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Obituary: Stormont chief who tried to ban news of Troubles

Published 21/04/2015

Pipe-smoking Yorkshireman Roy Mason believed in tough security
Pipe-smoking Yorkshireman Roy Mason believed in tough security

Lord Mason of Barnsley, who as Roy Mason was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland from 1976-79, has died at the age of 91.

Born in 1924, the son of a miner, he went down the mines at the age of 14 before later rising through the ranks of the National Union of Mineworkers which put him forward for a by-election to Westminster in 1953. He won and represented Barnsley until 1987 when he entered the House of Lords.

The pipe-smoking Yorkshireman is best remembered in the province for his uncompromising security-driven approach to the job of Secretary of State.

In a move which presaged the later attitude of Margaret Thatcher, he was determined that convicted IRA terrorists should be treated as criminals rather than political prisoners.

His stance on security, which also involved the Ulsterisation of the fight against terrorism by reducing the use of the Army and developing the roles of the RUC and the UDR, won him the backing of the unionist community and the undying hatred of republicans.

Indeed Martin McGuinness is reported to have said that Mason "beat the s… out of us".

But he was also tough on loyalist paramilitaries and in 1977 faced down a re-run of the Ulster Workers' Council strike which had brought down the power-sharing Executive in 1974. His support of transport and power workers was crucial in keeping the province going during a tense, month-long stand-off.

Appointed Secretary of State in the darkest days of the Troubles he told the Labour Party conference in 1976 that Ulster had had enough of initiatives, White Papers and legislation for the time being and now needed to be governed firmly and fairly".

That involved the increasing use of the SAS. As Secretary of State for Defence prior to coming to Northern Ireland, Mason had authorised the deployment of the elite special forces in south Armagh and extended their use to throughout the province.

Controversially he also wanted a news blackout on the Troubles, astounding the BBC Board of Governors at a private dinner party in the Culloden Hotel in November 1976 by launching a fierce attack on the Corporation's news coverage and saying there should be a three month moratorium on Troubles-related coverage.

When one guest asked if Mason was assassinated the next day by the IRA, should there be no report of his death, the Secretary of State said: "Yes".

This row, which was quickly made public, was dubbed the Second Battle of Culloden.

Ironically Mason's approach to the job of Secretary of State gave Margaret Thatcher the opportunity to become Prime Minister.

In a crucial vote of no confidence in the James Callaghan government in 1979, SDLP leader Gerry Fitt - a long time supporter of Labour - abstained and the government lost by one vote precipitating a General Election which brought Mrs Thatcher to power. Fitt said he could not support any Labour government which had Mason as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

In the Wilson Governments of 1964 and 1966 Mason held a number of junior ministerial posts, including Postmaster-General, and Minister of Fuel and Power, until his first spell in the Cabinet from 1969 to 1970 as president of the Board of Trade. He became Defence Secretary when Labour returned to power in 1974 to be followed by his time in Northern Ireland.

He is survived by his wife Marjorie, who he married in 1945, and their daughters, Susan and Jill.

Belfast Telegraph

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