Mayhew, Patrick Barnabas Burke (1927–2016), British Conservative politician, law officer and secretary of state for Northern Ireland, was born at Cookham in Berkshire on 11 September 1929, youngest of three sons (one son died in infancy and the eldest was killed in the second world war) of George Mayhew, oil company executive and war veteran, and his wife Sheila (née Roche). Sheila Mayhew was related to the Lords Fermoy (whose family name is Roche) and there was a family connection to Edmund Burke (qv); Mayhew later named one of his sons after the philosopher and statesman. Mayhew was extremely close to his mother and acquired a strong sense of his Irish connections, although he identified as English. He believed his mother’s and maternal grandmother’s memories of the Irish conflicts of the early 1920s gave him privileged insight into the grievances and the emotive and selective historical memories which marked Irish history. Mayhew liked to recall that the Roches had been benevolent (though improvident) landlords; his generally favourable disposition towards the Ulster unionist case reflected a paternalistic desire for balance and fair play rather than the populist identification with embattled loyalists adopted by some Tory right-wingers. From his adolescence until the late 1980s Mayhew regularly holidayed in Munster; when attending a peace conference at University College Cork in January 1995 he visited the site of the former Roche mansion at Ballymaloe, Co. Cork, where he recounted a somewhat garbled family history.
Mayhew was educated at Tonbridge public school. He became an enthusiastic foxhunter (with the Beaufort Hunt) and cricket player, and in later life took up yachting. After national service (conscription) as a subaltern with the 4th/7th Royal Dragoon Guards (he remained a reserve officer for thirteen years), Mayhew studied jurisprudence at Balliol College, Oxford (1950–53), graduating with a third-class degree. He was head of the Oxford University Conservative Association in Hilary term, 1952, and president of the Oxford Union in Michaelmas term 1952–3 (in 1959 he returned to Oxford Union as the lead speaker in opposition to Seán Lemass (qv) in a debate on Irish unity). Mayhew won a Middle Temple scholarship and was called to the bar in 1955, practising mainly as a defence lawyer in criminal cases; he became a Queen’s Counsel in 1972 and a Middle Temple Bencher in 1980.
ENTRY TO POLITICS AND LAW OFFICER
At the 1970 general election Mayhew was a narrowly defeated Conservative candidate in the Labour-held seat of Dulwich. Greater success followed at the February 1974 general election, when Mayhew became Conservative MP for (Royal) Tunbridge Wells, a safe seat that he held until his retirement in 1997. After Conservative victory at the 1979 general election, Mayhew became under-secretary for employment (1979–81), using his legal skills to support the ‘step by step’ approach to trade union regulation taken by James Prior (qv), which led him to be regarded as a ‘wet’ by Thatcherite ‘dries’ (Mayhew saw himself as a member of the liberal wing – however defined – of the Conservative Party.) He was a minister of state at the Home Office (1981–3) under William Whitelaw (qv), with the future prime minister John Major as his parliamentary private secretary; their lasting friendship underpinned Mayhew’s subsequent position in Northern Ireland (though Mayhew supported the experienced Douglas Hurd as prime minister against Major in 1990, he was subsequently one of Major’s most committed loyalists, and caused controversy by publicly warning that John Redwood’s 1995 leadership challenge to Major might endanger the peace process in Northern Ireland). At the Home Office, Mayhew oversaw legislation ending the criminalisation of vagrancy and the right of police to detain individuals on suspicion, and laid much of the groundwork for the Police and Criminal Evidence Act of 1984.
