Brooke, Basil Stanlake (1888–1973), 1st Viscount Brookeborough, prime minister of Northern Ireland, was born 9 June 1888 at Colebrooke Park, the family estate in Co. Fermanagh. He was the eldest of the five children (three sons, two daughters) of Sir Arthur Douglas Brooke (1865–1907), fourth baronet, of Colebrooke, and his wife, Gertrude Isabella (d. 1918), only daughter of Stanlake Batson, of Horseheath, Cambridgeshire. He succeeded his father as fifth baronet on 27 November 1907.
Background, education and military career His social class, family background, and Fermanagh upbringing exerted a powerful formative influence on him. His ancestors first moved to Ireland from Cheshire in the late sixteenth century, initially acquiring land in Co. Donegal, and then being awarded estates in Co. Fermanagh, at the expense of leading native Irish families, after the 1641 rising had been repressed. Until the late nineteenth century, the family preserved and consolidated their property in the county. But their most enduring trait was a sustained tradition of military service – the family was known as the ‘fighting Brookes’. Fifty-three members of the family served in the first and second world wars (Brooke's uncle Alan Brooke (1883–1963), 1st Viscount Alanbrooke, who became chief of the imperial general staff, was the most prominent); twelve lost their lives.
The family was also politically active. The Brookes fulfilled their prescribed social role in the county, serving as magistrates, sheriffs and lord lieutenants. From the eighteenth century, members of the family sometimes represented Co. Fermanagh in parliament. Though they would not have thought of themselves as other than Irish, they perceived Ireland ultimately in a British context, and when they spoke of standing up for Ireland, it meant standing up for the protestants of Ireland. Their participation in the Orange Order was almost hereditary in nature, but generally at a local, rather than national, level. Their shared response to the mounting nationalist challenge, which emerged in Ireland from the 1860s, was to act aggressively in defence of the union.
Brooke's early career was typical for a son of an Anglo-Irish gentry family. After attending St George's School, a private institution at Pau in southern France (1896–1901), he went to Winchester College (1901–5), and then Sandhurst (1905–8). Before the first world war, his service with the 7th royal fusiliers (1908–11) and the 10th hussars in India and South Africa imbued him with an enduring commitment to, and pride in, the British empire. Even then, it was evident that he fully identified with the defiant unionism that had characterised his family's recent record of political involvement. In December 1912 (during a period of leave) he helped to initiate the Ulster Volunteer Force in Fermanagh and, in March 1914, he offered to resign his commission and ‘return to help the loyalists in Ulster’ (Barton, Brookeborough, 21).
Though he inherited the family estates in 1913, his military service was extended by the outbreak of the first world war. He served with distinction, on the western front and also in the Dardanelles, rose to the rank of captain in the hussars, and acted as ADC to General Byng. He was mentioned in dispatches, and was awarded the military cross in 1916 and croix de guerre with palm. Brooke was deeply affected by his time serving in the army, and lost his religious faith. In 1916, before the Easter rising, he wrote to his sister of his deepening belief that civil war would be ‘worse for Ireland’ than home rule (Barton, Brookeborough, 25).
Return to Fermanagh Having been elsewhere for most of the previous twenty-two years, Brooke returned to Co. Fermanagh in December 1918. Both from financial necessity and from family duty, he was determined to attend to his neglected estates. These domestic preoccupations appeared to have been reinforced when, on 3 June 1919, he married Cynthia Mary (1897–1970), second daughter and co-heir of Captain Charles Warden Sergison, of Cuckfield Park, Sussex. However, her unionist commitment was to help focus his political ambitions, and her unquestioning loyalty and support, and her social poise, were to help ensure his success. They had three sons, the eldest and youngest of whom were killed in action during the second world war. The middle son, John Warden Brooke (qv), also a soldier, survived the conflict and, in due course, inherited the family estates and entered politics in Northern Ireland.
Whatever his original intentions, on returning home Brooke was drawn into the political turmoil which Fermanagh, and Ireland, were then entering. Acting from family tradition and his own military experience, he organised in June 1920 Fermanagh Vigilance – a numerically small, part-time force, which he established to oppose the gathering IRA campaign, to protect local property, and to defend the union. He avoided the name Ulster Volunteer Force, in order not to deter catholics from joining. Brooke was active in asking the British government officially to recognise Fermanagh Vigilance, as well as other similar bodies elsewhere in Ulster; he submitted a draft proposal regarding their possible modus operandi. When the Ulster special constabulary was established, in September 1920, Brooke became the Fermanagh county commandant; this was a full-time, paid post from 1922.
