50 years ago tonight, the then Prime Minister, Captain Terence O’Neill took to the airwaves broadcasting an address on BBC Northern Ireland and UTV at 6pm.
The address came as the Unionist government began to loose control of the escalating civil rights marches and he faced greater pressure from the British government to pursue reforms. In tandem with this, he faced growing criticism from senior members of his government such as Bill Craig and Brian Faulkner.
Why a broadcast?
In our modern age it doesn’t seem like a big deal, but no Prime Minister of Northern Ireland had ever delivered a TV address. O’Neill was heavily influenced by leading figures like John F.Kennedy and this approach let him appeal over the heads of his party & speak directly to the voters.
O’Neill had always been aloof. It’s worth noting that he was not elected to the position of party leader and Prime Minister. Instead he was selected for the job by senior figures such as the Chief Whip. Even when he was in the post he was secretive and didn’t cultivate his colleagues. Unionist MPs were kept in the dark about big policies such as the meeting with Sean Lemass and he rarely ventured to speak with them, he would even get some names wrong when he passed his colleagues in the corridor.
The speech bought him a brief reprieve over the Christmas break as thousands of letters of support were sent into Stormont, but the trouble at Burntollet in January 1969 mixed with growing dissent within the Unionist Party, plus the botched snap election ensured his demise as Prime Minister.
If you want to read his full speech you can do so here.
If you want to hear the actual broadcast, you can do so here.
David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs