We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
  James Craig (1871–1940), by Olive Edis, c.1921 James Craig (1871–1940), by Olive Edis, c.1921
Craig, James, first Viscount Craigavon (1871–1940), prime minister of Northern Ireland, was born on 8 January 1871 at The Hill, Sydenham, Belfast, one of the sons of James Craig (1828–1900), a whiskey distilling millionaire of Scottish origin. His father was a self-made man who had worked his way up from lowly positions in flour-mills, the linen bleaching business, and Dunville's Distillery, Belfast, and who made his fortune within twenty years. His mother, Eleanor Gilmore Browne (b. 1835), was the daughter of Robert Browne, a prosperous man who owned property in Belfast and a farm outside Lisburn, co. Antrim. They had eight sons and one daughter; James Craig was the seventh child and sixth son. He grew up in co. Down in Craigavon, a large house in grounds close to Belfast, and Tyrella, a house on Dundrum Bay. He was educated in a preparatory school near Craigavon, run by a Presbyterian minister, and in 1882 was sent to Merchiston Castle School, Edinburgh, a Church of Scotland public school; this enabled him to retain his Ulster accent, a valuable asset to his local political career. He left school at seventeen and worked in a firm of general agents and brokers in Belfast for thirty months, then in 1890 in a stockbroking firm in London, and then, after two years, he returned to Ulster and opened his own stockbroking firm, Craigs & Co., in Belfast.

Early career

Craig's background was typical of the middle-class business families who dominated Ulster politics, but his early instincts were for a life of action rather than business or politics. He was a restless, though successful, stockbroker, and he took his chance of leading a more physical life when he enlisted in the 3rd (militia) regiment of the Royal Irish Rifles on 11 January 1900 to serve in the South African War. Military life suited him well, but he became impatient with the lack of professionalism and efficiency in the British army in this its most severe test. He was seconded to the imperial yeomanry, becoming a lieutenant and then a captain, was taken prisoner in May 1900, but released by the Boers because of a perforated eardrum. On his recovery he became deputy assistant director of the Imperial Military Railways, showing the qualities of organization that were to mark his involvement in both British and Ulster politics. In June 1901 he was sent home suffering from dysentery, and by the time he was fit for service again the war was over. This experience was central to Craig's development. He revealed an easy-going style and an ability to get on with his men, but these qualities were combined with a certain resolution in his character. He was now familiar with imperialism and war, and he belonged to a younger generation of Unionists to whom the former was an essential part of their outlook, and the latter a possible means of defending their ideology.

Craig's father died in April 1900, leaving his son a legacy of £100,000. Craig now turned to the political life. He had acted for a brief period as honorary secretary to the Belfast Conservative Association, and his interest in politics quickened when his brother Charles (who also served in the South African War) was elected Unionist MP for South Antrim in a by-election in February 1903. In March 1903 James Craig was selected to oppose a nationalist in North Fermanagh, mainly because he was able to finance his own campaign and did not need to draw on the slender funds of the local Unionist association. He was narrowly defeated, but on 11 November 1903 he was selected as candidate for East Down and won the seat in the general election of 1906, with a majority of 670. He held the seat in the two general elections of 1910, with increased majorities, and sat for East Down until the 1918 general election when following an increase in the number of co. Down constituencies, he was returned with a majority of 9932 for North Down, a seat which he held until 1921, after which he sat in the Northern Ireland parliament as one of the members for County Down. In appearance Craig was a large, strong-featured, red-faced man, easily open to caricature as a typical straight-talking Ulsterman or, alternatively, the bull-necked, inflexible Ulster Unionist. His wife, Cecil Mary Nowell Dering Tupper (d. 1960), whom he married on 22 March 1905 after a very brief courtship, was English, the daughter of Sir Daniel Tupper, assistant comptroller of the lord chamberlain's department of the king's household. They had twin sons and a daughter. She was obliged, as one of Craig's biographers put it, to make ‘many abrupt and deep adjustments’ to living in Ulster (Ervine, 109).

