Reforming Northern Ireland: learning from past failures?

There’s only one thing missing from David McCann’s excellent short form analysis on how and why Terence O’Neill failed in his attempt to reform Northern Ireland. And that’s the burden of history. Arguably his reforms came too late and quickly came to look like they were only addressed under duress. Nevertheless:

…the flaw in O’Neill’s logic was that economics and symbolism alone could solve Northern Ireland’s sectarian tensions.

O’Neill never properly attempted to reform those things (local government and housing) that alienated Catholics from the state. In fact his aloofness in dealing with these issues was one of the main driving forces behind the formation of the Civil Rights Association whose campaign of street protests effectively ended his premiership and left his legacy as a bridge builder in tatters.

Capt O’Neill’s poor relationship with his colleagues in the Unionist Party left him vulnerable as violence escalated. The fact that he did not inform any of his Cabinet colleagues about meeting Taoiseach Sean Lemass in 1965 not only damaged his leadership but also provided fodder for his main rival Ian Paisley.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty