From pit lad to peer – and scourge of the IRA in between – he was one of the country’s most extraordinary politicians.
Tributes have flooded in for South Yorkshire’s Lord Roy Mason after it was announced yesterday he had died at the age of 91.
The former miner served as Barnsley MP from 1953 to 1987.
During that time, he held ministerial positions including Defence Secretary between 1974 and 1976 and Secretary of State for Northern Ireland between 1976 and 1979.
In his role in Northern Ireland, Lord Mason took a zero-tolerance approach to terrorists, demanding they were treated as criminals rather than political prisoners.
Beginning his working life as a miner at just 14, Lord Mason was only 28 when he entered the House of Commons in 1953 after first serving as a branch official of the National Union of Mineworkers.
After he retired as an MP, he was made a life peer, taking the title Baron Mason of Barnsley in 1987.
Despite the success of his political career, Lord Mason stayed true to his roots and lived in the same semi-detached house in Barnsley with his wife Marjorie that the pair had moved to in their younger years.
Labour leader Ed Miliband said he had made a ‘huge contribution’ to British political life.
“He passionately believed in the power of politics to change people’s lives and spent his whole life trying to improve the lives of working people, none more so than his constituents in Barnsley,” he said.
“Roy was a formidable man with a deep passion for social justice. He never forgot where he came from, and was a true champion of equality and fairness.”
Dan Jarvis, Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Barnsley Central, said: “Roy was a formidable man, a pillar of our community and a giant of the Labour movement. He began his working life going down a mine at the age of just 14. He went on to serve our town as a Member of Parliament and our country as a Minister around the Cabinet table, including as Defence Secretary and Northern Ireland Secretary at the height of The Troubles.
“His incredible journey and the courage and conviction with which he served the public are testament to the values that Roy fought for all his life – fairness, social justice and opportunity for all.
“Roy served Barnsley for more than 30 years in Parliament but he never forgot where he came from or lost his passion for serving the public. I remember first meeting him during my by-election and he was full of support and encouragement. He will be greatly missed.”
Michael Dugher, Labour candidate for Barnsley East, said Lord Mason had been a ‘great Labour man’ and the ‘whole of Barnsley was rightly proud of his achievements’.
Biographer Brian Elliott said: “He never forgot his roots. Some have said that he didn’t do enough during the 1984 miners’ strike, but when you look through Hansard and see the amount of questions he tabled that’s just not true. Today, there are television cameras in the House of Commons and we know so much more about the inner workings of Parliament.
“Back then, much more went on behind closed doors.”
Mr Elliott said of Lord Mason’s time as Northern Ireland Secretary: “His appointment was greeted by outburst of violence and as he flew over Northern Ireland in a helicopter he remembers seeing Belfast burning.
“It was one of the hardest jobs in government, but Mason remained firm but fair throughout. He came under a lot of criticism from the party whip when he hinted troops could be withdrawn, if Ulster didn’t do more themselves to combat terrorism, but he knew Northern Ireland was like a big gas oven ready to explode.
“He was determined that the terrorists should be treated as criminals rather than political prisoners and during the three years he lived at Stormont he lived and breathed the Troubles.
“Obviously, it was a high risk job. There were two armed guards stationed at the family’s home in Barnsley and wherever he went there was a high security presence. Apparently, when he was playing bowls one of the guards bent over and a gun fell out on to the green. I don’t think that went down too well in the clubhouse, but for Mason it was all part of the job.”