Tributes have been paid to the former Northern secretary Peter Brooke, who has died aged 89. Mr Brooke was Northern secretary in the early 1990s when he initiated “talks about talks” to secure devolved government. While his initiative did not immediately achieve its aims it shaped the process that led to the Belfast Agreement in 1998.
He was forced to resign from the Northern Ireland office in January 1992 after controversially singing a song on the Late Late Show on the night when seven Protestant construction workers were killed by an IRA bomb.
Reacting to news of his death, President Michael D Higgins said Mr Brooke made a “positive and valuable contribution at a significant juncture in the peace process”.
“One couldn’t but be struck by the great openness of spirit and charm which Peter Brooke had,” Mr Higgins said. “He was someone who brought a generous vision to politics and one of my most abiding memories is his love of books... What he brought to politics was not just a commitment to the value of politics, but of warm and open relationships. He will be missed.”
Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin said: “Very sorry to hear of the passing of former Secretary of State for NI Peter Brooke. Peter played a pivotal role in the emerging Northern Ireland peace process, helping pave the way for an end to violence. My condolences to his family and friends at this sad time.”
Former British prime minister John Major said: “Peter Brooke was a dear friend and colleague for many years – before and after our time in parliament. In all he did Peter was the first gentleman of politics, which he elevated with his calm, gentle, yet tenacious character ‒ not least with regard to his pivotal role in the Northern Ireland peace process.
“Honourable to the core, he was one of the most deep down decent people I have ever known. I was proud to call him my friend.”
Northern Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris paid tribute to his predecessor, tweeting that he was sorry to learn of Mr Brooke’s passing. “As one of my predecessors Peter played a pivotal role in laying the foundations of the peace process. We are indebted to him for his public service working for the betterment of everyone in NI.”
Born on March 3rd, 1934, Mr Brooke’s father, Henry Brooke, was also a politician and was home secretary under Edward Heath. The family had its origins in Rathavan, Co Cavan, and was related to the Brookes of Colebrooke, Co Fermanagh – the Viscounts Brookeborough.
Shortly after his appointment as Northern secretary in July 1989 he clashed with Irish government ministers over the Ulster Defence Regiment and alleged leaks of security documents to loyalists. His suggestion that the British government might talk to Sinn Féin if the IRA renounced violence was criticised by unionists, the British Labour Party and some Conservatives, who said that it encouraged terrorism.
In January 1990 he launched his bid for interparty talks and devolution, offering to operate the Anglo-Irish Agreement sensitively in order to smooth the way for unionist participation. He later announced that an alternative to the agreement would be on the talks agenda.
In July 1990 he told the House of Commons that controversy over Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution was an obstacle to finalising a schedule for talks. This followed a ruling by the Supreme Court in Dublin that the territorial claim was a “constitutional imperative”.
Speaking in his constituency in November, he said that Britain had no “strategic or economic interest” in the North, and would accept the unification of Ireland should consent be forthcoming.
The talks got under way in April 1991 during a “gap” in the operation of the Anglo-Irish Agreement that facilitated unionist involvement, but in July, as the gap closed and the marching season loomed, Mr Brooke ended the discussions in order to pre-empt a complete breakdown of the process. In January 1992 he discovered the perils of live television when he sang My Darling Clementine on the Late, Late Show just after news of the Teebane Cross massacre broke. Eight Protestant building workers were killed by an IRA bomb, and he immediately offered to resign. Later, in a post-election government reshuffle, he was replaced by Sir Patrick Mayhew.
Following a short spell on the backbenches he was appointed heritage secretary, in which capacity he lifted the broadcasting ban on Sinn Féin. He later revealed that government-sanctioned talks with Sinn Féin began in 1990.
He was in 1997 appointed chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee, and was also a member of the British Irish Parliamentary Body. Having stood down as an MP, he was made a life peer in 2001 and took the title Baron Brooke of Sutton Mandeville.
His wife, Lindsay Allinson, and three sons survive him.