06 January 2006

Rees characterised by lack of resolve

Daily Ireland

Daily Ireland Editorial
Editor: Colin O’Carroll

Ironically, Merlyn Rees’s death in a London hospital at the age of 85 came hard on the heels of the release of government papers last week under the 30-year rule which suggest that he was far from the avuncular figure that his bookish appearance and diffident demeanour suggested.
In fact, Mr Rees was an enthusiastic proponent of a London policy which was characterised by double-cross and deceit and he was at the helm during a period when some historic opportunities for an honourable peace were squandered by British duplicity – notably the power-sharing Executive and the Feakle talks.
It was his failure to react decisively to the UWC strike of May 1974 which led to the collapse of the Executive and a dark and lengthy period of direct rule during which murder and mayhem filled the vacuum created by Rees’s refusal to face down the loyalist hard men.
It has been pointed out that he was the man who brought internment to an end towards the end of 1975. In fact, it had long been acknowledged by the British that internment had been a practical and political disaster and the only thing holding up the closure of the concentration camps was yet more British cynicism. On his arrival he was faced with an electorally emboldened unionist coalition in the shape of the United Ulster Unionist Council (UUUC) and any human concerns he may have had about the plight of the internees was superceded by a desire not to upset the unionists. Now, where have we heard that before?
A cack-handed and ultimately ill-fated attempt to launch a new political initiative in July, the Constitutional Convention, was to plunge the North deeper into the pit of despair, and after just seven months in office, SDLP deputy leader John Hume declared that Rees had “lost all credibility”. Perhaps his greatest failure, though, was in not grasping the opportunity presented by the February 1975 IRA ceasefire that emerged from the Co Clare talks. Brought about by intensive negotiations between churchmen and the IRA, the 1975 truce had the potential to defuse a conflict that was spiralling out of control. But carefully constructed agreements were undermined by British bad faith and in a matter of months the violence had returned.
In 1987, Rees told the House of Commons that he was “extremely worried” about reports that he had received about the extent and intent of British army undercover activity in the North during his term in office. It would have been nice if he’d shown a bit more interest 12 years earlier.
De mortuis nil nisi bonum – of the dead speak only good. Nationalists and republicans inevitably struggle to reflect warmly on the secretaries of state with which we have been saddled over the years. On a personal level, of course, we extend our condolences to his family, but on a political level, and in the light of what came immediately after him, perhaps the kindest thing to say about Merlyn Rees is that he was not Roy Mason.

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