05/01/2006

Former NI Secretary of State Lord Merlyn-Rees dies

Former Labour Home Secretary and Northern Ireland Secretary Lord Merlyn-Rees has died in a London hospital aged 85.

The labour politician had lapsed into a coma as the result of several falls from which he never recovered.

He entered the Commons in 1962 where he served under the governments of both Harold Wilson and James Callaghan. Appointed as Northern Ireland Secretary of State when Labour came to power in 1974, he spent two and a half years in what was then regarded as the cabinet's hottest seat. He took over the post just as an attempt at a power sharing administration between Protestants and Catholics was implemented.

His main concern at the time came in the from of the combined political and military force of Loyalists, which eventually led to the Loyalist Workers strike during which he refused to talk to Loyalist workers, yet also refused to act against them. By the end of the strike, the Ulster Workers' Council had effectively taken control of the province and shattered the delicate balance of political power.

Lord Meryln-Rees moved towards an all-party convention, but was criticised for indecision and especially for failing to communicate to the Loyalists the need for them to make concessions if they wished the Union to survive.

However, he was determined to complete his policy of ending detention without trial and eventually succeeded a few weeks before Christmas. This, along with the ending of special status for convicted terrorists was to be his proudest personal achievement.

In 1976, he became Home Secretary and took an unexpectedly hard line over crime. In conflict with Labour Party thinking generally, he once said he had never been against the idea of "the sharply-administered wallop" on vandals.

He spent the majority of his 30 years in the House of Commons on the front bench, and his decision in the early 1980s not to seek re-election on to the shadow cabinet made him one of the most experienced and seasoned back-benchers on either side of the House.

He was made a life peer when he left the Commons in 1992, changing his name by deed poll so that he could be called Lord Merlyn-Rees, rather than the more conventional Lord Rees.

He continued to be active in the House of Lords right up into his 80s, despite developing Parkinson's Disease and last spoke in the Lords in mid-December on the issue of terrorism.

(EF/SP)

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