Jan 21

Reflections on the Premiership of Brian Faulkner

Jason Foy is a PhD research student at Queen’s University Belfast, completing a thesis on the political career of Brian Faulkner. His research interests focus on the political history of Northern Ireland and the UK generally.

When he became Prime Minister on 23 March 1971, Faulkner was under no illusion that the task he faced was daunting. In 1963, he wanted to become a part-time Prime Minister in what was a political backwater. By 1971, the job had changed beyond all recognition.

It would place immense physical and emotional demands upon him. There would be no finishing early; politics would be all-consuming. From the start, many had doubted his hard-line credentials. There was to be no honeymoon period. Acting on his principle that every Unionist leader was to be destroyed, Ian Paisley was immediately on the attack against Faulkner, announcing that he would be fiercer in his opposition to him than he was to Chichester-Clark.

Faulkner hoped to make progress with political reform in June 1971 when he received a report by the Working Party on Parliament. Their proposals for reforming the Northern Ireland Parliament included creating 3 committees to scrutinise the work of all government ministries. Faulkner hoped to entice opposition parties, including the SDLP and NILP, by giving the chairmanship of two committees to them. The chairmanships of the committees would be salaried positions and two would be held by opposition members. In the history of Northern Ireland, this was a radical new initiative which even Terence O’Neill had never contemplated.

—   —   —

At the start of his premiership, Faulkner believed the IRA could be defeated using existing security powers. He recognised that the terrorist campaign was much more widespread than anything he had seen before but did press the Army authorities to take a firmer line with the IRA and with rioters. Home Secretary Reginald Maudling told the British cabinet that they should seriously contemplate introducing direct rule if Faulkner’s government fell and was replaced by the hard-liners but added that direct rule was a ‘policy of last resort’ and only if internment was tried first and failed. It would have suited London that, if internment were to be introduced, Faulkner should be the one to do so. He would take the blame if it failed.

Faulkner changed his mind on internment because of the sheer scale and ferocity of the violence. By July 1971, there were over 300 explosions and 300 shooting incidents resulting in the death of 55 people. The IRA had launched a series of bombing attacks on 11 July 1971, an act calculated to increase sectarian tension on the eve of the 12 July parades.

The IRA had started targeting British soldiers for murder, Orange halls were targeted by arsonists and parade routes were lined with bombs. Vehicles were hijacked and burned on a daily basis. Ordinary unionists looked to Faulkner and his government to take action. Faulkner, with his strong sense of duty and public service, must have been affected by the continual demands for action. He sought a change of tactics from the police, army and his security advisers and was given the message that the only option left available was internment.

—   —   —

Brian Faulkner had been Prime Minister of Northern Ireland for just 53 weeks. He was the last Prime Minister and had the shortest tenure in the province’s history. This reflected the political instability which had taken hold in Northern Ireland. The first three Prime Ministers – Craigavon, Andrews and Brookeborough – had a combined tenure of 43 years. The last three – O’Neill, Chichester-Clark and Faulkner – lasted a total of 9 years. The first three Prime Ministers led a monolithic party which seemed to be permanently dominant. The final three premiers presided over a party in turmoil and riven with divisions and personal rivalries.

Faulkner came to the premiership with a number of impressive qualities. He was much better prepared for the role than his predecessor Chichester-Clark who had reached the end of his tether and was relieved to go. He had wanted the job for a long time, had considerable ministerial experience, knew the machinery of government and knew many of the men who ran it. He brought competence, dedication, honour, a strong sense of public service and duty together with a fundamental decency.

The squalid side of unionist politics held no appeal for him. He was not a religious bigot or a demagogue. The activities of Ian Paisley horrified him. He had a polished television persona, presence, and gravitas but was not charismatic. He was capable of meeting Edward Heath and other senior Westminster politicians in social circumstances and not appear ‘out of his depth’. He was a skilled and experienced debater both in the House of Commons and in the more informal setting of a constituency party meeting.

Faulkner was clearly the pre-eminent figure in his government. The cabinet was united and he had no leadership rival or intrigue, a luxury he did not grant to O’Neill. Unlike his predecessors, Faulkner was clearly in charge and looked on top of the job. He didn’t consider walking away due to his public service mentality and an ingrained desire to finish the job. During his brief premiership, he took actions which no other Prime Minister of Northern Ireland had. His first three predecessors would likely have spun in their graves at the small steps he took such as his committee system proposals and appointing non-unionists to his cabinet. This was evidence that he possessed the ability to ‘unlearn’ previously ingrained habits and think the unthinkable but only when the situation demanded it.

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Yet, in spite of all this, and in rapid time, everything fell apart. On 23 March 1972, when he should have been celebrating the anniversary of his first year in office, Faulkner was meeting his cabinet to explain that he had misjudged Edward Heath and direct rule was going to be imposed. The Unionist state vanished with direct rule, never to return. The monolithic Unionist Party was in chaos. Faulkner had failed. He had known failure before having had two failed attempts to become Prime Minister but these setbacks paled into insignificance when compared to the failure on the grand scale of March 1972.

Faulkner was prepared to be Prime Minister for a Northern Ireland that no longer existed in 1971. He was an interior designer drafted in to redecorate a house that was already on fire. Even a political genius, which Faulkner was not, would have struggled to cope.

The Northern Ireland Government was facing the most ruthless terrorist campaign of modern times. He was criticised earlier in his career for his lack of military service but by 1972, no-one doubted his physical or moral courage in facing the IRA. The Provisional leadership was not open to persuasion or compromise. It was only interested in victory and believed it was possible. The situation was politically and socially destructive and provoked a response from Protestants.

At this time and for years to come, the best that could be done was to contain the immense political turbulence that went with it. There was very little that Faulkner could do. He had nominal security powers but they were of little practical use as policy was being directed from London. He had responsibility without power. The turning point was reached in August 1969, before Faulkner became Prime Minister, when troops were deployed. Direct rule only formalised the reality. Faulkner didn’t realise the political game had changed. He was swimming with sharks who took many guises, including a British Prime Minister with a cultured accent.

Editor’s note: RTE’s archive of footage of Faulkner can be found here.

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1 comment

  1. howard

    Very interesting.

    There are some fantastic quality posts going up on Open Unionism.

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