O'Neill, Terence Marne (1914–90), Baron O'Neill of the Maine, politician, prime minister of Northern Ireland, was born 10 September 1914 at 29 Ennismore Gardens, Hyde Park, London, the third son and youngest of the five children of Captain Arthur Edward Bruce O'Neill (1876–1914), of Shane's Castle, Randalstown, Co. Antrim, unionist MP for Mid-Antrim, and his wife, née Lady Annabel Hungerford Crewe-Milnes (1881–1948), the eldest daughter of Robert Offley Ashburton Crewe-Milnes (qv), marquess of Crewe, politician.
Background and upbringing
O'Neill seems to have identified himself primarily as Anglo-Irish, by which he meant descent socially from landed Church of Ireland stock and culturally from a self-consciously all-Ireland tradition of loyalty to the crown. Any specific Ulster loyalty was limited and rested mostly on the prominence of the O'Neill name in Gaelic tradition rather than any very strong ‘settler’ consciousness. He was proudly conscious that the O'Neills were the longest extant European aristocratic lineage. He was indirectly descended from a protestant branch of O'Neills founded by a nominee of the English after the flight of the earls in 1607. However, O'Neill personally acknowledged the catholic comte de Tyrone, resident in Portugal, as head of the ‘clan’.
Politically O'Neill's background was also atypical. His maternal grandfather had been a pro-home rule liberal, appointed viceroy of Ireland in 1892 by Gladstone's administration. His paternal grandfather, Edward Chichester (later O'Neill), second Baron O'Neill (1839–1928), was the conservative MP for Co. Antrim between 1863 and 1880. The union of his parents across sharply demarcated political lines provoked much contemporary comment. O'Neill was not yet two months old when, on 6 November 1914, his father was killed in the first world war, the first MP to die in action in the conflict. On 9 February 1922 his mother married, as her second husband, Major James Hugh Hamilton Dodds, later Crewe (d. 1956), a consular official.
O'Neill spent the first seven years of his life in the London town house of Lord Crewe, his grandfather. Most summer holidays were spent in Shane's Castle, the O'Neill family home in Ulster. In 1922, when his mother married Major Dodds, then the British consul in Addis Ababa, he spent an exotic year in Abyssinia. O'Neill went to school at West Downs in Winchester, then Eton, where he was by his own admission an indifferent student. On leaving school he spent a year abroad in France and Germany, a politicising experience which led him to support Churchill's crusade against appeasement, setting himself against members of his own family and social circle.
After a stint working in the City, in 1939 his aunt secured O'Neill a job as ADC to the governor of South Australia. This was cut short when, within a few weeks, war broke out. In May 1940 O'Neill received his commission at Sandhurst, joining the 2nd battalion of the Irish guards. On 4 February 1944 he married (Katharine) Jean (b. 1914/15), the daughter of (William) Ingham Whitaker, of Pylewell Park, Lymington, Hampshire. They had a son, Patrick (b. 1945), and a daughter, Penelope (b. 1947). In Europe with the Irish guards, he served as the intelligence officer of the 2nd battalion. A number of people dear to O'Neill died in the war. He lost his close friend David Peel, best man at his marriage, and both his brothers, Lord O'Neill with the North Irish Horse in Italy and the Hon. Brian O'Neill with the 1st battalion of the Irish guards in Norway.
O'Neill was himself injured, on 10 September 1944, on the Dutch frontier, hit on the sciatic nerve by shrapnel during shelling. His unit temporarily cut off behind enemy lines, O'Neill was tended in a local house by the Ten Horn family, near Nijmegen in the Netherlands. He was evacuated back to England and the war ended before he could return to active service.
At the end of 1945 O'Neill, aged thirty-one, and his family finally settled in Northern Ireland. They took as their home Glebe House, a former Regency rectory near Ahoghill, Co. Antrim. O'Neill attempted to secure the Ulster Unionist Party nomination for a Westminster seat, but made do instead with the Stormont constituency of Bannside, to which, in October 1946, he was elected without opposition. He briefly caused controversy in 1947 when he spoke in favour of home rule for Scotland. This was an early indication of his genuine enthusiasm for devolution, on the grounds of administrative efficiency, popular involvement, and its potential to soften the social divisions evident at the level of sovereign state politics.
