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Terence Marne O'Neill

Terence Marne O'Neill

Prime minister of Northern Ireland from 1963 to 1969, Terence O'Neill (1914-1990) strived to achieve a reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants. However, his efforts proved ineffectual and he resigned from office.

Captain Terence Marne O'Neill, created Lord O'Neill of the Maine in 1970, came from an impeccable Anglo-Irish establishment family which included the ancient O'Neills of Ulster and the English Chichesters, a leading family in the same area since the seventeenth century. Educated privately and at Eton, he served throughout World War II in the Irish Guards, the same regiment as his father, who was killed in December 1914, three months after his son's birth.

His upbringing on the fringes of a great family with the strong influences of private school and army molded his character and outlook, and he was later to find it difficult to relate to the ordinary people of Northern Ireland. Familiar with top Unionist circles from family visits, his first protracted residence in the province was after 1946 when he was nominated—and returned unopposed—to the Northern Ireland Parliament for the constituency of Bannside, County Antrim.

Under the premiership of Sir Basil Brooke (created Lord Brookeborough in 1952), he served as parliamentary secretary to the minister of health (1948-1952), deputy speaker of the House of Commons (1953-1956), and minister of home affairs briefly in 1956. He then became minister for finance in 1956, serving in that office until he succeeded Brookeborough as prime minister in 1963.

Although confirmed as party leader and prime minister by party and Unionist council members in 1963, O'Neill was not the unanimous choice, and his determination to bring political reform to a somewhat backward and conservative area met resistance from the beginning. Northern Ireland was already embarked on a program of economic transformation from old to new industry and was experiencing modernization in almost every sphere of social life, especially in health, education, and welfare. O'Neill realized the need to accompany these changes with matching political progress to heal sectarian differences, to improve the democratic processes, and to remove discriminating practices in such areas as employment, housing, and local government where for historical reasons these still persisted. His vision of economic and social modernization could be widely shared, but his insistence on equal opportunity throughout the political and social system seemed to threaten the Unionist monopoly of power, and to some even the stability of the union of Northern Ireland with Britain. His inability to reassure his own supporters on the one hand or to win over traditional opponents on the other eventually brought his premiership to an end in 1969.

His courageous, if not always sensitive, efforts must be applauded. He inaugurated better relations with the Irish Republic, receiving Prime Minister Sean Lemass in Belfast in January 1965 and soon paying a return visit. He looked, equally, for a better accommodation of the political ambitions of Northern Ireland's own Roman Catholic (and traditionally nationalist) community: a community increasingly better educated and prosperous under the postwar economic and social development of the province. To both trends die-hard Unionists (some within his own cabinet, including Brian Faulkner and William Craig) and more extreme Protestants, especially the Reverend Ian K. Paisley, took increasing exception, while the bane of contemporary Ireland—the persistent celebration of divisive anniversaries—provided ample opportunity to create trouble.

In 1966 the 50th anniversary of Dublin's 1916 uprising gave traditional opponents of Unionism the chance to demonstrate; then in 1967 more modern expression to non-Unionist discontent was given by the founding of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association. Annual Orange marches became increasingly the focus of Unionist discontent at concessions to "disloyal" elements of the population, and open conflict grew until violence burst onto the streets in October 1968. Two months later O'Neill announced a reform program: a points system of public housing allocation; an ombudsman; the end of the business vote in local council elections; a review of security legislation; and the establishment of a Londonderry Development Commission.

Amid growing Unionist division O'Neill held an election in February 1969, appealing to voters directly and in many cases supporting his own candidates against hardline official Unionist party nominees. The outcome did not provide a sufficiently strong base from which to proceed with further reforms (the existing package proved quick to anger extreme Protestant Unionists, but slow to confer benefit on moderate Catholic citizens) and on April 28, 1969, O'Neill resigned as premier. He did succeed, as a last achievement on April 23, in reforming the local council franchise to bring it into line with the rest of the United Kingdom ("one man one vote").

O'Neill, with his wife Jean (née Whitaker; they were married in 1944 and had two children), lived largely in England after his retirement from politics. In retrospect it might be fair to say that he was the wrong man with the right ideas: that he lacked the political sensitivity and dexterity to sustain the balancing act of encouraging Catholic hopes while at the same time allaying Protestant fears. He was illserved by a Unionist Party traditionally based upon the sectarian domination of Protestant over Catholic, backed up by an Orange Order less concerned with constitutional defense than anti-Catholic attack. The Orange Order was sufficiently decentralized in organization for autonomous constituencies to frustrate liberalization from the center. O'Neill was unable to rise above these traditional elements and the religious extremism that accompanied them and in the end became a victim of their combined wrath.

Further Reading

The Autobiography of Terence O'Neill (1972); also the autobiographical Ulster at the Crossroads (1969), which has an introduction by John Cole; O'Neill's premiership is covered in F. S. L. Lyons' Ireland since the Famine (1971); Patrick Buckland, A History of Northern Ireland (1981); and David Harkness, N. Ireland since 1920 (1983); P. Bew, P. Gibbon, and H. Patterson, The State in Northern Ireland 1921-72 (1979); an outline of his career is contained in W. D. Flackes, Northern Ireland: A Political Directory 1968-83 (1983); and in D. J. Hickey and J. E. Doherty, A Dictionary of Irish History since 1800 (1980); New York Times, June 14, 1990. □

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