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.


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  • joeCanuck

    I can only say that his words terrified my mother. She was so afraid that she took her courage in her hands and took the bus to Belfast to make sure I was ok (I didn’t have a phone then). She feared that some of us would be murdered in our beds. I’m glad to hear that he balked at letting the monster out of the bottle.

  • “with the help of a jar or two”.

    My own comments on the “Bill Craig is dead” thread were I hope restrained. I hesitated to bring that up.I suggested that he was a bogey man in the early 1970s.
    Its curious in the pre-Internet, pre-Twitter world, we lived in a world where rumour ran wild.
    Look out for men wearing brown shoes (Special Branch obviously as the uniform is black shoes).
    But rumours that just about every politician had a monkey on his back persisted….I think beyond the black propaganda units.
    But I think its fitting that over thirty years ago I was rejoicing at his defeat and a politician very different from Craig told me “he has always been a gentleman with me”.

  • JoeBryce

    He destroyed everything he touched.

  • Joe, the ‘liquidate the enemy’ phrase was not just highly irresponsible, it could have been dynamite in a tinder dry atmosphere where even a small spark could have created total mayhem.

    Brian, the ‘not speaking ill’ bit goes back a long way in time and a long way from here: “τὸν τεθνηκóτα μὴ κακολογεῖν (“Don’t badmouth a dead man”) – De mortuis nil nisi bonum (Wiki).

    By the way, I think some of your analysis lacks nuance and I would imagine that Bill Craig would have had a clearer understanding of the detail underlying events post-1962 than most journalists eg your 1968 references have a strong MOPE factor. I also think it’s very difficult – probably impossible – in such a multi-faceted history to isolate political, religious and social influences.

  • Brian Walker

    On the jar point we all had jars, I’m not hinting that Craig was a drunk. Indeed I recall many occasions where a drink eased the atmosphere, can’t you? These include a memorable occasion when Austin Currie as Housing Minister opened contacts with N Belfast unionist residents worried about nationalist pressures. On this particular occasion Bil Craig actually announced he was off the drink but he managedto put away a small tumbler of sherry – whcih appeared not count as drink. All the same, he wasn’t drunk.

  • Mark McGregor


    I followed the ‘peculiar practice’ of reminding people of Mick’s well established rules so they didn’t get themselves banned. Not a rule I follow in real life.

  • Brian Walker

    Nevin, I’m impressed by the Greek ( I Iearned it too, unless you mean you lifted it from Wiki), but less by your strictures on me as a mere journalist. This has been explored exhaustively inc IRA entryism into the CR movement, but no alternative analysis stands up. in my opinion.

    I’m all for nuances but don’t get lost in them. I believe Ive been entirely fair to Bill CraIg. Requiescat in pace and condolences to his widow Doris, a charming and accomplished lady who had the misfortune once to try to teach me German.

  • ‘….october 5th 1968, that, more than anything else sparked off the ‘Troubles’

    BW. You’ll have noticed down the years that unionist politicians, for obvious reasons, refuse to refer to this cataclysmic event as ‘start of the troubles.since that would be admission of culpability in it’s handling of the CR campaign. On the 1974 strike, books that have been written about that time, point the finger at the BBC in Ormeau Avenue, for their wholehearted support of the UDA intimidation, even having a half hour programme giving out info supplied by the UDA directly. I believe the loss of credibility of the station necessitated it’s rebranding the following New Year as Radio Ulster..

  • I am a non drinker myself.
    I am at one with Dr Paisley on the subject. Never touched the stuff. Neither did my parents.
    I am sure there are occasions when “drink” has eased tensions but I can think of many more where it seems to have increased tensions, cant you?

  • Brian, er, I identified the wiki source. Perhaps I should have hyperlinked it 🙂

    IRA entryism into the CR movement? IRA leaders were involved in the initiation of NICRA and IRA folks were involved in various CRM marches; IRA folks and, presumably, their associates, were also batoned off the streets in Dublin two years prior to the RUC batoning in Derry.

    Mr B Lenihan: “The Deputy and certain other members of his Party appear to want to bring parliamentary democracy in Ireland into a state of anarchy in which anything might happen.”

    A ‘baton-swinging democracy’ isn’t a great show-piece but when the Irish government did a runner – following the threat to institutions in Belfast and Dublin – the ‘state of anarchy’ was mainly restricted to here.