In February 1948 the prime minister, Sir Basil Brooke (qv) (later Lord Brookeborough), appointed him parliamentary secretary to the minister of health, first William Grant (qv) (d. 1949) and then Dame Dehra Parker (qv), his aunt. In 1953 he was appointed to the post of chairman of ways and means (leader of the house), and then in 1955 he became a joint parliamentary secretary to the minister of home affairs, in which post he dealt with a controversial rent de-restriction bill. He showed his facility in negotiating the timetable of the bill with his opposite number at Westminster, Enoch Powell. Edmund Warnock (qv), minister of home affairs, resigned in protest at the reform in 1956, and in the subsequent ministerial reshuffle O'Neill took over Warnock's portfolio, so finally reaching cabinet level. He was sworn of the privy council (Northern Ireland). Six months after this, he became minister of finance, and shortly afterwards he gave up responsibility for home affairs.
Early ministerial career
O'Neill's time at the Ministry of Finance coincided with a major economic crisis. Employment in the Belfast shipyards shrank by two fifths between 1961 and 1964. These difficulties were reflected in a swing towards the Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP), particularly in Belfast where in the 1962 Stormont general election the NILP won 60,170 votes to the Unionist Party's 67,450. As minister of finance, O'Neill was much criticised for his unadventurous economic policy, both by the NILP and by dissident unionist backbenchers. Behind the scenes, however, he was certainly imaginative if not always practical: in 1958 he suggested to cabinet colleagues that Lough Neagh be drained to form a new county. More important in defining his public image was his defence of his stewardship, with a rhetoric of ‘self-help’, civic responsibility and entrepreneurial initiative. He notably held aloof from the grubbier side of sectarian politics.
The Northern Ireland government's long-standing economic policy was largely conservative, seeking support from Britain to bolster established employment. The British government, however, was concerned that this simply feather-bedded the traditional and declining industries of textiles, heavy engineering and agriculture. It was felt that investment should be opening up new dynamic possibilities. The crunch came in October 1962 when a joint exchequer working party, chaired by Robert Hall, published a report that seemed decisively to reject throwing good money after bad. Brookeborough's government was widely felt to have lost the initiative.
At first O'Neill had little idea how to approach the crisis. However, the Northern Ireland civil service autonomously developed a scheme of infrastructural development, centred on greater Belfast, but also including the creation of a ‘new city’ between Lurgan and Portadown and the designation of a series of growth points: Bangor, Newtownards, Downpatrick, Antrim, Ballymena, Larne and Carrickfergus. Northern Ireland transport was also to be revolutionised, with the planning of a motorway and road network much in advance of the British equivalent. The Matthew plan, published in February 1963, thus made a more positive case for British subvention, and O'Neill quickly realised the significance of this new approach. It coincided with his belief, at first born of treasury cheese-paring, that Northern Ireland should rely upon self-help. Now he argued, notably in a speech to the Pottinger Unionist Association, Belfast, in February 1963, for generous pump-priming with British funds. He argued that for the United Kingdom as a whole to achieve its economic potential, each of its distinct regions should be positively developed to take the strain off overheating south-east England. This plea for British funds was wrapped in a stirring invocation of Ulster dynamism and historic potential.
Prime ministership and modernisation
Lord Brookeborough, whose economic policy was now seen as insufficiently flexible, took the opportunity of illness to retire in March 1963. O'Neill was well placed to succeed him, as the candidate of technocratic modernisation, and the governor of Northern Ireland, Lord Wakehurst, thought him the obvious choice. However, Brookeborough in 1953 had promised that his successor would be elected by unionist MPs. The failure to carry this through undermined O'Neill's legitimacy from the outset. Nevertheless, when William Craig, the party chief whip, unofficially polled unionist MPs, he found sixteen in favour of O'Neill as against nine each for J. L. O. Andrews (qv), the unambitious minister of commerce, and Brian Faulkner (qv), the more strident minister of home affairs.
