Mason, Roy (1924–2015), secretary of state for Northern Ireland, was born on 18 April 1924 in Royston, a mining village near Barnsley, Yorkshire, the only son (he had one sister, Edna) of Joseph Mason, coalminer, and his wife Mary Ann (née MacDonald) from a Yorkshire mining family. The family grew up in a council house in the Carlton district of Barnsley and Mason would later recall the constraints placed on his parents’ lives by the depression of the 1930s, which contributed both to the development of his loyalty to fellow miners and his own determination to escape.
FROM NEW CARLTON TO WESTMINSTER
Mason’s lifelong assertiveness was often attributed to a reaction against his short stature (5 ft 4 in). He attended Carlton Spring school and Royston secondary school, finishing his education at age fourteen to go down New Carlton pit. He improved his skills by training as a fitter and qualified as a pit deputy. Mason joined the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and was an active Royal Air Force (RAF) Cadet, though his attempts to join the RAF during the second world war were rejected because miners were considered vital for the war effort. His father was physically disabled by a mining accident in 1944 and his mother died of cancer that same year, aged forty-six.
Mason was active in the Labour Party from 1943; he took pride in the achievements of the 1945–51 Labour government and supported its anti-communist foreign policy. Having seen the virtual demise of Yorkshire coalmining, Mason had high hopes for the industry when it was nationalised in 1947. That year he was elected NUM branch representative for his pit and in 1951 attended the London School of Economics on a one-year Trades Union Congress (TUC) scholarship. After the resignation of the MP for Barnsley, a safe Labour seat, Mason secured the nomination (which he attributed to his frankness about his unpopular foreign policy views) and won the by-election on 31 March 1953. As a backbencher Mason specialised on defence, opposing unilateral nuclear disarmament. He campaigned for increased parliamentary salaries, calling himself ‘the MPs’ shop steward’.
In 1960 Mason was elected to the shadow cabinet, serving as spokesman on defence, home affairs and the post office. He responded eagerly to Labour leader Harold Wilson’s talk of technocratic modernisation sweeping away archaic privilege. Under Wilson’s premiership following the 1964 general election, Mason became a junior minister at the Board of Trade (20 October 1964–7 January 1967), trying to revitalise Britain’s declining shipyards (including Harland & Wolff of Belfast). He was junior defence minister until 6 April 1968, briefly served as Postmaster General before entering the cabinet as minister of fuel and power (1 July 1968–6 October 1969), then briefly served as president of the Board of Trade (6 October 1969–19 June 1970) until Labour’s defeat in the 1970 general election.
Throughout the 1960s Mason displayed characteristics later visible in his administration of Northern Ireland, including personal showmanship (in May 1965 he demonstrated a new model lifejacket, made in Barnsley, by leaping into the Thames), as well as the cultivation of a self-image as ‘Britain’s travelling salesman’ (Daily Telegraph, 20 Apr. 2015) and defender of regional industries. The ministry of power was a poisoned chalice as the coal industry was run down, though Mason lobbied to build new coal-fired power stations. Thereafter Mason faced left-wing constituency opposition, led by future NUM president Arthur Scargill. This was intensified by Mason’s fervent support for British EEC membership. Mason, who spent most of his adult life in a semi-detached family home in Barnsley, revelled in the trappings of office but remained proud of his working-class background. He had a particular fondness for angling and enjoyed some colourful hobbies, including cravatology (designing tie patterns) and commissioning Christmas cards from a Yorkshire artist, which were sent to a couple of dozen friends with reminders that they were collectors’ items.
Back in opposition, Mason was front-bench spokesman on trade and aviation. When returned to power in Wilson’s final government Mason oversaw extensive cuts as secretary of state for defence (March 1974–September 1976), while struggling to limit their extent. In April 1974 he intensified unionist discontent with the Sunningdale Agreement by stating that Britain wished to reduce its military presence in Northern Ireland. After sectarian murders in South Armagh culminated in the massacre of ten protestants at Kingsmill on 5 January 1976, Mason deployed Special Air Service (SAS) members to the area.
SECRETARY OF STATE FOR NORTHERN IRELAND
In September Prime Minister James Callaghan moved Mason to Northern Ireland, replacing Merlyn Rees (qv). Contemporary journalists saw Mason’s arrival as marking a major change, with attempts at compromise by Rees (caricatured as hand-wringing and indecisive) replaced by security-centred ‘Ulsterisation’ and ‘criminalisation’, with a tough and decisive Mason treating the republican movement as criminals to be defeated primarily by the locally recruited Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC, remodelled by a new chief constable, Kenneth Newman (1926–2017)) and Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR). Mason forbade contacts with the Irish Republic Army (IRA), though unknown to him British Intelligence retained a vestigial channel.