The home rule crisis

Craig was not an original thinker, nor even a very clever man; but he had the ability to win and keep the confidence of his constituents and his fellow Unionist MPs. He briefed himself well on other issues besides the Union. He spoke in favour of non-sectarian education, tariff reform, votes for women, and agricultural interests. He became one of the Unionist MPs who threw themselves into the campaign against the Liberal government's administration of Ireland, but he also took a keen interest in the reform of the British army, and he spoke for greater financial provision for Irish education, especially for teachers' salaries and the upkeep of the national schools. He quickly established his reputation as a promising back-bencher, displaying an even temper, and a careful mastery of detail. He was flung into prominence and even notoriety by the crisis over the third Home Rule Bill between 1912 and 1914.

Craig regarded it as axiomatic that a Dublin parliament, dominated by rural interests and the Roman Catholic church, would prove destructive to the interests of protestant and industrial north-east Ulster. He was a member of the Orange order, and grand master of a co. Down lodge, and though personally free from bigotry, he identified with the beliefs of the order and knew that it was central to the mobilization of Ulster Unionism. His grasp of grass-roots Ulster politics, and his genial personality, were vital in enabling him to maintain the unity of what was potentially a very divided movement. His organizational skills were also important as he and his fellow Unionists prepared to resist home rule by force of arms, using their Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), and to set up their own provisional government the day that home rule became law. He was willing to work behind the scenes, leaving the glory to Sir Edward Carson, a Dubliner and southern Unionist, whose leadership (Craig freely acknowledged) was indispensable in giving Unionism a powerful voice in Great Britain. Craig entered this dangerous period with his eyes open. He hoped to defeat home rule, but he prepared methodically for an armed clash which, following the Larne gun-running for the UVF in April 1914, seemed inevitable. The Liberal government, he declared, was a ‘caucus, led by rebels’ (Buckland, Craig, 32).

Craig's apparent imperturbability in the face of these developments never deserted him. The Liberals felt obliged to seek some kind of compromise on the Ulster issue, with perhaps four counties excluded from the operation of the Home Rule Bill for a period of time. Such suggestions failed to break the deadlock, but they posed difficulties for Craig and his colleagues: were they to abandon their solemn league and covenant of September 1912 which pledged them to oppose home rule for Ireland as a whole? This would be acceptable to most Ulster Unionists, but problematical for Unionists left outside the kind of ‘excluded area’ which the Liberals were discussing. The outbreak of the First World War in August 1914 postponed any decision on this matter, and the whole Irish question, though home rule was formally placed on the statute book in September. Craig used the opportunity to press home a propaganda advantage, placing the UVF at the disposal of the British government, and even ordering thousands of uniforms from Moss Brothers of London. The UVF was designated as the 36th (Ulster) division, and Craig became lieutenant-colonel and the division's assistant adjutant and quartermaster-general. His health prevented him from accompanying the division abroad, and in 1916 he reluctantly resigned his commission.

Partition of Ireland

Craig now resumed his political career, becoming a treasurer of his majesty's household and a Unionist whip. In 1917 he received a baronetcy in the new year honours list. When Sir Edward Carson resigned from the cabinet Craig followed him in January 1918, but he resumed his career a year later, becoming parliamentary secretary to the Ministry of Pensions. On 20 April 1920 he was given a promotion as financial secretary to the Admiralty under the former Unionist leader Walter Long. His steady, if unspectacular, rise in British politics was interrupted when the government introduced its Government of Ireland Bill in March 1920, giving home rule to ‘southern’ and ‘northern’ Ireland. Craig acted as a broker between the Ulster Unionists and the government in working out key details of this act, in particular the decision to make the second chamber of the Northern Ireland parliament a mere reflection of the Unionist majority in the lower house, with twenty-four of twenty-six members elected by the House of Commons, which produced an insignificant minority representation (only five nationalists in 1936). Craig also influenced the vital question of the area to be governed by the Northern Ireland parliament, which the British agreed to reduce from nine to six counties. However, Craig suggested that the problem of minorities in the border areas might be settled by a boundary commission:
to examine the distribution of population along the borders of the Six Counties, and to take a vote in those districts on either side of and immediately adjoining that boundary in which there was a doubt as to whether they would prefer to be included in the Northern or the Southern Parliamentary area. (cabinet conclusions, 15 Dec 1919, CAB 23/18, TNA: PRO)
This suggestion was rejected by the government for fear of causing unease in those areas. Craig also used his influence to persuade the Unionists of co. Cavan, co. Monaghan, and co. Donegal to accept their severance from the new Northern Ireland state, arguing that it was necessary for the security of the state if Ulster Unionists were not soon to be outnumbered by a substantial, and growing, Catholic minority. Here Craig revealed a stern realism, and his determination to secure Ulster Unionism was seen also in his urging the cabinet, in July 1920, to push the Home Rule Bill quickly through parliament, and his defence of Unionists against the charge of using random violence against Catholics. He suggested that the UVF be reorganized as a separate unit to defend Northern Ireland against the IRA, and this led to the formation of the Ulster Special Constabulary in November 1920. When the Government of Ireland Act received the royal assent on 23 December 1920 Craig was, unsurprisingly, the chosen candidate for the job of making the state of Northern Ireland a reality, and he became leader of the Ulster Unionists and first prime minister of Northern Ireland, with the formal offer coming from the standing committee of the Ulster Unionist Council on 26 January 1921. He was sworn of the Irish privy council in 1921, and of the Northern Ireland privy council in 1922.