O'Neill immediately began modernising the administration of devolution in Northern Ireland, drawing upon plans already set in motion by the Northern Ireland civil service, but contributing a considerable leadership drive. O'Neill much preferred working through civil servants and appointed experts rather than with the Unionist Party. He followed Britain in rationalising railways (Benson report, 1963). Large-scale investment in slum clearance and house building, concentrated in the greater Belfast area, followed from the 1962 Matthew plan. Industrial development zoning, proposed by Matthew, was extended and schemes for specific growth points were outlined in Professor Thomas Wilson's government sponsored ‘Economic plan’ of 1963. A second university was established (Lockwood report, 1965). A Northern Ireland Economic Council, to coordinate government, employers and trade unions, required an agreement with the trade unions. Ministerial standards were professionalised, breaking with an ethos of part-time service. All this was calculated to wring funds from Britain, and in this it met with considerable success. Public investment per head of population doubled between 1958 and 1969, with particularly large increases in housing stock, roads, education, and training. Per capita public expenditure in Northern Ireland rose from 88 to 118 per cent of per capita public expenditure in England in the same period. Nevertheless, the economy continued to suffer from the pressures of chronic dependence on declining industries. Growth began to falter from 1967 and the economy resumed a pattern of crisis in the 1970s.
The creation of a new, modern infrastructure for economic development was what O'Neill primarily referred to when he spoke of ‘changing the face of Ulster’. Rather than addressing community relations, he meant this slogan more literally as a drive to improve Northern Ireland's environmental attractiveness to foreign investment. He was, however, keen to present his administration as technocratic, and, in so doing, ‘steal the thunder’ of the NILP. O'Neill attempted to rebrand unionism as a classless movement based on a progressive consensus in favour of developing Northern Ireland as a region. Though this economic planning was largely cosmetic, it was enough to secure a swing to the Unionist Party in the 1965 Stormont general election, and the NILP lost two of its four seats in Belfast.
Nevertheless, modernisation in the context of a sectarian political economy could not be without consequence for community relations. It brought its own political problems, notably by making the economy seem amenable to government manipulation, and thereby convincing catholics that their relative socio-economic disadvantage was a consequence of deliberate government discrimination. Indeed, there was something to this. A cabal of unionist leaders in Londonderry, the second city of Northern Ireland, with a catholic majority but a unionist corporation, lobbied against the new university coming to the city for fear of upsetting delicately gerrymandered constituencies. The cabal became notorious in 1965, even in unionist circles, as the ‘faceless men’. Nevertheless, their lobbying was not without effect, and the university was located in the safely protestant town of Coleraine. Similarly, the ‘new city’ was designed with the need to maintain the integrity of unionist electorates in mind. In 1965, against O'Neill's better instincts and political judgement, it was announced that the ‘new city’ would be called Craigavon, after the first prime minister of Northern Ireland, an unequivocally unionist hero. O'Neill was justly concerned that such persistent slights to the nationalist minority would produce blow-back. The Labour administration in Britain, now led by Harold Wilson, was probably the British government least sympathetic to Ulster unionism since the 1930s. Wilson was more and more conscious that the increasing economic subsidy to Northern Ireland gave London greater authority and responsibility to press for transparently fair government in the province.
O'Neill believed that direct legislative reform would fail to redress fundamentally communal division and inequality, which he thought primarily rooted in culture and intractable socio-economic structures. Plans for economic growth explained in political rhetoric which avoided contentious sectarian issues and obsession with the constitutional question, he argued, were best calculated to allow outdated divisions to fade away. O'Neill was convinced that Irish nationalism in Northern Ireland was an atavism inexorably on the decline. In due course unionism would respond by becoming less morbidly suspicious of catholics. Premature reform would serve only to provoke the ultra-loyalists, who had an able potential leader in Ian Paisley (qv). Recent events made it clear to O'Neill that the potential for disorder persisted. During the Westminster general election of October 1964, a spiral of provocation and coat-trailing, involving Paisley, unionist MP hardliners and disaffected nationalist youth, culminated in three days’ rioting on the Falls Road in Belfast, the most serious such violence since 1935.