However, official archives appear to show continuity between Rees and Mason; the government had already lost patience with IRA obstinacy and the divisions between local political parties. In his last months, Rees ended internment, withdrew political status from paramilitaries convicted after April 1974 and launched a wide-ranging review of security policy, whose recommendations Mason approved but did not initiate. The government’s long-term objective remained devolution based on power-sharing, seen as only possible after Northern Ireland stabilised politically and economically.
Mason was aware of the importance of perception, though his attempts to control the political narrative were often ham-fisted. Soon after his arrival he antagonised media executives (including BBC Northern Ireland’s board of governors) at a function at Culloden House Hotel in East Belfast, accusing them of amplifying IRA propaganda. This ‘Second Battle of Culloden’ became farcical when Mason suggested coverage of IRA ‘spectaculars’ should be suppressed, even if Mason himself were assassinated. Mason continued to suggest that a ‘D Notice system’ prohibiting media coverage of sensitive stories be applied to Northern Ireland.
Mason tried to close down the Sinn Féin/IRA periodical Republican News by prosecuting all its employees. These proceedings were eventually dismissed by the courts, as was a charge of IRA membership against prominent republican Gerry Adams, with the Lord Chief Justice commenting ‘the ordinary rules of evidence will apply [in this court]’ (Sunday Press, 23 Dec. 1984).
Mason also oversaw aggressive policing, trying to disrupt IRA command structures by rounding up groups of suspects simultaneously and subjecting them to seven days’ interrogation in designated centres before charge or release. This produced a considerable increase in convictions based on confessions. Mason held weekly meetings with security force leaders and personally met Special Branch detectives, who felt they were finally being allowed to wage war. Mason highlighted declining fatalities and violent incidents: ‘we are squeezing the terrorists and rolling them up like a tube of toothpaste’ (Taylor, 117). Senior policemen (in private) and commentators (in public) suggested Mason’s assertions provoked IRA attacks.
The defeat of the June 1977 United Ulster Action Council (UUAC) strike, headed by Ian Paisley (qv) and Ernest Baird (qv) and supported by loyalist paramilitaries, was widely attributed to Mason’s decisive leadership. Stuart Aveyard points out that the anti-strike strategy was developed under Rees, that the UUAC demand for a return to majority rule lacked the broad-based unionist support achieved by the anti-Sunningdale strike (and even so was only narrowly defeated), and that the security policies associated with Mason (including inaccurate statements about the extent of SAS deployment) helped to secure support from the Ulster Unionist Party and key workers, to whom Mason gave signed security commitments. In August 1977 Queen Elizabeth II visited Northern Ireland as part of her silver jubilee celebrations. Mason presented the visit as symbolising returning normality, despite IRA bombings at the University of Ulster at Coleraine and the appearance of republican graffiti declaring ‘Stonemason will not break us’ (Mason, 251).
The security successes had a darker side. There were widespread accusations that confessions were fabricated or extorted by physical ill-treatment, with innocents such as the Enniskillen schoolteacher Bernard O’Connor (who successfully sued for compensation in 1980) caught in the net. Local activists such as Frs Denis Faul (qv) and Raymond Murray complained that these allegations received inadequate coverage because of official pressure on the media. (Faul and Murray documented numerous cases in self-published pamphlets.) Three police surgeons publicly denounced police interrogation methods and were smeared by shadowy official sources; Amnesty International issued a report documenting allegations of police brutality. Mason responded with an inquiry under Justice Bennett, which concluded that there had been significant abuses; Mason ordered reforms to interrogation procedure, but always maintained that isolated abuses had been exaggerated. Official documents released in 2008 make it clear, however, that Mason whitewashed the findings and knew more than he admitted of the role of Chief Constable Newman in abuses. Mason’s memoirs quote a statement by Martin McGuinness that Mason ‘beat the shit out of us’ (Mason, 251).
Mason’s critics argued that his media management disguised the extent of popular sympathy for republicans, while his security policy filled the prisons with committed and embittered prisoners whose refusal of criminal status fuelled the ‘blanket protest’ and ‘dirty protest’, culminating in the 1981 hunger strike. ‘The H-Block song’ written in 1976 by Francie Brolly equates Mason with Oliver Cromwell (qv), with junior minister Don Concannon (qv) as his ‘trusty slave’. The ability of prison protests to recruit wider sympathy was encapsulated when Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich (qv) publicly compared protestors’ living conditions to Calcutta slums and warned Mason that even if the IRA were defeated, the prison issue would produce large-scale political mobilisation resembling the amnesty movement after the 1867 Fenian rebellion.
