On the 20th of January the 43rd President of America in 225 years was confirmed in office. Since Direct Rule was introduced by Conservative Prime Minister Heath in March 1972, there have been at least eleven (unless I have missed one) Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland, for a minute fraction (11/2 million) of the American population and for an area about the same as Yorkshire.
During the past 29 years they have grappled with the task of reaching an acceptable settlement and the new incumbent of the office will have, as the others had, to face the difficulties of implementing the Belfast Agreement of 10th April, 1998.
I do not think that Peter Mandelson, who has just resigned (on 24 January 2001), was right for the job and have been critical of his appointment and of many of the decisions he has made. His predecessor, Dr. Mo Mowlam, had been accused of favouring Nationalist aspirations whilst he in his approach seemed to come down on the side of Unionists, which he denied in correspondence with me via my MP, Huw Edwards (Monmouth).
From the Unionists' expressions of regret at his departure I have concluded that this denial was just as invalid as statements made recently in respect of the Indian passport debacle may turn out to be although we will have to await the outcome of the inquiry now set up by the Prime Minister to find out the facts in that case. My own view is that resignation from office was the only course open to Mandelson on the basis of the old Shakespearian phrase, "If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well it were done quickly", and it was.
To me who thought he was unsuited to the job, which required some understanding and perspective of Irish history, he is yesterday's man and I would say I can see no sense in giving him any other opportunities in government office.
However, if lying to his colleagues and misleading Parliament is the actual reason for his going it does seem rather unfair that when the then Conservative Prime Minister, John Major, in replying to a question from one of his own Scottish Conservative MPs on 16th March, 1993, made an obviously untrue statement no one either noticed or cared (except perhaps me).
The question put to him (Hansard notes) asked him to confirm that his government would not be introducing proposals for devolution for any part of the UK, including Northern Ireland. In reply he said, "I confirm that I will not be bringing forward proposals for devolved government in any part of the United Kingdom including Northern Ireland".
This clearly untrue statement of intentions was made at the time the then Secretary of State, Sir Patrick Mayhew, was in direct discussions with what were called the 'constitutional' parties in Northern Ireland in respect of proposals for a devolved administration in the Six Counties. These, a framework for accountable government in Northern Ireland, eventually surfaced in February 1995 in a document entitled, 'Frameworks for the Future', with a foreword from the same untruthful John Major.
On the Jonathan Dimbleby 'Any Questions' BBC Radio 4 programme, a question on the subject was raised so I took the opportunity given on the 'Any Answers' session on the Saturday afternoon following, pointing out that John Major had not been truthful, quoting what I had heard on the BBC's live TV coverage from Westminster. Dimbleby doubted my veracity.
Obtaining a copy of Hansard I mailed him the text of the question and Major's reply. I received an acknowledgement from Nadine Grieve, the producer at the time, who said she would pass the comments to Dimbleby.I never received a reply from him.
It would seem that a prime Minister (particularly a Conservative one) can lie to the House of Commons on an important item of policy without any repercussions from the media, but a lesser transgression by a minister requires all hell to break out and an immediate departure.
Further to the above, and again reported in Hansard (4/3/97) John Major said, "Our proposals on devolution in Northern Ireland are different from those of the Opposition for Scotland and Wales".Then we also have Sir Patrick Mayhew saying on 2/4/97 in respect of an Assembly there, that they were a special case.
The whole point about the lie John Major made in in the Commons on March 16th 1993 is that it was completely unnecessary - the truth would have been much better - for it was commonly and widely known that proposals were being discussed.
I sent a fax to the Western Mail on the issue but I never saw it printed.
On another Saturday afternoon 'Any Answers' I phoned in to the programme when Mandelson's resignation was being discussed, drawing attention to John Major's lie of 16/3/93, but it was obviously not acceptable to the producer for broadcasting.