Belfast Telegraph

Malachi O'Doherty: If previous occupants of the post are anything to go by, the new Secretary of State might be wise to do and say as little as possible

As Julian Smith settles into his new job, he would do well to read up on his predecessors in Northern Ireland, says Malachi O'Doherty

William Whitelaw
William Whitelaw
Karen Bradley
Douglas Hurd
Tom King
Mo Mowlam

By Malachi O'Doherty

The post of Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is a good indicator of how urgently the Prime Minister of the day wants to resolve the deadlock here.

Karen Bradley, like her predecessor James Brokenshire, were seat-warmers. Their job was simply to fill the office and make positive noises from time to time about their hopes for a resolution, even when those hopes were so low and so deflated that they would have been comfortable under the plush carpet of Hillsborough Castle.

The first appointee was the biggest hitter we have ever had: William Whitelaw, later a Tory Home Secretary, who devised the concept of the 'short sharp shock' as a measure for reducing youth crime.

He took a less brutal approach to peace-making here than he did to the errant teenagers of Moss Side, Brixton and the Gorbals.

Whitelaw secured the first IRA ceasefire in 1972.

He set a precedent for later peace processing by treating the ceasefire as perfectly valid and intact even while the death toll was rising.

The IRA interpreted it as entitling them to set up their own checkpoints and to shoot dead those who broke through them, which they did, after the manner of the British Army itself. We now know what the GOC's advice was on how to deal with the inevitable ending of that ceasefire.

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General Harry Tuzo wanted mortars deployed in housing estates, after a due warning to the non-involved to take to the roads.

Instead, Whitelaw made a public broadcast to announce that the Army would be moving against the barricades and the IRA, for the most part, either stayed in bed or went to Donegal. One South Derry unit slaughtered eight people with car bombs in Claudy but declined to take the credit for it.

The rumour last week that Michael Gove was to get the job was alarming precisely because big-name politicians come here to make big changes. Think Gove and you think Mountbatten or such like, the sort of person who alters the course of history or feels his time is otherwise wasted. He already has Brexit to show for that.

But big names fumbled as well.

Merlyn Rees, confronted with a Ulster Workers' Council blockade, mistook a coup for an industrial dispute, being a Labour man, and let an Assembly fall rather than deploy the Army against strikers.

Another Labour SoS, Roy Mason, came in trying to be a hard man. Under his watch, Gerry Adams and several other Sinn Fein figures were arrested. Mason even explored the possibility of having them convicted of treason and hanged.

There have been Secretaries of State here who had held senior Cabinet posts but were stood down from high office to be given this portfolio.

Poor James Prior found himself being hissed at when he arrived in church for the funeral of the Rev Robert Bradford, who had been murdered by the IRA.

The plan he came up with was called Rolling Devolution. He set up an Assembly with the idea that progressively greater power would be allocated to it, as it showed itself fit to receive it. The SDLP and Sinn Fein boycotted it and after the Anglo-Irish Agreement, with Tom King now in the job, Paisley and others were carried out of it by the police. King had the task of trying to get unionists to talk to him.

He also received the first overtures from Gerry Adams, delivered in unsigned handwritten notes by Fr Alex Reid.

And when secret peace talks were organised in Duisberg in what was then West Germany, Reid went along as the eyes and ears of Gerry Adams. That others there, like Peter Robinson, surely understood that implies that the whole event was more hopeful than it seemed at the time.

King's sidekick Richard Needham gave us the slogan 'Belfast is Buzzing', the building of the CastleCourt shopping centre, and Belfast 1992, which was meant to be a great year.

Needham saw the unionists soften their stand against talks, first of all at dinners arranged by Diljit (later, Baron) Rana.

So, there have been times when a Secretary of State has had a real job to do, like Mo Mowlam or Peter Mandelson: Mowlam keeping the Provos sweet and Mandelson replacing her to assuage unionist anxieties. He came up with the idea of glossing over police reform by keeping the 'title deeds' of the RUC, whatever they are, and giving the old force the George Cross.

So much is about symbols here.

There have also been Secretaries of State who merely bided their time, or tried to stimulate social reform. Douglas Hurd got leisure centres built and at the same time funded community employment schemes on the condition that paramilitaries were not involved. Given that ultimately Sinn Fein would displace the IRA and get an end to the killing, history might judge that helping rather than attempting to curtail the party's growth might have been more productive.

It would take a whole book to go through all of them and the efforts they made to bring peace and political stability here.

Outstanding moments include that hissing at Prior and the shaming of Peter Brooke for singing Oh My Darling, Clementine for Gay Byrne on the night of an IRA mass killing.

Many recall the antics of Mo Mowlam as her brain tumour disinhibited the poor woman. But remembering her as a particular hero of the peace process probably exaggerates her impact.

The real player in her time was her boss, Tony Blair, and his strategy was simply to keep the peace process going, however cussed and uncompromising the politicians here were. Ultimately it was not so much about reaching a settlement as providing an alternative field of action.

If the IRA was driving Trimble to distraction by stalling on decommissioning, it was at least better than shooting him.

Advice for the new man, Julian Smith? Don't do anything. Nothing is expected of you but that you mutter some good intentions and express high hopes from time to time. If anything was expected of you, you'd be someone else.

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