Lessons can be learned as ex-leader’s legacy lives on

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  • by Sam McBride

TODAY marks the 50th anniversary of Terence O’Neill becoming Prime Minister of Northern Ireland.

While he is generally forgotten now his government was in office during a period of rapid change in Northern Irish society. But what is O’Neill’s legacy 50 years on? And are there any lessons for First Minister Peter Robinson?

When O’Neill succeeded Lord Brookeborough, he pledged to ‘transform the face of Ulster’ by halting the decline in the economy and fostering better relations between the Roman Catholic and Protestant communities.

O’Neill was the first unionist Prime Minister who attempted to win over middle class Catholics to support the Union by engaging in symbolic acts of reconciliation such as visiting Catholic schools and extending condolences on the death of the Pope.

While this would be considered trivial by today’s standards, in the mid-1960s such actions represented a real departure for a unionist leader.

O’Neill genuinely believed that for Northern Ireland’s constitutional future to be secure that it would require a significant section of the Catholic community to support the status quo.

In order to secure this, he believed that if living standards continued to rise and if the government displayed a more conciliatory attitude then Catholics would over time buy into unionism.

However the flaw in O’Neill’s logic was that economics and symbolism alone could solve Northern Ireland’s sectarian tensions.

O’Neill never properly attempted to reform those things (local government and housing) that alienated Catholics from the state. In fact his aloofness in dealing with these issues was one of the main driving forces behind the formation of the Civil Rights Association whose campaign of street protests effectively ended his premiership and left his legacy as a bridge builder in tatters.

Capt O’Neill’s poor relationship with his colleagues in the Unionist Party left him vulnerable as violence escalated. The fact that he did not inform any of his Cabinet colleagues about meeting Taoiseach Sean Lemass in 1965 not only damaged his leadership but also provided fodder for his main rival Ian Paisley.

Paisley garnered support by arguing that O’Neill’s policies undermined the constitutional position of Northern Ireland. This view would by May 1969 become predominant within unionism as his government haemorrhaged support both within the Unionist Party and the wider community.

Yet despite the fact that his administration ended in turmoil in many ways O’Neill’s legacy lives on today.

His government were the first to recognise the need to sell Northern Ireland around the world in order to attract foreign investment an approach that the current Executive is pursuing. O’Neill also recognised the need to expand the appeal of unionism to Catholics by stressing the economic benefits of remaining within the UK – something that Peter Robinson regularly argues today.

While Robinson attempts to broaden the base of unionism and deal with the fall-out of the flags issue he should remember the ghost of O’Neill lest we end up seeing a little bit of history repeating itself.

l David McCann is a PhD researcher at the University of Ulster examining the history of North-South relations




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