Day of triumph for Captain O’Neill (1966)

A smiling Captain Terence O’Neill, straight from a history-making seven-hour meeting of Unionists MPs and Senators, at which he was given a unanimous vote of confidence, triumphantly told the News Letter on the steps of Stormont: “The crisis is over.”

Thursday, 30th September 2021, 12:00 pm
Terence O'Neill was Northern Ireland's fourth Prime Minister, he served from March 1963 to May 1969. Picture: News Letter archives
Terence O'Neill was Northern Ireland's fourth Prime Minister, he served from March 1963 to May 1969. Picture: News Letter archives

The vote was passed at the end of of the marathon meeting after the Prime Minister had replied to nearly 40 speeches.

All the members of the Cabinet expressed support for Captain O’Neill at the conclave, and he disclosed afterwards that “nearly all” of the “rebel” MPs “shook my hand and wished me good luck”.

Captain O’Neill said: “The Unionist Party is now a united Party.” As for the image of Ulster, he said: “It is that we have weathered a storm.”

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The Premier also told the News Letter that he thoughts the “O’Neill must go” campaign of the Paisley movement had been killed as a result of the “amicable and frank meeting”.

And he made it clear that there would be no change in the forward-looking, progressive government policy.

IMPROVED LIAISON

But he did give an assurance to the meeting – that every effort would be made to establish improved liaison between the Cabinet and backbenchers.

A number of members had expressed the criticism over the “lack of adequate communication”, and Captain O’Neill after making suggestions, agreed to take steps to remedy the situation.

The News Letter understood that this matter was now in the hands of the Government Chief Whip, Major J D Chichester-Clarke.

An early meeting of the Parliamentary Party was expected to be called at which the suggestions will be “thoroughly ventilated”. More frequent meetings of the party were also on the cards.

Asked if he had been worried about outside opinion, Captain O’Neill said: “I think outside opinion has been extremely good to be during the last few days and I think this has had its effect on the party.”

It was a tired but happy-looking Premier who answered reporters’ questions at the end of the day of drama – a day which saw the fade-out of a threatened backbench revolt and which showed that, when it came to a counting of heads, Captain O’Neill had won the confidence of the party.

CLEAR EXPOSITION

This he had achieved by a clear exposition of Government policy during a 40-minute speech at the start of the meeting, and by a frank reply to dozens of deep-probing questions from MPs.

When the meeting broke up just after 7pm, after two breaks for meals during the day, the Chief Whip read a statement to the press which revealed that it has been a day of triumph for the Premier.

The statement said: “The Parliamentary Unionist Party, after hearing a statement from the Prime Minister, had a long and free discussion ranging over a very wide field in which some 37 speakers took part.

“After the Prime Minister had replied to the speeches a motion of confidence was passed unanimously by members of the House of Commons. A similar motion was also passed separately by the Senate, with one abstention.”

The Chief Whip explained that a vote was taken by a counting of hands. It showed one dissenter and one abstentionist, but for sake of Party unity it was agreed to make the vote unanimous.”

He told the press: “I think the revolt has disappeared.”

He said objections were voiced during the day to the use by Captain O’Neill of the world “conspiracy”, “but that was as far as it went”.

Asked if any speaker had suggested that Captain O’Neill should resign, he said: “Yes, it is true to say that perhaps one did.” He refused to say which one.

POLICY

He said that there had been about a dozen critical speeches “mostly about policy”.

The Easter Rising celebrations had been discussed “by one or two speakers”.

He told reporters: “The rebels are now satisfied. There will be closer liaison between the Government and the party. There will be a good deal more discussion and more party meetings.”

It was understood that there was a call at the meeting for the resignation of one Cabinet minister, but that this request was strongly pursued.

The Chief Whip’s view was that there had been “really no unpleasantness at the meeting . . .no personalities were dragged into it”.

While no one appeared in any doubt that the day’s “clear the air” deliberations has seen the end organised of any organised revolt against the Government, both Captain O’Neill and the Chief Whip indicated that it would be going to far to expect that all criticism had been stilled.

As Captain O’Neill put it reporters: “Good God no. Criticism is the very lifeblood of politics.”

Afterwards Captain Austin Ardill, the member for Carrick, who was one of the signatories of the rebel petition – which was not produced at the meeting – told the News Letter: “Everyone is very happy. The matter has not been fixed up. I am very happy and satisfied . . . The PM made a very frank statement about policy matters which cleared the air.”

He added that it was the interpretation of policy, rather than policy itself, which had been explained, and it was this that members were interested.

Captain Ardill, asked about the “conspiracy”, replied: “There was no conspiracy.” As the result of the meeting “we now know where we are,” he said.

Mr Herbert Kirk, the Minister of Finance, said: “There are no conspirators in the Unionist Party. The party is now a united party.”

Meanwhile, former Premier Lord Brookeborough had told the News Letter: “I think the Prime Minister has now got the entire party behind him.”

LORD MAYOR BACKS O’NEILL

“Captain O’Neill should have absolute loyalty of every member of the party at this time,” the Lord Mayor of Belfast, Alderman W D Geddis, declared in a statement that he had issued to the press.

“While I have no desire to become involved in the intrigues of party politics, I fell that I would be lacking in moral courage if I did not make it clear that I have complete confidence in our Prime Minister, and that he has my absolute allegiance,” he went on to say.

“We all know how hard Captain O’Neill has worked for the policies in which he believes and which were endorsed by the Ulster people at the last general election.

“I am certain that he still holds the allegiance of the great majority of the sensible, well-balanced people in Northern Ireland, and I think it is absolutely vital that the voice of reason and dignity should prevail at the present time.

“In saying this I am influenced not only by my warm personal regard for our Prime Minister, but by an overriding concern for the future of Northern Ireland,” the Lord Mayor continued.

“Let us remember that the things which unite us are far greater and more important than many of the trivial issues which have been allowed to sow dissension in our ranks.

“The thinking people of Ulster have made more than enough of mass hysteria,” Alderman Geddis concluded.

“It is high time that the voice of dignity, understanding and charity prevailed, and who is better qualified to voice these sentiments than our Prime Minister, Captain O’Neill.”