Rather than stirring more directly in troubled waters, O'Neill preferred to engage in what he called ‘bridge-building’. At first, this mostly took the form of high-level initiatives of a diplomatic nature. On 24 April 1964, for example, he visited the Roman catholic Our Lady of Lourdes intermediate school, where he watched a hurling match in the company of nuns. No Northern Ireland premier had ever so consciously included the minority in a state itinerary. More dramatic still was O'Neill's meeting with the taoiseach, Seán Lemass (qv), at Stormont on 14 January 1965. O'Neill offended most of his cabinet colleagues by keeping them in the dark until Lemass had crossed the border, though he had good reason to believe that protestors such as Paisley would have been forewarned otherwise. Little of substance was agreed at the summit, though there was a discernible expansion of cross-border cooperation in the years following, particularly in tourism promotion and electricity supply. Rumbling unionist discontent delayed a visit by Lemass's successor, Jack Lynch (qv), until December 1967.
By such gestures, O'Neill hoped to encourage catholics in the belief that their prime minister was no longer beholden to old-fashioned prejudices. He was also concerned to outflank ambitious rivals within the Unionist Party. Brian Faulkner, the able minister of commerce, was chief of these. Though long in gestation, the timing of O'Neill's meeting with Lemass may have been dictated by a desire to pre-empt a meeting by Faulkner with his southern Irish counterpart.
O'Neill's was a presidential style of politics, with an eye to press and television coverage and the good opinion of liberal elites. In many ways, he was compensating for poor party management skills and his all too evident distaste not only for the unionist rank and file but also for his parliamentary colleagues. In practice, this meant that any move by O'Neill tended to provoke opposition within the Parliamentary Unionist Party.
1966 proved to be a tempestuous year that significantly narrowed O'Neill's room for manoeuvre. The year began with a controversy over the naming of a new bridge in Belfast over the River Lagan. Belfast corporation unionists wanted it to be called Carson Bridge. The province's governor, Lord Erskine, anxious to avoid controversy for the monarch when she visited for the opening ceremony, intervened to lobby successfully for the name Queen Elizabeth II Bridge. Paisley campaigned against this ‘sell-out’, and succeeded in attracting the support of Edward Carson, formerly a conservative MP at Westminster and son of the unionist hero. It took united Unionist Party pressure to dissuade Paisley from standing a number of candidates, including Carson and himself, in the March 1966 Westminster general election. Unhelpfully for O'Neill, this election saw Gerry Fitt (qv), a nationalist firebrand with considerable tactical acumen, take the seat for West Belfast. The queen did visit on 4 July, but to O'Neill's disappointment failed to make any statement approving his ‘bridge-building’ policy.
In June 1966 Ian Paisley led his supporters to the presbyterian general assembly, to protest against its ecumenical tendencies. Catholic youth, aggressively opposing his procession though the nationalist Cromac Street area of Belfast, clashed with police and rioting developed. Paisley's pickets, upon arrival, severely harassed the presbyterian delegates. O'Neill authorised a fulsome apology on behalf of the government for this impertinence, though Faulkner caught the unionist mood better by condemning extremism on all sides while criticising the assembly for presuming to court controversy without consequence. Many unionists were unhappy when Paisley was later imprisoned for breach of the peace, particularly as O'Neill permitted nationalist celebrations of the 1916 Dublin rising in April to proceed unimpeded despite their formal illegality (the republican organisers refused to seek permission from police authorities they did not recognise).
The same month it emerged that a small loyalist terror group, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), had killed a catholic civilian, Peter Ward, on Malvern Street, Belfast, on 26 June 1966. Their aim had been to destabilise the government in the hope that a right-wing reaction would end O'Neill's bridge-building. O'Neill rushed back from a ceremony commemorating the battle of the Somme in France and banned the UVF under the Special Powers Act. He may have then overplayed his hand, by attempting to link Paisley, whose movement he saw as eerily reminiscent of the fascism he had encountered in the 1930s, with this paramilitary milieu.
