Belfast Telegraph

Friday 22 August 2014

We had the good, the bad, the ugly down the years...

As Theresa Villiers gets down to business, David McKittrick finds that her 17 predecessors as Secretary of State were a mixed bag

The list of those who have gone before Theresa Villiers in the post of Northern Ireland Secretary include the good, the bad and the ugly; the distinguished and the time-servers.

Some linger on in the memory, while others are virtually forgotten; some were highly active, while others were content simply to hold the fort.

In the list of ministers, the ambitious and the arrogant sit alongside nonentities. A few were popular with unionists, while others had more fans among nationalists.

An office which was only supposed to exist for a couple of years has, instead, lasted a full four decades.

It is a fair bet that most of those posted to Belfast did not want to come here - and also that they were glad to leave.

The most memorable of the 18 Northern Ireland Secretaries was probably Mo Mowlam, since she was certainly the most irrepressible and unorthodox - informal, indiscreet and impatient with the usual proprieties.

Most unionist representatives were appalled and unnerved that a Cabinet minister should privately refer to a unionist leader as "Trimble-Wimble", while addressing Martin McGuinness as "babe".

She was undoubtedly personally undisciplined, often exasperating senior aides by working with unofficial contacts, rather than going through the proper channels.

But, although never one for details, she has been described as the angel of the peace process, in that she refused to give up when most had lost faith in it.

This amazingly carefree approach was all the more striking because she followed Sir Patrick Mayhew, a stiff Tory patrician with, some thought, an imperious manner. He will probably be remembered as one who was never happy with the peace process.

But his Conservative predecessor, Peter Brooke, had sensed that something might come of maintaining lines of contact with McGuinness.

He also laboured mightily in searching for a settlement based on devolution, though his career effectively ended when he sang O My Darling Clementine on television after an IRA bombing killed civilians.

William Whitelaw, another Tory, was the first Secretary of State, arriving in 1972, after the Heath Government abolished the old Stormont parliament. Willie, as he was known, concealed a sharp political brain under his air of a bluff country squire.

His efforts to put together a power-sharing government worked, but only momentarily, for his chronically indecisive Labour successor, Merlyn Rees, could not cope with the loyalist strike of 1974. It was said of him that he was characterised by "hand-wringing and a constantly furrowed brow".

The figure who followed him, Roy Mason, was much more decisive and successfully faced down a second loyalist strike.

Afterwards, leaving local politics to one side, he concentrated on a hardline security approach, which included intensive police interrogation techniques.

This pleased many Protestants: mention of his name drew a spontaneous round of applause at an Ulster Unionist Party conference.

His enthusiasm for placing curbs on the media led to what was dubbed the "second Battle of Culloden", when in the Co Down hotel, he strongly attacked BBC executives for "giving the IRA a daily platform".

At first, Mason's security approach seemed to bear fruit, leading him to claim he had the IRA "on the run". His language and behaviour led to him being described as "bombastic and pugnacious, theatrically affecting the style of a paternalistic colonial governor".

But the republican campaign continued; Falls Road graffiti defiantly declaring that "Stone Mason will not break us".

The approach of Humphrey Atkins, who had to deal with the huge turbulence of the 1981 republican hunger strike, was dominated by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. He never, in any event, demonstrated any firm grasp of the realities of Belfast. Jim Prior, who took over from him, was a much more formidable figure, dispatched across the Irish Sea because he was far too moderate for Thatcher's taste. It was said she "dumped him in the dustbin of British politics".

He attempted to put together a new Belfast assembly, but was defeated by the high levels of bitter political and social alienation generated by the hunger strike.

His successor, Tom King, also aspired to make progress on devolution, but faced huge difficulties in the wake of the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement.

Unionists took such exception to that accord that for many months they refused to meet him. Indeed, there were so many hostile loyalist demonstrations that he could venture out only under heavy guard.

Ironically, King personally disapproved of the agreement and favoured implementing it only at a glacial pace.

The Blair years, during which the peace process came to fruition, saw Secretaries of State, such as Peter Mandelson and Peter Hain, who seemed happiest when in the news.

But they also brought ministers, for example John Reid and Paul Murphy, who saw their role as providing a steady hand on the tiller and concentrated on substance, rather than style.

Secretaries of State varied greatly in their personalities and their policies, sometimes launching political, or security, initiatives and sometimes just weathering the many inevitable storms which came with the job.

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