James Craig

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James Craig, First Viscount Craigavon (1871-1940), politician and prime minister of Northern Ireland; was born at the Hill, Sydenham, Belfast on 8 January 1871. Craig was the youngest son of the wealthy distiller James Craig and his wife Eleanor Gilmore Browne. James was the third youngest of nine children, eight boys and one girl. He had a strict Presbyterian upbringing. He attended a private preparatory school near Craigavon and later went to Merchiston Castle School, Edinburgh, a Church of Scotland public school. He left school at seventeen and worked for several years in various brokerage firms in Belfast and London. He finally set up his own stockbroking firm, Craigs & Co., in Belfast in 1892 and became a founder member of the Belfast Stock Exchange. Although a very successful broker, he was restless, and yearned for a more physical and adventurous life. He went on to serve in the 3rd (militia) regiment of the Royal Irish Rifles during the Boer War (1899-1902), rising to the rank of captain. He was invalided home with a perforated eardrum in June 1901 and resumed his business career. He entered politics in 1906 as a Unionist MP for East Down. He quickly established a reputation as a promising backbencher.

Craig was a staunch Unionist, and was the architect of Ulster unionist resistance to any form of Home Rule. His contribution was not as an ideologue or charismatic leader, but rather his strength lay in his organisational ability. He arranged for Edward Carson to act as unionist leader, its public face, whilst he masterminded the campaign of resistance. He was the principal co-ordinator of the series of rallies, which saw over 200,000 Unionists signing Ulster’s Solemn League and Covenant, a pledge to keep Ulster within the United Kingdom. Craig played central roles in the Ulster Unionist Council and the Orange Order. He supported and helped organise the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and was involved in gun running.

During First World War, Craig encouraged the UVF to enlist. He was quartermaster-general in the Ulster Regiment in France 1914-16. He was knighted in 1918. Following the war he was returned for Mid-Down and represented the constituency at Westminster until 1921. Craig held junior office in the Lloyd George coalition government, and was able to exercise some control over Irish policy. He served as Parliamentary secretary of the Ministry of Pensions from 1919-1920 and as Parliamentary and Financial Secretary of the Admiralty from 1920-21 in the British Government. He embraced partition with enthusiasm rather than resignation. He was one of the influences behind the Government of Ireland Act (1920), and was partly responsible for the choice of the six counties rather than the nine counties favoured by the English ministers and some unionists.

In February 1921, Craig succeeded Carson as leader of the Ulster Unionists Party. In June 1921 he became first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, constituted under the Government of Ireland Act, 1920. He overcame the military and political opposition, which the new state faced, especially from the IRA campaign 1920-2. He withstood Lloyd George’s efforts during the negotiations of the Anglo-Irish treaty to subordinate Northern Ireland to a Dublin parliament. On the 21 January, 1922 Craig met Michael Collins in London in order to resolve the impasse between north and south and to promote some kind of co-operation between the two governments. The result was the so-called Craig-Collins Pact. Collins promised that the boycott on Belfast goods, which had been in operation in the South, would be discontinued. Craig on the other hand promised to help stop attacks on Northern Catholics, especially those working in shipyards. In March 1922, a second ‘formal’ pact was agreed between the British, Northern Ireland and Provisional governments. It reiterated earlier promises made in January but additionally called for a cessation of IRA activity in Northern Ireland. It made detailed provision for policing by a mixed Catholic-Protestant police force.

Craig refused to nominate a Northern Ireland representative to the Boundary Commission and he signed the Tripartite Agreement with the British Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald and W. T. Cosgrave, President of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State, whereby the boundaries of Northern Ireland was ratified. He played a major role in ensuring that Northern Ireland would remain a Protestant State. In 1929 he abolished proportional representation. This increased the chances of Unionist majorities in local government even in areas where there was a distinct Catholic majority. In 1932 Craig stated:

‘Ours is a Protestant government and I am an Orangeman … I have always said that I am an Orangeman first and a politician and a member of this parliament afterwards’.

When de Valera suggested in October 1938 that the time had come to consider an All-Ireland parliament to be elected on a proportional representation, Craig replied, ‘I can only reiterate the old battle cry—No Surrender’.

Craig sustained powerful Unionist majorities in successive elections for the devolved parliament held in 1921, 1925, 1929, 1933 and 1938. But these constitutional successes were bought at the price of a tough crimes policy and neglect of other pressing problems. No sustained effort was made to integrate the disaffected nationalist minority within Northern Ireland. No energetic effort was launched to halt, or compensate for, the decline of the regional industrial policy. Housing, health, and education provision were likewise neglected. He was created Viscount Craigavon of Stormont 1927. Mainly because of his declining health, Craig’s leadership was marked by his own increasing political disengagement and long absences from the province. In later years he presided over the state in a casual paternalistic manner. His ineffectual wartime leadership, 1939–40 generated mounted criticism, even from within his own party. He remained Prime Minister until his death at Glencarrig, Co. Down, on 24 November 1940. He was buried in the grounds of the Stormont parliament building. Craig helped to create Northern Ireland, but his ambitions were rooted in Westminster and his convictions were rooted in the Empire. He is often criticised for his government’s discrimination against Catholics and his failure to build bridges with that community. However, his statement in 1934 that he stood for ‘a Protestant parliament and a Protestant state’ must be seen in context of de Valera’s statement of Ireland being ‘a Catholic nation’. A statue of Craigavon by L. S. Merrifield erected at Stormont in 1945.

Biography & Studies. Hugh Shearman, Not an inch: a study of Northern Ireland and Lord Craigavon (London 1940). John St Ervine and John Greer, Craigavon: Ulsterman (London 1949). Patrick Buckland, James Craig: Lord Craigavon (Dublin 1980). Henry Boylan, A dictionary of Irish biography (2nd Edition Dublin 1988). M. A. Hopkinson, ‘The Craig-Collins pact of 1922: two attempted reforms of the Northern Ireland government’, in Irish Historical Studies 27 (1990) 145-58. Kate Newman, Dictionary of Ulster Biography (Belfast 1993). Patrick Buckland, ‘Carson, Craig and the partition of Ireland’, in Peter Collins (ed), Nationalism and Unionism: conflict in Ireland, 1885-1921 (Belfast 1994) 75-89. Alan Greer, ‘Sir James Craig and the construction of Parliament Buildings at Stormont’, in Irish Historical Studies 31 (1999) 373-88. Louis McRedmond, Modern Irish lives: dictionary of 20th-century biography (Dublin 1998). H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison (ed) Oxford dictionary of national biography 60 vols. (Oxford 2004) vol. 13.

Tomás O’Riordan