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Humphrey Atkins (1922 - 1996):
Secretary of State for Northern Ireland 1979-1981


Humphrey Atkins was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland for the short period of 18 months, which however witnessed a number of momentous and far-reaching events and developments, in both the security and political spheres.

Atkins was born in Chalfont St Peter, Buckinghamshire, the only son of Captain Edward Davis Atkins, a former Indian army officer who had settled in Nyeri, Kenya, as a coffee planter. He lived in Kenya until the age of three, when his father was killed by a rhinoceros, and his mother returned with him to England. He was educated at Wellington College and joined the Royal Navy with a special cadetship in 1940, serving mostly on destroyers on convoy escort.  He was first elected to Parliament for Merton and Morden in 1955, a seat he retained until 1970, when he transferred to the safer seat of Spelthorne.  He made his career largely as a whip, beginning in 1967 in opposition, becoming became deputy chief whip in 1970 and chief whip (and a privy councillor) in 1973; Atkins gained a reputation as a more conciliatory whip than his predecessor, Francis Pym (who had become Secretary of State for Northern Ireland), and at a time of bitter internecine feuding in the Conservative party between the Heath and Thatcher factions, Atkins maintained a strictly neutral stance. Margaret Thatcher, who defeated Heath to become party leader in 1975, kept Atkins in his job, and he played a vital role in the House of Commons vote of confidence in March 1979, which saw the defeat of the Labour government by one vote; the Prime Minister, Callaghan, resigned and the Conservatives won the subsequent general election.

Atkins was appointed Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in the new cabinet in May, 1979. This appointment was seen by many as a reward for his efforts as chief whip and especially because of the no confidence vote. However, many pointed to the gulf left by the murder, on March 30th, 1979, of Airey Neave, famous as the first British officer to escape from the notorious Colditz Castle prison camp and make a "Home Run", but in Margaret Thatcher's shadow cabinet was Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary and it was assumed that he would take over the post in a Conservative government. Atkins was therefore taking over a post about which he knew very little, and furthermore filling it in succession to Roy Mason, who had been relatively popular in Northern Ireland. Atkins' limited knowledge of Ulster affairs was mirrored by his being largely unknown in the province, even to political cognoscenti and actual practitioners. An anecdote circulated at the time, describing how the new Secretary of State, shown a map of Northern Ireland coloured green and orange to denote nationalist and unionist areas, asked which section of the population was represented by a large blue patch, whereupon he was informed that this was Lough Neagh.

The situation in Northern Ireland, always volatile, was decidedly on a downswing during Atkins' period of office. On the security front, a secret Army report, which was obtained and published by the Provisional IRA, described that organisation as being in robust condition as regards manpower, experience and financial resources. Apart from other incidents, Atkins' first summer in Northern Ireland  witnessed, on 27th August, one of the worst days of the entire Troubles: the Provisional IRA exploded bombs on both sides of the border, killing the veteran soldier and former Viceroy of India, Lord Louis Mountbatten, his grandson and a neighbour, in the sea off County Sligo (a friend dying of her injuries the following day), and 18 soldiers near Warrenpoint, County Down, a civilian also being killed in the crossfire of a subsequent gun battle. However, despite pressure from Unionist politicians and others for enhanced security measures, including authorising the army to carry out "hot pursuit" chases into the territory of the Irish Republic, the government made few changes, beyond withdrawing more soldiers while increasing the role of the police (the "Ulsterisation" of security). One notable development was that the Republic of Ireland increased its co-operation over security matters, which caused controversy there and, according to some, the resignation of Irish Prime Minister Jack Lynch.

On the political front, Atkins' policy was to end "direct rule" and restore government of the province to a local body. In the autumn of 1979 he published proposals for such a body and a round-table conference of all "constitutional" politicians to discuss them. This move was, however, boycotted by the SDLP, the majority party of Northern Ireland nationalists, as they felt the proposals lacked a satisfactory "Irish dimension": that is, there would be no discussion of Irish unity or the constitutional position of Northern Ireland. As a result of this, the leader of the SDLP, Gerry Fitt, resigned, to be replaced by John Hume, later to play an especially significant role in the successful talks of the late 1990s. For their part, the Ulster Unionists, under considerable electoral pressure from the more hardline Democratic Unionists, declined to take part in the talks, which therefore were moribund and finally abandoned. One outcome of this was that the governments in London and Dublin began to draw closer together; a groundbreaking summit was held in Dublin in December 1980 between Margaret Thatcher and the Irish Prime Minister, Charles Haughey.

In March 1981 began another crisis for Atkins, with the commencement of a hunger strike by Provisional IRA prisoners, claiming that as politically motivated prisoners, they should have special category status, which had been previously granted by Secretary of State Whitelaw in 1972. Atkins refused to contemplate this, and refused (publicly) to negotiate with the hiunger strikers, adhering rigidly to the "criminalisation" policy which allowed no recognition of any "political" dimension of (in this case IRA) crimes. The first hunger striker of ten to die, Bobby Sands, was elected to Westminster for the seat of Fermanagh-South Tyrone on 9 April 1981. The stand-off continued through the summer, with rising levels of violence, chillier relations between the two governments, and much international attention for Northern Ireland, from the US Congress, to European institutions and municipalities, to Fidel Castro - even the Pope, who had begged "on his knees" for an end to violence in Ireland, at Drogheda in 1979, sent a personal envoy. Though the hunger strike crisis would eventually pass, it was at its height when Atkins, in September 1981, was moved from Northern Ireland to be replaced by James Prior.

Atkins became Lord Privy Seal with special responsibilities in the Foreign Office, as deputy to the foreign secretary, Lord Carrington, and the office's spokesman in the House of Commons (Lord Carrington, as a peer, being barred). The Foreign Office consistently misread the signs of Argentine pressure on the Falkland Islands, and made matters worse by endorsing the withdrawal from the south Atlantic of the seagoing gunboat HMS Endurance. On 2 April 1982 Atkins calmly reassured the House of Commons that there would be no Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands, several hours after the invasion had in fact begun. He, Carrington, and others resigned within days.  In 1983, Margaret Thatcher sought to have him installed as Speaker of the House of Commons, but unsuccessfully. He was appointed in 1984 to the important post of chairman of the select committee on defence. He was highly regarded in this position, his handling of the politically delicate Westland helicopter affair being particularly praised. In 1987 Atkins was elevated to the peerage as Baron Colnbrook of Waltham St Lawrence. He became chairman of the Association of Conservative Peers in 1990 and a member of the Press Complaints Commission in 1991. 

Atkins was a personally popular man, known as loyal, charming, courteous, fond of nautical turns of phrase, and hospitable. His charm did not always go down well in Ulster, however, where one leading politician dismissed him as a "pretend squire" (as opposed to the "genuine squire" William Whitelaw). However, he was known to have had relatively few enemies for a politician. He was appointed KCMG in 1983, was an underwriting member of Lloyd's, Vice-Chairman of the Management Committee of the Outward Bound Trust, and Chairman of the Airey Neave Trust to promote research into personal freedom under the law.



Born: 12 August 1922
Died: 4 October 1996
Richard Froggatt
Acknowledgements:

Wesley McCann