An increasingly large protestant constituency was concerned that O'Neill was indulgent toward nationalists and divisively harsh on the unionist right-wing fringe. Moreover, the very flow of government largesse unleashed by his drive to ‘change the face of Ulster’ caused tensions among those who felt short-changed. Many unionists outside the greater Belfast area felt that they were bearing the pain of rationalisation without compensating new investment. These pressures culminated in an attempt at a palace coup. In September 1966 it emerged that at least twelve out of thirty-six unionist MPs at Stormont (over half of the twenty-two unionist backbench MPs) had signed a petition demanding the removal of O'Neill as prime minister, William Craig as minister of development and Brian McConnell (qv) as minister of home affairs. The obvious candidate to replace O'Neill was Brian Faulkner, minister of commerce. Faulkner detested O'Neill as a product of the old-tie network and he consistently distanced himself from O'Neill's rhetoric. O'Neill, however, showed his steel. He appealed to the country at large, arguing that the plotters were capitulating to Paisley's ‘O'Neill must go’ campaign. Faulkner refused to strike the fatal blow, and the plot dissolved. There was considerable bitterness in the aftermath. The plotters felt they had been misrepresented as reactionaries by O'Neill. In an attempt to appease opponents, he reshuffled his cabinet in early 1967 and demoted William Craig from the portfolio of development to home affairs. Always tactless and politically unstable, Craig shifted sharply to the right, and became a bitter enemy. 1966 had tested O'Neill to the limit. He had displayed a considerable political ability in surviving, but it was at a great cost to his reserves of goodwill.
1967 was a quieter year. It was significant, however, in the flowering of O'Neill's particular approach to bridge-building. In October 1966 O'Neill had announced plans for civic weeks to be held in towns across the province. These voluntary initiatives were, in January 1967, coordinated under the umbrella organisation Programme to Enlist the People (PEP). PEP and civic weeks were intended to involve communities in the local application of Stormont's plans to develop Northern Ireland's economic capacity. Because such celebrations of civic pride would not focus on divisive national or regional identities, O'Neill hoped that they would serve in overcoming sectarian divisions. Thus ‘changing the face of Ulster’ and ‘bridge-building’ were knitted into a conceptual whole. O'Neill was deeply committed to this integrated project. By September 1968 he was even proposing the PEP approach as a remedy to that disconnection between government and people which seemed to be driving student and youth protest internationally.
More discreetly, O'Neill attempted to address minority grievances concretely. Against stout resistance within the cabinet, he manoeuvred through more generous state support for the independent catholic school sector. There was a highly secret but abortive attempt to address the rank injustice of unionist mismanagement in Londonderry. Though party management was never one of O'Neill's strengths, he encouraged moves to rally support for his brand of unionism within Unionist party structures: there began to emerge a more self-consciously O'Neillite faction, particularly in the suburbs of Belfast.
To the fore in public debate, however, was the issue of civil rights. This new emphasis on abstract ‘civil rights’ rhetorically extricated minority grievances over discrimination from their traditional context of anti-partitionism. The theme of citizens' rights was taken up by Gerry Fitt (1926–2005) at Westminster, a group of sympathetic British Labour MPs organized in the Campaign for Democracy in Ulster, the Dungannon based Campaign for Social Justice (established in 1964), and the Belfast-based Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (established in 1966). This was a new and serious threat to unionism, including O'Neill's self-consciously technocratic and ameliorative brand, and one he only partially addressed. By mid 1968 he appeared increasingly weary of office.
William Craig was asserting himself as a robust minister of home affairs, appealing to the right. In 1967, for example, he banned republican clubs as covers for illegal Sinn Féin. Fatefully, in October 1968 Craig ordered the re-routing of a civil rights march in Londonderry so as to ghettoise the protest physically and politically within the nationalist community. This proved to be a grave error. On 5 October 1968 the march was attacked by the RUC and television pictures flashed around the world. Craig attempted to limit the subsequently erupting mass movement for civil rights, primarily mobilising catholics, by using police measures. The RUC, however, were under-strength for such a task, and O'Neill pressed instead for immediate reform. In this he was resisted by Craig and, as ever, Brian Faulkner. However, Wilson's Labour government in London piled on the pressure, and O'Neill slowly won his cabinet round to making concessions even in advance of stilling mobilisation on the streets. He failed, however, to convince colleagues that the property-based local government franchise – which underpinned the entire edifice of gerrymandering – was now politically indefensible. This left him acutely aware that the demonstrators’ single most emotive demand – ‘one man, one vote’ – retained its potency.
On 22 November O'Neill unveiled a programme of reforms, notably the closing down of the gerrymandered Londonderry corporation. In a television broadcast of 9 December 1968 he warned that Northern Ireland stood at the crossroads. O'Neill condemned those unionists who would defy the pro-reform British government and he demanded an end to street demonstrations. Subsequently he sacked William Craig for his repeated public suggestions that Stormont should defy pressure from the sovereign British government. O'Neill was now the rallying figurehead for moderate protestant opinion and was seen by catholics as virtually the only unionist of good faith. He benefited from an immediate and massive surge of public support.
