Patrick Mayhew: Northern Ireland secretary at a critical time in peace process

Obituary: As a youngster he regularly spent his holidays in Ireland

Patrick Mayhew was the 10th and longest-serving Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (1992-97), and one of the few holders of the office who sought appointment to it. With a Cork family background on his mother’s side, he was familiar with Ireland and its politics and its politicians.

As a young lawyer in 1959 he engaged in a trenchant Oxford Union debate on a united Ireland with the taoiseach Seán Lemass, attacking the Republic for isolationism and economic backwardness.

Tall and imposing, he could be brusque or affable, patrician and patronising.

On his appointment he did not initially enjoy the confidence of Irish government ministers. This arose from his strong criticism of extradition procedures in the Republic and his decision as attorney general not to initiate prosecutions in relation to the RUC’s alleged shoot-to-kill policy in the early 1980s.

Nevertheless, his determination to revive the talks launched by his predecessor, Sir Peter Brooke, was welcomed, and he formed a good working relationship with the minister for foreign affairs, David Andrews, and his successor Dick Spring.

Notwithstanding the historic visit of a UUP delegation to Dublin Castle, the talks wound up without agreement in November 1992. The Alliance and unionist parties objected to SDLP proposals for Irish and European Community involvement in the government of Northern Ireland, while the Irish government would not countenance a referendum on Articles 2 and 3 except in the context of a comprehensive settlement.

Behaved like ‘cannibals’

Criticised by republicans for his insistence on IRA decommissioning before Sinn Féin could enter talks, he also offended many nationalists by ordering a review of the sentence of Private Lee Clegg, who was convicted of the murder of an 18-year-old joyrider. By the same token, loyalists were taken aback when he banned the UDA only months after arriving in Northern Ireland. Shortly beforehand he had condemned the behaviour of Orangemen parading on the Ormeau Road past a bookmaker’s shop where five Catholics had been murdered by the UVF. They had behaved like “cannibals”, he said.

As attorney general he was embroiled in the failed attempt to prevent the publication of Spycatcher by former MI5 agent Peter Wright, losing legal cases in the Australian and British courts.

He was also caught up in the so-called Westland Affair, perceived as a personal power struggle by other means between the British defence secretary Michael Heseltine, who wanted to sell the helicopter company to a European consortium, and British prime minister Margaret Thatcher who favoured the US bidder Sikorsky.

Advice he gave on the sale was leaked to the press prompting Mayhew to threaten to send police into Downing Street to investigate the matter. The then trade secretary, Leon Brittan, was forced to resign although there were suspicions that Thatcher was behind the leak.

Patrick Barnabas Burke Mayhew was born on September 11th, 1929, the son of (Alfred) Geoffrey Horace Mayhew of Sevenoaks, Weald, Kent, and his wife, Sheila Margaret.

From an Anglo-Irish background going as far back as the mid-13th century, his mother was a Roche, the family name of the Lords Fermoy. The family were said to be sympathetic to the United Irishmen. The Roche homes were not burned out during the War of Independence. He holidayed regularly in the Republic as a youngster.

He fondly remembered childhood trips to Cork, which he continued to visit during his period as attorney general. He used to tell a story about a garda who was assigned to protect him during his stays. “When I asked him what was his role, he replied: ‘Paddy, my job is to plug the man who plugs you!’.”

Educated at Tonbridge and Balliol College, Oxford, he served with the 4th/7th Royal Dragoon Guards, rising to the rank of captain. He was called to the Bar in 1956 and became a QC in 1972.

Elected to parliament for Tunbridge Wells in 1974, he was an executive member of the 1922 Committee from 1976 to 1979. He was parliamentary under-secretary for employment (1979-81) and minister of state at the Home Office (1981-83). Knighted in 1983 and having served as Solicitor General for four years, he became in 1987 Attorney General.

In March 1993, he sought to calm unionist fears over his statement that Britain was neutral on Northern Ireland’s position within the United Kingdom by saying that it could only be changed by the will of a majority of its people.

He responded in similar vein to the first Hume-Adams statement that emphasised Irish self-determination. And he insisted that a cessation of violence should precede discussion, saying that “enough time must elapse to show it is for real” before Sinn Féin was admitted to talks.

Nevertheless, in November 1993, he was forced to acknowledge that the British government had been involved in secret talks with Sinn Féin and the IRA. He later admitted 22 inaccuracies in the British version of documents that were made public covering contact with republicans.

IRA ceasefire

Following the Downing Street Declaration of December 1993, he endorsed Dick Spring’s Dáil statement that an end to violence would involve paramilitaries handing over their arms. In response to the IRA ceasefire in 1994, he announced the reopening of some Border roads and indicated that an end to political violence could result in increased social and economic spending.

When the Framework Documents were published in February 1995, he again insisted on decommissioning before Sinn Féin could enter substantive talks, putting forward a three-point plan to this end in March. Former Irish diplomat Seán Ó hUigínn said this demand was “the single most serious mistake” made by any of the administrations engaged in the peace process. The rejection by republicans of the Mitchell report on decommissioning in 1996 set the scene for the breakdown of the IRA ceasefire, which put paid to prospects of Sinn Féin involvement in political talks.

Controversial parades

After serious civil political disturbances arising from the Drumcree parade, he rejected “the notion of surrender to Orangemen”, and set up a review to make recommendations to improve the management of controversial parades. In December he announced cuts of £120 million (€145m) in public spending to meet increased security costs.

In January 1997, he condemned as "revolting" a series of punishment beatings carried out by loyalists in Belfast and Portadown, but later stated his belief that the loyalist ceasefire was still intact.

In February, he ruled out any new inquiry into Bloody Sunday, or an official apology. He stood down as an MP at the 1997 general election, and was made a life peer in July, taking the title Baron Mayhew of Twysden.

He married, in 1963, Jean Elizabeth Gurney, who with their four sons survives him.