O'Neill, Terence

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O'Neill, Terence

Prime minister of Northern Ireland Terence Marne O'Neill (1914–1990) was born on 10 September 1914 in London. Having served in the Irish Guards, he came to live in Northern Ireland in 1945. He was returned unopposed for the Stormont seat of Bannside in November 1946 for the Ulster Unionist Party and ten years later reached cabinet rank. When Lord Brookeborough retired as prime minister in March 1963, O'Neill succeeded as the apostle of technocratic modernization who could see off the Northern Ireland Labour Party. In community relations O'Neill was unprecedentedly liberal, visiting Catholic schools and, more dramatically, meeting with the taoiseach of the Irish Republic, Sean Lemass, at Stormont on 14 January 1964. O'Neill hoped to encourage Catholic acceptance of the state, but he more quickly aggravated suspicious unionist and loyalist opinion.

The eruption of the civil-rights movement of 1968 multiplied pressures for substantive reform from the British government. O'Neill impressed on his cabinet colleagues the necessity of concessions. On 22 November he unveiled a program of reforms, notably the closing down of the gerrymandered Londonderry Corporation. However, the local government's rate-based franchise was for the time untouched. In a television broadcast on 9 December 1968, O'Neill warned that Northern Ireland stood at the crossroads. He called for an end to street demonstrations but also promised meaningful reforms. There was a massive response from the public, but attitudes polarized again when a radical civil-rights march from Belfast to Derry was attacked by loyalists at Burntollet Bridge on 4 January 1969.

O'Neill's failure to preserve governmental authority by repression or concession led to discontent in his party. In an attempt to regain the initiative and remake the Unionist Party, he called for an election for 24 February 1969. He refused to campaign for official unionist candidates opposed to his leadership and lent his support to Independent candidates who vowed to support him personally. Breaking with unionist convention, O'Neill openly canvassed for Catholic votes. Such strategic innovations failed to produce a clear victory, however, and a phalanx of anti-O'Neill unionists returned. There was little evidence that O'Neill's re-branded unionism had succeeded in attracting Catholic votes. Amid a renewal of rioting and a campaign of bombing by loyalists, he announced his resignation as prime minister on 28 April 1969. Before leaving, he secured "one person, one vote" in place of the ratepayers' franchise in local elections as well as the succession of the relatively loyal James Chichester-Clarke.

SEE ALSO Economic Relations between North and South since 1922; Lemass, Seán; Northern Ireland: Discrimination and the Campaign for Civil Rights; Trimble, David; Ulster Unionist Party in Office; Primary Documents: On Community Relations in Northern Ireland (28 April 1967); "Ulster at the Crossroads" (9 December 1968)


Cochrane, Feargal. "'Meddling at the Crossroads': The Decline and Fall of Terence O'Neill within the Unionist Community." In Unionism in Modern Ireland: New Perspectives on Politics and Culture, edited by Richard English and Graham Walker. 1966.

Mulholland, Marc. Northern Ireland at the Crossroads: Ulster Unionism in the O'Neill Years, 1960–9. 2000.

O'Neill, Terence. The Autobiography of Terence O'Neill. 1972.

Marc Mulholland

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