Lord Mason of Barnsley: Mineworker who never forgot his roots

Roy Mason Image copyright PA
Image caption Lord Mason served as Northern Ireland secretary at the height of the Troubles

Lord Mason of Barnsley was one of the most influential politicians of the 1970s but never forgot his roots as a mineworker who became the MP for his home town.

He was Labour's Defence Secretary under Harold Wilson and oversaw one of the most comprehensive reviews of the strength of the armed services since the Second World War.

And he was James Callaghan's uncompromising Secretary of State for Northern Ireland where he took on the IRA at the height of its powers.

All this was a long way from Roy Mason's upbringing in the pit village of Carlton just outside Barnsley where he left school with no qualifications and went down his local pit as an apprentice at the age of 14.

In an interview with the BBC in 2007 to mark him being awarded the Freedom of Barnsley: "I wasn't thinking about politics then- just getting on with life like everybody else and that meant going down the pit".

'Make a difference'

The young Mason was clearly a bright lad. He became an underground fitter, passed his qualifications for the highly responsible and skilled job of an underground foreman - a "pit deputy"- and became an activist in the National Union of Mineworkers.

"It was at that time that I had the ambition of becoming an MP," he said in that 2007 interview. "For me I thought I could make a difference."

By the time he won a by-election in 1953 to take his home-town seat he had taken a university degree through his trade union and married his wife Marjorie.

Many years later he told me how his win at the polls happened so quickly that he had to borrow £50 from his father-in-law to keep him and Marjorie going for the first month in London.

He told me he got off the train holding a suitcase in one hand, his wife in the other and with no more than a fiver in his pocket.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Lord Mason recalled his first 'daunting' meeting with former prime minister Clement Attlee

He was then summoned to meet his first party leader, Clement Attlee.

"I was not a particularly young man. I was 28, but this was really a daunting prospect. He gave me two bits of advice - specialise and keep away from the bars. I have followed that advice ever since."

His talents had been spotted by Harold Wilson who made him a minister of trade in his first cabinet and then later a member of his cabinet as postmaster general.

He really came to the fore as defence secretary. His review of the size, funding and organisation of the armed forces provoked an outrage from the military but was seen by many commentators as part of a long overdue modernisation process.

It was his time as Northern Ireland Secretary from 1976 that put him at the heart of the storm. He is credited as being the first minister to take on the IRA and was totally uncompromising in his approach.

Martin McGuinness, a senior IRA member at the time and later elected to become the joint Northern Ireland First Minister after the peace process has described Roy Mason as probably the province's most reactionary 20th Century British politician.

His time in Belfast meant that Roy Mason had a permanent armed police bodyguard wherever they went even decades after he left office.

He never moved from the semi-detached house in Barnsley where he and Marjory brought up their two daughters. He was elevated to the Peerage as Lord Mason of Barnsley.

Yet he said in 2007 that probably the proudest moment of his long and distinguished career was to receive the freedom of his home town.

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