Thursday 14 November 2019

Miner who dug in at the height of Troubles

Obituary: Roy Mason, April 1, 1924 - April 20, 2015

Roy Mason: made few friends in North
Roy Mason: made few friends in North

Roy Mason, who has died aged 91, was a British Labour MP for 34 years, and an uncompromising and unloved Northern Ireland Secretary under Harold Wilson and James Callaghan.

A pint-sized pipe-smoker and angler with a enthusiasm for designing ties, Mason was on the right wing of the Labour Party and was arguably, after Margaret Thatcher, the British politician most determined to tackle the IRA. The crackdown over which he presided attracted criticism from liberals but proved highly effective, forcing the Provisionals to adopt a tighter "cellular" structure.

It also made him a target. And while other former Northern Ireland secretaries all but abandoned Special Branch cover even before the Good Friday Agreement, Mason wore his as a badge of honour. He continued to insist on a manned security post at the bottom of his garden, fought off a move in 1989 to withdraw his bodyguards, and highlighted his 24-hour cover when he opposed the Patten report's recommendation - implemented by Labour - to abolish the RUC.

Callaghan noted in 1979: "Poor old Roy is deeply worried: he has absolutely maximum security but is still afraid of what they'll do to him." In 1990 his name appeared on a captured death list.

Roy Mason was born in Barnsley on April 18, 1924, the son of Joseph and Mary Mason; his father was crippled in a mining accident. He left Royston senior school at 14 and went down Wharncliffe Woodmoor pit. When war broke out Roy repeatedly tried to join the RAF, but was always sent back to the mines.

He joined the Labour Party in 1943 and showed talent as an organiser: at 23 he was an NUM branch official. He also found time to play in a dance band. He completed his education at the LSE, through a TUC scholarship.

Mason entered the British parliament for his home town at a by-election in March 1953. Inheriting a majority of 28,227, he defeated nine rivals for the miners' nomination.

Clement Attlee gave him two pieces of advice: "One, keep out of the bars. Two, specialise." He took the second, concentrating on defence: the effectiveness of Britain's weaponry and conditions on "slum" RAF stations in the Middle East. No radical, he pressed the Yorkshire National Union of Miners' invitation of Paul Robeson to its gala when the Eisenhower administration refused the singer-activist a passport, but clashed with party colleague Denis Healey over whether black Africa was ready for independence.

In 1959 Mason stood for the shadow cabinet. Never popular in the parliamentary party, he polled only 25 votes, but Hugh Gaitskell made him junior Post Office spokesman, doubling as a member of the defence team. It was the start of 22 years on the front bench.

When the party split over the bomb in 1960, Mason nailed his colours to the pro-nuclear mast with an impressive speech to the parliamentary party. He shared his leader's misgivings over Common Market membership when Harold Macmillan tried to negotiate it in 1962, but from 1966 was a convinced pro-Marketeer.

Labour's unexpected return to power in March 1974 ushered in Mason's most influential years. Wilson, no respecter of backbench opinion, appointed him Defence Secretary and Mason ordered a defence review, which cut manpower by 35,000 and effectively ended Britain's presence East of Suez.

When Wilson retired in the spring of 1976, Mason, as "the only one with working-class trade union origins", considered a leadership bid, but knew he had no chance. Callaghan moved him that September to his last and most controversial post: Northern Ireland secretary, in place of Merlyn Rees, who became Home Secretary.

Mason had caused alarm in the North with a speech suggesting British troops might be pulled out; he hurriedly recanted, and during the subsequent Loyalist workers' strike showed greater firmness than Rees.

His appointment to Stormont enraged the SDLP's Gerry Fitt and provoked a violent challenge from Loyalists and an enhanced IRA bombing campaign. He reacted by tightening security, facing down a second Loyalist strike and giving priority to creating jobs in Ulster to ease tension. His wife earned praise by travelling with him to the province every week.

Mason showed no interest in political initiatives after the failure of power-sharing, beyond warning Ulster's politicians that they were "in danger of being left behind" by devolution in Scotland and Wales. He was one of the first Labour figures to suggest a referendum on devolution.

His repeated claims that terrorism was being defeated defused the Loyalist threat and bought the support of some Unionist MPs when his government lost its majority, but at a price. Fitt accused him of "acting as if he were in Leopoldville rather than Belfast".

In 1987 Mason left the Commons with a life peerage. He remained a familiar sight at Westminster, both in the Lords - where he spoke regularly on the North and service matters and delivered the most conservative speech on homosexuality - and in Annie's Bar, where an annual competition for the most revolting tie perpetuated his penchant for tasteful neckwear.

Mason is survived by his Majorie and their two daughters.

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