Terence O’Neill, by Marc Mulholland, UCD Press, 118 pp, €17, ISBN:978-1906359751
Fifty years is a long time in any country’s politics. In Ireland, which has seen three decades of communal violence in the North, the weakening of national sovereignty brought about by both British and Irish membership of the European Union and rapid modernisation culminating in the spectacular rise and fall of the Celtic Tiger economy, it is longer than in most.
Thus a man who became prime minister of Northern Ireland in 1963 now seems almost impossibly old-fashioned. An Eton-educated aristocrat, an Irish Guards officer, a believer in the Victorian adage that if you treat Catholics kindly they will behave like Protestants, Captain Terence O’Neill was probably doomed to be the last of a type of Irish unionist leader rather than, as he himself saw it, a moderniser and a liberal.
O’Neill’s tragedy was that he tried to be that moderniser in one of Europe’s most deeply fearful and conservative societies, and one that proved to be on the edge of an existential crisis. He himself was full of contradictions: a francophile internationalist in the narrowest of provincial societies; a believer in self-help on economic and moral grounds at a time when Northern Ireland was becoming increasingly dependent on the British exchequer; a champion of reconciliation who failed to support demands for Catholics to be able to join the Ulster Unionist Party; and a democrat who only championed “one man, one vote” in the North’s gerrymandered local electoral system right at the end of his career.
At the very least, one has to say that he tried his best to bring change to Northern Ireland. He worked fifteen- to sixteen-hour days (unlike his part-time predecessors) to implement modern concepts of planning and development – only to misuse them in setting up the North’s “new city” in unionist Craigavon rather than west of the Bann where unemployment rates were far higher, and in siting its new university in Protestant Coleraine rather than Catholic Derry.
Then there was his championing of intercommunal reconciliation in the mid- to late 1960s. Marc Mulholland quotes fellow historian Feargal Cochrane as arguing that these consisted merely of feelgood policies which ducked the sectarianism woven into the state. Mulholland himself is kinder to O’Neill. He lists his various initiatives: civic weeks which were aimed at facilitating reconciliation at a local level (although these were largely middle class and business-led affairs); a more provincewide Programme to Enlist the People, which completely avoided the central question of how Northern Catholics were meant to “enlist” in a unionist-dominated state which largely excluded them; some pointers towards tentative electoral reform; and the belated extension of state aid to the Catholic-run Mater Hospital in Belfast and increased funding for voluntary Catholic schools. Then, of course, there was his famous visit to a Catholic secondary school (was there only one?), an unheard of gesture by a Unionist prime minister until then.
More dramatic were his two equally unprecedented meetings with Taoiseach Sean Lemass in 1965. Paul Bew has pointed out that modernising elements in unionism have always laid greater stress on North-South possibilities for change rather than on moves to greater equality between the communities within Northern Ireland. It is somehow less threatening to them to have business and social exchanges with people in Dublin and Athlone than to deal on an equal basis with their fellow citizens in Derry and Andersonstown.
However there was a definite relaxation of old certainties in the years before 1968, with Northern Protestants displaying an ambivalence on the border that the onset of the Troubles was to destroy. Mulholland points to a 1967 survey which found that 38 per cent of Unionist voters thought a united Ireland linked to Britain would be better than the status quo, while 41 per cent of them believed that the border would eventually disappear.
When the eventual crisis exploded in October 1968, with the RUC attacking peaceful civil rights marchers on the streets of Derry, O’Neill’s instincts were correct. “Can any of us truthfully say in the confines of this room that the minority have no grievance calling for a remedy?” he asked his cabinet. More pragmatically, he argued for “one man, one vote” on the basis that if Belfast refused to budge, a Labour government in Westminster would impose it anyway. Extraordinarily, after fourteen arduous meetings, the reactionary caucus that was the Stormont cabinet finally agreed a reform package that failed to grant universal suffrage for all the North’s citizens in local elections.
O’Neill had a brief moment of glory with his December “Ulster at the Crossroads” broadcast; the backing of the Belfast Telegraph, which led to 125,000 people writing to support him; and his nomination by the Sunday Independent as their man of the year. But without real and deep reform, the tempest was only postponed.
Views differ on when the plunge into the violence that was to engulf the North for the next thirty years became inevitable. Mulholland goes against the consensus that the point of no return was the loyalist attack on the People’s Democracy marchers at Burntollet in January 1969. He believes the key turning point came with the perceived victory of the anti-O’Neill unionist right in the snap election called by him in the following month over his reform programme (which saw an extraordinary contest between pro-O’Neill and anti-O’Neill factions within his own party). After this the civil rights street protests resumed and intensified, culminating in the first deaths during bloody clashes with the RUC, the B Specials and loyalists in Derry and Belfast in the summer of 1969. Mulholland quotes Gerry Fitt warning after the February election that the victims of hardline unionism were not prepared to accept lack of reform any longer, and a “head-on collision” in the streets was now inevitable.
O’Neill himself didn’t wait until then, resigning in April. In his resignation broadcast he stressed that “no solution based on the ascendancy of any section of our community can hope to endure – either we live in peace or we have no life worth living”.
The former prime minister was clear-eyed about what was wrong with Northern Ireland. He told an audience in 1977: “Just as the WASPs in America have so long – until recently – dominated the scene, so in Northern Ireland the Protestants have ruled the roost. Sometimes people in the North say to me: ‘Tell me, Terence, what is it that the Catholics haven’t got?’ I always reply, ‘First-class citizenship.’” It would take two more decades, and 1,800 more deaths before his successors in the unionist leadership would start tentatively to use the same kind of inclusive language.
Mulholland stresses that O’Neill never abandoned his belief that a new generation of middle class Catholic leaders had moved from traditional anti-partitionism to demanding “British rights for British citizens”. However “the fierce anti-unionism of Ulster’s Catholics and their determination to be recognised as both modern and fully Irish in the land of their birth, whilst never quite a closed book to O’Neill, was never fully acknowledged by him either”.
In his conclusion Mulholland quotes John Hume as saying that the North could have been saved great pain if only Unionists had followed O’Neill in the 1960s. But were these always deeply insecure unionist followers, panicked by Ian Paisley’s fear-inducing rabble-rousing, ready for even the mild measures of democratic reform that O’Neill was proposing? As we have learned to our cost, both politicians and people in Northern Ireland – and particularly those on the unionist side – are (in Seamus Mallon’s apt phrase) “slow learners”.
Unionist domination may be gone forever in the North, but it will take many Unionists some considerable time to realise this (including the Union flag rioters on the streets of Belfast at the turn of 2012-2013). We are indebted to Marc Mulholland in this cogent and well-written reassessment for a glimpse of what “might have been” if the democratic instincts (however timidly implemented) of a patrician semi-outsider had been allowed to prevail.
Andy Pollak is former director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies in Armagh and a former Irish Times journalist in Belfast and Dublin.