Bill Craig came to his senses too late

Interesting to see that the Guardian has marked Bill Craig’sdeath at 86 with a Chris Ryder obit and touching to see that Mark follows the peculiar Irish practice of warning against speaking ill of the recently dead. Sam McBride’s” Political Giant” is infected by similar sentimentality on the unionist side.  But critical comment on Craig’s record is fully justified. In government and out of it, he fanned the flames of disorder, from the fateful  ban on the Derry Civil  Right march on 5 October 1968 that more than any other incident sparked off the Troubles, to the fascistic display in Ormeau Park by Vanguard where he threatened in his usual low tones of menace to “liquidate the enemy.”.  And this at a time when sectarian murder on both sides seemed uncontrollable. Like many others he helped bring about the very collapse he wanted to avert. He behaved as if all Catholic protest had one aim and one aim only. Failing to recognise – or not caring –  how a simple security clampdown would be regarded as oppression by the majority of Catholics, he was among the least equipped to distinguish between  the fish and the sea they swam in. Like many of the generation of Unionist rulers he totally misread the strength and durability under challenge of the Unionist regime of which he had once been a mildly reforming member. And when it was threatened, he had no answer at first but to lash out.
Unresponsive single party rule over generations carries with it the seeds of its own destruction from Belfast to Damascus.

Nevertheless, Craig was a more nuanced figure than that. In 1974 he found himself the figurehead of the Ulster Workers’ Council strike committee. After an interview in the BBC (powered by our own emergency generator), a group of us adjourned with him to the hospitality room where many times, all the problems of Ireland were solved – briefly – with the help of a jar or two. One of our programme secretaries was in tears. Her departure for work that morning has been noted by masked men. A senior BBC manager and dear friend who was also a university friend of Craig’s roared at him: “Bill, call your  f****** dogs off my staff!.”   Christ I thought, now we’re for it, he’ll call for the whole place to be burnt down. Not a bit of it. CraIg crumpled. ” I’m terribly sorry, we’ll have to stop that.” Not that it did stop;  but throughout the conversation he seemed aghast at the genie he had let out of the bottle.

In 1975 at the Convention designed to explore the way ahead after the collapse of  short-lived power
sharing, Craig  suddenly proposed a  voluntary coalition with the SDLP. Historian Eamon Phoenix records the story of the early moves but they were rejected by his own side and treated with scepticism by a badly bruised SDLP. In 1979 Craig lost his seat to the young Peter Robinson who this week has paid him generous tribute.   In the end both of them came round to the idea of coalition. But just think what it took to get there and how expensive were the lessons they had to learn.

One tiny personal  quirk  that many of us who knew him noticed. He pronounced ” acceptable” as  “asseptable” Not that he seemd to use it very often without ” not” in front of it.


Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London