Rees, Merlyn (1920–2006), Baron Merlyn-Rees , secretary of state for Northern Ireland, was born in Cilfynydd (a pit village near Pontypridd), Mid Glamorgan, Wales on 18 December 1920, only child of Levi Rees, a miner, and his wife Edith (née Williams). Rees's paternal grandfather and great-grandfather had also been miners, as had maternal ancestors (his mother's grandfather died in a pit explosion in 1895); both families had lived in Cilfynydd since the pit was originally sunk. The family had a record of 'Lib–Lab' political activism; Rees's grandmother displayed a picture of Gladstone in her house.
Early life and influences In Rees's father's and grandfather's generation this political commitment developed into support for the nascent Labour party. After returning to the pit from the first world war with gas injuries which shortened his life, Levi Rees became a local distributor of the Labour party paper, the Daily Herald. After the long and bitter 1926 miners' strike he was blacklisted, and like many Welshmen in the depressed inter-war period migrated (on foot) to London, finding work at a chewing-gum factory in Wembley. At first Merlyn continued to live with his grandmother in Cilfynydd, where he received his primary education and attended Baptist chapel's Sunday school; when their circumstances improved his parents brought him to London, where he attended elementary school in Wembley and then Harrow Weald Grammar School (the family moved to Harrow in 1933). In London the Rees family lived in an area inhabited by many migrant Welsh. Merlyn always regarded himself as Welsh; similarly, despite considerable upward mobility he always emphasised his working-class origins and identified with the working-class trade union strand in the Labour party rather than the self-consciously high-minded middle-class progressivism which he saw as deriving from Gladstonian and Asquithian Liberalism rather than from the authentic Labour tradition. Although Rees was highly esteemed as a political practitioner by fellow MPs, the Labour left-winger Ken Livingstone privately told the Guardian journalist Hugo Young that when he first met 1970s Labour cabinet ministers he was horrified to realise that such mediocrities as Rees were running the country (Hugo Young papers, 85).
Awareness of Ireland Rees acquired an early awareness of the Irish question from his father, who had served with the British army in Dublin in Easter week 1916 and with the 16th (Irish) Division at the Somme, and from a schoolteacher at Harrow Weald. The young Merlyn took enough interest in Irish history to find Michael Davitt (qv) more congenial than the aristocratic Charles Stewart Parnell (qv), and had enough interest in Irish current affairs to have his opinions on the relationship between Irish nationalism and progressivism qualified by awareness of the Blueshirts and the defeat of Harry Midgley (qv) after catholic voters deserted him over his opposition to Franco. Rees claimed that his early exposure to south Wales nonconformity gave him a certain affinity for the ethos of the respectable protestant-unionist working class of Northern Ireland (although he regarded Ian Paisley (qv) as a monstrous parody of that ethos; on appointment as secretary of state for Northern Ireland, denying reports that he was a catholic, Rees remarked: 'I am a Welsh baptist against whose chapels Mr Paisley's churches look like Romish seminaries in size and opulence' (Belfast Newsletter, 7 March 1974)).
War service Rees won a scholarship to Goldsmith's College, London, and London University Institute of Education to train as a teacher. On the outbreak of the second world war he was evacuated to Nottingham University to continue his studies and subsequently joined the RAF. He had a distinguished war record, serving from 1941 as an operations and intelligence officer with No. 324 squadron RAF and acting as an advanced ground controller of forward units during the landings in Sicily, Salerno, Anzio and the south of France. He became a squadron commander aged 24 – a remarkable achievement for a non-flying officer. In Italy he made the acquaintance of Frank Cooper, later his special adviser at the Northern Ireland Office and seen as devising many of the policies which Rees implemented.
When war ended Rees was offered a permanent RAF commission but chose instead to study economics and history at the London School of Economics. After completing a master's degree he returned to Harrow Weald Grammar School to run the sixth form (1949–60), teaching history and economics. On 26 December 1949 Rees married Colleen Cleveley (of Irish catholic descent); they had three sons.
