IT was 50 years ago today one of those moments of history occurred which, had people had the gift of hindsight not to mention common sense and decency, might have stopped a catastrophe. For on November 22, 1968, the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Terence O’Neill, reacted to the demand for civil rights in the Province and proposed reforms to tackle the lack of basic democracy in the Six Counties. It was not the overnight revolution he planned, rather a peaceful transition to a slightly fairer society. The reforms did not, however, create a true “one man one vote” democracy. Judged 50 years on, we can say O’Neill’s reforms only delayed the inevitable descent into violence, though it is fascinating to think what might have happened had all sides signed up for O’Neill’s project.

HE’S almost a forgotten figure now but in the mid-to-late 1960s he was seen as the best hope for reform and peace in a Northern Ireland where society was becoming increasingly polarised on religious grounds.

O’Neill was born in London in September, 1914, into a land-owning family. He was less than two months old when his soldier father Arthur, the Ulster Unionist MP for Mid-Antrim, was killed in action in the early days of the First World War, the first MP to die in the war. O’Neill was educated at Eton College and then spent time in Germany and France before working in the City and also in Australia as aide de camp to the Governor. On the outbreak of the Second World War he went to Sandhurst for officer training.

He ended the war as a captain, and was known by that rank ever afterwards. His travels and war service convinced him that Northern Ireland would have to change, though he remained a member of both the Ulster Unionist Party and the Orange Order.

O’Neill was elected to the Northern Ireland Parliament for the Bannside constituency in 1946 and was appointed Prime Minister at Stormont in March, 1963.

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ONE of his first actions was to send a message of sympathy to the Roman Catholic community on the death of Pope John XXIII. That aroused the ire of Ian Paisley and his Free Presbyterian Church. O’Neill genuinely attempted to reform the politics of Northern Ireland but his patrician air and apparent distaste for political debate meant he annoyed people on all sides. His meetings with the Taoiseachs of the Republic, Sean Lemass and Jack Lynch, further infuriated the Paisleyites, while the growing demand for civil rights laid a serious dilemma at his door. He still had the support of most moderate Unionists at the start of 1968.

IN the 1960s, Northern Irish governance was skewed against Catholics, with voting only by homeowners with extra “company” votes for business owners who were very much of the Protestant majority. Northern Ireland had been dominated by the Ulster Unionist Party for decades – Catholics could not join it. Councils could and did favour Protestants in the allocation of Council houses. It was that sort of discrimination that created the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA). The civil rights movement had begun years earlier, but the marches by NICRA and associated groups in 1968 showed their strength and the attempts to control them led to brutality by the police and the so-called B-specials, an almost exclusively Protestant armed militia. After the horrendous scenes of police brutality against protesters in August and October, O’Neill was summoned to London to meet Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson and was told to sort things out or face direct rule from Westminster. On November 22, O’Neill acted.

HIS five point plan included reform of the local government franchise including the end of “company” votes and the allocation of houses by local authorities to be based on need. Basic stuff you might think, but Paisley preached against O’Neill and Unionist ministers eventually resigned in protest, while the reforms did not go far enough for the civil rights movement. O’Neill tried to convince both sides to give the reforms a chance, saying Northern Ireland was standing “at the crossroads”. He was talking to people who weren’t listening and by the following April he was out of office. The killing began soon afterwards.