Lord Mayhew of Twysden
Tall and booming barrister who as Northern Ireland secretary under John Major played a key role in the Downing Street Declaration
LORD MAYHEW OF TWYSDEN, who has died aged 86, was the solicitor general whose fury at the leaking of his confidential advice over the Westland affair forced the resignation of Leon Brittan as trade and industry secretary and almost brought down Margaret Thatcher; he was later an unexpectedly patient Northern Ireland secretary under John Major, laying much of the groundwork for the eventual peace.
Paddy Mayhew’s anger stemmed from the leak in January 1986 of his letter to Michael Heseltine disputing the claims behind the latter’s campaign for the ailing helicopter firm to pass to European, not American, hands. Heseltine resigned as defence secretary in mid-Cabinet three days later.
Brittan’s subsequent departure amid the storm over the leak put the prime minister at risk. She owed her survival to luck, distrust in the party of both Heseltine and Brittan, and Neil Kinnock’s failure to dominate the debate on the resignations which Mrs Thatcher – who did not blame Mayhew – feared would force her to go.
Tall and booming, Mayhew could only have been a barrister. Fiercely conservative where the Bar was concerned, he enjoyed support on the Tory Right despite being pro-European. They pressed for years for him to take charge in Ulster, out of a conviction – not borne out in practice – that he would take the sword to the IRA.
As secret contacts and a public peace initiative launched by his predecessor Peter Brooke started to bear fruit, Mayhew became the first secretary of state to meet the Sinn Fein president and former IRA commander Gerry Adams. The initiative foundered on the IRA’s refusal to disarm, but the contacts established with Sinn Fein (and Dublin) paved the way for the Good Friday Agreement months after Mayhew’s retirement at the 1997 election.
Mayhew, who came from Irish Protestant stock, actively wanted the job. His appointment caused consternation in Dublin, but he won the Republic’s confidence – though relations frayed after John Bruton replaced Albert Reynolds as Taoiseach. One Irish official observed: “He may be a Southern Irish Unionist – but first and foremost, he is a Cork man.”
Stormont seemed a strange place to send a man renowned for bluntness. But Mayhew managed to placate Ulster’s tribes as he edged toward dialogue with Sinn Fein, with republicans and Loyalists equally ready to press their point with atrocities and Unionists constantly threatening to walk out.
His revelation of the secret contacts and his agreement to a “framework document” with Dublin brought cries of betrayal. But Mayhew – the first secretary of state to address an Orange Lodge – was sincere in reassuring Unionists he would not make a one-sided agreement.
Some colleagues feared one concession too many to Sinn Fein, and he crossed swords with the home secretary Michael Howard. Yet it was Mayhew who, after the IRA called a supposedly permanent ceasefire in 1994, insisted talks could not begin without a physical handover of weapons. Mayhew let his composure slip just once. Told on arriving at the opera that a grenade attack in Belfast had injured 30 people, he retorted: “Well, nobody is dead. At the end of this opera, everybody is dead.”
Over nine years as a law officer, Mayhew came to resent what he saw as his exclusion from mainstream politics. Yet few law officers have faced more politically sensitive decisions. There were disputes with the Republic over extradition, and frequent rows over whether and how those responsible for security leaks should be pursued. But there was no more controversial matter than Westland.
Heseltine had written to the European consortium he hoped would acquire the company in terms Mayhew – deputising for the attorney-general, Sir Michael Havers, who was ill – believed seriously misleading. He warned Heseltine of “material inaccuracies” in claiming that if America’s Sikorsky acquired Westland, it would be barred from European defence contracts.
When his letter was leaked, Mayhew attacked the “flagrant violation” of his confidential advice, threatened to send the police into 10 Downing Street and told Mrs Thatcher he would quit unless the miscreant were punished.
She told the Commons the letter had been issued on Brittan’s authority by his head of information, Colette Bowe – Bernard Ingham, her own press secretary, having refused to release it himself. The prime minister insisted that she had not been consulted, and a select committee – though not the Labour gadfly Tam Dalyell – accepted this.
Patrick Barnabas Burke Mayhew was born on September 11 1929. His father was an oil executive with a distinguished war record and his great uncle Henry Mayhew, author of London Labour and the London Poor; his mother’s side were Anglo-Irish from the 13th century. He was educated at Tonbridge and Balliol College, Oxford, becoming president of the Union – unopposed – in 1952 and of the university Conservative Association. Previously, he served as a subaltern in the 4th/7th King’s Dragoon Guards.
