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James Craig (1871-1940)

"The strength of Britain rests in the value of her citizenship, and if her citizenship is worth anything at all it is certainly worth fighting for."

James Craig was a leading Unionist figure of his time. He became the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland and served in that capacity for nearly 20 years. He was elected as the MP for East Down and later North Down before becoming a member of the Northern Ireland Parliament. Craig played a key role in organising resistance to the Home Rule Bill on behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party, was a supporter of partition, and was pivotal in the decision for the 6 counties to form the basis of Northern Ireland. He was instrumental in establishing the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) that was to form the 36th Ulster Division during the First World War.

Involvement in the Boer War


Craig came from a solidly middle-class background, his father owning a successful whiskey distillery business in Belfast. Craig initially pursued a career in the financial sector, establishing his own stockbroking firm, Craigs & Co. However, he sought greater adventure and enlisted in the army during the Boer War. He joined the Royal Irish Rifles in 1900 and was later seconded to the Imperial Yeomanry. During the conflict Craig was taken prisoner by the Boers but was later released due to injuries sustained in battle. The war itself was to have echoes of the First World War, both with the belief in a quick victory by Christmas and the unforeseen cost in casualties and capital.

The experience and service in South Africa had made Craig far more politically aware and "the war had given him a heightened awareness of the Empire and a pride in Ulster's place in it." His interest in politics became more pronounced when his brother Charles was elected Unionist MP for South Antrim (February 1903). Craig was prominent in his campaign and gained his first experience of political battle.

On the political campaign trail


In March 1903 Craig was keen to continue his involvement with the Irish Unionist Party and was given the opportunity to contest the North Fermanagh seat. Standing on a staunchly Unionist platform he rallied behind local farmers and labourers who he felt were pivotal in sustaining Ulster and its heavy industry. Despite being an unknown candidate weeks before, he was only narrowly defeated by the Irish Russellite Unionist candidate, Edward Mitchell. Craig's efforts were not unnoticed and he was selected for the seat of East Down, which he won in the 1906 General Election.

Craig's political career came to the fore during the Home Rule crisis. He was vehemently opposed to the third attempt by the Government to pass a Home Rule Bill. The bill would have seen powers devolved to a Dublin Government that would have jurisdiction over the Protestant community in Northern Ireland.

Along with Edward Carson, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, Craig made detailed preparations and plans to defend the North against what he termed the repeal of Protestant civil and religious liberties. James Craig decided a written oath was needed to formally declare Ulster's resistance to Home Rule. The Ulster Covenant commissioned by Craig was formally signed on Saturday, 28 September 1912 and following rallies across the provinces nearly half a million people were to sign it.

Formation of the UVF


By 1912 Craig had also begun the process of organising and forming a private army in the form of the UVF. Working with an intermediary, Craig manage to procure a large quantity of arms from Germany. By April 1914 the UVF was 100,000 strong and smuggled in approximately 35,000 rifles and 3 million rounds of ammunition. If the Home Rule legislation had been enacted it would have put Craig in a perilous position, defying the law and Crown and constitution, which its party had pledged to support.

However, events in the summer of 1914 took a turn that postponed any decision and implementation of the Home Rule Bill. The Ulster Unionists and Craig saw the war as a perfect opportunity to show their support for the Crown and Empire by offering the services of the UVF as a fighting formation. Craig managed to persuade Lord Kitchener to remould the UVF into the 36th Ulster Division. On hearing the agreement, Craig personally visited Moss Brothers to arrange uniforms for the troops.4 Craig was given the rank of lieutenant-colonel in the division and three of his four brothers joined the division, the fourth signing up to the Royal Flying Corps.

In August 1915, the Ulster Division was posted abroad. It would have to wait another year before seeing front-line action with the colossal mobilisation of men and arms for the Battle of the Somme. On 1 July 1916, 9,000 soldiers from the Ulster Division went into battle; by the end of the second day only 2,500 remained. In all, 210,000 Irishmen were to serve, with 35,000 killed over the course of the war.

16th Irish and 36th Ulster Division


Just as telling and significant were that Protestants and Catholics fought in unison, breaking down old religious and sectarian differences for a shared experience on the front. The 16th Irish Division had been formed from the Irish Volunteer Force spurred on by the recruiting efforts of the Irish Nationalist leader, John Redmond MP. As Craig's troops went into battle "side by side with them, on the other flank, was the Fourth Division, containing two battalions of the Dublin Fusiliers, in one of which John Redmond's son commanded a company; so that he and the Ulstermen went over shoulder to shoulder." The Irish Nationalist MP Tom Kettle also served in the Dublin Fusiliers, subsequently being killed at Ginchy in September 1916 during an Irish assault on German positions.

Poor health had prevented Craig directly serving on the front line and by the end of 1916 he had resigned his commission to take up a ministerial post. He received a baronetcy in 1918. The Irish soldiers and war effort were never far from his mind, though. In November 1917 he intervened and resolved a dispute with striking workers at munition factories in Belfast. Likewise in February 1918 he visited GHQ, at the same time as Winston Churchill was inspecting trenches on the front line. He also spoke up in favour of conscripting Irishmen into the army in 1918 as the Government looked to extend the Military Services Act.

First Prime Minister of Northern Ireland


The next 24 years would be devoted to the establishment of a Northern Irish Parliament and Government. Craig was pivotal in the negotiations and dealings around the Government of Ireland Act 1920. It was his decision to propose the six Ulster counties that would eventually form Northern Ireland. Many of his colleagues were angered that he left out the three other Ulster counties of Cavan, Donegal and Monaghan. In Craig's opinion the six counties would create a more robust unit, both in terms of its political and religious makeup and in securing the borders. It was in discussions with the Prime Minister, Lloyd George, that Craig initiated the establishment of the Ulster Special Constabulary and later Royal Ulster Constabulary to police and defend the provinces.

Craig's key role in brokering a deal with the Government led him to be a natural choice as the new Prime Minister of Northern Ireland and his formal approval came from the Ulster Unionist Council in January 1921. As Prime Minister of Northern Ireland he was faced with the daunting task of creating an entirely new government apparatus, maintaining both internal security and ensuring the British Government did not backtrack on their agreement following their continued negotiations with Sinn Fein.

Craig's attentions were split three ways with domestic matters in Northern Ireland and the interwoven relationships of London and Dublin. The Government of Ireland Act 1920, allowed for devolved Parliaments in northern and southern Ireland and on 6 December 1921 the Irish Free State was officially established by the Anglo-Irish Treaty. Craig met Irish republicans, Éamon de Valera and Michael Collins, in an attempt to foster more cordial relations and stem the rising tide of violence.

Craig's lasting legacy was also facilitating the construction of the Stormont buildings to provide a permanent home for the Northern Ireland Parliament. His eye for detail and involvement meant that his "longest and most passionate letters to the Cabinet Secretariat related to the design of concrete fencing posts on the Stormont estate!"

In 1927, he was created Viscount Craigavon of Stormont in the County of Down and his subsequent election victories enabled him to serve as Prime Minister up until the Second World War. Throughout his years as Prime Minister he staunchly defended the Unionist position and was continually involved in protracted negotiations on the financial settlement that Northern Ireland should receive from Westminster. He was again involved in the recruitment of Ulstermen to the war effort in 1939, proposing that conscription to the army should also apply to Northern Ireland.

James Craig, 1st Viscount Craigavon died in November 1940 and was buried in the grounds of the Stormont Parliament building. He was survived by his wife Cecil and three children.

Image copyright: National Portrait Gallery


James Craig MP, 1st Viscount Craigavon (1871-1940)