James Craig, 1st Viscount Craigavon PC (8 January 1871 – 24 November 1940) was a prominent Irish unionist politician, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party and the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland. He was created a baronet in 1918.
Lord Craigavon was born at Sydenham, Belfast, the son of James Craig (1828-1900) a wealthy whiskey distiller; he had entered the firm of Dunville Whiskey as a clerk and by aged 40 he was a millionaire and a partner in the firm. James Craig, Snr. owned a large house, Craigavon, overlooking Belfast Lough. His mother Eleanor Gilmore Browne (b. 1835) was the daughter of Robert Browne, a prosperous man who owned property in Belfast and a farm outside Lisburn. He was the seventh child and sixth son in the family; there were eight sons and one daughter in all.
He was educated at Merchiston Castle School in Edinburgh, Scotland, his father had taken a conscious decision not to send his children to any the more fashionable public schools. After school he began work as a stockbroker, eventually opening his own firm in Belfast.
He enlisted in the 3rd (militia) regiment of the Royal Irish Rifles on 11 January 1900 to serve in the Second Boer War. Military life suited him well, but he became impatient with the lack of professionalism and efficiency in the British Army in this, its most severe test. He was seconded to the imperial yeomanry, becoming a lieutenant and then a captain, was taken prisoner in May 1900, but released by the Boers because of a perforated eardrum. On his recovery he became deputy assistant director of the Imperial Military Railways, showing the qualities of organization that were to mark his involvement in both British and Ulster politics. In June 1901 he was sent home suffering from dysentery, and by the time he was fit for service again the war was over.
On his return to Ireland, having received a £100,000 legacy from his father’s will, he turned to politics, serving as Member of Parliament for East Down from 1906 to 1918. From 1918 to 1921 he represented Mid Down, and served in government as Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Pensions (1919-1920) and Parliamentary Secretary to the Admiralty (1920-1921).
Craig rallied the Ulster unionist opposition to Irish Home Rule in Ulster before the First World War, organising the paramilitary Ulster Volunteers and buying arms from Imperial Germany. The Volunteers became the nucleus of the 36th (Ulster) Division during the Great War. He succeeded Edward Carson as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party in February 1921.
In the 1921 Northern Ireland general election, the first ever, he was elected to the newly created Northern Ireland House of Commons as member for County Down.
On 7 June 1921 (over two weeks before the opening of the Northern Ireland Parliament), Craig was appointed the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland by the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. A dedicated member of the Orange Order and staunchly Protestant, he famously stated, in April 1934, in response to Éamon de Valera’s assertion that Ireland was a “Catholic nation”:
The hon. Member must remember that in the South they boasted of a Catholic State. They still boast of Southern Ireland being a Catholic State. All I boast of is that we are a Protestant Parliament and a Protestant State. It would be rather interesting for historians of the future to compare a Catholic State launched in the South with a Protestant State launched in the North and to see which gets on the better and prospers the more. It is most interesting for me at the moment to watch how they are progressing. I am doing my best always to top the bill and to be ahead of the South.
He was made a baronet in 1918, and was in 1927 created Viscount Craigavon, of Stormont in the County of Down. He was also the recipient of honorary degrees from the Queen’s University of Belfast (1922) and Oxford University (1926).
Craig had made his career in British as well as Ulster politics; but his premiership showed little sign of his earlier close acquaintance with the British political world. He became intensely parochial, and suffered from his loss of intimacy with British politicians in 1938, when the British government concluded agreements with Dublin to end the ‘economic war’ between the two states, on terms highly unfavourable to Northern Ireland. He never tried to persuade Westminster to protect Northern Ireland’s industries, especially the linen industry, which was central to its economy. He was anxious not to provoke Westminster given the precarious state of Northern Ireland’s position. His desire to retain the closest links with Great Britain was seen in April 1939, and again in May 1940, when he called for conscription to be applied in Northern Ireland (which the British government, fearing a nationalist backlash, refused). Lord Craigavon was still prime minister when he died peacefully at his home at Glencraig, County Down in 1940. He was buried on the Stormont Estate, and was succeeded as leader of the Northern Ireland Government by the Minister of Finance John Miller Andrews.
His wife, Cecil Mary Nowell Dering Tupper (The Viscountess Craigavon; d. 1960), whom he married on 22 March 1905 after a very brief courtship, was English, the daughter of Sir Daniel Tupper, assistant comptroller of the Lord Chamberlain’s department of the king’s household. They had twin sons and a daughter. A president of the Ulster Women’s Unionist Council, she was created a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1941.
Craigavon was succeeded as second viscount by his elder son, James (1906-1974). His estate was valued at £3,228, 2s., 6d. effects in England: probate, 20 March 1941, CGPLA NIre., £24, 138 9s. 9d.: probate, 3 March 1941, CGPLA NIre