The most familiar photograph of James Craig is of a rather startled looking but steely-eyed elderly man with rapidly receding hair and a thick prominent grey moustache. He looks like someone you wouldn’t want to mess with. In this instance looks were not deceptive.
Craig was born in Belfast in 1871, son of a distiller. He was a millionaire by the age of 40 – much of his money coming from his adventures in stockbroking. This meant that he had plenty of opportunity and resources to devote to his favourite pastime, keeping Ulster out of the Union. This he was very good at indeed.
As did many a younger son of a well-established family he first distinguished himself in the Army. Everybody had enjoyed the first Boer War so much that they decided to do it all over again and from 1899 Craig served as an officer in the 3rd Royal Irish Rifles. He was, at one point, imprisoned by the Boers and was finally forced home by dysentery in 1901.
His name is, of course, as indelibly associated with that of Edward Carson as is Butch Cassidy’s with that of the Sundance Kid. Craig came into his own in 1912 in the organisation of unionist opposition to the prospect of Irish Home Rule. He was central to the creation of the Ulster Volunteer Force and the promulgation of the Ulster Solemn League and Covenant in which Ulster said ‘no’ with an emphatic flourish. While Carson made the speeches and was the most public opponent of Irish devolution Craig was seen as the organizational genius who developed the muscular element to back up Carson’s rhetoric. Craig was, for example, one of the men behind the Larne gun running of 1914, which brought 20,000 rifles to the UVF.
Unlike Carson, Craig was perfectly content at the exclusion from Home Rule of the six counties of what became, in 1920, Northern Ireland. The Government of Ireland Act that year gave Ulster, somewhat ironically, a Home Rule parliament of its own. In February 1921 Craig succeeded Carson as leader of the Ulster Unionist party. He fought the 1921 election later that year asking unionist supporters to ‘Rally round me that I may shatter our enemies and their hopes of a republic flag. The Union Jack must sweep the polls. Vote early, work late.’ If you were expecting ‘vote often’ there … well that wasn’t Craig’s style. In June 1921 he became the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland.
His most famous speech was made in the Northern Ireland parliament in 1934 and, we are told, is often misquoted. He did not actually refer to that assembly as a ‘Protestant parliament for a Protestant people’. What he did say was ‘my whole object [is] in carrying on a Protestant Government for a Protestant people.’ You might well be forgiven for wondering what’s the difference.
He also reflected on one occasion in the Northern Ireland House of Commons that ‘It would be rather interesting for historians of the future to compare a Catholic State launched in the South with a Protestant State launched in the North and to see which gets on the better and prospers the more. It is most interesting for me at the moment to watch how they are progressing. I am doing my best always to top the bill and to be ahead of the South.’ Arguably he achieved that ambition during his tenure as Prime Minister, though large-scale fiscal transfers from London and the Anglo-Irish Economic War of the 1930s undoubtedly helped the Northern Irish economy keeps its nose ahead of that of the under-performing Irish Free State.
Craig was almost obsessive about having Northern Ireland treated as an integral part of the United Kingdom, to such an extent that he occasionally acted contrary to the apparent interests of its population. This can be seen most clearly in his insistence in 1940 that conscription be introduced in Northern Ireland when WW2 broke out. Wisely Winston Churchill passed on that particular poisoned chalice, fearing the inevitable backlash from the sizeable nationalist population – not to mention the reaction in the Irish Free State.
Towards the end of his days Craig began to take on an uncanny physical resemblance to the man who, in later life, would become the Rev. Ian Paisley. When he died in November 1940, aged 69, he was still Northern Ireland Prime Minister.
Captain James Craig, later 1st Viscount Craigavon, was born 144 years ago, on this day.
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