    I give politicians and civil servants a bit of a touch from time to time so journalists (and editors) can expect some of the same medicine.

    Words change their meaning through time. Nowadays, a mere journalist would probably be seen as a put down whereas the Online Etymology Dictionary indicates an Indo-European root *mer- “to gleam, glimmer, sparkle”. The notion of unadulteration would look very on a journalist’s CV – unless that was a ‘jar or two’ of fine wine referred to in the opening thread.

  • Alias

    A thug is anyone who will use or threaten violence to get his way in a dispute. You had two types of political thugs in NI: the clever, well-educated, and sophisticated thug and street thug. Craig being an example of the former, with Paisley longing to be an example of it but falling into the latter category. The Shinners would be in the latter category too, in addition The former is clever enough to recognise that violence is disreputable, and as it has concern for social standing, will generally keep a splatter-safe distance from the substance it directs towards the proverbial fan so as to overcome its singular objection to violence. The street thugs… well, we can all pick them out – with their suits offering little disguise. There are still far too many thugs in NI politics but, on the plus side, they were engineered by into in a comfy arrangement that is disrupted by thuggery and sustained by cosy concensus, so these thugs now disapprove of unreformed thugs – as to do otherwise is to upset the arrangement that they benefit from. So, the good thing about a thug is that you can control its behaviour by appealing to its core principle, i.e. its sense of self-interest.

  • AGlassOfHine

    It was all Bill Craig’s fault,so it was,so it was,like.

    Meanwhile,back in the real world,pira still sit on top of the league of murderers ?

    Sorry to butt in on this corpse kicking. But isn’t ” pira were fully justified in heinous murder crap”,just a step too far,even for republicans ?

  • AGlassOfHine

    Coalition Government was proposed by Unionists in 1922 Brian…………………it was rejected out of hand by the Nationalist Party !! Just think what it took for republicans to get there,eventually,and the lessons they had to learn ! Slow learners indeed.

    RIP Bill,the Union has never been more secure !

  • Langdale

    Alex Kane has an interesting piece in today’s News Letter about Craig, although it doesn’t seem to have been posted on their site yet.

    It’s a fairly measured view of the man.


  • granni trixie

    Without wishing to be sexist, it does occur to me that, over time, Craig’s wife may have broadened his horizans (she was German). My husband speaks highly of her (she taught him German).

  • I learned with a sense of ennui, that Bill ‘liquidate the enemy’ Craig, had himself faced the inevitable and compulsory liquidation process.

    I can vaguely remember the Vanguard ‘movement. I recall they had a fairly distinctive flag, which remained a constant on Loyalist poles, in days well past the ‘movements’ sell-by date. There was definitely a ‘Strasserite’ ambience about Vanguard, in more ways than one. Retrospective accounts of the infamous Ormeau Park rally by Catholic Ormeau Road residents confirm this. An older friend, who then lived in Artana Street back then, told me of seeing a phalanx of Parka coated Loyalists marching down Agincourt Avenue, accompanied by snarling Alsations on leashes (Alsations were the compensatory canine of the day, now usurped by the various bulldog breeds!)

    It’d be the height of hypocrisy to suggest that there will be many tears shed, for the clamped-jawed Craig, by anyone of a progressive disposition. However, his death signified the end of an era, of sorts, the end of the penultimate Loyalist demagogue..

  • aquifer

    “He destroyed everything he touched.”

    He certainly did not do much for the railways.

  • USA

    “Bill Craig came to his senses too late”


  • JoeBryce

    Aquifer, was he to blame for Benson too? Lord help us, what a disaster of a man.

  • Turgon

    In the world of journalism one normally gets cross references for comments. Not here, however: Brian Walker makes a series of assertions about Bill Craig which he fails to give evidence for. Brian has reported a meeting in which the now dead Mr. Craig allegedly after drinking “crumpled”. Firstly there is the issue of whether or not Craig had “his dogs” intimidating BBC staff. One can debate that re UWC strike etc. so a fair comment defence of Walker’s comments is acceptable. However, this idea of Craig “crumpling”, apologising but then doing nothing is mere here-say.

    It is not of itself an important story. However, in the absence of any cross referencing, substantiation or ability of Craig to defend himself it is extremely sloppy journalism.