After the 1983 general election Mayhew was appointed solicitor general and knighted; he took the post as a matter of duty and was unusually prominent because the attorney general, Sir Michael Havers, was often incapacitated by cardiac problems. Mayhew oversaw the creation of the Crown Prosecution Service and advised on the prosecutions of the civil servants Sarah Tisdall and Clive Ponting for leaking confidential information to the media, and the long-running legal attempt to prohibit publication of the memoirs of the former MI5 officer Peter Wright. (Mayhew later oversaw the revision of Article 2 of the Official Secrets Act after persuading Margaret Thatcher that the original version was so broad and vague that juries would no longer convict under it.) In January 1986 the leaking of Mayhew’s confidential legal advice relating to the purchase of Westland Helicopters by a European consortium (rather than the American firm favoured by Margaret Thatcher) led to a government crisis, with Mayhew’s threatened resignation leading to the resignation of the secretary of state for trade and industry, Leon Brittan (who had leaked the confidential advice with Thatcher’s tacit approval). Despite this controversy, Mayhew was appointed attorney general after the 1987 general election. He was a member of the war cabinet during the 1990–91 Gulf War and was present when the Irish Republican Army (IRA) fired mortars into Downing Street in February 1991.
As a law officer Mayhew frequently clashed with Irish authorities over requests for the extradition of republican suspects. Dublin officials accused him of a cavalier attitude towards Irish legal requirements that warrants should outline the evidence against the accused; Mayhew complained that elements within the Irish judiciary and civil service strained every point to reject extradition warrants and procrastinated over the detention of fugitive suspects, such as IRA quartermaster Fr Patrick Ryan. Mayhew threatened resignation to block Irish proposals that non-jury Diplock court trials should be conducted by three judges rather than one. In January 1988 Mayhew endorsed the decision of the director of public prosecutions that eleven Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) officers involved in the killings of six unarmed terrorist suspects in Co. Armagh in 1982 (provoking allegations of a shoot to kill policy) would not be prosecuted for conspiracy to pervert the course of justice because of national security concerns. (Mayhew feared court proceedings would expose much of the security forces’ intelligence network.) Some of Mayhew’s colleagues privately questioned his decision, and the prominent Labour MP Ken Livingstone described Mayhew in parliament as an accomplice to murder and was temporarily suspended. His grievances against the Irish authorities contributed to Thatcher’s discontent with the Anglo–Irish agreement of 1985 as failing to improve security co-operation between the two states. Mayhew thought in retrospect that the secrecy with which the agreement was developed hindered future negotiations by encouraging unionist fears of betrayal.
These disputes were given an additional edge by Mayhew’s patrician appearance, accent and mannerisms, reinforced by his tendency to address the house of commons as if it were a criminal court and his quasi-judicial view of the functions of law officers. After his appointment as secretary of state for Northern Ireland in 1992, these characteristics also severely limited Mayhew’s attempts to convey the British position to the US administration. Mayhew saw himself as speaking over the heads of politicians and paramilitaries to a peace-seeking, silent majority amenable to reason; he took considerable pains to publicise the economic ‘peace dividend’ of defence cuts and social investment which followed the 1994 ceasefires, and corresponding cutbacks in education and housing after the 1996 breakdown of the IRA ceasefire and Orange/loyalist protests. His desire to be plain-spoken came across as condescending, while his attempts to relieve tension with a touch of humour sometimes fell flat amidst the tit-for-tat violence of the early 1990s. Most notoriously, in June 1993 while attending Donizetti’s opera Lucia di Lammermoor at Castleward, Co. Down, Mayhew responded to news that thirty people had been injured by a loyalist grenade in Belfast by remarking that at least no-one had been killed, whereas in the opera everyone died at the end. Mary Holland (qv) recalled Mayhew during the 1996 Drumcree conflict as ‘the last viceroy, sleepwalking the North to disaster … on television, urging us to “cheer up, for heaven’s sake”’ (Irish Times, 10 July 1997). In private, Mayhew described Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) leader John Hume as possessing ‘satanic cunning’, and Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) MP Ken Maginnis as ‘a great thick butcher’, extruding speech like mince (Irish Times, 28 Dec. 2022); such descriptions probably contained humorous exaggeration.