Labour activist and MP Rees remained active in the Labour Party and unsuccessfully contested Harrow East at the 1955 general election, at a March 1959 by-election and in the general election of 1959. He was identified as a promising young talent by the party general secretary, Morgan Phillips, and left his teaching position when he was personally chosen by the Labour party leader Hugh Gaitskell to organise the Festival of Labour (which combined sport and cultural events with commemoration of party history), which was held in Battersea Park in 1962. In this role he showed considerable organising talent with limited resources and was spoken of as a future general secretary of the party; however, he made it clear that he wished to enter parliamentary politics rather than become a party organiser. (He turned down the general secretaryship in 1968 for the same reason.) He lectured in economics at Luton College of Technology (1962–3), and in June 1963 he was elected Labour MP for the mining constituency of Leeds South in the by-election caused by Gaitskell's death; he retained the seat until 1983, and then represented the new Morley and Leeds South constituency until 1992.
In government Rees immediately became parliamentary private secretary to the shadow chancellor of the exchequer, James Callaghan, and held the same position when Callaghan became chancellor in Harold Wilson's first Labour government in 1964. Throughout his career Rees was Callaghan's loyal disciple and closest political confidant; the Labour MP Tam Dalyell compared his later role within the 1976–9 Callaghan government to that of prime ministerial special advisers in later administrations.
In 1965 Rees became a junior minister at the Ministry of Defence with responsibility for the army (1965–6) then for the air force (1966–8); his task here was assisted by the fact that in the Italian campaign he had served with Denis Healey, who was now secretary of state for defence. From November 1968 until the June 1970 general election he was under-secretary at the Home Office, when Callaghan was home secretary. He was responsible for immigration, race relations and the fire service. He denounced Enoch Powell's attacks on non-white immigration while expressing understanding for working-class people who saw familiar districts transformed by immigration; he steered the restrictive 1968 commonwealth immigration bill through parliament against some liberal-minded opposition. He also oversaw the children's bill (dealing with remand homes and similar institutions for young offenders) and, like the Home Office more generally, was drawn into the developing Northern Ireland troubles from 1969.
Shadow secretary of state After Labour's defeat in the 1970 general election Rees served on the 1971 Franks committee of enquiry into the official secrets act. He became shadow spokesman on Northern Ireland in October 1971 and was elected to the shadow cabinet in 1972. This required regular visits to Northern Ireland (to a considerable extent at his own expense, though the Conservative government made some concessions for his travel requirements). In general he committed the Labour party to bipartisanship on Northern Ireland; here, as elsewhere in his political career, he was a natural conciliator whose instinct was to look for common ground. On visits to the internment camp at Long Kesh, he was struck by the political determination and military discipline of the inmates, and concluded that internment was actually creating a paramilitary 'staff college'. In 1973 he published an economics textbook, The public sector in the mixed economy, which was widely used in sixth form colleges.
Secretary of state for Northern Ireland Following the Labour party's return to office in March 1974 Rees was appointed Northern Ireland secretary and a privy councillor, arriving at Stormont on 5 March. At his first press conference in Stormont he declared that it was one thing to read Irish history in the house of commons and another to sit in the secretary of state's office in Belfast. He initially made a good impression by expressing concern about the high level of unemployment in the province (drawing comparisons with Leeds, like Belfast a nineteenth-century city facing the decline of its traditional industries) and going on a walkabout in central Belfast where he sympathised with civilians affected by bombing and was barracked by angry loyalists. (His later ruminations on his experience included analysis of the peculiarities of the office of secretary of state for Northern Ireland, which he described as combining the roles of cabinet minister, colonial governor, and security chief; his central objection to internment was that it gave arbitrary power to the secretary of state.) In April 1974 Rees legalised Sinn Féin (previously banned in Northern Ireland) in the hope that this would draw republicans into electoral politics; from similar motives he legalised the UVF, though it was subsequently re-banned, and he chose not to ban the UDA.
Ulster Workers' Council strike He was, however, rapidly plunged into the Ulster Workers' Council (UWC) strike, which began on 15 May 1974 and demanded the resignation of the power-sharing executive which had come into office on 1 January 1974 under the terms of the Sunningdale agreement (December 1973). The executive had been chosen from an assembly elected before the agreement was concluded, and the February 1974 general election revealed majority support for unionist opponents of the agreement; Rees and Wilson privately believed it was doomed.
