Whitelaw, William Stephen Ian (‘Willie’) (1918–99), Viscount Whitelaw of Penrith , first secretary of state for Northern Ireland, was born 28 June 1918 in Edinburgh, the only child of William Alexander Whitelaw (1892–1919), an army officer who died of pneumonia after his health was destroyed in a gas attack in the first world war, and his wife Helen Winifred Alice Cumine (d. 1978), daughter of Maj.-gen. Francis Russell. William was educated at preparatory schools in Nairn and Berkshire, and at Winchester and Trinity College, Cambridge, whence he graduated (1939) in law and history. He immediately joined the Scots Guards and had an excellent war; he was promoted to major in 1942; gained the MC after the battle of Caumont (July 1944), and was made second-in-command of his battalion. In 1947 he resigned his commission to manage family estates in Lanarkshire; within a few years he was following his paternal grandfather, great-uncle, and great-grandfather into politics. He unsuccessfully contested East Dunbartonshire for the tories in 1950 and again in 1951 before being elected as Conservative MP for Penrith and the Border in 1955; he held this seat until 1983, when he transferred to the lords. In parliament he quickly achieved prominence, he was successively assistant government whip (1959–61), parliamentary under-secretary at the ministry of labour (1962–4), opposition chief whip (1964–70), and (on the tories being returned under Edward Heath in June 1970) lord president of the council and leader of the house of commons. On the imposition of direct rule on Northern Ireland in March 1972, he was appointed the province's first secretary of state and spent the next eighteen months in Belfast. He was Heath's right-hand man, and his being spared for Northern Ireland was an indication of the seriousness of the government's search for a solution.
Whitelaw's first priority was to ease the security situation; he arranged the release of all remaining internees and under the title ‘Operation Motorman’ (31 July) sent 12,000 troops with tanks and bulldozers to tear down barricades and end the ‘no go’ areas in Belfast and Derry. After the announcement of an IRA ceasefire on 26 June, he met secretly with a provisional IRA delegation in London on 7 July, including Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness; three days later the talks were leaked to the press, and IRA activities resumed shortly afterwards. During the ensuing media furore Whitelaw offered to resign, but in his memoirs he wrote that the IRA's behaviour presented him with ‘a considerable advantage, it proved that they were intransigent’ (Whitelaw, 98) and left him free to pursue his preferred method of wooing the moderate parties into power-sharing. This he did so successfully that on 5 October 1973 he sat down for talks with the major unionist and nationalist parties (the UUP and SDLP) and the cross-community Alliance. The loyalist parties (Vanguard and DUP) refused to participate. Six weeks later he announced agreement to an assembly to be elected by proportional representation and a governing executive drawn from all three parties. Outstanding issues on policing and the council of Ireland were negotiated at a tripartite conference between the British, Irish, and NI governments at Sunningdale (6–9 December), but Whitelaw was not present. On 2 December he was made secretary of state for employment in order to pit his much vaunted negotiating skills against the miners; Francis Pym was sent to Belfast as his successor. The executive parties by this time regarded Whitelaw as indispensable and looked on his premature removal as a further instance of their interests being subordinated to UK interests. Whitelaw remained concerned with Northern Ireland and counselled against holding a snap general election in February 1974, on the grounds not only that the miners would respond to further negotiations, but that an election was an unnecessarily stark testing ground for the fragile two-month-old executive. He went unheeded but was proved right: the Conservative government lost the election and eleven of the twelve NI seats in Westminster went to parties opposed to power-sharing. Significantly, in memoirs marked by considerable bonhomie, Whitelaw admitted to feeling intense bitterness over the wrecking of the executive in May 1974 by the Ulster Workers Council's strike. Rejecting the possibility of any inherent instability in the deal he had brokered, he blamed the Labour government for not standing up to the strikers.
Whitelaw was deputy leader of the Conservative party in the years of opposition and on 11 February 1975 stood against Margaret Thatcher in the leadership challenge. He accepted his defeat with equanimity, returning to his post as deputy the following morning. On the tories being returned in 1979 he was made home secretary and held this post until 1983. In this capacity he faced the race riots in Bristol, London, Liverpool, and Manchester in 1980–81 and was struck by their worrying similarity to Northern Ireland. Moderate and liberal, he refused hard-line methods and instead brought in the largest programme of prison building and improvement in the twentieth century and introduced the British nationality act (1981) which broadened the criteria for citizenship. His experience in Northern Ireland strengthened his resolve against the death penalty, on which he stood out against Thatcher and the flogging-and-hanging elements of his party; at the 1981 party conference he threatened resignation after the prime minister publicly undermined him on capital punishment. In 1983 he left the commons on being created Viscount Whitelaw of Penrith, but remained in the cabinet as lord president of the council and leader of the house of lords. He retired from the government in November 1987 due to ill health and published his memoirs the following year. In a farewell tribute Thatcher declared famously that every prime minister needed a Willie. He died at home in Penrith, Cumbria, on 1 July 1999 and was survived by his wife, Cecilia (née Sprot; m. 6 February 1943), and by his four daughters.
As secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Whitelaw's achievement was considerable. He took office in the most violent year of the Troubles, at a time when relations between the two communities were at breaking point, and relations of both to the British government extremely poor: the unionists were humiliated by the prorogation of their parliament and the nationalists incensed by Bloody Sunday. Brokering a deal in these circumstances was a remarkable achievement, and not bettered by any of his successors. He was also alone among secretaries of state in gaining and keeping the respect of the major parties of both communities. The flaw in the Sunningdale agreement was his confidence that sidelining the extremists would neutralise them, but as a settlement bridging nationalist and unionist aspirations, it remained the prototype: thirty-five years later Seamus Mallon of the SDLP described the 1998 Good Friday agreement as ‘Sunningdale for slow learners’.