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The 'unfortunate' 1989 interview with Northern Ireland secretary Peter Brooke

Peter Brooke said that it was “difficult to envisage a military defeat” of the IRA, and compared Ireland to Cyprus.

It may be of interest to you to know that Sir Robin Butler commented to me over the weekend that ‘Brooke had dug himself into a hole’, and he (Butler) was not spending the weekend digging him out.

IN NOVEMBER 1989, the then-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Peter Brooke held an interview to mark his 100 days in office. 

It was a tense time for Northern Ireland and British-Irish relations: the Gibraltar shootings happened the previous year; the Guildford Four had just been released, and the Birmingham Six were still in prison. 

There had been a spike in violent incidents against UK forces in Northern Ireland in the previous year – meaning the total of British Army deaths in 1988 was the highest since 1974. The region’s youth were leaving in their droves.

During one part of the interview, Brooke says that: “The fact remains that incidents involving violence do continue at a significant level and therefore I would not dream of any circumstances of being complacent”.

politics-peter-brooke Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Brooke, aged 55. (17 August 1989) Source: PA Archive/PA Images

The lengthy interview was transcribed for the Taoiseach Charles Haughey into 14 pages and included quotes that caused problems for Brooke at the time. 

On 17 January 1992, Brooke would come under criticism for being insensitive after singing ‘Oh My Darling, Clementine’ on the Late Late Show – the same day that seven Protestant construction workers had been killed by an IRA bomb in Co Tyrone.

The transcript of the 1989 interview with Brooke and internal Irish government documentation responding to it have been released to the National Archives under the 30-year rule.

‘Downright stupid’

Among the answers that caused him problems is one where the interviewer asked Brooke would the “Mexican stand-off position” between the UK government and Republicans end, and did he see a time when “the British government can sit down one day and talk to Sinn Féin?”

He replied:

The first factor is that I would recognise that in terms of the late twentieth century terrorist, organised as well as the Provisional IRA have become, that it is difficult to envisage a military defeat of such a force because of the circumstances under which they operate, though the security forces can exercise a policy of containment to enable, broadly speaking, normal life to go on within the province.

“So in the sense it would require a decision on the part of the terrorists that the game had ceased to be worth the candle, that considering the lifestyle they have to adopt, that the return which they were securing from their activities did not justify the costs that it was imposing in personal terms on those who were engaged in their activities. There has to be a possibility that at some stage that that debate might start within the terrorist community and that moment might come.” 

The interviewer called it “a remarkable statement”. 

In response, Brooke said “let me remind you of the move towards independence in Cyprus and a British Minister stood up in the House of Commons and used the word ‘never’ in a way which within two years there had been a retreat from that word”.

In a letter dated 21 November, press officer David Donoghue said that MP Andrew MacKay, who was also the parliamentary private secretary to the Secretary of State for Defence, was “sharply critical of Peter Brooke’s interview remarks” : 

To say what he did after a thousand days would have been bad – to say it after a hundred was downright stupid.

The briefing note to Department of Foreign Affairs said that MacKay “blamed poor briefing” in the Northern Ireland Office.

‘There are some good people there but there are some dreadful dunces,’ he said. He echoed points made by others contending that the Secretary of State has damaged his relations with the PM and alienated concerned backbenchers. 

Among the backlash to the interview was contained in a letter from the then-Ambassador to the UK Andrew O’Rourke, who wrote to Dermot Gallagher of the Anglo-Irish Division within the Department of Foreign Affairs.

He quotes Sir Robin Butler, who was  Secretary of the British Cabinet and Head of the Home Civil Service for a decade between 1988 and 1998.

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“It may be of interest to you,” O’Rourke wrote, “to know that Sir Robin Butler commented to me over the weekend that ‘Brooke had dug himself into a hole’, and he (Butler) was not spending the weekend digging him out.

This contrasts with some public indications of support for Brooke from Downing Street in recent days. It is not, perhaps, surprising that Mrs Thatcher would not want to make public at this stage any further disagreements with her Cabinet colleagues.

On 7 November, O’Rourke wrote again to say that “as time went on it became more and more difficult for people to find anything wrong with what Peter Brooke had said except in respect of the Cyprus analogy, which was certainly unfortunate”. 

“There would be no row with Brooke about it – partly because it was overshadowed by other events [a reference to other Cabinet difficulties] and because Mrs Thatcher, who is very busy, is not focusing on Irish affairs.”

In various briefings and lunches with Gallagher, British journalists fed back murmurings of reaction to the interview. Among these were Richard Ford, who was the Times’ ‘Northern Ireland specialist’. 

He said that a senior Northern Ireland Office official told him ahead of the interview being leaked something to the effect that Brooke “is a good man but has a dangerous habit of speaking too freely”. 

All the signs, therefore, suggest that the Secretary of State’s comments were not planned in advance. he gave honest answers to honest questions and is now paying the political price for this intellectual honesty. Ford’s own view is that much of the criticism is justified.

An adviser Joe Hayes wrote to Dermot Gallagher following a lunch with the political advisor to the shadow home secretary. He wrote that Brooke’s remarks were likely to have a long ‘political shelf life’. 

In another briefing note, it was documented that Peter Brooke told Guardian political correspondent Ian Gow “that he regretted his remark about the impossibility of military defeat of the IRA, and also the analogy he drew with Cyprus – not because he had changed his mind on either score, but simply because of the future which those comments had generated”.

Haughey’s response to the interview, officially, in any case, was:

“That seemed to be what the Secretary of State was saying, that if there were to be a cessation of violence, the political possibilities would be very great indeed.”

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