And Northern Ireland, despite its many charms, certainly does not figure in the vacation plans for a British politician eager to get away from it all.
However, there is a minority of British politicians who over the last three decades have spent years at a time there, running the province as secretaries of state. And they are a minority. The latest, Paul Murphy, is only the 14th to hold the job. Last week, in an unexpected reshuffle, British Prime Minister Tony Blair sent him to replace Dr. John Reid, who was needed to fill the post of chairman of the Labor Party. Reid had served 22 months in the position, having replaced Peter Mandelson in January 2001.
The history of Northern Ireland secretaries of state remains to be written. They are meant to carry out British government’s Northern Ireland policy, but on many occasions they have helped mold it. However, for most of the 30 years that Northern Ireland has been under direct rule, their main role has been to conduct a holding operation, containing a seemingly intractable security problem in the hope that a political solution will show up. During this period, running from roughly 1974-1992, there was little incentive for any one to seek the post of secretary of state; it was dangerous, difficult, with few political rewards. Frequently, it was viewed as a kind of exile from the important political scene in Britain, where the things happened that determined a politician’s career.
That changed within the last 10 years. Thanks to the peace process, a posting as Northern Ireland’s Secretary of State has become a lot sexier, giving whoever holds the job exposure on the world stage.
Because there has so far been no systematic account of the role that secretaries of state have played over the years, evidence of their individual influence on British government policy and of how much freedom they had to change and shape that policy, remain anecdotal. Much often depended on what the British government policy was. Equally important was the party standing of the man chosen for the job.
The very first secretary of state, Sir William Whitelaw (1972-1973), was one of the most influential figures in the Conservative Party ever to hold the post. When Prime Minister Edward Heath sent him over in March 1972, the British government was scrambling to take control of a disastrously unraveling security and political situation. Within a few months, Whitelaw had met with the Provisional IRA leadership and decided that there was little hope of meaningful negotiation with them. A few months after that, the government had a policy rolling that would lead to the Sunningdale Agreement and the first power-sharing government. The policy that Whitelaw helped fashion was one of strengthening the moderate political center while trying to isolate and defeat the paramilitary extremes. It was a policy that, broadly speaking, successive governments were to follow up until relatively recently.
Sometimes, however, security policy took primacy over politics. Roy Mason (1976-79), the second Labor Party Northern Ireland secretary of state, believed he could smash the Provisional IRA, proclaiming at his very first news conference that it was “reeling.” Actually, he came close to his goal, and Provisional IRA leaders such as Gerry Adams later admitted that the organization was nearer defeat in 1976 than at any time in its history. But Mason implemented a prisons’ policy, depriving paramilitary prisoners of special-category status, which would prove disastrous, especially when pursued by Margaret Thatcher, who became Conservative prime minister when Labor was ousted in May 1979.
Initially under Thatcher, Northern Ireland was a security problem. She used the place to exile “wets” from her cabinet. Humphrey Atkins and Jim Prior fell into this category. Prior was allowed to pursue his plans for “rolling devolution” mainly because Thatcher really never took it that seriously. Both “wets” were removed after embarrassing prison breakouts — Atkins within three months of the Crumlin Road escape in June 1981, and Prior within a year of the massive escape from the Maze in September 1983. Prison regime is the one area in the security field where secretaries of state are held directly responsible for failures.
Things began to change somewhat in the mid-1980s, when the British government edged toward a new political engagement with the Northern Ireland problem. The implementation of the Anglo-Irish Agreement required a secretary of state with political weight. Thatcher chose Tom King (1985-89) to oversee the government’s controversial change of course, giving the Irish government a say in how Northern Ireland was governed, which brought Unionists to the point of near rebellion. King weathered the storm, initiating a new phase in Anglo-Irish relations. He lasted almost four years, which was up to then a record.
With the emergence of the peace process, the post of secretary of state stopped being a political backwater. The six secretaries of state who have ruled Northern Ireland since 1989 have all been substantial figures within their respective political parties. One of them, Sir Patrick Mayhew, a former attorney general, earned the distinction of being the first man to actually request the post. He was also the longest to serve. Under Conservative Prime Minister John Major, his tour lasted from 1992-97.
The growing belief that the Northern Ireland conflict could be resolved meant that the world’s spotlight was now turned on what most had abandoned as a hopeless case. Nothing attracts a politicians like being associated with a success. Under the Labor Prime Minister Tony Blair, Northern Ireland was placed high on the government’s agenda, and those entrusted with the post had to be close to his thinking. Indeed, Peter Mandelson, (1999-2001) was credited with engineering Blair’s rise to the leadership.
The new man in the job, Paul Murphy, has already spent time in Northern Ireland under Mo Mowlam, Blair’s first choice for the post in 1997. He was deeply involved in the negotiations that lead to the Good Friday agreement. His task will be to ensure that Northern Ireland does not slide back into the box of political problems marked “insoluble.” One thing that is certain is that if it does, it will very quickly lose its sex appeal.