Merlyn Rees (1920-2006) was a Welsh politician who represented the Labour Party in the House of Commons for almost 30 years. Rees served as the third Secretary of State for Northern Ireland between March 1974 and September 1976. He is perhaps best remembered for his decision to withdraw Special Category Status (SCS) for Irish prisoners, a move that triggered years of prison protests. Rees was born in South Wales, the son of a coal miner. He was schooled in England, studying at Goldsmiths College in preparation for a teaching career. After graduation Rees joined the Royal Air Force, rising to the rank of squadron leader and serving in Italy, France and Austria. After the war he completed his studies in economic history, then took a teaching position at his old school. Rees ran for parliament unsuccessfully in the 1950s but was elected to represent Leeds South in 1963.
In 1972 Rees became Labour’s shadow minister for Ireland. He was appointed the third Secretary of State for Northern Ireland after Labour won power in February 1974. With the Sunningdale Agreement weakening, Rees proposed a Constitutional Convention to negotiate a power-sharing government involving Nationalists and Loyalists. The Convention proceeded but failed to produce anything substantial. In 1975-76 Rees oversaw Labour’s three-pronged policy approach to Northern Ireland: “normalisation” (a reduction in violence), “Ulsterisation” (the withdrawal of British soldiers) and “criminalisation” (repainting the Troubles as a domestic law and order issue). In November 1975 Rees announced his intention to withdraw of Special Category Status (SCS) for paramilitary volunteers jailed after March 1st 1976. This outraged radicals on both sides and triggered the H Block prison protests, though Rees had left the Northern Ireland portfolio (September 1976) before these protests reached full swing.
Rees served two and a half years as Home Secretary under his political ally, James Callaghan. He later served as shadow energy minister. In 1985 Rees penned a book, Northern Ireland: A Personal Perspective. He retired from the House of Commons in 1992 but later sat in the House of Lords as a life peer. Rees died in London in January 2006, aged 85.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn & S. Thompson, “Merlyn Rees”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date], https://alphahistory.com/northernireland/merlyn-rees/.