O'Neill Years: When Labour threatened Unionist rule

By a Militant reporter, Militant, July-August 1990

The former Stormont Prime Minister (1963-69) Terrence O'Neill died in June. There was a torrent of eulogies from the capitalist press and politicians.

Charlie Haughey "formed a very high opinion of him. He was a good man who meant well." Irish Labour leader Dick Spring said, "he will be remembered as a decent and honest man who made a genuine effort to bridge the gap between the two communities in the North."

O'Neill was an upper class Unionist, a former Eton public school boy and a captain in the Guards. He was Minister for Finance in the Stormont Government n 1956 and saw the acute threat which Labour posed to Unionist rule. In 1958 four Northern Ireland Labour Party and three other Labour MP's were elected to Stormont. In 1962 the NILP got 76,842 votes and held their four seats. This was on the basis of Labour only contesting 14 out of the 52 seats in Parliament. In the 1964 Westminster general election the NILP received 103,00 votes.

O'Neill clearly saw that his main enemy was Labour and his main efforts were aimed at attacking and undermining the rising NILP. His job was one of 'stealing Labour's thunder' - to use his own slogan.

In the mid-'60s many strikes broke out and mass rallies were held against rising unemployment. There was a radicalisation of the working class. This was reflected inside the NILP. At the 1965 NILP conference a motion calling for the repeal of the Special Powers Act was passed.


O'Neill increasingly feared losing support to the NILP. Labour was receiving an increasing echo demanding and end to sectarianism and discrimination against Catholics. The NILP were drawing support from Protestant and Catholic workers in opposition to the 'green' and 'orange' Tories. They posed a class opposition to Unionism. The Nationalists posed no threat to the Unionists and capitalists. Labour did.

However Labour's leaders failed to lead the struggles of the working class, the youth and the communities and they failed to adopt an independent working class/socialist strategy.

O'Neill is portrayed as the 'liberal' who attempted to reform Northern Ireland and reconcile Protestant and Catholic. O'Neill was intent on strengthening, not weakening, Unionism. Like the South African premier, FW de Klerk today, he hoped to introduce cosmetic reform from above in order to forestall more far-reaching changes from below.

O'Neill's reforms were no more than a veneer. He was Prime Minister when the civil rights marchers in Derry on October 5th 1968 felt RUC batons rain down upon them. He was Prime Minister when civil rights protesters were ambushed by RUC men and a loyalist crowd at Burntollet on January 4th 1969. Not only that, O'Neill issued a statement condemning the marchers with venom.


When Samuel Deveney, the first victim of the so-called 'Troubles' was battered to death by the RUC in Derry he remained in office.

Six years after O'Neill became Prime Minister reforms remained mere words or promises. In action O'Neill's government spoke loudly with police batons and stepped up repression.

'O'Neillism' was an experiment in 'Liberal Unionism'. It proved the impossibility of reforms from above. On May 1st 1969 O'Neill formally resigned. By then the lid had blown off the political situation.

The civil rights movement at its root was fuelled by the atrocious social conditions, poor housing, mass unemployment and poverty. The Unionists could not solve these problems.

Only Labour - fighting against sectarianism and repression and for civil rights, jobs and decent homes - could have provided a way out. A class appeal would have won Protestant and Catholic workers and youth in a struggle against Unionism and capitalism. The slogans of the bigots would have largely fallen on deaf ears. Religious differences would have taken second place.

It is necessary that the lessons of the O'Neill years be understood by workers and youth today. The main lesson was the need for working class unity and a fighting socialist Labour Party.

More Labour History pieces are available here

Another series of articles on Northern Ireland political developments
are available here.

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