McIvor, (William) Basil (1928–2004), politician, barrister and judge, was born 17 June 1928 in Tullyhommon, Co. Fermanagh (the southern side of Pettigo – 'I am a British citizen with about 120 feet to spare' (McIvor, 8)), second of three sons of Frederick McIvor, methodist minister, and his wife Lilly (née Dougan). McIvor's childhood was spent in Fermanagh (methodist ministers did not stay with one congregation for more than five years and his father was minister successively in Newtownbutler, Brookeborough, and Irvinestown). He was educated at local schools, and later recalled how at these he mixed freely with catholic children. He learned to play the organ at St Macartin's cathedral (Church of Ireland), Enniskillen, and throughout his life music (especially piano playing) was one of his favourite relaxations; he won third and second prizes (respectively) for piano at the 1942 and 1944 Belfast music festivals.
In September 1940 he left home to board at Methodist College, Belfast. His father hoped his son would succeed him in the methodist ministry, but although McIvor retained a lifelong religious commitment and attributed his liberalism to his methodism, he had no particular attraction to the penurious life of a minister. He chose instead to study law at QUB (1945–8) and passed his bar examinations at Lincoln's Inn, London. He was called to the Northern Ireland bar in January 1950, and struggled to build up a practice while living with his parents at Lurgan (and turning out regularly for Lurgan rugby XV). In January 1953 he married Jill Anderson; they had two sons and a daughter. By the mid 1960s he had built up a reasonable practice, particularly on tribunal work and as a lawyer for the Ulster Transport Authority.
McIvor became active in unionist politics in 1966 after being invited to seek the Stormont nomination for North Armagh. His political involvement, which proved highly detrimental to his career at the bar, was inspired by a sense of public duty, moderate personal ambition, and desire to assist the modernising agenda of Terence O'Neill (qv) (though he found O'Neill himself personally uninspiring – 'I would not, I confess, have felt like dying in a ditch for him' – McIvor, 52). In 1968, by which time he was chairman of Bloomfield Unionist Association, he sought the party nomination for South Antrim after the resignation of Brian McConnell (qv) but was defeated by Raymond Ferguson; McIvor ascribed his narrow defeat to the fact that he was not, and never became, an Orangeman. (This was then extremely unusual for an aspiring unionist politician; McIvor wrote that he did not feel comfortable with that organisation's 'shibboleths, oaths and declarations, flags and emblems' – McIvor, 40.)
In 1969 McIvor was elected Stormont MP for Larkfield, a constituency carved out of the South Antrim seat after the redistribution of the four seats formerly assigned to QUB; the seat included the south Belfast and west Belfast suburbs and the growing Andersonstown district, and was divided about 50–50 between catholics and protestants. He was one of a small number of new liberal‑minded MPs elected in 1969; from the start of his parliamentary career he emerged as a vocal advocate of change. By 1971 he was chairman of the Northern Ireland branch of Amnesty International. Ian Paisley (qv) regularly described McIvor and the similarly‑inclined Anne Dickson and Robin Baillie as 'the babes in the wood' or 'the three blind mice'. On O'Neill's resignation he cast his vote for James Chichester‑Clark (qv), who defeated Brian Faulkner (qv) for the Unionist leadership by 17 votes to16. In later life McIvor regretted supporting Chichester‑Clark and was inclined to wonder whether Faulkner might have stabilised the situation if he had succeeded O'Neill in 1969. (This view, clearly influenced by his identification with Faulkner's later attempts at reform, is held by most commentators to overstate Faulkner's ability and adaptability.)
Although approached to join the new Alliance Party, McIvor refused on the grounds that more could be accomplished by working within the Ulster Unionist Party. On 26 October 1971 he was appointed minister of community relations by Faulkner (whom he supported against William Craig on Chichester‑Clark's resignation). McIvor was initially inclined to refuse the appointment (he had criticised Faulkner for appointing hardliners such as Harry West (qv) as ministers), but was persuaded to accept appointment as the best way of advancing his agenda, and was subsequently sworn as a member of the Northern Ireland privy council; his duties included putting the case for Northern Ireland in Britain and internationally, and he remained in office until the resignation of the Faulkner government and dissolution of Stormont on 27 March 1972.
