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William Whitelaw (1918 - 1999):
Secretary of State for Northern Ireland 1972-1973

William Whitelaw was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland for a short but politically momentous - and the most violent - period of the Troubles, in the early 1970s, and hence directed or oversaw a number of events and developments, in both the security and political realms, of great contemporary but also historic significance, most notably laying the necessary groundwork for the Sunningdale Agreement of 1973, which, though it failed in the short term, could be seen as a direct precursor of the more successful settlement a quarter-century later.

Whitelaw came from a Scottish family long involved in politics, a grandson and great-grandson of Conservative MPs. He attended Winchester College, where he was interested in sports, and went to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he obtained a history degree (second class honours) and a law degree (third class).

During the war, he served in the Scots Guards, and saw service in Normandy after the 1944 invasion, in a tank brigade. He was awarded the MC for his actions at the battle of Caumont on 30th July, becoming second in command of his battalion. At war's end he served in Palestine, where he was mentioned in dispatches. In 1952 he was appointed deputy lieutenant for Dunbartonshire and had already decided on a political career. In the 1955 General Election he was successful in Penrith and the Border; albeit a safe seat, Whitelaw was returned with a record majority of 13,672, and held the seat until becoming a peer in 1983. He became parliamentary private secretary to his second cousin, the President of the Board of Trade, Peter Thorneycroft, remaining with him when Thorneycroft became Chancellor of the Exchequer. He was Chief Whip, 1964-1970 and was appointed Lord President of the Council in 1970. In March 1972, he was appointed to his first ministerial position, as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, a new post.

Whatever its political, constitutional and economic shortcomings (though the 1960s saw economic expansion), Northern Ireland had been a peaceful and relatively stable society until 1968-1969; by 1972 it was in serious turmoil and experiencing violence to an extent not since equalled. Many if not most victims were not at all personally involved in political activity however widely defined; they were killed or injured deliberately, in incidents such as bomb explosions in crowded eateries, sectarian attacks, "mistaken identity" attacks,  or caught in crossfire between paramilitaries and security forces. The London Government decided that its Belfast subsidiary was no longer able to govern effectively, especially in regard to security, and on 24 March, the British Prime Minister, Heath, decided to prorogue (suspend) the Northern Ireland Parliament, effectively replacing Northern Ireland Prime Minister Faulkner with Whitelaw. Not only were the two main sides in Northern Ireland, opposed to each other as they were, also divided within themselves into various parties and factions, and further according to violent/non-violent activity, but many in the governing Conservative party were pro-Ulster Unionist; after all they were, formally at least, the same party, a factor which hindered Whitelaw's mediational leanings. There were also interested parties, similarly of different shades of opinion and not all non-violent, south of the border, not least the Irish Government which feared deleterious consequences in their jurisdiction of events in Northern Ireland.

Intractable as these problems must have seemed, Whitelaw nevertheless approached them with what has been described as "energy, great charm and seemingly inexhaustible patience" - in contrast to the Home Secretary, Maudling, responsible for Northern Ireland just before Whitelaw, who was said to have uttered imprecations and asked for a strong drink. Whitelaw, on his appointment equally ill-informed, answered journalists' questions with the more sophisticated quip, "I always think that it is entirely wrong to prejudge the past."

Insofar as the situation was one of two communities with conflicting aims, Whitelaw set out to redress the most serious grievances of each side: to reduce the activities of the army and to phase out internment (arrest without warrant and detention on indefinite remand; many so held had little or no evidence against them as set out in the relevant legislation, the Schedule to the 1922 Special Powers Act), which were key demands of nationalists; and stop (principally IRA) paramilitary violence and end nationalist "no-go" areas, key demands of unionists.

He did make certain decisions which were widely criticised at the time and later. One such was his decision to grant "special category status" to internees. This involved essentially differentiating them from "ordinary" (or, in Northern Ireland argot, "ordinary decent") criminals by allowing them to wear their own clothes, exempting them from prison work and granting various privileges. This decision would echo strongly during the events of 1980-1981. Also controversial, was his decision to hold talks with the Provisional IRA. A ceasefire by that organisation had been announced for 26 June; Whitelaw was said to have literally jumped for joy. But as he himself later admitted, the talks bore no fruit as he saw it impossible to accede to all demands. The talks proved fruitless, and violence resumed, with 21 July a particularly dreadful day.

Whitelaw responded to these developments in two ways: on security and legal matters, he ordered the Army to remove barricades surrounding "no-go" areas, in a relatively successful security operation, and introduced a system of special courts, known as "Diplock" courts after the Law Lord who chaired the commission recommending them. With regard to constitutional and political matters, he engaged with no little effort on a project to organise talks between the Northern Ireland parties and the Irish government. The first meeting was in Durham in September 1972, but it was during 1973 that negotiations became more concentrated, one obvious point of dispute being that while the nationalist SDLP wanted to increase the role of the Irish government in the proposed settlement, this served to harden unionist attitudes. Nevertheless, intensive negotiations in December at Sunningdale from 6-9 December did produce agreement.

On December 2, Whitelaw had been suddenly removed from his post in Northern Ireland, recalled to London to deal with political problems and industrial disputes in Britain, which despite Whitelaw's efforts effectively brought down the London Government; this had repercussions for Northern Ireland, as at the February 1974 general election, Unionist candidates opposed to the Sunningdale Agreement co-operated for the campaign and were able to inflict an overwhelming defeat on pro-Sunningdale Unionists, so that it could scarcely be accepted further that the agreement had majority Unionist support. The whole system came to an end in mid-1974 after a strike across Northern Ireland, led by the anti-Sunningdale Unionists, which effectively paralysed it. Whitelaw was always afterwards to lament that had he been able to remain in post, he might have been able to prevent the system collapsing as it did.

His subsequent career saw him as Conservative Party chairman, challenger for leadership of the party - he was beaten by Margaret Thatcher but served as deputy leader - and Home Secretary, where he had to contend with rioting in British cities, the siege of the Iranian embassy, security breaches at Buckingham Palace, and renewed IRA bombing, this time in London. In 1983, he became the first for many years to be awarded an hereditary peerage, as Viscount Whitelaw of Penrith. In 1988 illness forced him into retirement. Whitelaw was always commended for his loyalty, not least to his two incompatible Prime Ministers, Heath and Thatcher, and for his bonhomie. He is said to have assembled all his civil service staff, on arrival in Northern Ireland in 1972, arranged a splendid dinner and entertainment for them, telling him that "the job we have is impossible, so we must begin as though we are going to enjoy it." Impossible it may have been, but Whitelaw could be said to have nearly succeeded.

Born: 28 June 1918
Died: 1 July 1999
Richard Froggatt