06 January 2006

Former secretary of state Rees was most dithering direct ruler

Daily Ireland

Labour man frittered away significant opportunity provided by IRA ceasefire


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There was always something about Merlyn Rees that reminded one of the little lad who would wet his trousers when sent to play with the bigger boys. The difference, of course, is that while it’s right to pity the small, nervous mite trembling in the playground, no similar latitude can be extended to the ineptitudes of a man who accepted the power and responsibility that goes with high office.
Rees was appointed secretary of state for Northern Ireland on March 5, 1974 after having acted as Labour’s shadow spokesman with the same brief. Although it may be argued that his time in that office was one of the more difficult periods faced by any direct ruler, the reality is that his dithering incompetence ensured that not only was unionist dominance and intransigence reinforced by his capitulation to the Ulster Workers Council (UWC) strike but he frittered away a significant opportunity for progress provided by the IRA ceasefire of 1975.
Born in south Wales but educated at Harrow Weald Grammar School, Middlesex before graduating from the London School of Economics, Merlyn Rees was by any standard an educated man. He had the ability and background to ‘read himself’ quickly into the realities of northern Irish political life, yet nothing he did throughout his time here indicated any understanding of what was required.
Having ruled with absolute power for 50 years, it was always inevitable that after Stormont’s proroguing, unionism would make a bid to have the ancien régime restored. Discard the view that the UWC strike was caused by a proposed Council of Ireland or the SDLP’s alleged desire for a united Ireland. A majority within unionism was bluntly demanding a return to the days of a Protestant parliament for a Protestant people.
Any concession to this demand rendered normal democratic parliamentary politics in the six counties pointless and irrelevant. What option other than insurrection lay open to the excluded non-unionist population? Merlyn Rees, LSE graduate and experienced parliamentarian, must have known this when he weakly allowed the UWC dictate terms to him and his army in May 1974. Worse perhaps, by not acting decisively against the perpetrators of the Dublin/Monaghan bombings carried out in support of the putsch, he encouraged the practitioners of counter-revolutionary terror for years to come.
Amazingly, he was given another opportunity to do some good in Ireland when the IRA declared a ceasefire in January 1975. Instead of grabbing this chance and laying down the groundwork for a permanent settlement, Merlyn Rees listened to his hawkish advisers and sought to defeat the IRA. Rather than negotiating honestly, Rees permitted his civil servants to dissemble and prevaricate while all the time developing their Ulsterisation/Normalisation stratagem. This was the era when the misguided plan to criminalise Irish republicanism was hatched.
We now know that this mistaken tactic led directly to the brutal H-Block protest and the subsequent death on hunger strike of ten republicans. It is also possible to say that decisions taken then have contributed to the problems of the past three decades and indeed to the ongoing problems thrown up by the shortsighted unionist intransigence of the present day.
If Rees failed to do any significant good while in charge of the NIO, he was just as inept when installed as home secretary on his departure from Ireland. His time at the Home Office, if remembered at all, is recalled for his presiding over the attempted prosecution of investigative journalists by British Intelligence.
Merlyn Rees remained an MP until retiring from the Commons in 1992 and was shortly afterwards created a life peer, an honour that many believe came 30 years too late. In his defence though, it should be said that his incompetence probably suited the interests of the altogether tougher British ruling elite. He died yesterday, January 5, 2006. He was 85 years old.

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