Mayhew was unusual among Troubles-era Northern Ireland secretaries because he actively sought the position from the mid-1980s, supported by right-wingers who hoped he might implement a hardline security policy. Although he regularly visited Northern Ireland as a law officer, Mayhew’s contacts were legal rather than political. His appointment as Northern Ireland secretary after the 1992 general election was greeted with dismay by elements of the Irish administration; he was often contrasted unfavourably with his predecessor Peter Brooke. Mayhew welcomed his new position as ‘the best job in British politics … which enables me to meet an awful lot of nice people’ (Bloomfield, 6–7). He moved quickly to restart the inter-party multi-strand talks begun under Brooke, his ‘businesslike’ manner produced a string of agreements on specific points concerning outlines of a future government structure for Northern Ireland. For the first time the Irish government was involved, and unionist politicians visited Dublin. Despite Mayhew’s brisk clarity and obvious hope of securing agreement and developing personal understanding between the different delegations, overall agreement was stymied by SDLP/Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) disagreement over power sharing arrangements and unionist determination that the Republic should unilaterally repudiate its claim to Northern Ireland. Mayhew sided with the unionists, but was told the Republic would only change Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution as part of an overall settlement. The talks ended in November 1992 because of a general election in the Republic. Mayhew secretly informed the republican movement of the talks’ outcome through a confidential link recently reopened by MI5 personnel, who claimed the republicans were anxious to make peace.
In a speech at Coleraine in December 1992, Mayhew reiterated Brooke’s 1990 statement that Britain had no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland, annoying unionists and giving rise to controversy about the degree of emphasis to be placed on the word ‘selfish’; at the same time he emphasised that Britain would not become a persuader for Irish unity and the people of Northern Ireland must decide their own fate by majority vote. He was careful to condemn equally atrocities committed by both sides and in 1992 banned the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), responding to loyalist violence with a series of condemnations. He offered to resign after the disclosure, on 28 November 1993, that the British government had maintained covert contact with the IRA while denying that this was the case. He later drew a lawyerly distinction between ‘negotiating’ with the IRA – which he maintained the government had not done – and keeping open a channel to ‘explain our position and hear what they wanted to say’ (Coalter and Mayhew, 2005). Mayhew played a significant role in drafting the Downing Street Declaration issued in December 1993 by Major and Albert Reynolds, though he had some doubts about its acceptability to unionists; he responded to Sinn Féin demands for clarification with what he described as ‘exposition’ of the document.
In September 1994 Mayhew became the first Northern Ireland secretary to address an Orange lodge (at Comber, Co. Down), first checking out a window as a possible escape route. He was impressed by the piety and courtesy of his audience, but they were not enthused by his speech, which emphasised that though Northern Ireland would remain within the United Kingdom as long as a majority so desired, a return to old-style majority rule was unacceptable. While ruling out nationalist demands for joint authority, Mayhew nonetheless suggested for the first time that cross-border bodies should possess some executive powers.
After the August 1994 IRA ceasefire Mayhew made several concessions including lifting the ban on broadcasting paramilitary-linked individuals, restoration of normal remission of prison sentences, easing restrictions on funding for politically suspect community groups and official recognition of the first Gaelscoil in the province. On 24 May 1995 Mayhew had a private meeting with Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams at a conference in Washington promoting investment in Northern Ireland. Other meetings followed, including one in Derry at which Adams was accompanied by Martin McGuinness and Mayhew by his deputy, Michael Ancram. At the same time Mayhew repeatedly insisted that Sinn Féin could only be admitted to talks after progress on decommissioning its weaponry, including a condition described as ‘Washington 3’, after a speech made by Mayhew in the city on 7 March 1995 – ‘Washington 3’ called for the handing over of a significant amount of weaponry, which republicans denounced as symbolic surrender. Although privately advised by the security forces that decommissioning was not essential, Mayhew insisted that it was not possible to negotiate with a party which retained the option of resuming violence. Republicans accused Mayhew of hindering negotiations, though he repeatedly accepted that individual paramilitary crimes were not ordered from above and hence did not breach the ceasefire. (In hindsight, Mayhew thought the demand had been excessive and that the eventual solution of decoupling decommissioning by establishing a separate negotiation, chaired by former US Senator George Mitchell, had been a necessary development.)