Initially underestimating the strikers' potential support, Rees first adopted a passive approach in the belief that the strike would fizzle out. Instead, the strike spread across the province, assisted by widespread loyalist intimidation and roadblocks. Having gained the support of technicians at the province's principal electricity generation plant, the strikers progressively reduced power levels; the UWC increasingly took on responsibility for essential services (while threatening that if the army intervened they would cut off power completely and force it to run essential services single-handed), and large sections of the protestant middle-classes acquiesced in, or openly sympathised with, the UWC's growing exercise of power. Rees cut a profoundly unimpressive figure, appearing both to the general public and to those in close contact with him to be out of touch with developments on the ground. During media appearances he engaged in longwinded discourse and was seen by critics as indecisive and evasive; this habit, christened 'Merlynating' by exasperated cabinet colleagues, was an abiding feature of his private functioning and public image. The army made it plain to him that it did not think itself capable of suppressing the strike in a manner which some regarded as bordering on insubordination. Rees himself did not regard it in this light; his own military experience gave him sympathy for the difficulties facing both the military commanders and soldiers on the ground. He found the regular announcement of military casualties in parliament the most distressing of tasks; an aide commented: 'when a soldier is shot, Merlyn bleeds' (Irish Times, 11 September 1976). He did, however, believe that elements in military intelligence had run a smear campaign against him, and for the rest of his life took a strong interest in claims that some members of MI5 and similar bodies deliberately undermined the 1970s Labour government. On 28 May the power-sharing executive collapsed when its unionist members resigned.
Rees's position was made more difficult by the fact that the Labour party in opposition had supported protest strikes against the Conservative government's industrial relations legislation, culminating in the 1973–4 miners' strike which involved the blocking of coke depots by force of numbers and which led Edward Heath to call a general election in the (unsuccessful) hope of securing a new mandate. This comparison was made by the strikers themselves, by unionist and sympathetic Conservative MPs at Westminster, and even by Heath when expressing support for the power-sharing executive. Rees responded that the British strikers had not actually demanded new elections (the primary demand of the UWC) and that the UWC's reliance on paramilitary intimidation placed them in a completely different category (he noted that his own family went hungry for months during the 1926 miners' strike, but 'we never used the gun'). Rees's sensitivity on this point may explain his high-profile support for an attempt by British TUC leaders to lead a 'back to work' march to the shipyards, which proved a fiasco. The strike contributed considerably to the pervasive impression of governmental powerlessness and looming social chaos that marked mid-to-late 1970s Britain.
Rees and the collapse of power sharing His handling of the UWC strike remains controversial. Many commentators (including nationalist participants in the executive) maintained at the time and subsequently that a potentially viable power-sharing settlement was lost as a result of Rees's procrastination. This view maintains that a British government unequivocally committed to Sunningdale might have defeated the strike by bringing in troops promptly, insisting that the military authorities use them to remove barricades and assist those trying to get to work, and trying to replace the striking personnel in the power stations with military engineers or skilled personnel from Britain. The predominant view, however, is that although Rees was clearly weak and indecisive, the power-sharing executive was doomed given the opposition it faced from a large majority of unionists as well as from the Provisional IRA; even if Rees had called in extra troops at the beginning of the strike it would have been impossible to supply sufficient numbers to prevent large-scale intimidation (this view is supported by reference to the number of troops required for removing barricades over a much smaller area in 'Operation Motorman' on 31 July 1972). Furthermore the unique design of individual power stations made it impossible for technicians from the military or from British power stations to operate those in Northern Ireland without the co-operation of local staff.
British withdrawal? The strike reinforced Rees's conviction that a solution could only be found by the divided inhabitants of Northern Ireland themselves, and that the British government could only hold the ring to make it possible for a solution to be worked out. He was privately scathing about commentators who maintained that a speedy resolution might be brought about by some grand constitutional initiative imposed from above, telling the journalist Henry Kelly: 'I am so totally opposed to Gladstone's comment that his mission was "to pacify Ireland"…My view is that I should be doing anything but' (Sunday Independent, 8 January 2006). Rees's public musings (as reported in the Irish News (1 June 1974) and the Irish Times (4 June 1974) that the strike had shown the existence of an 'Ulster protestant nationalism', which could not be dismissed as a mere backlash but must be taken into account as a serious political factor, were intended by him to emphasise that Ulster unionists and protestants had a distinctive sense of identity, British in name only, which could not be disregarded; yet these musings were interpreted in some quarters as implying that Rees favoured British withdrawal and an independent Northern Ireland.