This proved to be only a breathing space. Though civil rights demonstrations were suspended by mainstream organisations, the fragile peace was broken by a civil rights march from Belfast to Londonderry organised by the fringe radicals of People's Democracy. This ‘long march’ was attacked by loyalists, including off-duty B-specials (auxiliary police), at Burntollet Bridge on 4 January 1969. O'Neill's subsequent verbal attack on student radicals alienated a good deal of catholic sympathy. Nevertheless, a tenuous equilibrium seemed to re-establish itself when, the following week, civil rights protestors in Newry for the first time initiated violence. Though the mood had soured, a new truce between government and protestors seemed possible.
At this point, however, serious dissension erupted within unionism. Much of the party, while grudgingly accepting the need for reform, was disturbed that the government seemed unable to seize the initiative. O'Neill, they thought, was too anxious to conciliate street agitators with a hidden nationalist agenda and hostile British opinion. Desperate to force reform of the local government franchise onto his party, O'Neill turned again to the expedient of an ‘impartial’ commission which, he knew, would propose universal suffrage. In January 1969 he appointed Lord Cameron to lead an inquiry into recent disorders. This decision provoked at long last the resignation of Brian Faulkner, on 24 January 1969. Faulkner insisted that unionists must not abdicate open governmental responsibility, as this would only suggest weakness to their enemies. William Morgan (qv), a right-winger, resigned from government the following day. William Craig now moved to organise opposition to O'Neill. On 1 February he convened an oppositional meeting of nine unionist MPs from the right, known as the ‘Portadown parliament’ after the town in which it met. Two days later, O'Neill called a Stormont general election for 24 February in a bid finally to confront traditional unionism with O'Neillism.
O'Neill's strategy in the ‘cross-roads election’ was unprecedented. He was the first Unionist leader deliberately to seek to split the movement. His hope was that a crushing blow against the right would decisively rebrand unionism and allow moderate middle-class catholics, whom he believed were already moving from traditional nationalism, to come out openly in favour of the union. He was attempting to end unionist reliance on protestant solidarity. However, his lack of roots within the party was a grave hindrance. O'Neill was unable to control local Unionist Association nominations. Three sitting MPs, considered anti-O'Neill, were de-selected. In working-class urban and rural areas, however, many anti-O'Neill Unionists were nominated. O'Neill refused to lend them support and, late in the campaign, he defied his own party's discipline by supporting pro-O'Neill independents against official Unionist candidates openly opposed to his leadership. Even the central party apparatus was not under O'Neill's complete control. He was unable to include an open appeal for catholic votes in his party manifesto, for fear of alienating waverers in the ranks. The possibility of nominating a catholic, Louis Boyle, as an official unionist pro-O'Neill candidate in South Down was blocked by machinations within the local party and at the Belfast headquarters. Both within and outside the party, moderates committed to O'Neill rushed into politics. Often veterans of civic weeks and PEP, these newly politicised activists were markedly middle-class and even of gentry background.
The result of the election was confused. By most normal indicators, O'Neill's achievement was impressive. During the campaign many anti-O'Neill unionists had trimmed their sails in the face of an apparent wind in favour of the prime minister. A total of twenty-four pro-O'Neill official unionists were returned with 32 per cent of the vote. Official unionists who were anti-O'Neill returned twelve with 16.2 per cent. Three pro-O'Neill independents were elected; pro-O'Neill independents in total won 12.9 per cent of the vote. In his own constituency of Bannside, he had been run close by Ian Paisley. His narrow personal majority from his own electorate was deeply demoralising for him. In all thirty-nine unionist members had been returned, the largest number since 1921. However, at the first post-election Parliamentary Unionist Party meeting, ten anti-O'Neill (including two newly elected) MPs walked out. Despite this, when a vote of confidence in O'Neill was put, only twenty-three out of the thirty-five remaining were in favour. O'Neill, indeed, was on the back foot for supporting non-party candidates.