    Without wishing to play the man this is a classic example of one of our “elder and better” journalists on slugger (Walker being the worst though not only offender) producing such unsubstantiated claims in order to make their copy look impressive, to make their relevance in the politics of the past more important and in this case to denigrate a man now dead. Few may worry about the latter but this piece gains absolutely nothing from this “human aside” by Walker. It in itself is really an example of man playing against Craig. Walker would never have tried it prior to Craig’s death nor if he was writing in the Belfast Telegraph, BBC etc. That contempt for slugger and the utterly substandard stuff frequently produced by people we all know could do better is an indictment not of slugger but of those who put such rubbish up on it when we all know they could do so much better.

  • Since (see above) we’re into the Hellenic stuff, I am forced to recall my last-but-one appearance on the international stage. As Teiresias, the blind (and sometime transgendered) seer in a High School, Dublin performance of The Bacchae — in the original. It was, uncoincidentally, the Leaving Cert set text for that year.

    Now I’m not going to be flash and quote my painfully-learned lines, largely because I cannot be buttoxed to shift into Greek characters and remember the accentuation. So for the generality, and in recognition of Bill Craig’s occasional tendency to a loose mouth (not a common fault among solicitors), here’s is Teiresias in translation:

    When a man of wisdom has good occasion
    to speak out, and takes the opportunity,
    it’s not that hard to give an excellent speech.
    You’ve got a quick tongue and seem intelligent,
    but your words don’t make any sense at all.
    A fluent orator whose power comes
    from self-assurance and from nothing else
    makes a bad citizen, for he lacks sense.

    The Chorus, as always gets the punch-line. Over Pentheus’ body they recite an epitaph:

    The gods appear in many forms,
    carrying with them unwelcome things.
    What people thought would happen never did.
    What they did not expect, the gods made happen.
    That’s what this story has revealed.

    Or, in the case of the Vanguard mob and whence many of them went: first as farce, then as tragedy.

  • Jo

    “Without wishing to play the man…”

    Bollocks, this is man playing, pure and simple and another example of you taking issues with anything Brian Walker writes, without bothering to actually take issue with the argument.

    And its “hear-say”, not “here-say”.

  • Jo @ 10:18 am:

    Let’s start with the real news of these last few days. The holograph laws of the game, as written for Sheffield FC (the oldest in the world) are coming up for auction; and could raise well into seven figures. One of the laws there is:

    Pushing with the hands is allowed but no hacking or tripping is fair under any circumstances whatsoever.

    Fair enough. Its significance here?

    What worried me about Brian Walker’s account was Craig’s apparent power to call his f****** dogs off [BBC] staff!.

    The thread is worth it for that insight alone.

  • “The thread is worth it for that insight alone.”

    Malcolm, in Don Anderson’s ‘insight’ Craig comes across as a minor figure, as someone who reckoned the strike would be a waste of time.

    Harry Murray: “The roof could have fallen in on me. I turned to Craig and asked if there was anything they could do. He said there was not and that the strike would be a failure. I looked all around at them – Ardill, Baird, Craig and Paisley – and none of them would even make a move with his lips.”

  • “point the finger at the BBC in Ormeau Avenue, for their wholehearted support of the UDA intimidation”

    madraj55, this quote from the Don Anderson link above doesn’t create that impression:

    “The journalists in the BBC newsroom refused to listen to the relatively unknown group which suddenly and unannounced turned up on the doorstep promising chaos. The three men left threatening that when the stoppage happened, the BBC would receive no co-operation from the UWC.

    But the BBC was not the only quarter to disparage the strike call.”

    Providing information to the public about what was happening IMO can neither be construed as endorsement nor wholehearted support.

  • JAH

    One hopes that that those Unionist parties desperately trying to turn the clock back actually read some of Bill Craig’s obits. Having watched one of his parades in Woodvale Park (with a quick rendition of “Abide with me” to start) it was quite a volte face two years later to want to do a deal with the enemy.

    Craig realised to late what he had encouraged but not really intended.

  • Turgon

    You are completely correct my apologies. It is indeed hearsay.

    On the issue of man playing: again I agree wholeheartedly.

    A set of claims is being made about Craig. Backhandedly it is being suggested that he was (on this occasion at least) too fond of drink. Furthermore it is being claimed that he allowed attacks on people in the UWC strike but then that he “crumpled” when confronted about this: yet was unable or unwilling to prevent it. These claims may or may not be true. We have no dates, times nor independent corroboration.

