The death in a London hospital last week of former British governor in Ireland, Merlyn Rees, followed the release of historical government papers which shed light on his role in the conflict.
It was his failure to react decisively to the Ulster Workers’ Council strike of May 1974 which led to the collapse of the Sunningdale Executive and a lengthy and violent period of direct British rule.
While his failure to stand up to the ‘hard men’ of unionism dominates the history of his period in Ireland, Rees will also be remembered as the man who set the tone for Britain’s policy of criminalising republican prisoners of war.
A 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 talks at Feakle, County Clare.
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.
Sinn Fein MP Pat Doherty said Rees “had little understanding of the conflict or the negative effects resulting from continued British interference in Irish affairs”.
Doherty said Rees would be remembered as the man who removed special category status from prisoners and therefore laid the foundation of the British policy to try to break the republican struggle in the H-blocks.
Merlyn Rees remained an MP until retiring from the Commons in 1992 and was shortly afterwards created a life peer, an honour that many believe came 30 years too late.