Prime minister

The next four years were to be the most demanding of Craig's career. He had several tasks: to establish the state on firm foundations; to defend it against its enemies, within and without; to prevent its over-zealous supporters from taking the law into their own hands, thus destabilizing the state; and to keep a watchful eye on the British government which by the spring of 1921 was becoming increasingly anxious to reach a compromise with Sinn Féin. These were interrelated problems. From the start of serious negotiations with Sinn Féin the government was increasingly drawn into a strategy of accommodating Irish nationalism through the offer of dominion status, but with the question of partition regarded as central to the success of this policy. Tom Jones, assistant secretary to the cabinet, expressed the spirit of the government's approach when he declared that ‘we are pledged not to coerce Ulster’, adding that ‘some would confine that to physical force’ (Bew and others, 51). Lloyd George and his colleagues put pressure on Craig to place his parliament under Dublin rule as an enticement for Sinn Féin to accept dominion status, but in the end the difficulty was resolved by the very method that Craig had suggested earlier, that of a boundary commission, which should delimit the border if Northern Ireland were to opt out of the Anglo-Irish treaty, which she duly did in December 1922. Meanwhile Craig wrestled with other problems.

In January 1922 Winston Churchill brought Craig and Michael Collins together in London to try to improve north–south relations and control the rising tide of violence in the north. Craig showed that he could make an effort to do business with the most unlikely of men. Both leaders agreed that they would make efforts to address the most troublesome problems, such as the southern boycott of northern business, and the expulsion of Roman Catholic workers from their employment in Belfast. But once again Craig confronted the difficulty that, however honest his intentions, he must, if he were to avoid dangerous criticism, stress to his Unionist followers those aspects of the pact that seemed most favourable to them. A second pact in March 1922 began, at Churchill's behest, with the words ‘Peace is today declared’; but Collins remained actively hostile to the Northern Ireland state, and in any case Craig was obliged to pursue the implementation of those items most favourable to his less than secure fledgeling state. The whole affair demonstrated yet again that Craig was willing to take the wider view, both in Anglo-Irish relations and in relations between north and south; but also that he could never move too far ahead of his less sophisticated Unionist colleagues.

Craig's struggle with the British to give the new state a firm financial beginning was concluded successfully when a joint exchequer board was established to adjudicate disputes between the Northern Ireland government and the Treasury in June 1922 (much to Treasury officials' disgust). Craig resisted demands from the British government for a judicial inquiry into his government's security measures in May 1922, though he accepted an inquiry in secret. The inquiry was duly set up, but its head, S. G. Tallents, though no admirer of Craig and his colleagues, concluded that to push matters too far would be to endanger Craig's control of his Unionist followers, a pattern that was to be repeated in Craig's premiership.