Early political career Through his political activity, Brooke gained a reputation for trustworthiness and became a prominent northern unionist. The first prime minister of Northern Ireland, Sir James Craig (qv), formally recognised his services by awarding him a CBE and nominating him for membership of the Northern Ireland senate. The latter he accepted but had to relinquish: the appointment contravened the Government of Ireland Act (1920) because he held an office of profit under the crown. However, having taken an active part in Fermanagh's public life from his return, Brooke became unionist MP for the county (Lisnaskea division) at Stormont in 1929. He accepted the seat not only from a sense of duty, but also because of political ambition; he described his beloved Colebrooke as ‘never enough in itself’ (Barton, Brookeborough, 15). Soon afterwards, he bought a townhouse in Massey Avenue, Belfast. Brooke's slender, wiry figure – invariably with a cigarette, and his distinct, anglicised accent – was to grace Stormont life for a long time to come. He was to serve as prime minister of Northern Ireland for twenty years, from 1943 to 1963 – longer than any other incumbent – and was a cabinet member for an unbroken period of thirty years (1933–63), a record still unsurpassed by anyone at either Westminster or Stormont.
After becoming an MP, Brooke frequently addressed public meetings, where he spoke with the voice of moderation. But on 12 July 1933 he gave a decidedly sectarian speech, the themes of which he was to restate several times in the next nine months. He advised audiences ‘to employ good protestant lads and lassies’ only, and not catholics, as they were ‘out with all their force and might to destroy the power and constitution of Ulster’ (Fermanagh Times, 13 July 1933). He also cautioned that southern nationalists were plotting to ‘infiltrate’ Northern Ireland and overturn its pro-union majority. The timing of his remarks owed much to the tense political context in which they were delivered. In 1932 the formation of the first Fianna Fáil government by Éamon de Valera (qv), and the great effusion of catholic and nationalist pride associated with the Eucharistic congress in Dublin, had generated concern among northern unionists. Meanwhile, a growing economic depression meant that class divisions among the party's rural members were accentuated, and were a threat to party unity. Brooke's remarks also arose from his personal disillusionment at the continued reluctance of northern nationalists to recognise the Northern Ireland state. However, Brooke's open-mindedness in his relationships with political opponents, both as an employer and as a politician, was greater than these notorious comments might imply. In mid-1940 he was even prepared to accept Irish unity, if it meant that de Valera would abandon Éire's neutrality, and so possibly ensure the defeat of Nazi Germany and the survival of the British empire.
The rapid progression of Brooke's political career was owing to several factors: his relative youth combined with already considerable experience, his wide-ranging social network, his willingness to serve, his close relationship with Sir James Craig, and his leadership qualities and personal charm, combined with the lack of other talent on the unionist backbenches at the time. In May 1929 he became junior whip and parliamentary secretary at the Ministry of Finance and in 1933 he was made minister of agriculture. At the Ministry of Agriculture he was associated with the regional implementation of the marketing schemes and other radical initiatives then being introduced at Westminster. Though in later years he was caricatured as ‘a lazy man of limited ability’ (O'Neill, 40), as a young politician he was known for his ability, enterprise, and vigour. His influence and position, in the government and in the party (especially with backbenchers), rose accordingly.
The second world war The outbreak of war in 1939 was beneficial for Brooke's career. He was persuaded by Craig not to serve in the military but to remain active in civilian life. His social network and military background became even more important, and there were many more opportunities to demonstrate his pragmatic approach, his capacity for getting things done, and his talent for publicity. He began to look like a possible future prime minister. From the beginning of the war, he was unshakeably committed to allied victory. Partly owing to his leadership, the farmers of Northern Ireland, the only region in the United Kingdom to do so, met and outdid the tillage quota set by Westminster in 1939–40. His achievements were clear, against the background of a government in Stormont being criticised by its own backbenchers for increasing incompetence. However, Craig declined to make the cabinet changes thought essential by his critics.
The government's record did not improve following Craig's death. John Andrews (qv), the ageing minister of finance, succeeded him on 25 November 1940, but he was ill suited to the demands of leadership in a war. Crucially, he did not change the ministers whom he had inherited: he merely reallocated the existing cabinet's portfolios. Brooke was moved to the Ministry of Commerce – a small and, until his appointment, ineffective department, which had been criticised for the region's high wartime unemployment. Again, he showed energy, initiative and a sense of urgency, making the most of his contacts at Westminster when pursuing contracts for Northern Ireland manufacturers from government departments, and trying to raise the poor productivity levels of Northern Ireland's chief heavy industries. By April 1943, unemployment was down to 19,000 (or 5 per cent of the insured population), from about 72,000 in November 1940.