Most significantly, there was no evidence of catholics voting in number for pro-O'Neill unionists. Though opinion polls had suggested a reservoir of catholic support for O'Neill, this failed to materialise. Instead, it was civil rights activists who benefited from catholic disillusionment with the sterilities of the established Nationalist Party. O'Neill's strategic vision was fatally compromised. Economic progress and ameliorative rhetoric had failed to win catholics to a refurbished, non-sectarian unionism. The status quo of pan-protestant unionism seemed vindicated. Confronted by the apparent victory of traditional and ungenerous unionism, civil rights agitators took again to the streets.
Resignation and later years
O'Neill soldiered on, all the while haemorrhaging support in party ranks. On 24 March the Young Unionist Council passed a vote of no confidence in him. On 17 April Bernadette Devlin, a civil rights radical with republican support, won the Mid-Ulster seat in a Westminster by-election. This sparked an outburst of disorder across the province, including a campaign of bombing by loyalist agents provocateurs hoping to provoke the conditions for a right-wing coup within unionism. O'Neill used the prospect of an immediate take-over of the province's government by London to force upon his party the concession of ‘one man, one vote’. O'Neill's political capital finally exhausted, the resignation from his government on 23 April of James Chichester-Clark (qv), minister of agriculture, was the final straw. On 28 April 1969, hearing that he was about to lose the support of two MPs and thus, effectively, his majority, Terence O'Neill announced his resignation as leader of the Unionist Party. Brian Faulkner was the popular favourite to replace him, but O'Neill, still smarting from years of disloyalty, believed Faulkner to be incorrigibly right-wing. He rather unwillingly supported Chichester-Clark and, in the event, O'Neill's vote proved to be decisive at the parliamentary unionist party meeting in which Chichester-Clark defeated Faulkner by seventeen votes to sixteen. O'Neill was held responsible, therefore, for barring the most capable man available to lead the government through crisis. While the wounds were so fresh, however, it was perhaps too much to expect otherwise. After Faulkner proved his reforming credentials with the Sunningdale agreement of December 1973, O'Neill did effect a reconciliation of sorts.
Terence O'Neill did not stay long on the backbenches. He resigned his Stormont seat in January 1970, whereupon he was elevated to a life peerage, as Baron O'Neill of the Maine. In the house of lords he sat on the crossbenches and in the 1970s he frequently spoke on Northern Ireland affairs. Allowed to express himself more freely, he made clear his belief that Ireland would some day be reunited. From 1970 to 1972, indeed, he encouraged speculation that he was willing to let his name go forward for nomination as president of the Republic of Ireland. In general, however, O'Neill's relevance to the politics of the unfolding troubles was marginal to disappearing. He served as trustee of the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust. Terence O'Neill died at his home, Lisle Court, Lymington, of cancer on 12 June 1990, survived by his wife, son, and daughter.
O'Neill was not without political skills and vision, characteristics unfairly discounted by subsequent commentators. Though perhaps eccentric, his championing of PEP indicated a coherent approach to the problems of a divided society. O'Neill preferred working with civil servants, notably James Malley (qv) and Sir Kenneth Bloomfield, rather than with politicians and party structures. For most of his career, he strove to overcome the sharp divisions within Northern Irish society through administrative reform and quasi-presidential rhetoric rather than party political or legislative spade-work. When, faced with a make-or-break crisis from late 1968, and finally confronted by the accumulated vices of years of unionist complacency (as he saw it), his challenge was breathtaking in its ambition. His goal of breaking unionism's connection with the sectarian divide was unachievable because traditional unionism was, by the end of the decade, not an atrophying atavism, but in the process of vital if fissiparous renewal. O'Neill himself confessed that his patrician roots, outside the mainstream of popular Ulster culture, ill equipped him to engage with the fierce identity politics of both catholic and protestant communities. He was inclined to disparage protestant anxieties as shading into semi-fascist extremism, while his attitude to catholics was patronising and myopic regarding the tenacity of their Irish nationalism. O'Neill assumed that modernisation could only strengthen a moderate middle class. Ironically, he found his last redoubts of solid support among the haute bourgeoisie and gentry just as they faded from Northern Ireland's political life. His final, disillusioned, conclusion was that the ‘good men’ of politics preferred ‘playing golf’ to confronting the ‘wild men’. A decent man, O'Neill had a vision that was sincere and positive, but its purchase could not survive the storm of the breaking troubles.