December 2 1973
OUTGOING Secretary of State Mr William Whitelaw takes his final curtain call on the Northern Ireland stage – and his departure is the signal for a renewed bid by the Unpledged Unionist group and the DUP-Vanguard Assembly Coalition for seats at the tripartite talks which get under way on Thursday to set up a Council of Ireland.
Mr Whitelaw will be at Stormont Castle to say farewell to his friends of 20 months’ standing before returning to London to take over at the Department of Employment. His successor as Secretary of State, Mr Francis Pym, outgoing Government Chief Whip, is expected in Belfast today.
And approaches will be made to him within hours of his arrival asking that the British Government should have a last-minute change of heart about rejecting the claims of the right-wing loyalist groups for representation at the conference between the British and Irish governments and the 15-member Northern Assembly Executive-designate at a secret venue “near London”.
Mr Liam Cosgrave, the Taoiseach, was reported in Dublin last night to be sharing the general dismay of many northern politicians at the timing of Mr Whitelaw’s departure.
There was no formal government statement but it was known that misgivings at the British Government’s decision to change horses in mid-stream were also being expressed by other cabinet ministers, particularly those who will accompany Mr Cosgrave to the tripartite talks.
And sources close to the Provisional IRA in Dublin said it was thought that negotiations might be opened with the new Secretary of State, Mr Francis Pym. It was suggested that having declared that he would not negotiate with the Provisional IRA, Mr Whitelaw could not change his mind without loss of face, but that Mr Pym might feel free to do so.
British Hopes for Irish Council “This Week”
The first phase of the tripartite talks “near London” this week to set up a Council of Ireland could continue from Thursday until Saturday and be quickly followed by a short Bill at Westminster with the powers on agriculture, social services, education and other matters apart from security transferred from London to Belfast.
The second stage of the tripartite talks could be held early next year and form another important step towards a working Council of Ireland. Britain is hoping that a broad agreement on setting up the council can be reached this week.
All 15 members of the Northern Ireland Assembly administration – including the 11-man Executive-designate – will be at the conference with eight cabinet ministers from Dublin, headed by the Taoiseach, Mr Liam Cosgrave and Tánaiste, Mr Brendan Corish, and several British cabinet ministers under the chairmanship of Sir Alec Douglas Home.
The British Prime Minister, Mr Edward Heath, will be at the opening and the new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mr Francis Pym, will attend.
For security reasons the Dublin Government team is likely to travel to London in at least three separate groups.
As the conference in Sunningdale in Berkshire was days away from beginning, politicians in Ireland, north and south, were shocked, and in many cases disgruntled, by the sudden departure of William Whitelaw as Northern Ireland Secretary of State, replaced by Francis Pym.