Prime minister of Northern Ireland But the Andrews government was lurching towards crisis. It was criticised for inadequate preparations for the German air raids of April–May 1941, its incompetent treatment of the conscription question, a temporary suspension of Belfast corporation, an apparent absence of planning for the post-war period, and the ongoing deterioration in labour relations. As a result there was a Unionist Party revolt, centring on demands for leadership and cabinet change. At a parliamentary party meeting on 28 April 1943, confronted with ministerial resignations and an imminent split in the party, Andrews agreed to resign. His failure to appreciate the degree of opposition caused him to ascribe his fall to the manipulative skills of the man who succeeded him, Brooke. But the evidence suggests otherwise. Brooke had repeatedly encouraged Andrews to recast his government and had made no attempt to exploit the premier's palpable weakness; moreover, Brooke also had been taken aback by the scale of the crisis. But he was the only candidate able to form a government with a commons majority, and on 1 May 1943 he was asked to do so by the governor, the duke of Abercorn (qv). He moved straight away to create a new ministerial team, which included Stormont's first non-Unionist-Party cabinet member, H. C. Midgley (qv). It was largely successful in accomplishing its initial priorities, which were to ensure greater dynamism in the war effort, plan for the post-war years, and defend the constitution.
In 1945 Brooke zealously argued that national service be extended to Northern Ireland so as to confirm the state's constitutional status within the union, reduce unemployment, and also elicit Britain's goodwill. He even proposed that government subsidies to local catholic schools should be raised in an attempt to lessen that church's opposition to it. However, when the national service bill was introduced at Westminster in 1946, Northern Ireland was excluded. Despite this, by far the most significant political consequence of the conflict for the six counties was the significant improvement in relations between Stormont and Westminster that it caused. This was largely thanks to Northern Ireland's contribution to the war effort, especially in the context of Éire's neutrality. Specifically, the commercial and strategic functions of the province's ports and bases facilitated US imports and protected Atlantic shipping; it supplied munitions, agricultural produce and manpower (including 38,000 volunteer recruits); and it was used as a training ground for allied military offensives in north Africa and Europe. Partly from gratitude, in 1943 the Treasury agreed to greater financial assistance for Northern Ireland in order to put it on a more equal footing with other parts of the UK in such areas as health, education and housing. Brooke greatly welcomed this, in part because he believed that ‘the only chance for the political future of Ulster’ was that it should become ‘so prosperous that the traditional political attitudes are broken down’ (Barton, Northern Ireland in the second world war, 130).
The formation in London of a Labour administration after the 1945 election (on 9 July) looked as though it might jeopardise the improvement in intergovernmental relations. Brooke feared that that the London administration would pressure his government to accept Dublin rule, and impose socialist legislation. However, he rejected calls by some party colleagues arguing for the refuge of dominion status, regarding this as impracticable given the region's heavy financial dependence on Britain. In fact, his dealings with the Labour leadership soon became unexpectedly cordial. He and his ministers largely welcomed the welfare state legislation introduced at Westminster and its extension to Northern Ireland. They were aware both of its appeal to the protestant working class and of the extent of local need for such legislation. He also calculated that the measures would create a wide difference in social services between north and south, and so reinforce partition.
The decision by John A. Costello (qv) to take Éire out of the British commonwealth and establish a fully independent Republic of Ireland (this took effect from 8 April 1949) was the improbable context for what was, arguably, Brooke's greatest political achievement. Against this background, and an associated campaign against partition, Brooke argued that unionists should be given reassurances, regarding Northern Ireland's constitutional position, through the text of the Ireland bill (Britain's legislation that ratified Éire's change of status). Clement Attlee, the Labour prime minister, responded sympathetically, and appended a clause to the bill that the six counties would remain within the union for as long as a majority at Stormont wished. Attlee anyway considered unionist unease to be justified, and that this amendment would appeal to the British electorate. Moreover, his advice from a government working party was that the province's continued inclusion within the United Kingdom was vital for British strategic interests. Its report affirmed that ‘it will never be to Great Britain's advantage that Northern Ireland should form part of a territory outside His Majesty's jurisdiction. Indeed it seems unlikely that Great Britain would ever be able to agree to this even if the people of Northern Ireland desired it’ (Barton, ‘Relations between Westminster and Stormont’, 12).
