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Terence O'Neill was born on September 10, 1914 in County Antrim. He was the son of Capt. Arthur O'Neill, the first MP to be killed as a result of World War 1. The O'Neills were descended from the O'Neill clan, the Gaelic kings of Ulster. O'Neill was educated at Eton College and then joined the army. During World War 2 he served in the Irish Guards. In a by-election in 1946 he was elected as a Unionist MP for the Bannside constituency in the Stormont parliament.
O'Neill served in a series of junior postions. He was Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health and Local Government from February 1948 until November 1953, when he was appointed Chairman of Ways and Means and Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons. He was Minister of Home Affairs from April to October 1956 when he was appointed Minister for Finance.
In 1963 he succeeded Brookeborough in becoming Prime Minister. He introduced new policies that would have been unheard of with Brookeborough as Prime Minister. He aimed to end sectarianism and to bring Catholics and Protestants into working relationships. A visit to a convent proved controversial among Protestant extremists. He also had great aspirations in the industrial sector. In January 1965 O'Neill invited the Taoiseach of the Republic of Ireland, Sean Lemass, for talks in Belfast. O'Neill met with opposition from his own party mainly because he informed very few of the visit and from Ian Paisley, who rejected any dealings with Dublin. Paisley threw snowballs at Lemass' car during the visit. In February O'Neill visited Lemass in Dublin.
In 1968 the Northern Ireland civil rights campaign began street demonstrations. The march in Derry on 5 October 1968, banned by William Craig, the Minister of Home Affairs was met with violence from the RUC, who batonned protesters, among them politicians. This violence was caught by television cameras and broadcast worldwide. The date of this march is taken by historians as being the start of the Northern Ireland troubles.
In February 1969 O'Neill called a surprise general election. In reality the calling of the election was more to do with the turmoil inside the Ulster Unionist Party caused by 10 to 12 anti-O'Neill dissident members of the Unionist Parliamentary Party and the resignation of Brian Faulkner from O'Neill's Government than it was to do with direct civil rights agitation.
The electorate was faced with a simple choice: pro- or anti-O'Neill. However, from O'Neill's point of view, the election results were inconclusive. O'Neill in particular was humiliated by his near defeat in his own constituency of Bannside by Ian Paisley. He resigned as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party and as Prime Minister in April 1969 after a serious of bomb explosions on Belfast's water supply by the UVF brought his personal political crisis to a head. He retired from Stormont politics in January 1970 when he resigned his seat. In that year he was made a life peer, Baron O'Neill of the Maine of Ahoghill in the County of Antrim, in the House of Lords.
- Terence O'Neill, Ulster at the crossroads, Faber and Faber, London, 1969.
- Terence O'Neill, The autobiography of Terence O’Neill, Hart-Davies, London, 1972.
- Marc Mulholland, Northern Ireland at the crossroads: Ulster Unionism in the O'Neill years 1960-9, Macmillan, London, 2000.
Sir Basil Brooke
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