs.