Belfast Telegraph

Lord Craigavon: prime minister for all sides

On the 70th anniversary of James Craig's death, Brian Walker reassesses his legacy and finds more than 'a Protestant Parliament and a Protestant state'Remarkable Ulsterman: the funeral of James Craig (top), who saw Joseph Devlin (left) and his party as the 'natural opposition; Craig with Edward Carson (centre); and Eamon de Valera (right), who may have influenced Craig into making his 'Protestant Parliament' comments

Seventy years ago this week, James Craig, Lord Craigavon, prime minister of Northern Ireland, died at his Belfast home. He was an individual who had made an enormous contribution to the history of this part of the world.

It is important to realise there were many sides to this man, a fact that is sometimes ignored. He was a tough individual who faced down his enemies, but he also pursued moderation for a time.

He defended Northern Ireland, but he also expressed affection for the south and a desire for better understanding "between all classes and creeds".

Craig was a great Ulsterman, but he was also a great Irishman. In the Northern Ireland Parliament on March 5, 1929 he declared: "We are Irishmen ... I always hold that Ulstermen are Irishmen and the best of Irishmen."

When Craig died, his successor, J M Andrews, lauded him as "a great Ulsterman, a great Irishman, a great imperialist".

What was Craig's motto? Most people think it was 'No surrender' or 'Not an inch'. This is wrong.

His motto was 'Charity provokes charity'. This means that if you are nice to your enemies they will be nice to you. His tomb at Stormont carries a carved inscription to that effect.

Craig played a critical part in Ulster opposition to Home Rule, and the establishment of the new government and parliament owes much to him.

At the same time, in these early days, he showed moderation and a desire for reconciliation with his opponents.

In a speech in the Reform Club in Belfast in February 1921, he declared: "Remember that the rights of the minority must be sacred to the majority and that it will only be by broad, tolerant ideas and a real desire for liberty of conscience that we here can make an ideal of the parliament and the executive."

Craig was an enthusiastic Orangeman. In 1906, he declared that he called himself an Orangeman first and a member of Parliament second. Nonetheless, when he became prime minister, he realised he had a responsibility to a wider community.

In his July 12, 1923 message, he said: "It is our earnest desire to live in peace and amity with the Free State and to encourage in every way a better understanding between all classes and creeds."

In 1922, Craig was asked in parliament to make July 12 a public holiday, but he refused to agree to this.

Subsequently, it did become a public holiday, but it was noticeable that Craig stayed away from Twelfth of July parades from 1923 to 1926 - probably because he was conscious that, as prime minister, he represented more than the Orange Order.

Finally, on July 12, 1927, Craig returned to the 'field'. What brought him back? In his speech he praised the south - "our friendly neighbours" - as he would continue to do so for the next few years.

He remarked about the nationalist opposition simply that: "Mr [Joseph] Devlin and his party are the natural opposition."

The main thrust of his speech concerned the need for unionist unity in the face of the danger to the government's position from independent unionists, such as local option supporters, land reformers, labour activists and others.

In the backdrop of this threat, he announced the government's intention to abolish proportional representation in elections to the Northern Ireland parliament. From then on, Craig returned annually to Twelfth of July parades to emphasise Protestant and unionist unity, in face of this problem of threatened unionist splits, which became even more pronounced in the 1930s.

This strong emphasis on Orange and Protestant links to the unionist Government is a feature of politics in the 1930s, rather than the 1920s.

It was influenced partly by the need for unionist unity and partly by the impact of the south where de Valera and Fianna Fail came to power in 1932.

Unfortunately, Craig allowed himself to be affected by these changes in the south.

In parliament in April 1934, he gave his often-quoted remark of "a Protestant parliament".

The full statement read: "In the south, they boasted of a Catholic state. They still boast of southern Ireland being a Catholic state. All I boast of is that we are a Protestant parliament and a Protestant state."

Craig was probably reacting to comments by de Valera and his deputy premier, Sean T O'Kelly.

At a Dublin election meeting in February 1932, de Valera said: "The majority of the people of Ireland are Catholic and we believe in Catholic principles.

"And as the majority are Catholics, it is right and natural that the principles to be applied by us will be principles consistent with Catholicity."

In October 1933, in Geneva, O'Kelly declared that "the Free State Government was inspired in its every administrative action by Catholic principles and doctrine."

Craig should have ignored the south. He should have said the south may take this narrow approach, but here we believe in "broad, tolerant ideas" as he had proclaimed in 1921.

He should have insisted that the north refused to go down this route of majority rule which ignores minorities.

On a second public occasion, Craig showed how he believed his position was justified by southern developments, to the long-term detriment of Northern Ireland.

When the south introduced its new constitution, Craig was asked to condemn the sectarian aspects of this document, especially the reference to the 'special position' of the Catholic Church. He refused, saying he agreed with the influence of religion in society.

He went on to declare: "While the Government of the south is carried on along lines which I presume are very suitable to the majority of Roman Catholics in that part... surely... the Government of the north, with a majority of Protestants, should carry on the administration according to Protestant ideas and Protestant desires."

Craig was a remarkable man. We could do no better than remember his motto: "Charity provokes charity."

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