Cunningham, Joseph Mullan (1877–1965), trade unionist, senator, and Orangeman, was born in Belfast, and educated at a national school. His apprenticeship to the engineering trade began in 1890 with Combe Barbour & Coombe; in 1896 he travelled to Glasgow, and worked as a journeyman fitter before returning to Belfast, where he worked at Harland & Wolff. He joined the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (ASE) in 1896, was elected by the Belfast 7th branch to the district council, and was elected district committee chairman and branch secretary, and to the highest elected body in the union, the ASE's final appeals court. In 1907 he was appointed delegate to the ASE conference of branches throughout the UK and the commonwealth. He campaigned with the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions for a shorter working week and chaired a conference in the Ulster Hall, Belfast. He became a prominent member of the Orange order and joined the Mechanics’ 1200 Loyal Orange Lodge, Clifton St., Belfast, and was a founder and patron of the City of Belfast Loyal Orange Widows’ Fund. Elected county grand master of Belfast (1948–51) and deputy grand master of Ireland, he became a member of the World Council of Orangemen, and a trustee of the Lord Enniskillen Memorial Orphan Fund and of the Grand Lodge of Ireland.
With the revival of the question of home rule in 1911, he entered unionist politics, helped to organise a major rally of trade unionists in Belfast against home rule, and travelled to England to mobilise support from British workers. During the first world war he was selected as a trade union official to visit the battle front at Vimy Ridge to report on the conditions and morale of the troops; he was subsequently appointed labour regulation officer for the newly created shipyard labour department in Belfast, under the admiralty labour department. In 1918 he was a founder member and subsequently chairman of the Ulster Unionist Labour Association, which was established to demonstrate working-class opposition to home rule. His services to unionism were recognised by his nomination as a trade unionist to the first senate of the Northern Ireland parliament at the invitation of James Craig (qv). A senator from 1921 to 1965, he was the NI parliament's longest serving member and the only original member of either house to have a record of unbroken service, but made little impact on politics. A unionist member of the Belfast city council for thirty-four years, he represented Dock Ward and subsequently Duncairn Ward, retiring in 1964.
For over fifty years he was a member of the Justice Masonic Lodge no. 213, and of the Royal Arch Chapter no. 663. He served as a JP and was awarded a CBE (1957). He lived at 34 Castleton Gardens, Belfast, died 14 July 1965, and was cremated and buried in Roselawn cemetery, Belfast. Twice married, he was survived by his wife, Margaret (m. 1962; maiden name unknown), and five daughters, his three sons having predeceased him.
Cunningham's unpublished memoir, ‘Particulars of my life’, is held in the PRONI, together with other papers. According to his wife, ‘he was very direct and almost abrupt in manner and thus alienated some people’ (‘Memo of interview with Mrs Cunningham’, PRONI, D.1288/1A). In a letter of condolence to Mrs Cunningham, Lord Brookeborough (qv) wrote: ‘What a loss to Ulster!! I always looked on Joe as the epitome of what an Ulster-man should be – he was staunch, honest, and loyal. I always remember with gratitude his help to me in difficult times and his advice was always something I valued’ (PRONI, D.1288/15).