Phelim O'Neill, 2nd Baron Rathcavan (1909 - 1994):
Phelim O'Neill was a leading figure in Northern politics and government; he came from a family prominent in these activities, being the son of Hugh O'Neill, the first Speaker of the Northern Ireland Parliament, for whom the title of Baron Rathcavan was created, and a cousin of Terence O'Neill, Prime Minister of Northern Ireland in the 1960s whose reforming policies, while groundbreaking, were not universally popular and whose term of office saw the outbreak of the Troubles.
Phelim was widely seen, and not least by himself, as something of an individualist. Educated, like many of his relatives, at Eton, and serving during the Second World war - he achieved the rank of Major in the Royal Artillery - he followed his father in his Westminster seat, elected unopposed in a 1952 by-election. He occupied this seat until 1959 when, on his father's retirement from the Northern Ireland Parliament, he followed his father again, occupying his North Antrim seat.
O'Neill held Ministerial Office, for Education (1969) and Agriculture (1969-1971). In this rather turbulent time there was a lot of political change in Northern Ireland, and O'Neill left the Ulster Unionist Party to join the new Alliance Party which had been formed in 1970 as an expressly non-sectarian party. His move was a not inconsiderable coup for Alliance. At the Darlington Conference of 1972, called by the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, William Whitelaw, O'Neill led the Alliance delegation - though this conference achieved very little indeed, as only three parties attended. O'Neill was not very optimistic about the ability of the party to transform what he saw as sectarian politics - he declared that "we do not have the two essentials for elections here: a sash and a drum [Orange Order symbols] or a [Roman Catholic] parish priest" and indeed he failed to be elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly of 1973. This effectively served to end his political career.
He famously described himself as a "left-wing conservative"; he certainly on some occasions seemed to go against the grain somewhat. In 1958 he was expelled from the Orange Order for attending a Roman Catholic service; on another occasion he left early from a dinner at the Ulster Unionist Club in Belfast entirely in order to give a lift home to a prominent left-wing and nationalist politician who was not himself a driver and did not live close by O'Neill.
O'Neill held several high offices, including his appointment as High Sheriff of Antrim in 1958. In 1982 he again succeeded his father, this time on the latter's death, to become the second Baron Rathcavan. He had two homes, at Aghadowey, County Londonderry, and Killala, Co. Mayo. It was in Mayo that he died, at the County Hospital.
|Born:||2 November 1909|
|Died:||12 December 1994|
© 2020 Ulster History Circle