Lord Mason of Barnsley obituary
The Labour politician Roy Mason, who has died aged 91, was a small and dapper but pugnacious man, proud of his mining heritage, whose characteristic pout of the lips before delivering a bon mot could set most latterday National Union of Mineworkers gatherings and any Irish nationalists quivering with rage. Mason’s effect on Ulster unionists was quite different. His aggressive style and the pro-security services policies he pursued as secretary of state for from 1976 to 1979 were welcomed by unionists as a protection against creeping integration into the whole of Ireland. He was, the unionist Lord (John) Laird said: “Like a hard wee rubber ball, he kept bouncing.” And he seemed to be playing ball for unionists, although not reliably enough for them to support him when the chance of a Conservative government beckoned.
Laird remembered one unionist MP summing Mason up by saying: “He isn’t an Englishman. He’s a Yorkshireman.” Lord Mason of , as he became in 1987, would have loved the epitaph.
When took office as Labour prime minister in April 1976, following the unexpected resignation of , he appointed Mason, who had been defence secretary since 1974, as the fourth Northern Ireland secretary. The first to hold the post, , had been appointed in 1972 by the Tory prime minister when he imposed direct rule from Westminster.
In 1974, Whitelaw and Heath had established the Sunningdale Executive, the first experiment in power-sharing, between Protestants in the Ulster Unionist party led by Brian Faulkner, and Catholics in the Social Democratic and Labour party led by . Wilson became prime minister as the loyalist workers’ strike led by was threatening Sunningdale. It was the refusal of Wilson, on the advice of Mason as defence secretary, to use the army against the strikers that destroyed Sunningdale.
Callaghan’s appointment of Mason was seen as an indication that there would be no new political initiative. Callaghan lacked a majority and was dependent on smaller parties, including the various unionist parties, who between them had 11 MPs and were hostile to any further experiment with power-sharing. Mason, regarded as the security forces’ friend for the ferocity with which he had fought defence spending cuts in 1975, reinforced that expectation when he said at the conference of October 1976: “Ulster has had enough of initiatives.”
Essentially, Mason concentrated on security, aiming to return control of policing from the army to the Royal Ulster Constabulary and break the Provisional IRA by force. Mason, as defence secretary, had introduced the SAS into Armagh and allowed its increased use against IRA units. He also pursued a hardline policy of removing political status from prisoners convicted of terrorist crimes. That led to the dirty protests inside the H-Blocks in the Maze prison. Mason earned a reputation summed up by a Provisional slogan during the Queen’s 1977 Jubilee visit to Northern Ireland: “Stonemason will not break us.”
By the time he left office, many felt that Mason had come close to breaking the IRA. However, a decade later it was clear that his policies had, instead, weakened the constitutional Catholics in the SDLP. The dirty protest was the curtain-raiser for the IRA hunger strike under the Thatcher government, which seriously undermined the SDLP, partly because of the sympathy for IRA political violence rather than SDLP constitutional tactics that Mason’s policies helped create among Catholics.
Dealing with international criticism, particularly from the US, that Britain was guilty of degrading treatment of internees, Mason ostentatiously insisted on the security forces using legitimate questioning methods. But he chaired weekly security meetings and allowed an interrogation regime to develop inside the RUC holding centre, Castlereagh, which led Amnesty International in 1978 to condemn the British for ill-treatment of suspects. Mason’s response was a propaganda campaign against critics, including , one of three doctors who examined prisoners in Castlereagh.
Mason’s most positive policy was to seek improvement in Northern Ireland’s economic situation, with tax breaks for foreign investors. However, it met with disaster when he courted the glitzy but unsound DeLorean Motors to build its experimental gull-winged car in West .
By 1979, when Callaghan faced a vote of no confidence, all but two unionists had reverted to their natural alliance with the Conservatives. His shaky majority depended on the two Irish Catholic MPs: Fitt, MP for West Belfast, a previously loyal Labour voter but who had been the deputy chief executive in the Sunningdale Executive; and Frank Maguire, the independent nationalist MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone. Fitt so loathed Mason that he abstained, when , as leader of the opposition, called the no-confidence vote. Maguire was persuaded to travel to London after a visit by one of Mason’s team, but he was also antagonised and abstained, bringing Callaghan down.
Fitt’s bitterness was still exploding 20 years later when both were peers. Sitting with Fitt in the House of Lords bar, I watched him straighten angrily. “That wee fucker’s here. He put things for us back 10 years. Fifteen.”
While Mason was in Belfast, , Fine Gael’s foreign affairs spokesman, and , the Fianna Fáil prime minister, jointly met Callaghan, who was on holiday in Ireland with his son-in-law, Peter Jay, then ambassador to Washington, to plead for Mason to be moved. Irish diplomats remember their most effective talks with Mason when a justice minister forgot his manners and yelled: “But look here, what the hell are you going to do?” It was a negotiating style Mason understood. Another diplomat said: “If he calls me Paddy again, I’ll punch him.”
Mason, for all his patronising and hectoring, had charm. He took a naive delight in his success. Born in Royston, South Yorkshire, son of Joseph, a miner, and Mary, he went down the pit at 14, educated himself and became active in the NUM. He left mining at 28 with a loan from his father to fight Barnsley in 1953 and held the seat for more than 30 years with solid majorities, in spite of the hostility of , the leftwinger who became NUM leader. In 1960 he became Labour’s defence spokesman and during the Wilson premiership he was at Defence and the Board of Trade and became a privy counsellor.
When the Callaghan defeat in 1979 ended his ministerial career, Mason said, genuinely: “If I do not get another job it won’t matter. I have achieved more than I could ever have imagined.”
After Thatcher’s election, Mason’s unpopularity with Labour’s left almost saw him without a shadow cabinet post. He sneaked in as agriculture spokesman and began a bruising battle with Scargill to hang on to his Barnsley seat during boundary changes in 1983. Scargill, gearing up for the miners’ strike, failed to have Mason deselected. However, having kept his constituency, Mason ceded the pass and in 1987 accepted a peerage.
He was active in the Lords until 2012. He spoke regularly on Northern , mining and the environment, and campaigned successfully for recognition for the Bevin Boys, the young recruits who kept the pits working during the second world war.
He was always happy talking about his past, retelling stories about being a young MP and meeting Clement Attlee, then Labour leader: “He said: ‘Young man, specialise and keep out of the bar.’” When Wilson gave him his first ministerial job, Mason found the prime minister bedridden with flu. “It was the first time I knew he was ill. It had been kept from the public.”
Mason, a keen fly fisher, believed in using journalists, once telling me, for the Guardian diary column, of a fishing trip to Fermanagh. He caught nothing, so he borrowed a salmon from his hotel and posed with it for the local paper.
In his retirement he helped to set up the Barnsley library, to which he donated his memorabilia, including ministerial boxes and pit boots, a bullet-proof vest and his papers. His hobby, unexpected in a man self-consciously bluff, was designing his own spectacular ties.
He is survived by his wife, Marjorie (nee Sowden), whom he married in 1945, and their two daughters, Susan and Jill.
• Roy Mason, Lord Mason of Barnsley, politician, born 18 April 1924; died 19 April 2015
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