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1972: Whitelaw's secret meeting with IRA

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland William Whitelaw has been involved in secret talks with the provisional IRA in London.

Mr Whitelaw broke the news to the House of Commons as he announced that the two week ceasefire in Northern Ireland had come to an end.

Six IRA leaders were involved in the meeting that took place in a private house on Friday 7 July.

After numerous approaches by the IRA this was the first time that Mr Whitelaw had met with provisional leaders and he claims that he did so to preserve the peace.

In the face of criticism by Conservative backbenchers, Mr Whitelaw said: "I decided that if I were to see these people personally I might be able to do something to save lives."

"I might be able to do something to save lives"

William Whitelaw

The meeting lasted three hours and gave the IRA an opportunity to make demands that they claimed were a fair exchange for continued peace.

The demands were: a total withdrawal of British forces; the right to self-determination by the Irish people; and an amnesty for political prisoners.

Mr Whitelaw knew the British Government would not accept what was essentially a re-statement of routine and unworkable demands.

Before he had chance to discuss the matter with his cabinet colleagues hostilities recommenced in Belfast over the distribution of housing amongst Catholics and Protestants.

Mr Whitelaw points to intimidation on both sides and says: "I want to make it perfectly clear that terrorism and extremism in the community cannot be tolerated, that the rule of law and justice must be restored."

He has sent a further 1,800 troops to Northern Ireland in preparation for the marching season and to respond to IRA threats that they will use the "utmost ferocity".

In Context
William Whitelaw was the first Secretary of State for Northern Ireland after Direct Rule was established there by UK Prime Minister Edward Heath in March 1972.

With 467 deaths in 1972 alone this was the height of the Troubles and a period that Willie - later Viscount - Whitelaw regarded as the most challenging of his career.

In March 1973 he published a White Paper that proposed the election of a 78 member power sharing executive and in December the Sunningdale Agreement was signed.

By May 1974 Unionist divisions caused the fledgling Council of Ireland to collapse and Direct Rule was re-imposed.

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