These events revealed the successes and shortcomings of Craig's leadership. He was able to carry the British government with him in important respects because it did not want him to resign and place the responsibility of governing Northern Ireland directly on British shoulders. But all this was part of Craig's belief that his only political purpose must be to stand firm: ‘no surrender’ was the call. This did not deprive him of sympathy with the nationalist minority in his state, but it placed their welfare low in his order of priorities, and complaints about his abandonment of proportional representation for local elections in 1922, or his adoption of the special powers act in the same year, were ignored. He was often a voice for moderation, for example over the expulsion of Catholics from the Belfast shipyards in 1921–2, but his main concern was to maintain Unionist unity, and he did not want Catholics to see him as someone to whom they could ‘come squealing’ (Buckland, Craig, 87).

Craig's government

Craig's premiership lasted another twenty years, but the pattern of his government was established in the climactic years of 1914–23. This was: a firm defence of the Ulster Unionist position; Unionist unity in the face of external and internal foes; and a cautiously worked out relationship with the British government. The heroic defiance of 1912–14, the demanding task of state construction between 1921 and 1925, were followed by a period marked by political stagnation and unimaginative leadership. This caution was reinforced, rather than challenged, by the devolutionary powers granted to Northern Ireland in 1921, which greatly restricted the role of the Northern Ireland parliament and executive, and left Northern Ireland, after 1927, dependent on subsidies from the British Treasury. The relationship between Stormont and the local authorities in Northern Ireland worked unsatisfactorily, with most services being administered by local authorities, which became a byword for patronage and deeply contested sectarian politics. Craig's state suffered from the decline of its heavy industries, and unemployment remained high, at an average figure of 26 per cent of the total workforce, and 30 per cent of the male workforce. Moreover, the local character of Northern Ireland politics in an area about the size of Yorkshire, and containing 1¼ million people, divided roughly into two-thirds protestant and the rest Catholic, rendered Craig vulnerable to pressure from local Unionists. Craig, often to the consternation of his more professionally minded colleagues, was inclined to respond to demands by handing out largess that his government could hardly afford. He succumbed to pressure on the question of religious instruction in schools between 1923 and 1925. The Northern Ireland government sought to establish a non-sectarian and integrated educational system, but the Roman Catholic hierarchy rose up against any attempt to transfer its schools to state control, and protestant clergy agitated for Bible instruction in schools administered by local authorities, instruction which was protestant in content and doctrinally unacceptable to the Catholic minority. The result was that state schools became protestant schools, and again Craig revealed that visionary policies, or even just plain good intentions, were not in the gift of a leader of Ulster Unionists (or anybody else in Northern Ireland). Craig was in any event not a prime minister given to dragooning colleagues; indeed, he never dismissed a minister. His desire to maintain unity was seen in his emphasizing the threat from de Valera's government, with its constitutional claim to Northern Ireland and its irredentist rhetoric. Craig possessed no economic ideas, beyond leaving things to work out for themselves. Craig was made Viscount Craigavon of Stormont in 1927. He enjoyed being prime minister of Northern Ireland, with all the office's prestigious connotations. He received an honorary LLD from Queen's University, Belfast, in 1922 and a DCL from Oxford in 1926. His Who's Who entry proudly proclaimed him a knight of grace, order of St John, in 1937. His wife also enjoyed the perks of office, including using the cabinet secretary to telephone Fortnum and Mason in London to order marmalade. However, she also bore up well to the demands made on a prime minister in Northern Ireland, and when her husband was ill she would deputize for him at official functions.

Craig had made his career in British as well as Ulster politics; but his premiership showed little sign of his earlier close acquaintance with the British political world. He became intensely parochial, and suffered from his loss of intimacy with British politicians in 1938, when the British government concluded agreements with Dublin to end the ‘economic war’ between the two states, on terms highly unfavourable to Northern Ireland. He never tried to persuade Westminster to protect Northern Ireland's industries, especially the linen industry, which was central to its economy. He was anxious not to provoke Westminster, or draw too much attention to what was happening in Northern Ireland, especially in the treatment of the Catholic minority. His desire to retain the closest links with Great Britain was seen in April 1939, and again in May 1940, when he called for conscription to be applied in Northern Ireland (which the British government, fearing a nationalist backlash, refused). In February 1940 he declared in a radio broadcast that Ulstermen were ‘King's men’ (Ervine, 551). His indignation when Winston Churchill suggested to de Valera that partition might be re-examined if Éire would join the British war effort can be imagined.

