The senior Tory figure, one of Margaret Thatcher’s closest and most loyal lieutenants, was central to brokering the Sunningdale Agreement in 1973, the first scuppered attempt to establish a cross-party executive.
In a private conversation with then Irish ambassador to London Noel Dorr in 1987, Mr Whitelaw said he could foresee the significance of the Irish border waning in the future.
“As to the long term, he said he had always thought that if one could get power-sharing really going in the North, the importance of the border would fade away over 50 years or so,” wrote the diplomat.
“Then unity would be a real possibility.” In a report of their conversation, marked confidential and sent back to the Taoiseach’s office in Dublin, Lord Whitelaw described himself as a moderate unionist, adding that he supported the Anglo-Irish Agreement.
“However, he said he is at the present in one of his more pessimistic moods about Northern Ireland,” according to files released into the National Archives in Dublin.
He said then taoiseach Garret FitzGerald had confided in him his hope that more moderate unionists would emerge, but Lord Whitelaw replied that there “seem to be very few of these”. “Paisley had opposed power-sharing and the SDLP could, on the other hand, not be expected to join in devolution in Northern Ireland without some Irish dimension,” he said.
In later years, Lord Whitelaw had described the collapse of power-sharing in 1974 as “one of the greatest sadnesses of my life”.
Separately, Martin Smyth, then a leading figure in the Ulster Unionist Party, privately told an Irish diplomat that Britain had a “deep wish to get out” of Northern Ireland. He said “he accepted that only the British have any choice in Ireland, the choice to pull out, and that the rest of us in the end will have to accommodate each other.” Rev Smyth suggested the Republic’s economic woes and “failure to become a modern, relaxed, confident society” would stave off any imminent plans for a UK exit.
“He feels that the Republic’s Roman Catholic conservatism will continue to be a political card in the unionists’ favour for a long time to come, and that despite Britain’s deep wish to get out, it cannot while the Republic is clearly economically unviable (sic) and basically unsympathetic to the Unionist identity.”
Meanwhile, a Tory minister predicted that a Margaret Thatcher-led Conservative government that was likely to be re-elected in 1987 would become the most disliked administration in many years. Nicholas Scott, then Deputy Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, said that while he was confident the Tories would win the British general election that year, he was unhappy with aspects of his government’s policy, particularly in relation to education and housing. In a meeting with a senior Irish diplomat, Michael Lillis, in 1987, Mr Scott predicted a new Thatcher administration would be disliked by the electorate.
“This will end in tears,” he observed.