The First O’Neill


This Thursday voters in Northern Eire will go to the polls for the newest Meeting elections.  Then, round 2-3 days later we’ll know the total outcomes, and shortly after that – if the polls are proper – there might effectively be the waving of the primary “O’Neill Should Go” protest banners for 53 years.

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After all, “If the polls are proper” is one thing of a vital caveat, given how they’ve, at instances, proved to be inaccurate.  Nonetheless, the chance that they’re proper implies that Sinn Fein stand to change into the largest social gathering in Stormont, and therefore Michelle O’Neill stands to change into not simply the primary member of her social gathering to change into First Minister, but additionally Northern Eire’s first nationalist head of presidency, and in addition the second individual with that surname to change into head of presidency.

Because the ancien regime‘s fourth Prime Minister, Terence O’Neill occupies a selected focus of historic curiosity in Northern Eire, sandwiched as his time period in workplace is between the IRA’s Border Marketing campaign (or Operation Harvest) and the start of the Troubles.  His profession in Stormont is usually filed below “What Would possibly Have Been”, given his apparently honest however useless efforts to remodel a system riven with spiritual discrimination, gerrymandering, sectarianism, an undemocratic political system, and financial decline.  The nation was altering, the world was watching, and reform was required, and he knew it.  Northern Eire wanted to draw contemporary funding, since unemployment was rising as the normal industries of shipbuilding and linen had been on the slide, and to show itself enticing to buyers the nation would wish essentially to alter the way in which issues had been achieved there.  As we all know all too effectively, although, O’Neill couldn’t take the remainder of his Occasion (the UUP) with him, and the perfect hopes of reforming the nation in a approach that may fulfill all, no matter their politics, adopted him out of workplace in April 1969.


Terence O’Neill (1914-90)


What tends to be forgotten about Terence O’Neill, although, is that even when he did have smart concepts about his nation’s future, he was, to place it generously, a curious candidate to promote them.  Many in his Occasion had issues along with his techniques as a lot as along with his concepts. 

The fourth PM’s complete manner was one thing of a turn-off: O’Neill was arguably fairly an anachronistic and ridiculous determine.  It was the Sixties: the Civil Rights motion was reaching the apex of its affect, youth actions had been taking off in France, Czechoslovakia and elsewhere, and politicians within the western democracies had been changing into extra skilled, businesslike, and media-savvy than earlier than.  Northern Eire’s head of presidency, in the meantime, was an aloof and eccentric aristocrat who not solely regarded like Peter Sellers but additionally even gave the impression of a Peter Sellers character.  The primary time I noticed his immortal televised “Ulster at the Crossroads” speech, I puzzled if it was a part of a Goon Present routine.  (OK, perhaps it’s simply me…)

Furthermore, regardless of his recognition {that a} system that appears after the pursuits of solely two-thirds of your nation’s inhabitants is finally not a viable system, O’Neill himself wasn’t precisely fully averse to the sort of bigotry from which he was in any other case endeavouring to maneuver his social gathering away.  In a May 1969 interview he gave to the Belfast Telegraph shortly after leaving workplace, he let some fairly toe-curling ignorance rip:


It’s frightfully laborious to elucidate to Protestants that if you happen to give Roman Catholics job and home, they may stay like Protestants as a result of they may see neighbours with automobiles and tv units; they may refuse to have eighteen youngsters.  But when a Roman Catholic is jobless, and lives in essentially the most ghastly hovel, he’ll rear eighteen youngsters on Nationwide Help.  If you happen to deal with Roman Catholics with due contemplate and kindness, they may stay like Protestants despite the authoritative nature of their Church.


I haven’t but managed to pay money for the complete Telegraph interview, however I can’t assist questioning what else O’Neill mentioned, and whether or not his observations veered off into the Derry Women‘ “Friends Across the Barricade” episode territory… 


O’Neill’s techniques left lots to be desired, too.  Historic although the Republic’s Taoiseach Sean Lemass’s 14 January 1965 journey to Belfast actually was, it was, to say the least, weird how the Prime Minister shared particulars of the deliberate go to solely with a number of members of his social gathering.  The assembly could be adopted by others between the 2, in addition to between O’Neill and Jack Lynch (Lemass’s successor).  The sample could be repeated once more as his time period performed out.  Even these of us who aren’t schooled within the arts of politics know that networking and schmoozing your social gathering are typically more practical methods of getting issues achieved than simply saying elementary modifications and blithely anticipating your staff to go together with them simply since you say so.  Basically O’Neill was repeating the identical errors of social gathering management as these of ex-British prime ministers Sir Robert Peel and W E Gladstone, who ended up torpedo-ing their careers over the respective problems with the Corn Legal guidelines and the primary Irish Residence Rule payments, a minimum of social gathering due to that blinkered management fashion.  

I’m reminded right here of the phrases of Unionist commentator Alex Kane, who, in a Belfast Telegraph column seven years in the past concerning the first O’Neill-Lemass Belfast summit, wrote of how Unionists usually are not against all change level clean; what they take exception to is change being foisted upon them with out a lot as a modicum of session:


If rising numbers of nationalists had been blissful sufficient to stay in Northern Eire then what was there to worry from cross-border co-operation on tourism and financial points and from a robust, pleasant relationship between each governments?  Completely nothing.  And O’Neill ought to have mentioned as a lot and bought his “imaginative and prescient” overtly and confidently.

