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 Friday, 20 December, 2002, 12:35 GMT
Profile: Viscount William Whitelaw
Viscount William Whitelaw was the first Northern Ireland Secretary
Viscount William Whitelaw was the first NI secretary
Viscount William Whitelaw became the first Northern Ireland Secretary in 1972 when direct rule was imposed at the height of the Troubles.

It was a difficult task. Unionists were fiercely opposed to the removal of locally held power.

There was also escalating violence on the streets with 467 deaths that year.

In a bid to keep a brief IRA ceasefire going, he tried a controversial initiative in early July 1972.

He met IRA leaders secretly in London but the Provisional's terms were too sweeping to be acceptable to the British Government and the initiative failed.

Despite the continuance of violence, both from the IRA and loyalist groups, he tried to move the emphasis to political progress.

Sunningdale Agreement

By the end of the year, he had produced a discussion paper which pointed to the need to recognise both the British and Irish dimension in the NI situation.

In March 1973, this was translated into a White Paper which set out the government's plans for a new style devolved government.

It proposed a 78 member assembly elected by proportional representation and power sharing between the parties.

After protracted negotiations, he persuaded the nationalist SDLP, unionists and Alliance Party to form the executive. This eventually led to the Sunningdale Agreement.

By the time the new executive was in place he was back in London where he went on to be deputy prime minister.

On his retirement from politics, he said his time at Stormont had been the most challenging of his career.

He said the collapse of power sharing in 1974 had been "one of the greatest sadnesses of my life".

Viscount Whitelaw died at the age of 81 in June 1999.

The reinvestigation of an atrocity

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18 Mar 99 | History
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