Ulster's unionists should have listened to Terence O'Neill
History hasn't always been kind to the province's fourth prime minister. Maybe it should be, argues Alex Kane
Published 27/03/2013 | 04:20
Fifty years ago this week, Terence O'Neill succeeded Lord Brookeborough as prime minister of Northern Ireland.
No election was involved: Brookeborough conferred with the Governor of Northern Ireland and with William Craig – the Unionist chief whip and O'Neill ally – and O'Neill, the Minister of Finance at the time, took up the reins of office.
In party-political terms, it seemed like an odd choice. He had been in the Cabinet for about eight years but, according to Brian Faulkner, "had made no real political impact and had no obvious political base".
Yet during his time at finance, he had made it pretty clear that Northern Ireland needed to modernise if it was to "compete in an entirely new economic world".
He also wanted to be a hands-on, leading-by-example prime minister, unlike Brookeborough, of whom he said: "He was good company and a good raconteur and those who met him imagined that he was relaxing away from his desk. However, they did not realise that there was no desk."
The year 1963 was an interesting one. The Beatles released their first album; Harold Wilson became leader of the Labour Party and spoke of a "new Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution"; Martin Luther King delivered his "I have a dream" speech; President Kennedy promised a Civil Rights bill and "the kind of equality of treatment that we would want for ourselves".
A new generation of young nationalists – many of them inspired by King and Kennedy – were entering teacher-training colleges and Queen's University. The world was changing and O'Neill wanted Northern Ireland and unionism to be part of that change.
O'Neill also had electoral problems. In the 1962 general election for the Northern Ireland parliament, the Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP) had increased its share of the vote to 25% (compared to 49% for the Unionist Party) and was running neck and neck with the Unionists across Belfast.
O'Neill's strategy of economic generation and job-creation (which he had started as finance minister) was believed to be a vital way of attracting back Left-of-centre unionist voters.
He was also of the view that rebuilding and regenerating Northern Ireland couldn't be done in isolation. He was keen to promote a better cross-border relationship with the Republic and, on investment trips within the UK and much further afield, equally keen to emphasise the fact that Northern Ireland (and he came to office shortly after the IRA had called off its 1956-62 campaign) was a more settled and peaceful place.
Some critics say that his visits to Catholic schools and talk of "increasing cross-community links" were mere propaganda exercises, but that could not be said of his decision to invite Sean Lemass to Stormont in January 1965.
That required real political courage, as well as secrecy – with the media and key party figures only being told after Lemass had arrived.
O'Neill argued that the taoiseach's willingness to cross the border and meet him at the Northern Ireland parliament was a sign that he recognised both the legitimacy of partition and of Northern Ireland: in other words, significant political progress. Ian Paisley, still a relative unknown in political circles, earned front page headlines by throwing snowballs at Lemass's car as it left Stormont and, from that point on, became a constant thorn in O'Neill's side.
He wasn't alone. It was clear that there were elements in the more traditional wings of the party and loyal orders who believed that he was moving too far, too fast.
Indeed, in April 1965, he sought a vote of confidence from his parliamentary party, which he won, but not without facing some "savage criticism for his continuing lack of consultation".
Yet his position seemed to be vindicated by the results of the Stormont general election in November 1965, when the party increased its share of the vote to almost 60% and recovered ground which had been lost to the NILP in 1962.
From an outsider's point-of-view, it looked as though a corner had been turned in Northern Ireland. But, within a year, events and circumstances had conspired to fatally weaken O'Neill while, strengthening the hand of his critics.
A more dominant leader with a lighter, more personal touch might have been able to keep key allies onboard and be seen to steer, rather than merely react to what was happening around him.
That was not a description of O'Neill, though: who, Faulkner wrote, "never really felt at home in Ulster politics. His personal remoteness made it difficult for him to lead his party along new and difficult paths at a very crucial period in the province's history." (That, by the way, could almost be a description of David Trimble.)
But, for all his faults, hesitancy and aloofness, O'Neill deserves to be remembered with respect. He possessed what Professor Paul Bew summed up as a "decency of impulse" and an awareness that Northern Ireland needed "root-and-branch reform and reconciliation if it was ever to be truly at peace with itself".
In December 1968, he famously asked the question: "What sort of Ulster do we want?" Fifty years later, we are still trying to find the answer.
History suggests that unionism should have listened to him.