On her first visit this week to the North as British Prime Minister Theresa May met the First and Deputy First Ministers. Martin McGuinness told her that the British have to respect the democratically expressed wishes of the people of the North who see their future in Europe and voted to remain in Europe.
One of Mrs May’s first jobs on becoming Prime Minister was to appoint a new Secretary of State. Jude Collins likes to refer to them as our ‘pro-consul’ to give them their full imperial Roman title.
Believe it or not the new occupant of Hillsborough Castle – James Brokenshire – is the nineteenth British politician to hold that position. The first was William Whitelaw in 1972. He was appointed after the Conservative government of Ted Heath had decided to consign the unionist regime at Stormont to the dustbin of history. He was also the first that I met as republicans attempted to negotiate with the British government in the summer of that year. That’s a story for another time.
Apart from Theresa Villiers and Mo Mowlam the rest were men. All of those I have known had different personalities. Some were friendlier than others. Some of them were downright Machiavellian in their machinations. But all of them were in the North to defend and promote British national interests. These interests rarely co-incided with the interests of the people of the North or of the island of Ireland.
They were a mixed bunch in terms of ability. Most were distant and aloof – most were in the pockets of the generals and securocrats and the intelligence services. I suspect some of them liked to play at being M in James Bond.
Merlyn Rees came across as a bit of a bumbler. But it was he who introduced the criminalisation policy and built the H-Blocks.
Roy Mason was an arrogant wee man with a Napoleonic complex who believed that he would ‘squeeze the IRA like a tube of toothpaste.’ Under his watch torture was routinely used in the interrogation centres in the RUC’s Castlereagh centre, Gough Barracks in Armagh, Strand Road in Derry and other places. It was Mason who presided over the ‘conveyor belt’ system of arrest – torture – Diplock non-jury courts and the H-Blocks and Armagh Women’s prison. The law became another weapon in the British arsenal to defeat republicans.
After Margaret Thatcher because British Prime Minister in May 1979 she appointed Humphrey Atkins to the North. A local wit painted a long graffiti question, ‘Humphrey WHO?’ on the wall at Beechmount Leisure centre on the Falls Road. Atkins was the Secretary of State during one of the most turbulent periods in the ‘troubles’. Under his watch the hunger strikes of 1980 and 81 occurred. He was the face of Thatcher in the media defending British inflexibility. Those who followed him during the 1980’s were all Thatcher’s men. In my memory one merges into the other.
The first British Secretary of State I met after 1972 was Patrick Mayhew. As British Attorney General he agreed a deal with Brian Nelson, a British agent within the UDA, which saw charges of murder against Nelson dropped in order to avoid embarrassing revelations about the role of the British state in collusion. Mayhew was in the North when the media broke the story of secret contacts between republicans and the British government. Mayhew initially denied this then he lodged a record of the exchanges in the British Parliament in November 1993. Embarrassingly for the British their effort to rewrite some of them was quickly exposed.
A team of us worked overtime in the Sinn Féin office in Turg Lodge to compile our record of these exchanges. When we published them our version was generally accepted as the truthful account.
My first meeting with Mayhew took place in Washington in May 1995. President Clinton had organised an economic conference to boost the peace process. It proved impossible for the British, who had been trying to prevent Mayhew meeting with the Sinn Féin leadership, not to agree a meeting at the conference. It was a very surreal meeting. There was to be no coffee, tea or anything stronger. Just a quick handshake — in private, no cameras — and a fifteen-minute meeting. Mayhew, using a written speaking note, told us why the British government would not allow Sinn Féin into all-party negotiations. He was visibly shaking and nervous as he spoke, and he stuck rigidly to the text of his note, which the British issued afterwards, almost word for word, as a public statement.
I met Mayhew several times after that. He loosened up a wee bit but under his and John Major’s intransigent stewardship the IRA cessation collapsed and the opportunity for progress was stalled.
Mayhew was followed by Mo Mowlam – an entirely different character. She is generally fondly remembered by all of us who knew her. She was smart and funny and willing to listen. Her battle against ill-health is well known. Her famous wig – which she would throw on the table at the start of a conversation – was a great device for disarming the most outraged politician at the table.
But like all of her predecessors and successors Mo was in the North to defend British interests. Though these changed slightly under Tony Blair she did her job. On one occasion we discovered that the car Martin McGuinness and I were using to attend secret meetings was bugged. It was a stupid move by the British – a breach of good faith – and was authorised by Mo Mowlam.
But she had a good heart. She authorised funding for Bunscoil Phobal Feirste – despite huge resistance from within the Department of Education. She gave former British military bases back to local communities and supported the development of the Black and Divis mountains as a public amenity alongside numerous other little things.
I spent my Sunday mornings or Saturday afternoons walking the garden at Hillsborough Castle with her and her predecessors and successors trying to get as much progress as possible while also impressing upon them the need for an end to the union and partition.
Those that came after Mowlam brought their own personalities, competence and bias with them. Whether Peter Mandelson or Peter Hain or Theresa Villiers all were first and foremost in the North as Britain’s pro-consuls – to defend British interests on the island of Ireland.
Before they arrived most were also relatively unknown – certainly in Ireland. Few here had ever heard of Francis Pym or Roy Mason or Peter Brooke. Many were never heard of again.
And now we have James Brokenshire. Who I hear you ask? And truth be told I don’t know. Once again a British politician – who has no stake in this island - is given influence over our lives by a British government whose priority interests are not ours. And so it goes on. And so it should end.
The Brexit referendum vote is just one more example of this. The Conservative government in London is committed to leaving the European Union. The people of the North rejected this. All of this is an argument for an end to the union with Britain and for new relationships on the island of Ireland in which our priorities, or interests are what will dictate policy.