The impression that Rees favoured withdrawal, and the willingness of the British government to enter into clandestine negotiations with the IRA, helped to bring about the IRA ceasefire of February–July 1975, which was accompanied by the establishment of 'incident centres'. Sinn Féin and the IRA later came to see the ceasefire as a cunning British ploy which almost wrecked the movement by making it harder to maintain discipline and giving the security forces breathing-space to redeploy and develop intelligence; at the time, however, it encouraged the republican expectation that a short conflict would end in 'one last push' and a British withdrawal. Similar fears were expressed in public by sections of the Conservative right wing and in private by the Irish government, which saw the contacts as endangering political stability, in the south as well as the north, by according legitimacy to the IRA, and was alarmed by the knowledge that Harold Wilson privately favoured British withdrawal. Rees, who disdained the Irish cabinet as lightweights, allegedly horrified an Irish minister on one occasion by jokingly telling him: 'Right, we're agreed. You take over the North on January 1' (Daily Telegraph, 6 January 2006).
Ulsterisation and ending of special category status Although the ceasefire was accompanied by an upsurge of violence from loyalist paramilitaries and smaller republican groups (in February 1975 an Official IRA member was shot by an INLA sniper at Divis Flats while Rees was visiting the complex), Rees took advantage of the consequent lull in IRA violence to end internment by December 1975 through phased release of detainees and to move towards a policy of 'Ulsterisation', whereby the involvement of British regular military forces in the province was to be scaled down, and the gap filled by expanding the locally raised Royal Ulster Constabulary and Ulster Defence Regiment. He further emphasised the normalisation of the Northern Ireland situation by deciding that those convicted of what would formerly have been considered political offences after March 1976 would be treated as ordinary convicts rather than given special status. He thus laid the foundations for the security policies which would be more forcefully implemented by his successor, Roy Mason, and for the prison protests against 'criminalisation' which culminated in the 1981 and 1982 H-Block hunger strikes.
Rees also coined the term 'bandit country' for IRA-dominated south Armagh in January 1976 after sectarian massacres of catholics at Whitecross and protestants at Kingsmills. Rees himself experienced a certain amount of physical danger; a loyalist plot to shoot him was uncovered during the UWC strike, and if he had not been refused a pair by the Conservative whips he would have been in Dublin and have shared a car with the British ambassador Christopher Ewart-Biggs (qv), on 21 July 1976 when the car was blown up by the IRA and Ewart-Biggs was killed. For a time one of Rees's sons was relocated to Canada because of IRA threats.
Constitutional convention In spring 1975 he oversaw the creation of the Northern Ireland constitutional convention, intended to provide a forum in which the Northern Ireland political parties could work out their disagreements. The election to the convention on 1 May 1975 revealed overwhelming majority support among unionists for opponents of power-sharing; a proposal by William Craig (1924–2011) of Vanguard that unionists should form a 'voluntary coalition' with the SDLP to deal with the current crisis but without enshrining power-sharing as a principle led only to a split in that party, and although Rees briefly recalled the convention for further discussions it was finally dissolved on 5 March 1976. One unionist supporter of Craig's proposal later lamented the convention as a lost opportunity and said of Rees: 'he was the one Brit who gave us a chance to say how we should run our own affairs, and we blew it' (Downey, Them and us, 145).
Rees himself does not appear to have had high expectations from the convention, but hoped that its debates would help Northern Ireland politicians – and the wider Northern Ireland public – to realise that the opposing views existed and could not simply be brushed aside: 'by institutionalising political talk the worst sting was taken out of the arguments' (Rees, Personal perspective, 199). Rees believed that a lengthy period of direct rule was inevitable, though devolution with power-sharing must remain the long-term objective, and integrationism (the view, associated in particular with Enoch Powell, that the province should be permanently integrated into the UK) should be firmly ruled out. He advised the cabinet that Northern Ireland politicians were not capable of running the province as those with government experience had mostly left public life and the new ones were protest politicians unprepared to wield power (Rees, Personal perspective, 273–4).
