Belfast Telegraph

Obituary: Hardline unionist Bill craig

Of all the leading unionists who bitterly opposed the civil rights movement of the late 1960s, Bill Craig, who died this week aged 86, was the most convinced that it was a front for the IRA and had to be faced down at any cost.

In the end his intransigence as Minister of Home Affairs and his flirtation with the loyalist paramilitary fringe played an important part in forcing Westminster to intervene in Northern Ireland affairs, ending 50 years of unionist rule and leading to Sinn Fein's emergence as the leading nationalist partner in Government.

Born in Cookstown and educated at Dungannon Royal, Larne Grammar and Queen's University, with a spell as rear-gunner in Lancaster bombers in the Second World War, Craig was a confrontational politician with a direct approach to politics reminiscent of his hero Edward Carson.

While Terence O'Neill, whom he backed as successor to Lord Brookeborough, was prepared to compromise as the civil rights campaign gained momentum, Craig ordered the outlawing of the student Republican Clubs and banned the first mass march in Londonderry in October 1968, which was the beginning of the end for Stormont.

Earlier, the unionist Government had earned the resentment of the north west by siting the new University of Ulster in Coleraine, rather than Derry, and approving the new city of Craigavon.

But the RUC's brutal enforcement of the ban, witnessed by an RTE cameraman and four Westminster MPs, including West Belfast's Gerry Fitt, made demands for one man, one vote in council elections a global issue.

When Craig followed it up with a speech suggesting that Catholics' approach to democracy was different, because of attitudes to contraception, he was promptly sacked and became a constant critic of Stormont's attempts to conciliate with the civil rights leadership and deal with the IRA, who were getting tacit support from members of Fianna Fail.

Just before Westminster imposed direct rule in 1972, he formed the Ulster Vanguard movement with the aim of “defending the Union” and outdoor meetings were held which were compared to the Nuremburg rallies, complete with motorcycle outriders for Craig's limousine.

At the biggest — in Belfast’s Ormeau Park — he warned that if the politicians failed, it would be his supporters' job “to liquidate the enemy”.

In a Carsonian speech to Conservatives at Westminster he claimed he could mobilise 80,000 to oppose the British Government and said he was prepared “to shoot and kill”.

The hostile unionist reaction to the Sunningdale Agreement helped him become MP for East Belfast, and later in 1974 he threw his and Vanguard's weight behind the Ulster Workers' Council strike which brought down the first power-sharing Executive.

But, paradoxically, he later proposed a temporary voluntary coalition — between unionists and the SDLP — only to see the DUP waver and back off.

Although he remained a serious hardline voice and mentor to future unionist MPs like David Trimble and David Burnside, he never regained his leadership role and finally lost his Westminster seat to a young Peter Robinson in 1979.

At each stage of the peace process the former solicitor was critical of the British Government in failing to support his style of unionism, but he ceased to play an active part in politics, while retaining his personal charm.

Despite his charm, his lack of diplomacy at key moments in Northern Ireland's history helped to stoke political extremism.

BARRY WHITE

Belfast Telegraph

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