Declassified files: Avoid appearing as ‘colonial governor’, Irish official advised Patrick Mayhew

An Irish official warned that Northern Ireland Secretary of State that he was in danger of being seen as a “colonial governor”, in a candid conversation at Hillsborough in early 1994.

Sir Patrick Mayhew, Secretary of State, in his office.
PACEMAKER PRESS 24/11/1993 1280/93 Sir Patrick Mayhew, Secretary of State, in his office.

In a confidential memo drawn up by Department of Foreign Affairs official Declan O’Donovan, he describes a meeting between himself and Patrick Mayhew in February 1994 where the mood of the Secretary of State is described as “downbeat”.

Mayhew, who would become the longest-serving Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, spells out his personal and political frustrations over dinner.

This included concerns over his relationship with the Tanaiste Dick Spring and the Minister for Justice Maire Geoghegan-Quinn.

The meeting came following wrangles between the US, the Irish Government and the UK over the decision by the Clinton administration to grant Gerry Adams a visa for his controversial visit to America.

Mr O’Donovan, in his confidential note, reports that “as he has done before, the Secretary of State mentioned that he is not tied to political life”.

“He would have no difficulty pursuing other interests, for example, gardening ‘if I am booted out’”.

According to the official, “he sees himself as independent with no axe to grind and no greater ambition”.

The official continues: “Northern Ireland is the area in which he thinks he can make a decisive contribution and he wants people to recognise this.

“He seems to resent that other politicians North and South, and perhaps in Britain, do not grasp the opportunity he provides as a disinterested but enthusiastic and well-qualified incumbent of the NIO.”

At this stage, the Irish official reports that he suggested that such a viewpoint could make Mayhew appear like a “colonial governor”.

“I did not go into all the reasons why they might not wish to do so, but I did say in a gentle way that hard-pressed politicians immersed in political struggle and expecting to go on being so might see this presentation as smacking a little of the colonial governor.”

The Irish official advises: “He might find them more sympathetic if he came across as more like themselves.”

The senior British politician seemed to take the advice on the chin, at least according to the Irish memo.

“The Secretary of State did not take offence. He indicated that the point was not new to him but that I had given him food for thought.”

The record can be viewed in the National Archives file 2021/48/25.