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Ulster Unionist Party in Office

Ulster Unionist Party in Office

The Northern Ireland government came into official existence on 22 December 1920. The first election saw a convincing unionist mandate. Sir James Craig, leader of the Ulster Unionists, was the first prime minister. Though limited in power, the new government controlled both the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and an emergency police auxiliary—the A, B, C Specials—in which by December 1921 over 34,000 Protestants were enrolled. This ensured both unionist insulation from British pressure to come to an all-Ireland settlement and unionist victory in a mini-sectarian civil war that killed hundreds between 1919 and 1921.

1920s through World War II

To secure the political domination of contested border regions—often Catholic and nationalist—the 1922 Local Government Act (N.I.) abolished proportional representation for local elections, and constituency boundaries were redrawn. About one-fifth of Catholics found themselves underrepresented in gerrymandered constituencies.

Ironically, by the middle of the 1920s stabilization led to a weakening through fragmentation of the unionist vote. Again, the government tweaked the electoral system. In 1929 proportional representation was abolished for elections to the parliament of Northern Ireland. This had the desired effect in consolidating the voting blocs. Unionist seats bounced back up from thirty-two in 1925 to 37.

Nevertheless, unionist concerns were reignited with the election in February 1932 of a republican Fianna Fáil government in the Irish Free State. To add to unionist concern, in October 1932 unemployed workers, both Catholic and Protestant, rioted against niggardly relief. The opening the following month of Stormont, the grand neoclassical parliamentary building complex in east Belfast, only served to highlight the hauteur of the unionist elite.

Unionists reacted with rhetorical chauvinism. In April 1934 James Craig, now Lord Craigavon, described Stormont as "a Protestant parliament for a Protestant people." It was in an atmosphere of unionist hyperbole and suspicion that severe rioting broke out during Orange processions of 12 July 1935. Nine were killed and 514 Catholics driven from their homes.

World War II at first discomfited unionists. The government spurned periodic pressure from Britain to surrender partition so as to entice the neutral South into the war. It was slow to mobilize its productive capacity. Air-raid precautions were utterly inadequate, and the government was slow to remedy the situation. But in the long run, Northern Ireland's loyalty contrasted with southern Ireland's neutrality. Thus funding was made available from Britain to permit the postwar extension of the welfare state to Northern Ireland.

Postwar Politics, Civil Rights, Bloody Sunday

In the 1950s Prime Minister Lord Brookeborough patched up traditional Protestant-dominated industries (shipbuilding, engineering) with special packages from Britain. Britain, however, increasingly insisted that further aid be linked to new employment opportunities. Under pressure from the Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP), Captain Terence O'Neill had the technocratic reputation to front a new modernizing unionism. He succeeded Brookeborough as prime minister in March 1963.

O'Neill concentrated on developing a grand plan for transforming Northern Ireland's infrastructure and thus attracting inward investment. His championing of innovation met and repulsed the NILP threat but equally unsettled established sectarian relations.

On 14 January 1965 O'Neill made history by receiving Seán Lemass, taoiseach of the Republic of Ireland, at Stormont. Many unionists, and not only those sympathetic to the Reverend Ian Paisley, a firebrand who rallied loyalist opinion against the government, were suspicious of O'Neill's temporizing ambitions.

Catholics, in contrast, thought O'Neill's modernization too halfhearted, even hypocritical. A civil-rights demonstration held in Derry on 5 October developed into a battle with the RUC in which the police showed little restraint. This sparked the civil-rights movement. On 22 November, O'Neill announced a series of reforms, including the abolition of the gerrymandered Londonderry Corporation and an ambition to elevate public housing above accusations of sectarian patronage. Disorder continued, however, and within the Unionist Party there was much discontent with O'Neill's inability to maintain order.

At the "Crossroads Election" held on 24 February 1969, O'Neill failed to win a convincing mandate for his reform unionism. Severe rioting in April finally forced O'Neill's resignation. James Chichester-Clarke became unionist leader and prime minister.

