Interview / Sir Patrick Mayhew: For the love of the Irish: His exterior seems classically conventional but what lies beneath the upper crust? Donald Macintyre meets Ulster's new man

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ON EASTER Day, Sir Patrick Mayhew, newly appointed Northern Ireland secretary, walked up the 2,394ft Slieve Bearnagh in the Mourne Mountains with his wife Jean, their dog Jesse, and a Royal Ulster Constabulary mountain rescue team. Sir Patrick found the last 100ft 'alarming' since he is not 'into rock'. But his wife, a London secondary school RE department head, sprinted up it - a characteristic Mayhewism, this - 'like a goat'. Sir Patrick, who at 62 is 10 years older than his wife, followed at a slightly more measured pace.

Today may be a less carefree Sunday. Sir Patrick will spend the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne as duty minister at Hillsborough. The immediate suspicion, on his appointment by John Major in the post-election reshuffle, was that as an Anglo-Irish protestant, he would be soft on Unionist extremism. But consider how he spoke last week. A parade of Orangemen and their supporters, passing the bookmaker's office in Belfast where five Catholics were shot dead by loyalist gunmen in February, ostentatiously held up five fingers. Their conduct, Sir Patrick said, 'would have disgraced a tribe of cannibals let alone Protestants marching under the flag of the United Kingdom'. This was from a man who, by his own account, has a lawyer's caution in the way he uses words.

The July marching season is always tense. This year it comes in the midst of talks on Northern Ireland's political future which have accelerated beyond all expectations. For the first time in more than 70 years, all the constitutional parties of Northern Ireland, along with the Irish and the British governments, sat round a table last Monday at Lancaster House in London. On Wednesday, in Belfast, four Dublin ministers will drive to Stormont for further discussions on devolved government for Northern Ireland.

The tall - 6ft 2ins - man presiding over all this potential history is brisk, affable, with a humorous line in self- deprecation and a classically conventional English exterior. Behind it there are several surprises. A lawyer and a former Army officer with an almost romantic attachment to Ireland, who knew and loved the South long before the North. A clubbable countryman who used to hunt in a 'well-spent youth' and hopes to again in Northern Ireland; but who would - if he had not been detained by the Lancaster House talks - have voted as a Garrick member for the admission of women.

The real surprise of the talks is that they are still going at all. Sir Patrick has high praise for his predecessor Peter Brooke for his patience in clearing away procedural hurdles during the run-up to the talks - a patience he says he would not have had. 'I'm not a particularly patient man, I'm afraid. I can be patient with a horse, but it doesn't come easily.' He is continually written up as 'brusque'. It is better, he says, than 'Brylcreemed', as one report put it. He has nothing against Brylcreem; it is just that he has never used it.

Patrick Barnabas Burke Mayhew's father was an oil executive with a distinguished war record; his education, Tonbridge and Balliol, was conventionally professional middle-class. But the family on both sides is unusual. Henry Mayhew (London Labour and the London Poor) was a great, great uncle. His mother's family, the Roches, is a venerable Anglo-Irish dynasty settled in Cork since the mid-13th century. But they were historically friendly with Catholics. The Roche houses were not burned in the troubles, the family were United Irishmen in the 1798 rebellion, and one kinsman, though a bit of a black sheep, was even the nationalist MP for Kerry.

Sir Patrick did his national service in the Dragoons, an Irish regiment. Later, he spent 13 years in the reserve and has always kept up his connections with the - now merged - regiment, where two of his four sons are regular officers.

At Oxford, he was President of the Union and by temperament, he says, he has been a 'politician rather than a lawyer all my life'. But he decided 'that the law would be a very necessary discipline on my particular character'. So he set himself two requirements before starting a political career: he would take silk first, and he would find a safe seat. He did both, but there was a cost. For one thing, he did not become the MP for Tunbridge Wells until the 'hoary age' of 45, too late a start to 'scale the heights' and lead the party. For another, he says: 'I think the law is a bad training for politics. It diminishes hunch. But it does teach you the importance of words and their use. It took me two years in the Commons to make a speech anyone would listen to because every time I spoke I made a Court of Appeal speech, speaking as if I had a bad smell under my nose.'

