Was Peter Brooke’s ‘British Neutrality’ Speech Really The Breakthrough Claimed For It?

I ask the question because I recently came across an article in The Irish Times from January 1999 which suggests that the essential sentiments contained in that speech had been knocking around the minds of British mandarins even before the Troubles erupted.

Peter Brooke’s so-called ‘neutrality’ speech in 1990 is now regarded as a watershed moment, which injected momentum into the peace process and gave Sinn Fein’s leadership a key argument to persuade its grassroots supporters that their project was full of potential,

My old colleague from Irish Times’ days, Paul Gillespie, put it well, in a piece he wrote on December 4th, 1999:

On November 9th, 1990, the then Secretary of State, Peter Brooke, made a crucial speech in which he said ‘the British government has no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland’.

The Guardian recently reported that Margaret Thatcher refused to allow him to make the speech before then because she was reluctant to use such neutral language when nuclear submarines passed close to the North to patrol the Atlantic.

The speech enabled John Hume to convince Gerry Adams that the strategic assumption on which the IRA’s campaign of violence was based – that the British presence was to prevent a united neutral Ireland refusing military facilities to NATO – no longer held. One does not have to agree with the analysis to take the point, as the Sinn Fein leadership did in those years, stimulated in good part by their secret dialogue with the British government.

A few days after Paul’s article appeared, Irish government documents from 1968 were released in the National Archives in Dublin, some of which dealt with the dealings between the two governments in the context of the Lemass-O’Neill summit of January 1965.

The document reads: A powerful advocate of this policy (the Lemass-O’Neill dialogue) was T K Whitaker, Secretary of the Department of Finance. In February 1968, in the margins of the Lynch-Wilson summit in London, he asked Sir Arthur Snelling, deputy secretary at the Commonwealth Relations Office, what the British authorities ‘saw, or would like to see, as the ultimate outcome’.

He reported Snelling’s line that the British ‘having been plagued with the Irish Question for so long’, now wanted not to be disturbed. While not ‘frigidly neutral’ on the question, and unwilling to coerce the Unionists, they remained benevolent ‘towards any solution that might be agreed upon in Ireland between Irishmen.’

Try as I did, I cannot find any substantial difference between that policy statement and the sentiments expressed by Peter Brooke twenty-two years later.

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