Death and assessment

James Craig died at his home, Glencraig, Craigavad, co. Down, on 24 November 1940, and was buried in the grounds of the Stormont parliament building. His wife survived him. He was succeeded as second viscount by his elder son, James (1906–1974). Inevitably, any assessment of his place in Irish, Ulster, and British politics is influenced by the history of Northern Ireland since his death, and especially by the ‘troubles’ that beset the state after 1968. Critics point to his failure to build bridges to the Catholic minority, but his statement in 1934 that he stood for ‘a Protestant parliament and a Protestant state’ must be seen in the context of de Valera's claim that ‘we are a Catholic nation’ (Buckland, Factory of Grievances, 72), and indeed Craig's whole career can be regarded as reactive, fashioned in opposition to the claims of Irish nationalism. Yet Craig was on good terms with individual nationalists, and he was punctilious in his dealings with the Roman Catholic hierarchy. But he did little to meet Catholic complaints about discrimination, and by the time of his death there were few Catholics in administrative posts, and fewer in the Royal Ulster Constabulary than there had been in 1922. He had no insight into, nor understanding of, the Roman Catholic mentality, and sought none. In 1938 he told the Daily Express that he was ‘the one politician who can win an election without ever leaving his fireside’ (Buckland, Craig, 122), which sums up both the limits of his ambition and the nature of his political power.

D. George Boyce


P. Buckland, James Craig (1980) · St J. Ervine, Craigavon: Ulsterman (1949) · P. Bew, P. Gibbon, and H. Patterson, The state in Northern Ireland, 1921–1972 (1979) · P. Buckland, The factory of grievances: devolved government in N. Ireland, 1921–1939 (1979) · A. T. Q. Stewart, The Ulster crisis (1967) · cabinet conclusions, 1919–22, TNA: PRO, CAB 23/18–30 · cabinet committee on Ireland, 1919–22, TNA: PRO, CAB 27/68 · P. Buckland, Irish unionism, 2: Ulster unionism and the origins of Northern Ireland (1973) · H. Shearman, Not an inch: a study of Northern Ireland and Lord Craigavon (1942) · M. A. Hopkinson, ‘The Craig–Collins pacts of 1922: the attempted reforms of the Northern Ireland government’, Irish Historical Studies, 27 (1990–91), 145–58 · CGPLA NIre. (1941)


PRONI, corresp., T 3775 · PRONI, corresp., papers, and press cuttings vols., incl. papers of Lady Craigavon, D 1415/B 1–43, T 1908 |  Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with H. A. Gwynne · IWM, corresp. with Sir Henry Wilson · NL Ire., letters to John Redmond · Parl. Arch., corresp. with Bonar Law · Parl. Arch., letters to David Lloyd George · Parl. Arch., corresp. with John St Loe Strachey · PRONI, corresp. with Edward Carson, D 1507 · PRONI, letters to Lady Londonderry, D 2846 · PRONI, letters to Lord Londonderry, D 3099 · PRONI, Northern Ireland Cabinet MSS · TNA: PRO, British Cabinet MSS · TNA: PRO, corresp. with Ramsay Macdonald, PRO 30/69/1/191  



BFINA, documentary footage · BFINA, news footage


W. Stoneman, photograph, 1917, NPG · O. Edis, photograph, c.1921, NPG [see illus.] · J. Lavery, oils, 1923, Ulster Museum, Belfast · O. Edis, photographs, NPG · L. S. Merrifield, statue, Northern Ireland Houses of Parliament, Stormont · B. Partridge, pen-and-ink caricature (with Michael Collins), NPG; repro. in Punch (15 Feb 1922) · Who, caricature, Hentschel-colourtype, NPG; repro. in VF (19 July 1911) · photographs, repro. in Ervine, Craigavon

Wealth at death  

£3228 2s. 6d. effects in England: probate, 20 March 1941, CGPLA NIre. · £24,138 9s. 9d.: probate, 3 March 1941, CGPLA NIre.