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Mayhew confessed to thinking Northern job would be ‘relatively undemanding’

Former Northern secretary saw UUP leader David Trimble as a ‘deeply insecure leader’

Patrick Mayhew told Irish diplomats over a farewell dinner in March 1997, shortly before he ended his term as Northern secretary, that he had expected the Belfast post to be “relatively undemanding”.

“It was a particularly successful occasion,” Anglo-Irish joint secretary David O’Donoghue told his Department of Foreign Affairs colleague Seán Ó hUiginn. “He freely admitted that the interest he had long entertained in becoming secretary of state for NI had been essentially ‘vice-regal’, ie, he had wished to round off a mainly legal career with what he imagined would be a relatively undemanding assignment in a quiet backwater of government.

“He had been conscious also of his family connections with Ireland (including forebears who had been members of the United Irishmen) and had seen the NI post as keeping faith in some sense with his roots,” Mr O’Donoghue wrote in a note on the dinner.

Mayhew’s hopes of a relaxed period in Belfast from 1992 to 1997 were quickly dashed in a term that saw the Shankill Road bombing, the Greysteel and Loughinisland massacres, along with the Downing Street Declaration and the talks that occurred subsequently. “In the event he had been pitched immediately into multiparty talks, followed by the peace process, and the post had taken on an extremely intense and demanding character,” O’Donoghue told his more senior colleague.

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Meanwhile, Mayhew found that his Southern Anglo-Irish background “did not prepare him at all for the experience of Northern unionism, though he had come to develop a deep affection for the people of Northern Ireland”.

Reflecting on the talks process that had run from June 1992, Mayhew “dwelled with some feeling on the rudeness and incivility displayed by the Democratic Unionist Party and the UK Unionist Party”, the latter headed by barrister Robert McCartney.

Not disguising his relief at leaving the talks behind him, Mayhew told the Irish diplomats that he had found the experience “hateful” and that the two governments’ tribulations could be compared to “the toads under the harrow”.

“Not mincing his words he spoke of the talks having exposed ‘a vein of evil and poison’ in NI politics and society. The only hope was that the process might, over time, begin to draw the poison,” O’Donoghue continued.

He repeated his “familiar criticisms” of the Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble, who he described as “a deeply insecure leader who had no real interest in reaching an accommodation”, though Trimble later agreed the Belfast Agreement.

“In contrast, he described [Mr Trimble’s deputy] John Taylor as a man ‘I could do business with’. While recognising Taylor’s maverick qualities and volatility, he saw him, nonetheless, as an amiable ‘villain’ with sufficient self-assurance and leadership qualities to lead the Unionist people towards an accommodation.”

Speaking that night just five weeks ahead of the general election that brought Tony Blair and Labour into Number 10 Downing Street, Mayhew “made no attempt to disguise his expectation” that the Conservatives would lose.

Labour’s Mo Mowlam was “a good egg”, he said, and would take over from him as Northern secretary, he was certain. Speaking warmly of her, he predicted that there would be “good continuity” from one administration to the next.

Saying that he hoped that he had been able to “heal wounds and close gaps” during his time in Belfast, Mayhew, however, said that he was “not sure whether he had actually helped to move things forward”.

“If he had had at the outset the wisdom which he acquired over the past five years he might have been able to avoid certain mistakes and to make a greater impact,” O’Donoghue records him as saying.

He regretted not having “devoted more time to cultivating media contacts”, but he had “never felt comfortable with journalists, who he considered fundamentally untrustworthy”, though he accepted that his deputy Michael Ancram seemed “to have a very easy rapport” with reporters.

Paying tribute “very warmly” to his Irish counterpart, tánaiste and minister for foreign affairs Dick Spring, Mayhew said the two had developed “an excellent working relationship” during his five years in the post. On their first meeting, Spring, he said, had taken him by the arm and told him, “We’ve got a job to do, let’s get on with it”. He had, he said, “greatly valued their friendship and co-operation ever since”.

Remarking on the personality differences between the two of them, Mayhew suggested lightheartedly that “they each incorporated some traits which would more usually be associated with the other’s national stereotype”.

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