The young Mayhew cut a dash, whether hunting with the Beaufort or dressed in white tie and tails. He was a keen cricketer, and later a passionate yachtsman. Awarded a scholarship by the Middle Temple, he was called to the Bar in 1955; he became a Bencher in 1980. He practised at the criminal Bar, mainly defending, and took silk in 1972.
He fought Dulwich in 1970 – Labour’s Sam Silkin hanging on by 895 votes – then in February 1974 was elected for Tunbridge Wells, succeeding Richard Hornby. It took Mayhew time to adjust to the Commons, as “every time I spoke I made a Court of Appeal speech, as if I had a bad smell under my nose.” But in 1976 he was elected to the 1922 Committee executive. When Mrs Thatcher came to power in 1979, she made Mayhew a junior employment minister. For two years he worked with James Prior on trade union reforms. Prior’s “step by step” approach was strongly criticised by the Right, egged on – to Mayhew’s dismay – by the prime minister.
In January 1981 he was promoted to the Home Office as minister of state – making the young Major his PPS; Major would propose him as Northern Ireland secretary as early as 1985 (when a whip). He steered through the Commons the Criminal Attempts Bill, which abolished the “sus” law, a Criminal Justice Bill ending imprisonment for vagrancy, and the first Police and Criminal Evidence Bill, which fell when an election was called for June 1983.
Re-elected by a landslide, Mrs Thatcher made him solicitor-general, with the then customary knighthood. His influence in government grew, not least because Havers’s poor health often made him the final arbiter. He backed greater use of suspended sentences to ease prison overcrowding and more focused prosecutions for fraud, but opposed attempts to deny alleged fraudsters and minor thieves the right to a jury trial.
When Havers proposed abolishing the nojury Diplock courts in Ulster, Mayhew threatened to resign. He also opposed moves to incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights into British law, saying it would thrust judges into political controversy – as eventually happened.
After the 1987 election he was promoted to attorney-general, Havers briefly becoming Lord Chancellor. Mayhew took exception to a reform Green Paper from Havers’s successor, Lord Mackay, threatening to resign if rights of audience in the High Court for solicitors, an end to the solicitors’ conveyancing monopoly and no-win, no-fee agreements were implemented. He helped kill proposals for barristers and solicitors to form partnerships, and welcomed the final, watered down package as able to “break up the logjam without risking breaking up the whole system”.
Counterproductively, the government tried to use the courts, starting in Australia, to stop publication of Spycatcher, the memoirs of the former MI5 agent Peter Wright. Mayhew said it was “seeking to uphold the principle that anyone who has held employment in the security services owes a life-long duty of confidentiality to the Crown.”
He forced the Cabinet Secretary Sir Robert Armstrong to recant in the witness box a claim that the government had conceded that Sir Roger Hollis, a former head of MI5, had spied for Russia; thereafter, the two were not on speaking terms.
Mayhew was also deeply involved in the replacement of the “catch-all” Section 2 of the Official Secrets Act, to which Mrs Thatcher agreed once it was clear that no jury would convict with the law as it stood.
Many of his most sensitive problems concerned Ulster. In 1988 he enraged the Republic by stopping the prosecution of RUC officers who had shot five terrorist suspects; Ken Livingstone was suspended from the Commons for calling him an “accomplice to murder”. Mayhew was given an armed guard.
After the Dail passed an Act stipulating that the Irish attorney general should examine the evidence in extradition cases, Mayhew continued to send warrants which did not deploy the evidence. A further setback was a judge’s release of Patrick McVeigh, a terrorist suspect, because he saw no proof that McVeigh was the man on the warrants. Ireland’s High Court overruled him, but too late. Mayhew was incandescent when Fr Patrick Ryan, wanted for alleged conspiracy and bombing, slipped away to Belgium while the Irish authorities were examining Scotland Yard warrants.
In 1990 he halted the Customs and Excise’s prosecution of businessmen for breaching sanctions by supplying Saddam Hussein with components for a “supergun”. He acted after evidence from the former trade minister Alan Clark that ministers had connived with the export, but nevertheless enraged officials who had brought the charges.
Three years later, he denied to the Scott inquiry having tried to stop his former Commons colleague Hal Miller telling the court Whitehall had known about plans for a “supergun” two years before it seized the parts.