Return to London In 1974 Rees had organised Callaghan's successful campaign to be Labour party treasurer (as the only office directly elected by party conference, this emphasised Callaghan's popularity with party membership). In April 1976, on Harold Wilson's resignation, Rees was Callaghan's campaign manager in the contest to succeed Harold Wilson as party leader and prime minister (having advised Callaghan: 'you must stand and you will win'). He left the Northern Ireland Office on 8 September 1976 when he was appointed home secretary in the reshuffle caused by Roy Jenkins's departure for the presidency of the European Commission. He compared the job of Northern Ireland secretary to commanding a battalion and that of home secretary to commanding an army group; the first entailed unremitting concentration on a single set of objectives, while the second involved responding to a widely varied and unpredictable range of challenges and threats.
After leaving Northern Ireland Rees remained 'hooked on Northern Ireland' (Rees, Personal perspective, 286) and retained a strong personal commitment to Ireland, north and south, visiting the island three or four times a year for the remainder of his life. He expressed admiration for literary and musical developments in Northern Ireland since 1945 (his wife organised an exhibition of work by Ulster artists which toured Britain in 1976). As home secretary he continued to have an input into Irish policy through his membership of the cabinet's Irish committee, one of the many cabinet committees in which he participated. He unsuccessfully opposed the Callaghan government's decision to increase the number of Northern Ireland seats at Westminster, seeing it as a sop to integrationists. In 1985 he published Northern Ireland: a personal perspective, a justificatory memoir of his period in office, in which he drew on his official papers and on a contemporaneous tape-recorded journal; he had begun writing it soon after leaving office in 1979; his original working title had been No solution. As early as March 1980 he lectured the Royal Institute of Public Administration on the working of direct rule administration in Northern Ireland. In 1989 he became one of the first members of the British–Irish interparliamentary body.
Return to opposition Rees was a member of the shadow cabinet following Labour's defeat in the 1979 general election, and sought to oppose both the far-left's attempt to take over the party and the secession of discontented rightists to the new Social Democratic Party. He was shadow home secretary (1979–80) and spokesman on energy (1980–83). He lost some popularity within the party for his service in 1982 on Lord Franks's committee of enquiry into the Falklands war, whose report many (including Callaghan) thought insufficiently critical of the Thatcher government's failure to deter Argentina's invasion of the islands. In 1983 he retired to the back benches, where he criticised the Conservative government's handling of the 1984–5 miners' strike and the telephone tapping of members of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament; he fervently supported legislation to allow the prosecution of suspected Nazi war criminals resident in Britain. He served as chairman of the South Leeds Groundwork Trust in 1987 and was a board member of the Groundwork Foundation from 1990 to 1996.
Last years On retiring from the commons at the 1992 general election Rees was made a life peer, as Baron Merlyn-Rees of Morley and South Leeds. He listened to Northern Ireland debates in the commons from the peers' gallery. In 1990 he became president of the video standards council. He served as first chancellor of the University of Glamorgan (1994–2001), and was conferred with honorary doctorates by the universities of Wales (1987), Leeds (1992), and Glamorgan (2002); he was an honorary fellow of Goldsmiths College, London (1994), and a freeman of Leeds (1993). Although suffering from Parkinson's disease in later years he remained active in the house of lords almost to the end, participating in a December 2005 lords' debate on government proposals to detain suspected terrorists without trial for up to ninety days. After a series of falls caused by his illness, Merlyn Rees entered a coma which ended with his death in London on 5 January 2006.
Assessment Rees remains a controversial figure. His academic habit of thinking aloud and throwing out suggestions without offering conclusions certainly contributed to a perception of indecision and weakness which sometimes had serious consequences (not just for himself) but it can be argued that his failings were more matters of style than substance and that it is unlikely that anyone else could have done much better under the circumstances. Defenders of Rees argue that the peace process beginning with the 1985 Anglo–Irish agreement and leading to the implementation of the 1998 Belfast agreement can be seen as following the lines suggested by Rees. The Ulster Unionist politician John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney) perhaps summed up best the strength and weakness of Rees's approach: 'he saw the right on both sides of the debate in Northern Ireland' (Irish News, 6 January 2006).
Merlyn Rees bequeathed his papers to the LSE library