On this day 100 years ago, James Craig agreed to submit his name to become Northern Ireland’s first Prime Minister.
As 1921 dawned it was not clear who would have the honour of becoming the first premier of the new country. Some felt the honour should fall to Edward Carson but many, particularly in the press, speculated that James Craig was the front runner.
One of the leading organisers of Ulster’s resistance to Home Rule, Craig was nevertheless initially reluctant to put his name forward. As Parliamentary secretary to the Admiralty, Craig had endeared himself to many at Westminster and some predicted a more auspicious cabinet career.
However, on 25 January, Ulster came calling. A delegation from the Ulster Unionist Council arrived in London to convince him to allow his name to be submitted, ostensibly as the sole nominee. Carson, due to age and ill health, had previously declined and Craig appeared the logical choice.
As a consequence, on 26 January 1921, Craig agreed to put Ulster before ambition and agreed to allow his name to go forward to become Northern Ireland’s Prime Minister.
Sir James Craig, 1st Viscount Craigavon
(8 January 1871 – 24 November 1940)
Son of a wealthy whiskey distiller, James was the seventh child of a family of eight and grew up at Craigavon House in East Belfast. He was educated at Merchiston Castle School, in Edinburgh, and became a stockbroker by profession.
At the outbreak of the Second Boer War (1899-1902), he enlisted in the 3rd (Militia) Regiment of the Royal Irish Rifles and embarked for South Africa. He was briefly captured by the Boers but released on medical grounds and did not see service for the rest of the War. After his return he presented a captured Boer flag to an Orange Lodge in County Down.
After receiving a hefty inheritance upon his father’s death, he entered politics. He was MP for East Down from 1906 to 1918, and Mid Down from 1918 to 1921. He would hold junior government position on two occasions – Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Pensions (1919-1920) and Parliamentary Secretary to the Admiralty (1920-1921).
It was during the Third Home Rule crisis that he made his mark on Unionist politics. He became a prominent Unionist activist and was heavily involved in the UVF gun-running of 1914.
On 7 June 1921, he became Northern Ireland’s first Prime Minister, leading the country until his death in 1940. He was created Viscount Craigavon in 1927.
Craig was a very congenial character who enjoyed touring Northern Ireland and meeting ordinary people. At times, however, his civil servants had to step in and temper the expectations raised by the Prime Minister during his speeches at community events! His premiership steered Northern Ireland through some difficult political and economic waters, as our young country established itself on the World Stage.
Craig was a member of both Ballydonnell LOL No. 1446 and Eldon LOL No. 7.