Northern Ireland--Between War and Peace: The Political Future of Northern Ireland

By Paul Bew; Henry Patterson et al. | Go to book overview

1
BRITAIN'S IRISH INTEREST

In his Whitbread Speech of 9 November 1990, the recently appointed Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Peter Brooke, portrayed the British government as both open-minded and disinterested on the question of the constitutional future of Ulster: 'The obstacle to the development of a new and more inclusive Irish identity if people want this for themselves is not to be found in Great Britain.' People in Britain 'would not bar the way' if the people of Northern Ireland decided to seek such a new identity.

One sentence would come under intense scrutiny: 'The British government has no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland: our role is to help, enable and encourage.'1 Brooke had recently sanctioned the reactivation of the secret line of communication which had existed between republicans and the British government for over 20 years. As part of this process an advance copy of the Whitbread Speech had been forwarded to Sinn Fein.2 The declaration of Britain's lack of strategic or economic interest would be repeated in the Downing Street Declaration of December 1993 and was clearly an important factor in the IRA's decision to declare a 'complete cessation' of military operations on 31 August 1994. It lay behind the widespread feeling in the Unionist community that a 'secret deal' had been done by Britain and the IRA. Yet both Republican hopes and Unionist fears would seem to have been misplaced: it has become inceasingly clear that no deals were done.

Nevertheless, the Brooke speech had served to convince John Hume, the leader of Northern Ireland's predominant nationalist party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), that the Anglo–Irish Agreement of 1985 had indeed been a watershed in Anglo–Irish relations, indicating that the British state had shifted decisively from a pro-union to a neutral position. Hume and his colleagues had tried to convince Gerry Adams and his Sinn Fein colleagues of just this point in months of controversial dialogue in 1988. Although these talks had

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