He didn’t.  Solely a really small quantity – together with some who weren’t even within the cupboard or the social gathering – had been made aware about his technique.

Worse nonetheless, most of them weren’t really key figures or opinion formers throughout the media or unionism.  Had they been, they’d have suggested him that unionists don’t like secrecy.  They don’t like discovering out on the final minute.  They don’t like the truth that negotiations have been performed behind their backs.  They don’t like being introduced with a fait accompli.


It additionally a minimum of partly explains why there was a lot opposition amongst Unionist circles to the Anglo-Irish Settlement of November 1985 – a landmark measure with which even the long run Irish president Mary Robinson (then an impartial Senator for Dublin College) had issues, as she considered itunacceptable to all sections of Unionist opinion.’

In the end, in fact, occasions on the bottom would overtake O’Neill and his authorities, and the over-the-top RUC response to the banned Duke Avenue demo of 5 October 1968 could be adopted by additional demonstrations and riots.  Seven weeks later, in what with hindsight could be seen because the ancien regime‘s Final Likelihood to take management of the state of affairs, the PM introduced a Five-Point reform programme in response, below whose phrases housing could be allotted on a factors foundation, plural voting for businessmen could be scrapped, a Growth Fee would change the discredited Londonderry Company, the Particular Powers Act could be amended, and an impartial Ombudsman could be set as much as examine complaints of discrimination.  The demonstrations nonetheless continued, and a 30 November Civil Rights march in Armagh was stopped by each the RUC and loyalist counter-demonstrators led by the Rev Ian Paisley (who would later be jailed for his conduct on the day).  Then, on 9 December O’Neill went on television, trying to attract out his inside Churchill or Kennedy – though even there he fell considerably wanting their powers, as he couldn’t fairly assist lecturing the Civil Rights motion about his programme:


Maybe you aren’t completely glad; however this can be a democracy, and I ask you now with all sincerity to name your individuals off the streets, and permit an environment beneficial to alter to develop.  You might be Ulstermen yourselves.  You recognize we’re all of us cussed individuals, who won’t be pushed too far.  I consider that almost all of you need change, not revolution.  Your voice has been heard, and clearly heard.  Your responsibility now’s to play your half in taking the warmth out of the state of affairs earlier than blood is shed.

However I’ve a phrase too for all these others who see in change a menace to our place in the UK.  I say to them, Unionism armed with justice will probably be a stronger trigger than Unionism armed merely with energy.  The bully-boy techniques we noticed in Armagh aren’t any reply to those grave issues: however they incur for us the contempt of Britain and the world, and such contempt is the best menace to Ulster.  Let the federal government govern and the police handle legislation and order…

What sort of Ulster would you like?  A contented and revered Province, in good standing with the remainder of the UK?  Or a spot frequently torn aside by riots and demonstrations, and regarded by the remainder of Britain as a political outcast?  As at all times in a democracy, the selection is yours.  I’ll settle for no matter your verdict could also be.  If it’s your determination that we must always stay as much as the phrases “Ulster is British”, which is a part of our creed, then my providers will probably be at your disposal to do what I can.  However if you happen to ought to desire a separate, inward-looking, egocentric and divided Ulster then you could look for others to guide you alongside that street, for I can not and won’t do it.


Three weeks after this speech, which nonetheless earned him the help of most of his social gathering and several other thousand letters of help and reward, got here the Burntollet conflict.  That might be adopted by additional unrest, a common election during which O’Neill misplaced his Stormont majority, and various bomb assaults by the UVF, which had been erroneously blamed on the IRA (as was the concept), till lastly, in late April 1969 O’Neill bowed to the inevitable and stop the premiership.

Beneath such circumstances, perhaps the actual query to ask, given all O’Neill’s shortcomings, is just not Why did his technique fail? however reasonably How did he handle to steer his social gathering to just accept even the 5 Level programme?  Maybe O’Neill knew, deep down, that in pursuing his huge goal for Northern Eire he was on a hiding to nothing, and that his impulsive gestures, his aristocratic posturing and booming oratory had been designed solely to shore up his personal repute and posterity amongst those that learn concerning the historical past of Northern Eire, take a look at his premiership and utter smugly ‘Yep, he informed you so.’  If, within the remaining evaluation, too many Unionists thought that he was going too far in his reforms and too many nationalists thought he wasn’t going far sufficient, then what else might have been the purpose of why he did what he did?

Simply how distantly Michelle O’Neill is expounded via marriage to the fourth PM, I don’t know.  In the end, in fact, her and her social gathering’s long-term purpose is the eventual abolition of the state that Terence O’Neill tried unsuccessfully to reform.  Whether or not she succeeds in that purpose, even when she does make the highest job after this week, it’s clearly too quickly to say.  On the very least she will probably be hoping when she makes televised speeches that no person expects her to complete them with the phrases ‘He’s fallen within the water…


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