Atkins, Sir Humphrey Edward Gregory (1922–96), Baron Colnbrook , secretary of state for Northern Ireland, was born 12 August 1922 in Chalfont St Peter, Buckinghamshire, the only son of Capt. Edward Davis Atkins, a former army officer who settled in Kenya to run a coffee plantation, and Mary Violet Atkins (née Preston). Capt. Atkins was killed by a wounded rhinoceros when his son was three, prompting Mrs Atkins to return to England, where Humphrey was educated at Wellington College. In 1940 he entered the Royal Navy with a special cadetship and, after training in Dartmouth, saw service on the battleship Nelson, and was then transferred, as sub-lieutenant, to destroyers on convoy duty. He married (21 January 1944) Margaret, daughter of Sir Robert Spencer-Nairn, the linoleum millionaire, but continued with convoy duties and was discharged from the navy in 1948 with the rank of lieutenant. He was taken on by his father-in-law in his linoleum business in Kirkcaldy, Fife, but determined on a political career, in which he was helped by the Spencer-Nairn wealth and connections. In 1951 he was adopted at short notice as the Conservative candidate for West Lothian, and was unsuccessful, but in 1955 won the Merton and Morden seat in London, which he held until 1970, when (after boundary changes) he represented Spelthorne, Surrey, until his retirement from the commons in 1987.
Atkins was parliamentary private secretary to the admiralty 1959–62, and secretary of the backbencher's defence committee 1964–70, after which he was deputy chief whip to Francis Pym and then chief whip when the latter was made secretary of state for Northern Ireland in December 1973. After the February 1974 general election, Atkins was opposition chief whip until the conservative victory of May 1979, when he was named secretary of state for Northern Ireland in place of the former tory spokesman for Northern Ireland, Airey Neave (1916–79), who had been assassinated by an INLA bomb in March. The Belfast Telegraph greeted the news of his appointment with ‘Humphrey who?’ and this label stuck.
Atkins, who admitted to knowing little of Northern Ireland before his appointment, had a difficult two-year term. His initiative to hold an all-party constitutional conference was bedeviled from the start. With the replacement of Gerry Fitt (qv) (1926–2005) as SDLP leader by the tougher, more nationalist John Hume, Atkins was forced to climb down over the inclusion of the ‘Irish dimension’ in the conference, and this contributed to the UUP's refusal to participate. After wooing Ian Paisley (qv) over cups of tea, Atkins had the brief excitement of the DUP's participation in the talks, which began 7 January 1980, but he soon realised that Paisley had no intention of power-sharing. All discussion on the future of Northern Ireland was then subsumed in the prison situation, which became increasingly volatile after Atkins's announcement (26 March) of the phasing out of special-category status for paramilitary prisoners. An initial abortive IRA hunger strike (October–December 1980) was followed by the more serious strike of Bobby Sands (qv). Atkins maintained the unflinching stance favoured by Margaret Thatcher, declaring that ‘if Mr Sands persisted in his wish to commit suicide that was his choice’ (Ir. Times, 29 Apr. 1981). Sensitive to jibes that he was Thatcher's puppet and that his deputy, Michael Alison (1926–2004), handled all the negotiations, Atkins claimed later that he was as hard-line as the prime minister, and would have resigned had the government given in to the prisoners' demands; and that he could not personally meet representatives of the hunger strikers, since this would look as if he were negotiating with terrorists. He was replaced as secretary of state on 13 September, before the cessation of the strikes, by James Prior.
Atkins held office in Northern Ireland at an exceptionally difficult period; he did not warm to the province and largely failed to make an impression on it. The then taoiseach, Garret FitzGerald (qv), noted that he was hard to get on with – which does not accord with his reputation in the commons for courtesy and affability. The strongest criticism came from within the Northern Ireland Office: the civil servant Maurice Hayes termed him ‘totally invisible and lazy’ (Hayes, 235) and the worst secretary of state he had worked with.
On his return to England Atkins was made lord privy seal and deputy to the foreign secretary, Lord Carrington: a position he cherished, as his greatest political interest was defence. However, in the words of his Times obituary, he was ‘accident prone’: on 2 April 1982 he assured the commons that Argentine forces had not landed on the Falklands, hours after the invasion had actually got under way. Both he and Carrington resigned and Atkins's career was effectively over, though he continued to display his phlegmatic and debonair mien. He was knighted the following year and was chairman of the select committee on defence from 1984 to 1987, in which year he became a life peer as Baron Colnbrook of Waltham St Lawrence. He died at home on 4 October 1996 and was survived by his wife, a son, and three daughters.