Perhaps Mayhew’s most significant achievement was drafting (jointly with Dick Spring, the Irish minister for foreign affairs) the 1995 Framework Document which set the parameters for future negotiations and laid out the basic structure eventually adopted for the Northern Ireland Assembly. Major and Mayhew were seen as operating as ‘good cop’ and ‘bad cop’ during negotiations; it is not clear how far this was a conscious strategy or represented different emphases by the two men. Mayhew sometimes attracted criticism for publicly defending unpopular government decisions (such as the refusal to apologise for the killing of civilians by paratroopers on ‘Bloody Sunday’ – 30 January 1972) which he was subsequently revealed to have opposed in private.
In February 1996 the IRA ended its ceasefire by detonating a bomb at the Canary Wharf financial centre in east London, followed by other bombings in Britain. By the time the ceasefire broke down Mayhew’s position was increasingly that of a ‘lame duck’. He was undermined by a number of factors, including the dwindling parliamentary majority of the Major government (leading to accusations – which Mayhew denied – that it was going soft on unionists to secure their support at Westminster); the increasing likelihood of a landslide Labour victory at the impending general election; the succession as UUP leader of David Trimble, whom Mayhew found less congenial than the deferential James Molyneaux (qv); by personality clashes with Taoiseach John Bruton; by the decision to allow the 1996 Drumcree parade down the nationalist-inhabited Garvaghy Road in Portadown, Co. Armagh, after widespread Orange mobilisation – whose extent took Mayhew by surprise – and threats of extensive loyalist violence (Mayhew’s claim that the decision had been taken by the RUC Chief Constable without political interference was not well received); and by Mayhew’s announcement in July 1996 that he would retire from the house of commons at the next election.
Mayhew did, however, succeed in holding elections under a formula allowing a wide range of parties to secure a mandate to participate in negotiations, and his repeated praise for the political maturity of loyalists in generally maintaining their ceasefire can be seen as an attempt to restrain violence. In March 1997 Mayhew established the Parades Commission to take decisions on contentious parades away from the Stormont administration and the RUC, later admitting regret that he had not done this sooner; the delay may have reflected his general reluctance to admit that there might be problems with policing structures. Mayhew privately briefed his prospective Labour successor, Mo Mowlam (qv), to prepare her to continue negotiations; he later expressed respect for her achievements but thought her known sympathy for republicanism had been a hindrance: ‘it was better to be equally mistrusted by both sides rather than violently mistrusted by one’ (Coalter and Mayhew, 2005). Having been appointed on 10 April 1992, when his term ended on 2 May 1997 he was the longest-serving Northern Ireland secretary of state.
Mayhew was created Baron Mayhew of Twysden in Major’s resignation honours list. He was active in a variety of Kent community groups and continued to take an interest in Northern Irish affairs, co-chairing the Omagh Victims’ Legal Trust which raised funds for a civil lawsuit against alleged perpetrators by surviving victims of the 1998 Omagh bombing. As a staunch defender of the RUC, he had severe doubts about its remodelling and renaming but felt that he could not take a stronger stand than Trimble. In his last years Mayhew suffered from cancer and Parkinson’s disease. He retired from the house of lords in 2015 and died at his home in Kent on 25 June 2016.
Mayhew married Jean Gurney on 15 April 1963; they had four sons, two of whom served in Northern Ireland as officers in the British Army during the Troubles. When Mayhew became Northern Ireland secretary, Jean gave up her job as a teacher in London to accompany him; she engaged in extensive cross-community activities, and after his retirement he supported her decision to seek ordination as an Anglican cleric.
Mayhew’s contribution to the peace process has been overshadowed by the trailblazing Brooke and the earthy Mowlam. After he left office John Hume claimed that peace would have been concluded much earlier had Brooke remained Northern Ireland secretary, while Mary Holland described Mayhew’s replacement of Brooke as ‘disastrous’ (Irish Times, 30 July 1998). When he died, however, even former critics such as Brian Feeney, commentator and former SDLP politician, acknowledged his contribution: ‘He took a lot of flak from people, including me. But he was operating at a higher level than most … he took risks for peace’ (Irish News, 27 June 2016).