Affable patrician masterminded prototype Belfast Agreement

Lord William (Willie) Whitelaw, who has died aged 81 after a long illness, described his tenure as the first Secretary of State…

Lord William (Willie) Whitelaw, who has died aged 81 after a long illness, described his tenure as the first Secretary of State for Northern Ireland as the high point of his lengthy political career at the epicentre of British parliament and government.

In March 1972, the then prime minister, Edward Heath, prorogued the discredited Stormont parliament and dispatched Whitelaw to Belfast to implement direct rule from Westminster. The only condition he asked for before taking the job was that an RAF aircraft should constantly be at his disposal to facilitate journeys between London, Belfast and his farm at Penrith in Cumbria.

Over the next 20 months, the archetypal patrician conservative grandee - with his country background and war-time service with the Scots Guards and the Military Cross for bravery commanding a tank during the Normandy landings in 1944 - used his considerable charm and geniality to armtwist, cajole and occasionally bully Belfast's warring politicians.

These discussions were regularly lubricated with generous measures of gin and whiskey to encourage conviviality and consensus.


Whitelaw sought to forge a number of key components which he considered to be essential elements in any effort to more comprehensively revise the parameters of the Irish question since the partitioning of the island half a century earlier.

With violence, death and disorder in the North at what proved to be record levels (467 deaths in 1972 alone), he took a considerable political risk in entering into a truce with the Provisional IRA in July 1972, conceding political status for republican prisoners and bringing the movement's leadership to London for clandestine negotiations. However, such was the lack of any realistic political grasp on their part that the initiative floundered, and Whitelaw flooded Catholic areas with thousands of soldiers in a bid to dominate and negate the IRA, but which never fully succeeded. He later confessed that the abortive truce and misjudged talks were high among his most serious political regrets and mistakes.

He was more successful in stimulating, for the first time, the notion of political power-sharing between unionists and nationalists. As a result of the Sunningdale Agreement, concluded in December 1973, Brian Faulkner and Gerry Fitt headed a cross-party power-sharing executive which took office a month later. By then Heath, who regarded Whitelaw as his most effective political fixer, had recalled him to London to take on the industrial might of the country's powerful miners, who were threatening to destabilise the conservative government.

However, with Whitelaw's deft touch removed before the Northern executive was able to implement its programme of work and demonstrate its potential, it was brought down by a paralysing general strike orchestrated by the Ulster Workers' Council, a coalition of hardline unionist politicians and paramilitaries. The fact that Heath had lost a general election in February 1974, bringing Harold Wilson to power, contributed to London's unwillingness to defend the promising political structures that Whitelaw had so painstakingly worked to build.

As a result of this collapse, the third component Whitelaw had tried to forge also floundered. Thus the concept of a Council of Ireland, creating formal cross-Border links to promote reconciliation and co-operation between the North and South was never brought into operation.

Although Whitelaw's patiently drawn components proved to be flawed and fragile prototypes, it is a tribute to his vision and political judgement that they remained as the central features of a succession of political initiatives since - and heavily influenced the confluence of events which resulted in the 1994 ceasefires and the subsequent Belfast Agreement four years later. Although it too has run into problems and has not fully blossomed, its ultimate success will be due in significant part to the ground-breaking efforts of Whitelaw more than a quarter of a century earlier.

William Stephen Ian Whitelaw was born in Edinburgh on June 28th, 1918. His father, also William, died a year later and his widowed mother was to devote the rest of her life to caring for her son. The young boy came under the influence of her wealthy father, who had his fortune from shareholdings in steel, coal and the railways. He spared neither time nor expense in guiding and educating his lonely, shy and sensitive grandson. After attending preparatory school at Woking, he was sent to Winchester College and then to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he graduated in Law and History and earned the distinction of a Golf Blue. Later, another of his proudest golfing achievements was to captain the Royal and Ancient at St Andrews in 1969/70.

During the second World War he served with the Scots Guards and achieved the rank of Major but he resigned his commission in 1947 and decided to enter politics to see what he could do to improve the lot of soldiers and their families. By then he had married Cecilia Doriel Sprot, in 1943, and was soon to settle in Cumbria where he became a prosperous gentleman farmer.

In 1955 he was elected as a Conservative MP for Penrith and the Borders, the area he represented until leaving the House of Commons in 1983. His political elevation through the government was swift and he had become leader of the House of Commons when he was sent to Belfast in 1972.

When Margaret Thatcher defeated him to become leader of the Conservative Party in 1974 he became her deputy and served her loyally after that, acting as a sponge for the frustration of the "wets" in the party like himself who were opposed to her strident agenda of reform.

Thatcher paid tribute to his loyalty and fixing skills when she memorably said "every prime minister needs a Willie". Whitelaw was no slouch in the humour stakes himself, once accusing Harold Wilson of boring the voters by "going round the country stirring up apathy".

Elevated to the House of Lords in 1983 as the first Viscount Whitelaw of Penrith, he was leader of the House until he retired from active politics in 1988. Thatcher rewarded him for his political service and loyalty by appointing him an hereditary peer but as he has no heir the title will now lapse with his death. He is survived by his wife and four daughters.

William Ian Stephen Whitelaw, first Viscount Whitelaw of Penrith: born 1918; died July, 1999