Sectarian disorder continued, and on 12 August the Apprentice Boys' march in Derry triggered three days of rioting between police and Catholic inhabitants in the Battle of the Bogside. Rioting in Derry ended only with the arrival of British army troops on 14 August. Rioting spread to Belfast and many Catholics were burned out. On 16 August British troops were welcomed into Catholic areas of Belfast. Overall, ten died in the violence, mostly Catholics. On 19 August the Downing Street Declaration issued by the British and Northern Irish governments announced that reforms would be encouraged and overseen by the British government.

The RUC was disarmed for normal duties; the BSpecials were disbanded and replaced by the Ulster Defence Regiment under British army control and discipline. Electoral reforms followed to eliminate voting irregularities and gerrymandering. Loyalists reacted with rioting and, more importantly, the steady march of political "extremism." In by-elections official unionists were defeated by the militants Ian Paisley and William Beattie.

The drift to the right among Protestants only served to undermine attempts to conciliate Catholics; they remained anxious that another "pogrom" of the style of August 1969 would be launched against Catholic enclaves. Nationalists turned to their own resources to clandestinely arm. Inevitably this became dominated by the organized IRA, particularly its traditional and militarist "Provisional" wing.

On 18 June 1971 the United Kingdom general election returned a Conservative administration. This heralded a new security approach designed to placate unionists by aggressively dismantling the IRA. Within days serious rioting broke out as Catholic ghettos resisted what they saw as an attempt to disarm otherwise undefended communities. The IRA was able to pose as a resistance group and validate its demonization of the traditional British enemy.

The Provisional IRA switched to an outright offensive against the British army in early 1971. Chichester-Clark, unable to persuade Britain to provide the level of troop commitment he considered necessary, resigned as prime minister on 20 March. Brian Faulkner succeeded to the premiership.

Faulkner was elected as a security hard-liner. However, he was aware of the necessity for political reform. He offered opposition MPs a system of parliamentary committees to oversee the executive. But the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) was under pressure to eschew any involvement with the Stormont government. On 16 July the party withdrew from Stormont in protest at the refusal of the British army to hold an inquiry into the shooting deaths of two men by troops in Derry.

Catholic alienation was boosted with the introduction of internment on 10 August. This was met by severe rioting in which two soldiers and ten civilians were killed. Altogether, 340 nationalist or republican dissidents, mostly Catholics, were picked up. By December 1971 there were 1,576 men behind the wire. Before long, allegations of the torture of prisoners emerged.

Catholic alienation reached a peak with the Bloody Sunday debacle on 30 January 1972. Fourteen demonstrators were fatally shot by the First Parachute Regiment following a banned civil-rights march in Derry. Outrage was universal in nationalist Ireland. Republican violence became notably more brutal.

On 22 March 1972 Brian Faulkner and his ministers were told by the British prime minister, Edward Heath, that they had to accept either the transfer of security responsibility to London or the complete suspension of Stormont. Faulkner refused to dilute devolution, and direct rule from London was introduced. On 1 April William Whitelaw took office as secretary of state for Northern Ireland.

SEE ALSO Brooke, Basil Stanlake, First Viscount Brookeborough; Craig, James, First Viscount Craigavon; Faulkner, Brian; Politics: Nationalist Politics in Northern Ireland; Northern Ireland: Discrimination and the Campaign for Civil Rights; O'Neill, Terence; Parker, Dame Dehra; Primary Documents: On "A Protestant Parliament and a Protestant State" (24 April 1934); On Community Relations in Northern Ireland (28 April 1967); "Ulster at the Crossroads" (9 December 1968)


Buckland, Patrick. The Factory of Grievances: Devolved Government in Northern Ireland, 1921–39. 1979.

Harbinson, John F. The Ulster Unionist Party, 1882–1973: Its Development and Organisation. 1973.

Jackson, Alvin. Ireland, 1798–1998. 1999.

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

Marc Mulholland

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