Wednesday 13 December 2017

Patrick Mayhew

Former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland negotiated the 1994 IRA ceasefire, which led to lasting peace

ROAD TO PEACE: Patrick Mayhew with the then Taoiseach Albert Reynolds in the 1990s
ROAD TO PEACE: Patrick Mayhew with the then Taoiseach Albert Reynolds in the 1990s

Patrick Mayhew who died yesterday aged 86 was a key figure behind the secretive peace process in the early 1990s when he served as Britian's Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

He played a major role in the formulation of the December 1993 Downing Street Declaration with then Taoiseach Albert Reynolds and British prime minister John Major, which led to the IRA ceasefire the following September.

And his selectively leaked letter - as solicitor-general in January 1986 - setting out the background to the bitter Westland Helicopters dispute, led, through no fault of his own, to the resignations of both the then defence secretary, Michael Heseltine, and the trade secretary, Leon Brittan.

It even, for a few dramatic hours, imperilled the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, herself. But she survived.

Mayhew would have regarded himself on the "liberal" wing of the Conservative Party, but he was not the kind of politician who could easily be labelled.

Party intrigue did not attract or concern him. He was a man who, with the discipline that goes with being a QC, concentrated on the job in hand to the exclusion of all else.

Patrick 'Paddy' Barnabas Burke Mayhew was born on September 11, 1929. Through his mother, Shelia Burke Roche, he had roots in Trabolgan, Co Cork. The Roches were historically sympathetic to the republican cause and friendly with their neighbours. They survived the Troubles of the Twenties without being burnt out - a considerable claim for 'big houses' in Rebel Cork.

Patrick Mayhew himself spent much of his childhood in Co Cork, which probably helped convince him that he was uniquely placed to help reconcile the two nations.

He attended Tonbridge School and Balliol College, Oxford, where he was president of the Union.

Those with long memories recalled an uncompromising attack on the nationalist cause and on the Republic, delivered by Mayhew at the Oxford Union as an undergraduate, in the course of a debate with Sean Lemass - then Taoiseach

He read for the Bar at the Middle Temple and was called in 1955. He took silk in 1972, still in his early 40s, before he entered the House of Commons in 1974 as MP for Royal Tunbridge Wells, a seat he held for many years.

As soon as Mrs Thatcher came to power, in 1979, he was appointed employment under secretary, followed by a period as minister of state at the Home Office. After the 1983 election, he was appointed solicitor-general, under Sir Michael Havers who was then attorney-general. But during critical periods, Sir Patrick, as he had become, had to act as AG while Sir Michael was ill.

During the Westland row, Heseltine was the sole Cabinet member who wanted a European rescue package for the ailing helicopter company. The rest of the Cabinet favoured an American package.

Heseltine wrote to the European consortium in terms which Mayhew warned him in a private and entirely dispassionate letter were seriously misleading. But those parts of the letter which were highly damaging to Heseltine were leaked to the press.

The leak rocked the Government, and Mayhew furiously threatened to resign unless the perpetrators of the leak were punished.

When Sir Michael became lord chancellor, Mayhew became AG and was involved in a series of contentious issues. These included demands for the extradition of terrorist suspects from the Republic, and his decision not to prosecute British Army members in the shoot-to-kill cases uncovered by John Stalker.

This brought him unpopularity in Dublin and a reputation as a disdainful, high-handed and haughty man. Mayhew was also involved in the Spycatcher affair, heading the government's campaign designed to block publication of the memoirs of former MI5 agent, Peter Wright. However, surprisingly for a lawyer, the promotion - or rather change of job - that Mayhew longed for more than anything else was to become Northern Ireland secretary, a yearning granted him after the 1992 general election.

Throughout this period he remained typically unemotional and steadfast through some of the most vicious terrorist attacks the North had seen in 25 years of the troubles.

And he was particularly outspoken about Dublin's continued territorial claim, in its constitution, on the six counties.

At this stage it came to light that there had been secret contacts between the British government and the IRA, and Mayhew published a lengthy dossier of the written exchanges.

But he worked assiduously Mr Reynolds and with Dick Spring, to achieve the Downing Street agreement of December, 1993.

There was a frustrating delay of some nine months while the IRA continually sought "clarification" of the document: a plea which Britain regarded not as a request for clarification but for renewed negotiations which Whitehall was not going to allow.

But finally the breakthrough came, with the IRA ceasefire and the subsequent lifting of the ban on the broadcast voices of IRA and other paramilitary sympathisers.

He is survived by a widow and four sons.

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