Tom Richmond: From Barnsley miner to Minister – in face of IRA threats

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ROY Mason was a remarkable politician – a pipe-smoking miner from Barnsley who rose through Labour’s ranks to become a high-profile Cabinet minister, and stabilising influence, in both the Wilson and Callaghan governments.

I never had the good fortune to meet Lord Mason, but he did play a starring role in one of my early escapades as a reporter when I was despatched to investigate why armed police were patrolling a fishing lake in the middle of nowhere.

When I arrived, I was told – point blank – by officers that there was not a story and to mind my own business. When I refused to take “no” for an answer, I was referred to the constabulary concerned and told to await a telephone call from a chief superintendent.

The call did come 24 hours later and the briefing, which was totally off-the-record and not for publication, was to inform me that Lord Mason of Barnsley was spending the afternoon pursuing his passion of fishing; that he required round-the-clock security as a former Northern Ireland Secretary and the police were not going to jeopardise his safety because they so respected his work in trying to defend the interests of the Royal Ulster Constabulary from Republican terrorists.

I am pleased to report that Lord Mason’s visits to the lake continued incognito for many years – even after his name appeared on an IRA death list in 1990, more than a decade after his three-year stint at Stormont.

After all, he served his constituency – and politics per se – with distinction during the mutinous 1970s. He was one of the first to identify the threat posed by the NUM’s firebrand leader Arthur Scargill and he took on the Labour left when they complained that his defence cuts did not go far enough – he accused them of “a policy at best of neutrality, at worst of surrender” before making reference to “my troops” in Cabinet discussions. Many of his successors lacked this empathy.

It was the same when he moved from the Ministry of Defence to Northern Ireland after Jim Callaghan had succeeded Harold Wilson as Prime Minister. Greeted in Belfast by riots, he knew that a political peace could not be built without security on the ground – a tactic that eventually won the grudging respect of Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness.

Yet, ahead of next month’s election, there are two parallels from this period that should not be forgotten. The first is that the Northern Ireland peace process should not be compromised by the inclusion of any political parties from the province in a Westminister government – the Callaghan administration fell by one vote because the Nationalist MP Gerry Fitt abstained in the vote of no confidence because he disliked the policies being undertaken by the Yorkshire-born Secretary of State. The whole country should not be held to ransom in this way, especially when the hard-earned peace in Northern Ireland is still a fragile one.

Second, it would be remiss not to note the sacrifices made by Lord Mason’s widow, Marjorie, who travelled with her husband to Northern Ireland every week for three years in order to provide him with the reassuring support that he needed. As such, it is only right to acknowledge the selflessness of the Mason family. They did their best for Yorkshire – and the country – and many could learn from the fine example that they set.

NICK Clegg could not have been clearer when the Lib Dem leader was asked about a post-election pact between Labour’s Ed Miliband and Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP.

“Ed plus Nicola plus Alex Salmond would constitute the most left-wing agenda in this country since the days of Michael Foot, and even Michael Foot would have had more economic rigour than that combination would,” said the Deputy Prime Minister.

Should the Lib Dems be tempted to join this unholy alliance after May 7, I hope they take note of their leader.

Meanwhile the latest Tory warnings about a Labour-SNP coalition – Sir John Major is the latest to go on the attack – do smack of desperation and hypocrisy.

As former Liberal leader Lord (David) Steel pointed out, it was the Tories who ensured that a minority SNP administration at Holyrood was able to pass a budget and legislative programme of sorts. Rather than demonising the Scots, perhaps the Tories ought to be looking at how they can become more relevant north of the border. After all, the next premier will be responsible for the whole of the United Kingdom.

MORE snapshots from election leaflets. Ed Miliband has clearly given up hope of receiving an endorsement from Pudsey candidate Jamie Hanley – the Labour leader has taken to sending letters to constituents in this key marginal instead.

I’m not sure how much progress the Conservatives’ Simon Wilson is making in Leeds North East. Apart from his incorrect use of basic punctuation, his biography focuses on the fact that he was born in Dewsbury and he, too, seems embarrassed to be associated with David Cameron.

And then there are the identikit local leaflets churned out by Ukip, which appear far more conciliatory than Nigel Farage’s rabble rousing – the only reference to immigration is a call for “a fairer Australian-style points-based system to decide who comes to work and settle here”.

What does it say about the state of politics when so many candidates are distancing themselves from their leaders?

IF the election goes into extra-time, perhaps it could be settled by the outcome of the FA Cup final when, in the irony of ironies, David Cameron’s Aston Villa play Ed Miliband’s Arsenal. It might be preferable to spare the Queen from becoming involved in a constitutional crisis in the year when she is destined to become Britain’s longest-reigning monarch.

UNLIKE DCI Banks, ITV’s Leeds-centric adaptation of Peter Robinson’s crime novels that have always been set in the Yorkshire Dales, the same criticism cannot be made of Vera, which has stayed loyal to the Northumberland setting of the books by Ann Cleeves. The programme is also helped by the brilliance of Brenda Blethyn, who plays the role of DCI Vera Stanhope to perfection. Compelling storylines, with acting to match, are what 
TV viewers want on a Sunday night. I hope the BBC are taking note – it might help to solve their own crimes against entertainment.

A FINAL thought – Tesco is still a successful firm despite posting record losses of £6bn. Yet the country of Greece will become a basket case if it can’t raise an emergency cash injection of £6bn.

It shows the continuing strength of the supermarket’s grip on Great Britain plc.

tom.richmond@ypn.co.uk