Belfast Telegraph

Half-a-century on, we've still to learn lessons of Terence O'Neill

Fifty years ago today Terence O'Neill, the then Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, met Taoiseach Sean Lemass in what was seen as a truly groundbreaking bid by both leaders to forge a better relationship between both countries, yet just a few years later the Troubles erupted. Alex Kane reveals what went wrong

Terence O'Neill tends to be remembered today as an almost heroic lone voice of early liberalism within unionism. People still say: "Ah, if only we'd listened to O'Neill back then, we could have avoided 30 years of the violence and terrorism that nearly destroyed our country."

These people forget that it was the aloof, patronising, above-it-all O'Neill who also said, "it is frightfully hard to explain to Protestants that if you give Roman Catholics a good job and a good house they will live like Protestants because they will see neighbours with cars and television sets; they will refuse to have 18 children.

"But if a Roman Catholic is jobless, and lives in the most ghastly hovel, he will rear 18 children on National Assistance. If you treat Roman Catholics with due consideration and kindness, they will live like Protestants in spite of the authoritative nature of their Church."

O'Neill was a manager rather than a natural political leader. He succeeded Brookeborough in March 1963: chosen by his predecessor rather than elected by his party colleagues. But what made him different was his belief that a strong economy and high employment rate could turn Northern Ireland around.

It wasn't that he believed that such an approach would end the sectarian nature of politics here, or that nationalists would suddenly become pro-Union, but he was clearly of the view that a 'more attractive Northern Ireland in terms of jobs and living standards' would distract a key element of nationalism from the constitutional question.

He had a point. Back in February 1962 the IRA had issued a statement ending a Border Campaign that had begun in 1956: "Foremost among the factors motivating this course of action has been the attitude of the general public whose minds have been deliberately distracted from the supreme issue facing the Irish people - the unity and freedom of Ireland.

"The Irish resistance movement renews its pledge of eternal hostility to the British Forces of Occupation in Ireland. It calls on the Irish people for increased support and looks forward with confidence - in co-operation with the other branches of the Republican Movement - to a period of consolidation, expansion and preparation for the final and victorious phase of the struggle for the full freedom of Ireland."

Implicit in the statement was the recognition that the campaign had failed to mobilise nationalist support in Northern Ireland, and it made sense for O'Neill to pursue a strategy that ensured that nationalist support for any future campaign would be negligible.

So his promotion of industrialisation and modernisation was politically astute: allowing Northern Ireland to grow in a way that made it a far more attractive long-term prospect for small-n nationalists than the turmoil and upheaval that might accompany new terrorist campaigns or even a united Ireland.

Interestingly, Peter Robinson seems to have taken a similar approach when he became First Minister in 2007. He has placed enormous emphasis on turning Northern Ireland into a vibrant economy and a natural choice for worldwide investors. In a number of speeches he has also tried to reach out to those same small-n nationalists, arguing that they would be better off in Northern Ireland (complete with a low rate of corporation tax, highly skilled workforce and stable political institutions) than in a united Ireland. But, just like O'Neill, he made the overture sound patronising.

The other key aspect of O'Neill's approach lay in building an entirely new relationship with the Republic in general and with the political establishment in particular. Again, this made sense.

If increasing numbers of nationalists were happy enough to live in Northern Ireland then what was there to fear from cross-border co-operation on tourism and economic issues and from a strong, friendly relationship between both governments? Absolutely nothing. And O'Neill should have said as much and sold his "vision" openly and confidently.

He didn't. Only a very small number - including some who weren't even in the cabinet or the party - were made privy to his strategy.

Worse still, most of them weren't actually key figures or opinion formers within the media or unionism. Had they been, they would have advised him that unionists don't like secrecy. They don't like finding out at the last minute. They don't like the fact that negotiations have been conducted behind their backs. They don't like being presented with a fait accompli.

Which is exactly what happened on January 14, 1965. On that cold, wintry morning, with the Stormont Estate blanketed in snow, Sean Lemass, the Irish Taoiseach, arrived for a meeting with Terence O'Neill.

It was a meeting of monumental significance because, to all intents and purposes, Lemass was recognising O'Neill as the Prime Minister of a neighbouring country. And that's how O'Neill should have been able to promote it - as a triumph of new hope over old adversarial politics.

A new beginning. A new era of Irish politics.

Instead, it was to mark the beginning of the end of the so-called "Unionist state". O'Neill didn't bother telling his cabinet and senior party colleagues until the night before.

Many were privately very angry, although - with the exception of Harry West - they turned up the following morning, fearing that a very public split would do enormous damage to the party and the government.

But for some, including Brian Faulkner and Bill Craig, it was the beginning of a deep-seated suspicion of O'Neill's approach and ultimate political ambitions. In 1972 Craig, now leader of Vanguard, said: "O'Neill betrayed his party in January 1965 and took advice from people who were not supportive of unionism, or even of the party he led."

O'Neill's secrecy also encouraged the young Ian Paisley (who had support from and was being briefed by key figures in the UUP) to begin his "O'Neill Must Go" campaign a few months later. The other thing that O'Neill didn't seem to have taken on board was that winning over nationalists in Northern Ireland would take considerably more than jobs, better housing and a good relationship with Dublin.

They were also going to demand - as was their right - equality of citizenship in the form of new civil, political and social rights.

And that's where O'Neill's real problems began, because while the party was prepared to tolerate what Faulkner described as the "Belfast, Dublin stuff," it was going to be a much harder sell to persuade it that voting reform, a change in community relations and a full share of political power for non-unionists was also part of the package.

This was a time, of course, when it was assumed that if you weren't a Protestant and unionist then you must, by definition, be a Catholic, a republican and a potential supporter of the IRA. Unionists, in general, didn't buy into the notion of "Catholic unionists" and most of their political representatives believed that "allowing Catholics into the political system" or "giving Catholics new voting and political rights" could only result in the undermining of Stormont and unionism.

O'Neill doesn't appear to have taken any of this into his calculations because, in precisely the same way that he hadn't bothered keeping his party in the loop over the Lemass visit, he hadn't bothered establishing channels of communication with the small-n nationalists he was trying to attract.

So he ended up fuelling suspicions within his own party and within nationalism: meaning that within three years he was faced with the rise of the Civil Rights movement and the semi-disintegration of the UUP - and was ousted as leader in May 1969, with Northern Ireland on the brink of civil war. Fifty years ago today could have been a genuine turning point for unionism, for cross-community relations and for Northern Ireland.

It wasn't to be. O'Neill wasn't actually listening to anyone other than his own circle, most of whom listened only to each other. O'Neill's heart and head were in the right place: sadly, though, his political antennae weren't. It was just another in a very long line of lost moments and missed opportunities here.

Follow Alex Kane on Twitter @AlexKane221b

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