Tough and aggressive Northern Ireland secretary

Roy Mason: April 18th, 1924 - April 19th, 2015

The British Labour politician Roy Mason, who has died aged 91, was a small and dapper but pugnacious man, whose aggressive style and pro-security services policies as secretary of state for Northern Ireland from 1976 to 1979 were welcomed by unionists but generally deplored by nationalists. Unionist politician John Laird, now Lord Laird, said he was "like a hard wee rubber ball – he kept bouncing".

When James Callaghan took office as Labour prime minister in April 1976, following the unexpected resignation of Harold Wilson, he appointed Mason, who had been defence secretary since 1974, as Northern Ireland secretary.

In 1974, the Conservative government had established the Sunningdale executive, the first experiment in powersharing in Northern Ireland. Wilson became prime minister just as the Ulster Workers’ Council strike paralysed Northern Ireland in an attempt to undo the Sunningdale agreement. It was the refusal of Wilson, on the advice of Mason as defence secretary, to use the army against the strikers that allowed their action to prevail.

Callaghan’s appointment of Mason to the North was seen as an indication that there would be no new political initiative. 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 in October 1976: “Ulster has had enough of initiatives.” Dirty protest As defence secretary, he had introduced the SAS into south Armagh and allowed its increased use against IRA units. He also pursued the policy of removing political status from prisoners convicted of terrorist offences. That led to the dirty protests in the Maze prison H-Blocks. Mason earned a reputation summed up by an IRA slogan during Queen Elizabeth’s 1977 jubilee visit to Northern Ireland: “Stonemason will not break us.”


Unionists felt Mason’s tough policies were effective in quelling violence. From 1971 to 1976 the average annual death toll from the Northern conflict was close to 300. During Mason’s term in office it dropped to 82 in 1978 and 121 in 1979, never exceeding the latter figure in any year thereafter.

Mason was not universally loved within unionism. It was his pugnacity and guile that helped ensure that a 1977 loyalist workers’ strike, with Ian Paisley to the fore, never built up sufficient steam to repeat the success of 1974.

Dealing with international criticism, particularly from the US, that Britain was guilty of degrading treatment of internees, Mason ostentatiously insisted that he would ensure that the security forces used only legitimate questioning methods. But he chaired weekly security meetings and allowed an interrogation regime to develop at the RUC holding centre in Castlereagh in Belfast which led Amnesty International in 1978 to condemn Britain for ill-treatment of suspects.

In 1979, when Callaghan faced a vote of no confidence, the SDLP's Gerry Fitt and independent nationalist MP Frank Maguire, equally antagonised by Mason's policies and personalities, abstained, bringing down Callaghan and clearing the way for Margaret Thatcher.

Fitt’s bitterness was still intact 20 years later when both men were peers. Observing Mason enter the House of Lords bar Fitt said to a journalist: “That wee f**ker’s here. He put things for us back 10 years. Fifteen.” Patronising During Mason’s term in office Jack Lynch, then taoiseach, and Garret FitzGerald, Fine Gael’s foreign affairs spokesman, jointly met Callaghan, who was on holiday in Ireland, to plead for his removal from office. His abrasive and sometimes patronising style around the talks table led one Irish diplomat to remark: “If he calls me Paddy again, I’ll punch him.”

Born in Royston, South Yorkshire, the son of Joseph, a miner, and Mary, he went down the pit at 14. At 23 he became a branch official of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and later attended the London School of Economics on a Trades Union Congress scholarship.

He won the Barnsley seat in a byelection in 1953 and held it for more than 30 years with solid majorities, in spite of the hostility of NUM leader Arthur Scargill.

When the Callaghan defeat in 1979 ended his ministerial career, Mason said: “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, his unpopularity with Labour’s left saw him involved in a bruising but successful battle with Scargill to hang on to his Barnsley seat during boundary changes.

In his retirement he helped to set up the Barnsley Archives and Local Studies library, to which he donated his memorabilia, including ministerial boxes and pit boots, a bullet-proof vest and his papers. Roy Mason is survived by his widow, Marjorie (née Sowden) and their two daughters, Susan and Jill.