Mason continued to meet representatives of the Northern Ireland parties but usually did so separately, except for brief round table talks in February–March and November 1977. Negotiations with the Irish government were tense, particularly after Fianna Fáil took office in July 1977. Mason complained that calls for Irish unity by Jack Lynch (qv) and Minister for Foreign Affairs Michael O’Kennedy provoked unionists, while Irish representatives denounced Mason’s claims that republican terrorists fled to the Republic after attacks in the North (for which Mason produced evidence) and complained that the Callaghan government appeased the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP). When Mason met O’Kennedy in 1978 Paisley accused him of treachery and attacked UUP MPs for tolerating the Callaghan government, while UUP spokesman John Taylor indicated that limited cross-border co-operation was acceptable if it had ‘no political implications’ (Irish Times, 6 May 1978).
Although concessions to unionists (such as additional Northern Ireland seats at Westminster) were individually defensible, and it was reasonable to address the concerns of the majority community and attempt to separate moderates from Paisley and other extremists, Mason wilfully antagonised nationalists North and South, addressing Irish civil servants as ‘Paddy’. Aveyard notes that while Mason rebutted the regular pleas of UUP leader Harry West (qv) for a return to majority rule, he did not take the dismissive attitude to West’s concerns that he habitually adopted towards nationalist politicians.
Mason’s attitude to devolution and policing provoked the Social Democratic and Labour Party’s (SDLP) movement towards a ‘greener’ nationalist approach. Although SDLP leader Gerry Fitt (qv) agreed with some of Mason’s policies he found Mason personally repellent, publicly accusing him of resembling a safari-suited colonial governor trying to civilise the natives by force and of ‘rehabilitating’ UUP politicians who overthrew Sunningdale. Fitt also expressed concerns that the SAS and related forces were trigger-happy.
ECONOMIC POLICIES IN NORTHERN IRELAND
Mason’s economic policy shows him at his most attractive, though frequently maladroit. He was shocked by West Belfast: ‘Even in the 1930s I never remember seeing an area as socially deprived’ (Belfast Telegraph, 5 Mar. 1982). In 1977 Mason established the Northern Ireland Economic Council to advise on policy; the Quigley Report provided the first overall survey of the economy since the Troubles. Mason and Concannon toured North America seeking investment, at a time when the IRA assassinated businessmen. The journalist Barry White noted that Mason’s commitment to the economic well-being of Northern Ireland was unquestionable, that he fought in cabinet to shield the province from spending cuts and would ‘bend all the rules’ to secure investment (Belfast Telegraph, 8 Sept. 1978). In September 1981 an anonymous civil servant interviewed by the Irish Independent contrasted Mason’s fierce commitment to the Northern Irish economy with that of his inert Conservative successor Humphrey Atkins (qv).
Mason oversaw improvements in sporting infrastructure, possibly influenced by his longstanding friendship with Northern Ireland manager Danny Blanchflower (qv) who had played for Barnsley. He invested in educational facilities, passed legislation facilitating interdenominational schools and also liberalised Northern Irish divorce law, though legalisation of homosexuality was deferred because of unionist opposition. Investment in cross-border communications links, especially around Derry city, produced unionist complaints that internal Northern Ireland projects were neglected. In March 1976 Mason overruled proposals to abandon the planned second phase of a gigantic power station at Kilroot near Carrickfergus, Co. Antrim. (The plans overestimated local demand for electricity; the second phase was suspended in July 1980.) Other disappointments included Strathearn Audio, a manufacturer of record turntables which provided only a fraction of the predicted jobs, and a proposed experimental lightweight Learjet plane.
In 1978 the Northern Ireland Office entered negotiations with John DeLorean, who was playing Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and Puerto Rico against each other for his proposed car factory. Mason saw an opportunity to establish a growth engine in West Belfast and ‘deal a hammerblow to the IRA’ (Belfast Telegraph, 21 Mar. 2005). He overrode warnings that DeLorean’s forecasts were excessively optimistic and secured cabinet approval for a package of loans and grants, formally announced at a press conference on 3 August 1978. Mason continued to defend the DeLorean firm even while in opposition; after its final collapse in 1982 he admitted that he had skimped details because of time pressure, though blamed his Conservative successors for inadequate supervision and maintained, unrealistically, that if supported for another year the company could have survived with new investors.