McIvor subsequently declared his willingness to support the direct rule administration for the sake of Northern Ireland's welfare and stability (whereas official UUP policy favoured non‑cooperation). He supported unsuccessful attempts to purge the party of followers of William Craig's Vanguard movement (which favoured Ulster nationalism and had strong paramilitary overtones). He supported the British government's white paper of March 1973 advocating power‑sharing government, which he later described as 'a last chance to save ourselves from ourselves' (McIvor, 92).
In June 1973 McIvor was elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly as a pro‑Faulkner unionist member for South Belfast. He served on the six‑member UUP negotiating team which negotiated the formation of a power‑sharing executive in October–November. He was nominated as minister of education by Faulkner, participated in the talks leading to the Sunningdale agreement, and formally took office with the executive on New Year's Day 1974. His principal activity as minister was an abortive initiative aimed at creating interdenominational schools within the state system; his experience convinced him that integrated education was vital to the achievement of better community relations. Although in retrospect McIvor felt there was not enough cross‑community trust for Sunningdale to achieve lasting success, he attached much of the blame for its demise on the impact on protestant opinion of John Hume's insistence on a powerful council of Ireland geared towards eventual Irish unity ('To me he was the man who, at Sunningdale, blew out the light at the end of the tunnel' – McIvor, 104).
After the collapse of the executive ('the last chance had gone and I did not believe there would be another in my lifetime' – McIvor, 120), he decided that he owed it to his family to try to rebuild his career at the bar rather than joining Faulkner in the abortive Unionist Party of Northern Ireland. After the assassination by the IRA of the resident magistrate Martin McBirney in September 1974 McIvor was offered the position, which he accepted for the sake of financial security 'with no great joy' (McIvor, 123). He remained a full‑time resident magistrate until June 1993 (presiding at preliminary hearings into several high‑profile Troubles cases; in 1987 four unionist MPs tabled a commons motion for his removal, accusing him of bias against Orangemen) and a part‑time magistrate for several years thereafter; but his most prominent contribution to public life was in the field of education. He served as a governor of Campbell College (1974–90), became active in the pro‑integrated-education lobby, All Children Together, and was the first chairman of the board of governors (1981–2004) of Lagan College, the first pre‑planned integrated school in Northern Ireland; some of his grandchildren were among the pupils. He was also patron of the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education, chairman of the Fold Housing Association and of War on Want Northern Ireland, and worked with the Salvation Army while remaining a methodist. He was awarded an OBE in 1991.
In 1999 McIvor published a memoir, Hope deferred, which served to 'purge a lingering bitterness fuelled by frustration and sometimes fear' and to recall the earlier crises in the context of the newly ratified 1998 Belfast (Good Friday) agreement ('I don't very much care if my critics detect in this the arrogance of “I told you so”' – McIvor, 3). Although still critical of John Hume, McIvor praised the SDLP leader for promoting peace and bringing about necessary dialogue between unionists and Sinn Féin.
Although Basil McIvor was resented by some opponents as an archetypal establishment figure, his commitment to public service and his willingness to argue the case for a form of Irishness combining British identity and support for partition with recognition of the right of the Northern minority to share in the governance of Northern Ireland contrasts sharply with the tendency of large sections of the Northern Irish middle‑classes (described as 'coasters' by John Hewitt (qv) and by some commentators as 'garden centre Prods') to isolate themselves from the task of resolving the grubby, bloody political problem and concentrate on lifestyle maintenance.
Basil McIvor collapsed and died while playing at the Royal Down golf course, Downpatrick, on 5 November 2004. His political papers are held at the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (Ref: D2962).