Hardline unionists who stayed O'Neill's hand

 

When the Northern Ireland cabinet met for the first time in 1968, on January 9th, there seemed little reason to be anxious about the future. Capt Terence O'Neill, the Prime Minister, began by reporting that he had been "given a most cordial reception" in Dublin by Jack Lynch the day before, adding that "nothing of an embarrassing character had been introduced on either side".

Maj James Chichester-Clark hoped soon to ease foot-and-mouth disease precautions; William Morgan, the Health and Social Services Minister, referred to falling rates of unemployment and was advised by the Commerce Minister, Brian Faulkner, to avoid the public use of the word "unemployable"; the Minister of Home Affairs, Bill Craig, got approval for the compulsory breath-testing of drivers (the first in Britain or Ireland). and recommendations on new Stormont constituencies caused no controversy, cabinet members agreeing that "nothing could be gained by public inquiries, etc."

Multinational corporations were eagerly seeking to set up operations in Northern Ireland. The region had the lowest crime rate of any in the UK, 1967 had been a quiet year, Nationalist MPs were about to support a supplementary estimate of £29,000 for the B Specials, and the IRA appeared to be close to extinction.

The only serious irritant was the raucous hostility of Ian Paisley and other loyalists opposed to O'Neill's gestures of friendship to the Catholic minority. The Cabinet condemned the "outrageous behaviour" of Protestants who pelted the Prime Minister's car with eggs, flour bags and stones at the end of a party meeting in Woodvale on May 20th.

Northern Ireland attracted so little outside attention that many, not only in the US and on the European mainland but also in Britain, were unaware that Ireland was politically divided and would have had difficulty in locating Belfast on the map. Only a very few could see trouble ahead.

Unfairness, corruption and discrimination - particularly at local authority level - had been magnified by the spectacular rise in public expenditure since the introduction of the welfare state. Westminster, footing many of the bills, usually had its eye off the Northern Ireland ball.

The 1947 Education Act had by now created a group of articulate and questioning Catholic graduates. During the early months of 1968 television beamed into Ulster living rooms images of student revolt in Paris, Dubcek's challenge to Soviet might in Prague, anti-Vietnam War demonstrations and action for black civil rights in the US.

The first direct action in Ulster to be televised in 1968 was on June 20th when Nationalist MP Austin Currie was ejected by police from a Caledon council house allocated to Emily Beattie, a single 19-year-old Protestant. Later in cabinet Craig tried to justify the allocation as being "not as bad as it looks. The young lady was living in a badly overcrowded house . . ."

The first civil rights march followed on August 24th from Coalisland to Dungannon, but it was the next one, in Derry on October 5th , which changed the course of Northern Ireland's history.

Footage of unrestrained RUC officers batoning peaceful demonstrators flashed across the world. A searchlight was now turned on the unionist government, at a stroke the region was plunged into near-revolutionary crisis, and from London Prime Minister Harold Wilson frantically demanded rapid implementation of far-reaching reforms.

O'Neill, too, was anxious to move beyond gestures. When, at a Cabinet meeting on October 8th, Craig said that in Derry "the police had shown great restraint", the Prime Minister cut in to say that "there are inescapable facts which he must place before his colleagues".

Next day, rerouted round a Paisleyite counter-demonstration, students marched from Queen's University towards Belfast city centre; halted by police in Linenhall Street, they sat down for three hours and then returned to form the People's Democracy.

As marches and demonstrations increased in size and frequency, O'Neill at Cabinet meeting after Cabinet meeting pressed forward doggedly with his reform proposals, sending his colleagues stern memoranda on October 14th and 28th. His most stalwart supporter was his soft-spoken Minister of Finance, Herbie Kirk, but both Faulkner and Craig implacably opposed all but the most trivial changes.

Craig was against a points system in public housing, assuring Cabinet members that "the great bulk of allocations by local authorities is satisfactory". "The more non-ratepayers who can vote", he said in argument against universal suffrage, "the greater the temptation to vote for policies and candidates which will impose financial burdens on the ratepayers". Faulkner agreed, saying that one-man-one-vote would have "disastrous political repercussions" and that the implementation of the proposed reforms would lead "to wholesale chaos and civil war".

At a tense meeting in Downing Street on November 7th O'Neill said he was "resolved to do everything he could to break down old animosities", but Faulkner and Craig, who accompanied him, gave him no support. Repeating their arguments against meaningful reform, they clearly astonished and exasperated Wilson and his colleagues, Jim Callaghan and Alice Bacon.

Wilson threatened "a radical course involving the complete liquidation of all financial agreements with Northern Ireland". When Craig said that there could be no reform without more money from London, Wilson was obviously incandescent, snapping at the end of his riposte: "And money for Short and Harland is now again under consideration". He was fed up with this firm, which had now become "a kind of soup kitchen and was no good to anybody".

Following a massive civil rights march in Derry on November 16th, Wilson nevertheless got his way and O'Neill announced a substantial reform package on November 22nd. The juggernaut of the civil rights agitation could not be easily braked, however, and on November 30th there were ugly scenes in Armagh when Paisley and his followers blocked a march on a route previously agreed with the RUC.

O'Neill made an impassioned appeal for calm on television on December 9th and forced Craig's resignation two days later. The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association called its supporters off the streets. Christmas 1968 was particularly serene.

Perhaps O'Neill himself felt he had done too little, too late. The freshly-opened records show that his fellow ministers would not let him do more. Fears, expectations and other passions had been aroused in the final months of 1968 as never before; the sectarian monster had been fully reawakened; and the next year Europe's longest running conflict since 1945 was to begin.