Men who shaped Northern Ireland’s first government exactly a century ago

Historian GORDON LUCY on the blend of experience and talent at the disposal of James Craig

Monday, 7th June 2021, 8:30 am
The Cabinet of Northern Ireland in 1921 (from left) Dawson Bates, Marquess of Londonderry, James Craig, H M Pollock, E M Archdale and J M Andrews

Having won the general election held on May 24, 1921, the lord lieutenant formally invited Sir James Craig to form a government.

Craig became prime minister, Hugh Pollock minister of finance and Dawson Bates minister for home affairs. J M Andrews was appointed minister for labour and the Marquess of Londonderry as minister of education. Edward Archdale combined the commerce and agriculture portfolios.

All the ministers in the administration had seats in the Northern Ireland House of Commons except Londonderry. Londonderry combined his ministerial role with leadership of the Senate, the upper (and revising) chamber of the Northern Ireland Parliament.

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The administration came into being on June 7, 1921, the date of the first sitting of the Northern Ireland House of Commons.

The average age of the Cabinet was 54 (which ought to occasion no great surprise). Two members were in their late 60s, Pollock being 69 and Archdale a year younger. Both Craig and Andrews were 50. Bates and Londonderry were in their 40s, with Londonderry being 43 and Bates a year older.

Half the members of the Cabinet – Craig, Londonderry and Archdale – had parliamentary experience at Westminster.

Craig had been MP for East Down from 1906 to 1918 and for Mid Down from 1918 until he resigned on election to the Northern Ireland Parliament in June 1921.

Londonderry (as Viscount Castlereagh) was the Conservative MP for Maidstone between 1906 and 1915. On February 8, 1915 he succeeded to his father’s title and his seat in the House of Lords.

Archdale had two spells as MP for North Fermanagh: from 1898 to 1903 and from 1916 to 1921. Perhaps of even greater importance than his parliamentary experience, Archdale was chairman of the Standing Committee of the Ulster Unionist Council from its formation.

Only Craig and Londonderry had prior ministerial experience.

Craig was treasurer of His Majesty’s Household from December 14, 1916 to January 22, 1918. In other words, he was a Whip. From January 10, 1919 to April 2, 1920 he was parliamentary secretary to the ministry of pensions. He rounded off his ministerial career at Westminster by being parliamentary and financial secretary to the Admiralty from April 2, 1920 to April 1, 1921. Alvin Jackson contends that he learned ‘the meticulous business habits’ that distinguished his early political career from his time in the Belfast stock exchange, of which he was a founder member. His service in the Boer War gave him ‘a military and logistics training’ which stood him in good stead.

Londonderry had been under-secretary of state for air between 1920 and 1921. Between 1921 and 1926 he took a break from British politics to devote himself to Northern Ireland politics. Londonderry had a broader perspective on the world than many of his colleagues. He resumed a career in British politics as first commissioner of works and public buildings between 1928 and 1929 and again in 1931. Between October 1931 and 1935 he was under-secretary of state for air.  He became leader of the House of Lords and lord privy seal in November 1935.

He visited Germany several times in the 1930s in an attempt to ‘make them good members of the comity of nations’. These well-meaning but unsuccessful attempts at amateur diplomacy damaged his credibility at home and overshadowed his real achievement in overseeing the design and promotion of the Hurricane and Spitfire fighters, which proved vital in the Battle of Britain.

Although Pollock, Andrews and Bates lacked parliamentary and ministerial experience, they nevertheless brought relevant, valuable and useful experience of public service to the Cabinet table.

A highly respected and successful businessman, Pollock was the managing director of a Shaw Pollock & Co, flour merchants, and a director of the Ropeworks and an insurance company. He had been a Belfast harbour commissioner from 1900 to 1921 and was president of Belfast Chamber of Commerce from 1917 to 1918. Pollock was a man fully attuned to the commercial and business life of Ulster and its needs.

Andrews was a landowner and a director of a firm of flax spinners. He had been a member of Down County Council since 1917 (and remained a member until 1937). He also had been chairman of the Ulster Unionist Labour Association from its formation in June 1918. His portfolio gave him responsibility for unemployment benefit, health insurance and the maintenance of good industrial relations. Andrews proved to be an extremely able and conscientious Cabinet minister and was Craig’s successor in 1940.

Bates, a solicitor by profession, had been secretary to the Ulster Unionist Council from its formation in 1905. This position gave him great influence within the party. He was also founder and honorary secretary of Ulster Volunteer Force Hospitals and the Ulster Volunteer Force Patriotic Fund and a deputy lieutenant for Co Down.

Then and now, Bates polarises opinion. Craig thought Bates ‘knew the mind of Ulster better than almost anyone else’ but Londonderry believed ‘that Bates’s previous work was no training for the duties of home secretary and his support and standing … was not high enough to give him that general support and confidence which are such factors in successfully controlling a government office’. This may of course simply be patrician disdain.

In Cabinet-making a savvy prime minister must give serious consideration to the geographical spread or balance of his appointments. Three ministers came from Co Down (Craig, Andrews and Londonderry), and one each from east Belfast (Bates), south Belfast (Pollock) and Fermanagh (Archdale). The pronounced Co Down bias was neatly addressed by other government appointments. Sir Denis Henry, the lord chief justice and a former Unionist MP at Westminster, came from Co Londonderry, Richard Best, the attorney-general, was an Armagh man and Robert William Hugh O’Neill, the speaker of the House of Commons, was a Co Antrim MP.

Geographical balance was further achieved by the judicious distribution of junior appointments across the country.

Northern Ireland was fortunate to have such talent to draw upon in 1921.