James Craig was the second man to sign ‘Ulster’s Solemn League and Covenant’ on 28 September 1912. In a show of mass resistance in Belfast, Craig and thousands of fellow Ulster Unionists pledged to reject Westminster’s plans for Irish self-government under a Dublin parliament.
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.
The first man to sign was the Ulster Unionist Party leader Edward Carson. While Carson was the face of the Covenant, Craig was the organisational mastermind behind it. It was the first step on the road that would bring Ireland to the brink of civil war.
Craig was the son of a self-made whiskey millionaire. Educated privately in Edinburgh he was still expected to earn a living. At the age of 17 he was trained in menial office tasks before being apprenticed as a stockbroker in London. He then opened his own stockbroking firm in Belfast. The chance for adventure came in 1899 when the South African War broke out between the British Empire and the Boers. Craig enlisted in the army.
The Boer War:
Craig was a popular officer. Taken prisoner by the Boers, he decided to march with his men rather than riding with the other officers to a prison camp 200 miles away. His incarceration was brief. A splinter from an exploding gun had earlier burst his eardrum. The injury became very painful and his captors released him across the border for treatment.
In 1901 Craig was invalided home from South Africa with dysentery. His father had died the year before, leaving Craig a fortune and the freedom to escape the humdrum life of a stockbroker. He decided to pursue a career in politics, throwing himself into campaigning by tearing around the country on a motorbike.
In 1905 Craig wooed and married his upper class English wife, Cecil Mary Nowell Dering Tupper, within six months of meeting her at a shooting party. In 1906 he was elected Unionist MP for East Down.
By 1910, Britain’s Liberal Prime Minister, HH Asquith, and the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, John Redmond, seemed on a sure course to bring Home Rule to Ireland.
Like many Ulster Unionists, Craig feared that a devolved Dublin parliament would be dominated by rural interests and the Catholic church and that this would prove destructive to the interests of the largely Protestant and industrial population of Ulster, Ireland’s northernmost province.
He wrote: “At every stage in life from the cradle to the grave … the Roman Catholic Church intervenes, exhorting and commanding her adherents to have no intercourse with Protestants.”
For Ulster Unionists, Home Rule meant ‘Rome Rule’.
Craig and Carson:
Craig’s masterstroke was to understand his own limitations as a leader of the Ulster Unionist cause and enlist the charismatic Edward Carson as the figurehead of the Ulster Unionist Party’s campaign against Home Rule.
Carson needed some persuasion to take on the role.
He wrote to Craig: “What I am very anxious about, is to satisfy myself that the people over there really mean to resist.”
Craig convinced him in spectacular fashion by organising a massive gathering in the grounds of his County Down mansion. In September 1911, 50,000 men representing all parts of Ulster cheered Edward Carson as their new leader.
The following year, on 28 September 1912, nearly half a million people signed the Ulster Covenant – a pledge to defend their way of life from the growing threat of Home Rule.
In 1914, Craig persuaded more cautious colleagues that the Ulster Volunteers – a militia formed for Unionist resistance – should be armed to give the Covenant ‘teeth’. In April, thousands of rifles and millions of rounds of ammunition were smuggled into Ulster by means of the audacious ‘Larne Gun Running’.
If Westminster tried to impose Home Rule on Ulster Unionists, they were ready to fight for their right to remain in the Union.
World War One:
The deadlock and drift to civil war in Ireland were broken by the outbreak of World War One in August 1914. Disagreements over Home Rule were temporarily set aside in the face of a common enemy.
It was Craig’s idea that the Ulster Volunteer Force should be offered as a fighting unit on any front and that they should form the nucleus of a special Ulster Division. Ever practical, he also organised the purchase of thousands of uniforms from London tailors, Moss Brothers.
Poor health prevented Craig from accompanying the division to the Western Front, where its men – alongside former enemies in the nationalist Irish Volunteers – fought and died in their thousands.
The creation of Northern Ireland:
The 1920 Government of Ireland Act was intended to establish separate Home Rule parliaments in the north and south of Ireland.
To ensure a majority of Protestant voters in the north, Craig insisted that the new region should consist of only six of the nine counties of Ulster. Some saw this as a betrayal of unionists in the three mainly Catholic counties excluded, and a violation of the Ulster Covenant which had applied to all of Ulster.
A new parliament:
In May 1921 Craig campaigned in Northern Ireland’s first election.
He said: “Rally round me that I may shatter our enemies and their hopes of a republic flag. The Union Jack must sweep the polls. Vote early, work late.”
The Ulster Unionists won by a landslide. Craig was appointed the first prime minister of Northern Ireland, presiding over a parliament in Belfast.
Power at Stormont:
Craig defended his new government against pressure from Britain and the Irish Free State (established by the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921). He tried to moderate the violent anti-Catholic feelings of unionists in the critical period of Northern Ireland’s birth when bitter sectarian strife raged.
Yet Craig was ultimately unable to rise to the challenge of bringing fair government to a deeply divided population against the backdrop of an ailing economy. While he had genuine respect and affection for nationalist colleagues, and no hostility towards individual Catholics, he associated Catholicism with subversion. He failed to win over the Catholic minority or protect them from discrimination.
World War Two:
As World War Two approached, Craig was nearing his seventies. Nonetheless, he showed no sign of retiring.
Sir Wilfred Spender was Craig’s cabinet secretary. Spender thought Craig was a leader whom “true friends would advise to retire” for he was “too unwell to carry on” and incapable of doing “more than one hour’s constructive work” in a day. Lady Londonderry, the influential society hostess, was more forthright. She described Craig as “ga-ga”.
Figure of the establishment:
Craig was made a baronet 1918. In 1927, he was created Viscount Craigavon of Stormont in the County of Down, Northern Ireland.
Craig died on the evening of Sunday 24 November 1940. He and his wife had listened to the six o’clock news on the radio. She popped out for a short time, leaving him with his pipe and a detective story. When she returned he was dead.
He passed away in office, having won his fifth successive election as prime minister of Northern Ireland two years before.