    These claims are made by one participant who (and this is the only bit about Walker himself) does not share Craig’s analysis or political opinion. It is being used to cast Craig in a negative light as a drinker, a man who “crumples” and who was either a liar or had no control of the situation. Yet we have no independent corroboration of the story; Craig (clearly) has no right of reply – nor incidentally ability to take action for libel (being dead). This is very shoddy journalism.

    I am merely highlighting that this is a pretty poor and a man playing attack on Craig. Any of us might by the same token make claims about various politicians we know (or claim to know) and what may or may not have been said in private by or to them. That would also be shoddy man playing especially if we did it when we knew we could not be made amenable to legal redress.

  • “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”

    Brian, I often do my ‘problem solving’ with friends and acquaintances over a cup of tea. It’s socialising and IMO its a better aid to clear thinking and memory recall than a dose of drink!

    I’m not sure about this ‘all the problems of Ireland’ stuff; I struggle with the local as well as the Northern Ireland stuff.

    Turgon, I wouldn’t touch alcohol, not even with one of John Taylor’s long barge poles, but surely there’s a distinction to be made between the colloquial ‘having a few jars’ and ‘a drinker’ or ‘an alcoholic’.

  • Brian Walker

    Nevin and others.. Craig was as I said, a figurehead as were the other politicians up in Hawthornden Road. So was the UWC commitee, pretty much. The muscle was provIded by the UDA and the lip by Glennie Barr.

    Whether continuous reporting makes trouble worse will always be argued over. Then, it was about reporting an emergency. Today it’s a fact of life. In my opinion the crisis might have peaked a bit slower but it would have happened. I can’t see how the reporting introduced any new factors into the situation.

    .I’m sorry to say I can’t remember the thesis of Don Anderson’s’ book but I’;m sure it weas vey fair ( he’s an old friend and colleague). The book I informed was the early one by Robert Fisk, a goood first stab but with a newspaperman’s wariness of the power of broadcasting.( see acknowledgements!).

    But all that is another story

    MalcoIm, what can I say except the Greeks said it all or most of it.

    On drink, well, Nevin it can certainly melt the ice.

  • “Christ I thought, now we’re for it, he’ll call for the whole place to be burnt down.”

    Brian, I see you’re moving from Craig being the figurehead to being a figurehead amongst a bevy of UUUC politicians. Don Anderson, in the link I provided above, describes Glen Barr as a member of Vanguard as well as being a senior member of the UDA. I met Glen briefly at an event in Derrykeighan last summer when my old friend Robert Thompson briefed Glen’s group.

    GB: “Why was I not taught this in my history class at school? Why was it kept from me? It was the story that was to transform my life and when the JORT decided that its work was completed with the official opening of the Peace Park on 11th November 1998 I decided to set up the International School for Peace Studies to tell the story to others, especially our young people.”

    Perhaps there’s something to be said for a proposal I promoted back in the early 1990s when a new history syllabus was being discussed: an agreed shared history as distinct from ‘our history’ and ‘their history’.

  • Jo

    “It is being used to cast Craig in a negative light as a drinker”

    I didn’t see this in the article at all. The man had a lugubrious countenance and it is quite easy to imagine this stoic exterior crumpling when seeing genuine personal distress such as was being described to him. It was a benign image of a man who instilled fear into many hearts and not at all the malignant impression you obviously gained from the piece. I think you tend to allow your unfavourable impression of the writer to overide the actual rather than perceived content. Asking for dates and times of this sort of recollection is unreasonable – it was clearly one of the fifteen days in May, or whatever number there were.

  • Langdale. Talking of Alex Kane, He seems, from his column in the same paper this morning to be ‘talking down unionism’ as his detractors in his former party would have it. Kane sees the end of unionism in Stromont coming a lot closer to home than other unionist commentators are willing to entertain. 54-54 is his prediction of unionists/non unionists.

  • I meant, ‘Kane sees the end of unionism’s majority in Stormont…..’

  • granni trixie

    Souhds like there are assumptions here that ‘unionism’ losing out means upsurge in nationalism or Republicanism whilst it is probably nearer the truth to say that many do not care about either.

    More likely that though the Unionist Party is on a downturn, that alongside shifts in DUP thinking, there is a return to normal bread and butter politics, less reliant on sectarian head count. If I close my eyes these days (at least coming up to the election) PR rhetoric could be that of APNI.
    I suppose what I am getting at is that the changes we are witnessing (‘all in the centre ground now’) reflects not only changed structures but values/attitudes following lifting the lid on many years of repression/intimidation.