His early ministerial posts - working for Jim Prior at Employment and Willie Whitelaw at the Home Office - reflect his place in the Tory political spectrum. Lord Whitelaw - whose inflections can occasionally be caught in Mayhew's plummy tones - was a political mentor. Sir Patrick was never a Thatcherite. He supported Douglas Hurd in the leadership campaign. He voted once, in July 1979, for capital punishment for terrorists. He now regards that as an 'aberration' and has been a confirmed abolitionist ever since. Ideology? 'I have a strong belief in the importance of a reliable seat of the pants and a reliable hunch. I think that many political situations don't really yield to a close examination of theory to provide the answer. But they do benefit from a reliable political instinct. Willie had that in tremendous measure.' He is a broad church Anglican but says crisply: 'I do not think it's wise for politicians to dress up their policies in the robes of religion and I certainly don't think it's wise for clergy to engage in politics.'

When Margaret Thatcher offered him the job of Solicitor-General in 1983, he said others would do it better and he had 'come into politics to get out of the law'. But he adds: 'If you are asked to do a job by the Queen's first minister then you do it. So I did.'

There was no shortage of drama. In 1986 he was at the point of resignation after his famous letter warning Michael Heseltine of 'material inaccuracies' in the way he was presenting his Westland case was outrageously and officially leaked. Was it true that he and the then Attorney-General, Sir Michael Havers, had threatened to call the police into No 10 Downing Street if there was no full inquiry into the leak? 'You won't get an answer from me about that.' But he does say: 'I was determined, having recently prosecuted a little girl called Sarah Tisdall (the source of a leak to the Guardian from the Ministry of Defence), at the bottom of the heap, for misuse of confidential information, that it was never going to be said that when there was embarrassment to two of my political friends there would be different standards applied where confidential information had been published without authority.'

Yet he pays magnanimous tribute to Margaret Thatcher's behaviour 'which may surprise you'. He says: 'I never once got the slightest hint of 'look, I know this shouldn't have happened and I am very sorry, it won't happen again but it would be awfully convenient if you would lay off a bit'. That is a measure of her respect for the constitutional proprieties.'

Later, she promoted him to Attorney-General. He was strongly criticised in 1988, in the wake of the Stalker affair, for not prosecuting, on security grounds, 11 RUC officers for their alleged 'shoot to kill' offences. Yet he authorised more than one prosecution of security force members, including five members of the Parachute Regiment charged with murder.

Then, in April, came the job he had made clear he wanted since the early 1980s: Northern Ireland Secretary. His appointment - and that of Michael Mates as Minister of State - did not, he insists, herald a new 'get tough' policy on security. It was a 'go on being tough' policy, which had been pursued with equal vigour by Brooke. 'The Government's first priority is the elimination of terrorism and we will do it by all lawful means. But I am absolutely insistent that everybody in the security forces shall be subject to the unbending discipline of the rule of law.' He is impatient at loose newspaper talk about 'getting terrorism by the throat' and 'new security measures'. The armchair critics do not, 'as they say in the law courts, condescend to particulars.

'If it is suggested that there should be more legislation, what is it? Is it suggested that the prosecution should never have to prove its case? Is it suggested that there should be a kind of immunity from prosecution for the security forces?' That would hand to the terrorists 'the most valuable victory they could dream of getting'. It would, he says, be an 'absolute disaster and all the policemen, all the soldiers know it.

'It's a very sophisticated job we ask of these people, you know, these 18- and 19-year-olds. My God, we get it - and when we don't it's very tough but there has to be some sort of criminal investigation followed by prosecution if the facts require it.'

So what are his hopes in the new climate of expectation? 'I have a great love for Irish people which doesn't stop in either direction at the border. They have so much going for them in their personal qualities, in the island in which they live and the environment, that over here we could all envy.'

But he acknowledges that they also have 'a history which is horrific, extending over centuries, and memories that make elephants seem like amnesiacs'. He adds: 'I resolutely refuse to believe that any Englishman arriving in Ireland has the answer. But there is a huge prize for Ireland if hatreds and suspicions can be mitigated and a togetherness can be engendered slowly, for reasons that don't need spelling out.' The talks come at a time, he insists, when the people are 'longing for the old battles to be set aside' and for the politicians to achieve something. 'They can't articulate it, but it's coming through. If somebody like me can preside and help this process along, help them to do it for themselves, that would be a very fortunate role to play.'

How, finally, will he differ from his predecessors? 'I may just be luckier. I just might be. But it's a long shot.'

(Photograph omitted)