Mayhew served in the “War Cabinet” in 1991 as Major sent forces to drive the Iraqis out of Kuwait. He advised on Britain’s obligations under international law, and Iraq’s responsibility for captive aircrew under the Geneva Convention, rebuking Edward Heath for claiming Britain’s request for other countries to defray the cost had turned its forces into “mercenaries”.
That October, he accepted the resignation of the Director of Public Prosecutions, Sir Allan Green, stopped by police at King’s Cross for kerb-crawling. He appointed Barbara Mills, head of the Serious Fraud Office, to succeed him. Later, he acquiesced in the Chancellor, Norman Lamont, instructing solicitors at the taxpayers’ expense to remove an unwanted sex therapist from his basement.
After the 1992 election, Major sent Mayhew to Stormont. He arrived with a no-nonsense reputation, but from the outset was conciliatory. All-party talks (minus Sinn Fein) took place in Dublin that September, and subsequently at Stormont, for the first time since the 1920s involving the Republic. Mayhew sent a message to violent Loyalists by banning the Ulster Defence Association.
One totemic issue was Unionists’ insistence – shared by Mayhew – that Dublin abandon its claim to the Six Counties. By 1993, the Republic’s deputy premier Dick Spring was telling him it would be reviewed, but only when an overall package was taking shape.
Late in 1992, Mayhew said that if the IRA renounced violence, Sinn Fein might eventually join the dialogue, and declared that Britain had “no strategic interest” in Northern Ireland. The worst Loyalist unrest in Belfast for years followed. A year later the secret contacts with the IRA were revealed after years of denials, embarrassing both sides; the conduit was Michael Oatley, a retired MI6 agent. The IRA had reportedly told the government: “The conflict is over, but we need your advice on how to bring it to a close.”
On December 15 1993, Major and Reynolds issued the Downing Street Declaration, confirming the right of the province’s people to self-determination. Sinn Fein sought clarification; ministers publicly resisted but gave it. Meanwhile, the IRA staged mortar attacks on Heathrow.
Mayhew continued to send out positive signals, saying the IRA would not have to surrender, then agreeing to answer questions transmitted through Dublin. Sinn Fein rejected the Declaration, but in September 1994 the IRA announced the “complete cessation of military operations”. Mayhew responded by scaling down security in Ulster, the ban on broadcasting the voices of republicans was lifted and Loyalists too announced a ceasefire.
The framework document agreed with Dublin was released early in 1995, after a leak that outraged Unionists. Orders barring republican leaders from mainland Britain were lifted, then 400 troops left the province. Mayhew repeated that the IRA must deliver “tangible decommissioning” before talks.
That May, he had a historic 30-minute meeting with Adams at a Washington investment conference; in private, they shook hands. They met twice more, without breaking the deadlock.
Mayhew caused fury among republicans – and more widely – by releasing Pte Lee Clegg, jailed for murder after shooting a joyrider at a checkpoint, after a campaign by the military and its supporters at Westminster. Weeks later, he released 100 IRA prisoners.
With decommissioning by the IRA now a stumbling block between Major and Bruton, an international commission was set up under the former US Senator George Mitchell. Mayhew proposed an elected “peace convention” to appease the Unionists; Adams was implacably opposed.
The IRA’s London Docklands bombing in February 1996 halted moves to bring Sinn Fein in from the cold; Mayhew termed it a “very serious setback”. Talks involving the other parties eventually re-started under Mitchell, then elections to the convention gave Sinn Fein 15 per cent of the vote, strengthening its hand.
The low point for Mayhew came that July. After a four-day confrontation at Drumcree, the RUC let Loyalists march past a Catholic estate, sparking a week of riots. Relations with Dublin were said to be at their worst since Bloody Sunday. And a bomb exploded at Enniskillen, the first in Ulster for nearly two years.
Mayhew tried to coax the IRA back on board, but all parties were now anticipating a Labour government. Many elements of a deal were now in place, and Mayhew helped prepare Mo Mowlam, who would be his Labour successor, to take the work forward.
Leaving the Commons, Mayhew received a life peerage; he was until 2006 an executive member of the Association of Conservative Peers, and from 2000 chaired the prime minister’s committee on business appointments. In 2001 he was appointed Deputy Lieutenant for Kent.
Patrick Mayhew married Jean Gurney in 1963; she and their four sons survive him.
Mayhew: although renowned for bluntness, he met Gerry Adams and managed to placate Ulster’s tribes