The 1950s and 1960s Brooke's successes with regard to the constitution, social welfare and the economy helped to ensure that the 1950s and early 1960s were Northern Ireland's most harmonious and promising years; this contrasted with the relative stagnation and isolation of the Republic during the same period. The resulting growth in unionist confidence is evidenced by the greater willingness of some to espouse reform. In 1959 the party conference considered whether the movement should attempt to recruit catholics and adopt them as candidates. Meanwhile, both the increasing activism of the minority within the six counties’ political structures and the collapse of the IRA campaign (1956–62) suggested a greater reconciliation to partition. However, only limited consensus was achieved. Physical force and constitutional nationalists attracted growing support in northern elections during the 1950s and 1960s. There were still many minority grievances: the restricted local government franchise, gerrymandered electoral boundaries, religious discrimination in public bodies and private firms, and perceived shortfalls in state funding for catholic schools.
The failure at Stormont to introduce such far-reaching reform was largely owing to Brooke's concern for party unity: he feared that division in the Unionist Party could imperil Northern Ireland's constitutional status. His strategy with regard to the minority was premised on his belief that social reform and economic progress alone would eventually dissolve its nationalist aspirations. Thus he did not support those liberal unionists who, empathetic to the changes taking place in post-war political and social attitudes, favoured recruiting catholics into the party on equal terms. He considered that this would be politically impracticable and divisive; his private conviction was that public ‘speeches [on this issue] will only delay matters’ (B. Barton, A pocket history of Ulster (1999), 111).
Yet, from the late 1950s, British officials were warning his government of the risk of political disturbances in Newry and Londonderry if action were not taken against religious discrimination. By his failure to act at such an opportune moment, Brooke helped to perpetuate Northern Ireland's endemic, and ultimately fatal, sectarian divisions. It is difficult not to conclude that he lacked that higher quality of leadership that does not simply reflect and pander to its supporters but dares to challenge and dispel their prejudices. Brooke was born into the landed gentry, and became a soldier largely from family tradition and instinct. But, after the first world war, he was impelled into politics primarily from his conviction that the union was threatened, and that it needed to be defended. In his view, the threat to its survival continued during the following decades, and the need to protect it therefore did not disappear. This remained his absolute priority, and thus he never attempted to become a truly national leader with significant cross-community support. He said of himself that he was less ‘ecumenical’ than others, adding: ‘it must be remembered that I lived through . . . the most troubled of times [in Ireland's history]’ (Barton, Brookeborough, 234).
Later years Brooke reluctantly resigned from the premiership on 25 March 1963, owing to a combination of age, poor health, and increasing criticism from the backbenches of his failure to stop either increasing unemployment or the move of unionist voters in Belfast to the Northern Ireland Labour Party. He was succeeded as prime minister by the minister of finance, Captain Terence O'Neill (qv), but retained his seat in parliament until 1968.
Brooke received numerous honours: he had been made a viscount in 1952, and was later offered an earldom for his services to the state; this he rejected, commenting that he had been ennobled enough. In 1965 he was created KG, and he was also awarded an honorary LLD by QUB. In retirement he developed commercial interests, as chairman of Carreras (Northern Ireland), a director of Devenish Trade and president of the Northern Ireland Institute of Directors.
Brooke's wife, Cynthia, who had served in the second world war as senior commandant of the auxiliary territorial service, was created a DBE in 1959. She died in 1970, and the following year Brooke married Sarah Eileen Bell, daughter of Henry Healey, of Belfast, and widow of Cecil Armstrong Calvert, FRCS, director of neurosurgery at the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast. Brooke died 18 August 1973 at his family home, Colebrooke, and, three days later, his remains were cremated at Roselawn cemetery, Belfast; in deference to his wishes, his ashes were scattered on the demesne. Probate records suggest that he bequeathed an estate valued at about £450,000. He was succeeded in the viscountcy by John Brooke, the only surviving son from his first marriage. It might seem appropriate, as well as ironic, that John Brooke, then minister of state for finance, should have delivered the final speech from the dispatch box at Stormont before its suspension by Edward Heath's Conservative government on 28 March 1972. In it he quoted from Rudyard Kipling's poem ‘Ulster’, which was written in 1914, about the same time as his father's involvement in the politics of the province began. Its concluding sentiments Basil Brooke fully shared: ‘Before an empire's eyes the traitor claims his price. / What need of further lies? We are the sacrifice’ (Barton, Brookeborough, 234).