Subscriber OnlyIreland

Meeting with North’s prime minister in 1965 opposed by ‘Paisley element’

Seán Lemass: Historic meeting uncovered ‘bare, hard-rock prejudices’

From left, Jack Lynch, minister for industry and commerce, Terence O’Neill, prime minister of Northern Ireland, Frank Aiken, minister for external affairs, and taoiseach Seán Lemass at Iveagh House, Dublin, in February 1965. Photograph: Joe Clarke

Ever the pragmatist, Seán Lemass had no objections when the prime minister of Northern Ireland, Terence O'Neill, invited him to travel to a snowy Belfast to meet on January 14th, 1965.

Speaking to Dermot Ryan, he said: "Now I could have said to O'Neill that the first meeting must be in Dublin, but I felt that this would be all wrong, because it would appear to be capitulation on his part."

This historic visit, which had been arranged by two of the most senior civil servants from both jurisdictions, Ken Whitaker and Jim Malley, was the first time since partition that leaders from both sides of the border met.

Backed by constitutional imperatives and public opinion, successive governments in the Republic had refused to recognise the North, leaving Lemass and those desiring greater co-operation with dilemmas.

READ MORE

Lemass had begun to lay the grounds for his visit to Belfast two years earlier in a speech in Tralee in 1963, where he had made the case that greater ties would benefit all.

One did not have to officially recognise Northern Ireland to acknowledge the reality that "partition had persisted for 40 years; there was no immediate prospect that the situation would end", he told Ryan.

The South had given little consideration to the reality of partition, Lemass believed, and the idea of compelling the unionist majority to accept a united Ireland was “an unrealistic approach that would never succeed”.

Instead, he had reached the conclusion that any attempt to coerce unionists into a united Ireland would create a huge problem for the Irish state. He told Dermot Ryan: “I could see it as almost a disease which would ultimately destroy the nation, and I therefore began to talk about unity as a spiritual and not a political conception”.

He saw the meeting with O’Neill as simply reflecting “that there were problems of an all-Ireland kind which an all-Ireland effort could more easily solve than separate efforts”.

Nobody who was interested in ending partition, he reasoned, could “possibly raise objections to what appeared to be the first breaking down of the barriers between the six counties and here”.

Lemass believed O’Neill had called the historic meeting between the two premiers because he was conscious that the image of Northern Ireland had taken a battering in the world. O’Neill recognised that the North could not move forward without an improvement in community relations.

This would prove to be prescient, given the outbreak of the Troubles four years later. O’Neill recognised there needed to be “greater harmony between the two elements in the population and an acceptance of the need for co-operation in the six counties, including the nationalists.”

Difficulties over this historic meeting were all O'Neill's, Lemass said. He faced opposition from the "Paisley element", as Lemass put it. "As we dug down deeper, of course, we came upon the bare, hard-rock prejudices which have always been there."

Indeed Paisley and his supporters pelted Lemass's car with snowballs as it left Stormont.

There was no talk during his meeting with O’Neill of any constitutional or political issues. It was followed by a reciprocal meeting the following month in Dublin, but Lemass said that meeting was not of much consequence as it was more a courtesy visit and no issues of consequence were discussed.

Warmly welcomed

The meetings between the two premiers were warmly welcomed by many on both sides of the border. “Immediately after my meeting with O’Neill, I received an enormous flood of letters from Protestants and Presbyterian clergymen in the North expressing their satisfaction at the turn of events and expressing a sense of release from old compulsions not to consort with Catholics,” Lemass recalled.

He believed O’Neill had received similar messages of support, but many in the unionist community were not happy. “The Paisley element came on the scene and the backbench people began to feel that they might have been jeopardising some of their support by these approaches.

“As we dug down deeper, of course, we came upon the bare, hard-rock prejudices which have always been there.”

Lemass also spoke of his attempts to persuade the Nationalist Party in the North that they should participate in the Northern Ireland parliament.

Prior to the Troubles, the Nationalist Party was the main political voice for northern nationalists.

Lemass told Nationalist Party leader Eddie McAteer that any solution to partition would involve keeping the Stormont Parliament in place as part of a federalised united Ireland.

Therefore it was in the Nationalist Party’s interest to make the parliament work. Lemass said McAteer agreed with his assessment and became the main opposition in Stormont in 1965.

The Nationalist Party did not enter the House of Commons of Northern Ireland until 1924, having won six seats in the general election of 1921. Thereafter, it again engaged in long periods of abstention, to protest against the “illegal” partition of Ireland. In 1965, it agreed to become the official opposition party in the House of Commons