In a vote of no confidence in the Callaghan government on 28 March 1979 Fitt denounced the government’s Northern Ireland record, and Mason in particular, in a speech which even Mason called a tour de force. By abstaining, Fitt and independent nationalist Frank Maguire (qv) defeated the Callaghan government, which fell by one vote. (Two unionist MPs supported the government; the others opposed it.) This doomed two infrastructural projects: a cross-Belfast rail-link connecting the Dublin line to the Derry line, and a gas pipeline from Scotland to Northern Ireland. Although Mason had secured cabinet approval, contracts had not been signed, allowing the new Conservative government to cancel them (the rail link was completed twenty years later).
At the 1979 general election candidates opposing Mason in Barnsley included an anti-H Block candidate, Brendan Gallagher, supported by left-wing activists, whose son was imprisoned for Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) activities. During the campaign, Mason was informed of an imminent threat to his life requiring heavy personal security; the INLA plotted his assassination in March 1979, and IRA bomber Patrick Magee later recalled that the IRA reconnoitred the October 1979 Labour conference at Blackpool in the hope of assassinating Mason. For the rest of his life Mason and his wife lived under a twenty-four-hour guard; the threat continued after the first IRA ceasefire in 1994.
Mason became opposition spokesman for agriculture; he took little interest in his portfolio, using a 1981 ‘fact-finding’ visit to the Ulster Farmers Union to denounce the first H-Block hunger strike. In November 1981 he left the shadow cabinet and survived an attempt to deselect him as Labour candidate for the 1983 general election, in part due to conflict with Arthur Scargill, leader of the NUM. Mason would later attribute some of the blame for the 1984–5 coal strike, which proved disastrous to the NUM, to Scargill’s irresponsibility. During the strike Mason and his wife paid a local milkman to keep up supplies to strikers’ families and donated food parcels.
A lifelong pipe-smoker and a paid consultant to Imperial Tobacco, Mason founded and became a mainstay of the Parliamentary Pipe and Tobacco Group. Mason continued to engage in public controversy with Labour leftists such as Ken Livingstone, who appeared on platforms with Sinn Féin representatives and publicly apologised to the people of Northern Ireland for Mason’s actions. Mason responded to the New Ireland Forum by urging the British government not to make concessions on sovereignty over Northern Ireland; he supported the Anglo–Irish Agreement, assuring Unionists ‘the Union is safe’ and warning that loyalist violence assisted republican paramilitaries. Mason chose not to contest the 1987 general election, and was elevated to the peerage as Baron Mason of Barnsley in October of that year.
Despite his security requirements Mason made low-key visits to Northern Ireland, usually to fish in the Bush and Bann rivers. In 1984 he fronted a BBC documentary promoting Northern Ireland as a tourist destination. After the 1998 Belfast Agreement Mason opposed replacement of the RUC by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), denounced suggestions that Paratroop Regiment veterans of ‘Bloody Sunday’ in 1972 be named, and supported a civil lawsuit against alleged perpetrators of the 1998 Omagh car bomb.
Mason’s term as Northern Ireland Secretary still provokes disagreement. A 1984 newspaper survey showed that, at the time, he was the most popular secretary of state among unionists (forty per cent), while most nationalists recalled him unfavourably (only five per cent approved). Unionist nostalgia for Mason partly reflected criticism of his Conservative successors’ disappointment of their expectations. Fitt remained bitter towards ‘that wee fucker’, maintaining to the end of his life that Mason set back Northern Ireland by ten or fifteen years (Guardian, 20 Apr. 2015); more tellingly, the leading catholic civil servant Maurice Hayes thought Mason the worst Northern secretary.
Mason’s emphasis on security and economic development marks him as a practitioner of the recurring approach to the Irish crisis known as ‘constructive unionism’, effective in the short term but more opportunist than systematic, and ultimately reductionist in treating nationalism as an epiphenomenon of underdevelopment. Mason was often unnecessarily antagonistic, and his successes had high moral and political costs. His ultimate failure to contain the republican movement may suggest he was simply another defeated colonial governor, but any administration would have struggled to handle Northern Ireland’s divisions and an international economic slump, and republican politicisation had not advanced sufficiently to allow compromise. He recognised, but overestimated, what Northern Ireland had in common with Barnsley.
On 20 October 1945 Mason married his longstanding sweetheart Madge (Marjorie) Sowden; they had two daughters, and his memoir acknowledges her emotional support and physical courage. Mason ceased to attend the Lords in 2012 after a stroke. He died at Highgrove Nursing Home, Barnsley, on 20 April 2015 of cerebrovascular dementia. His papers and memorabilia are held by Barnsley Library and Archive, which he helped to establish.