Robert William Brian McConnell, Rt Hon the Lord McConnell of Lisburn (1922 - 2000):
Robert William Brian McConnell was a long-serving Member of the Northern Ireland Parliament, who held various governmental and Cabinet positions in the 1960s, most notably Minister of Home Affairs at a time when Northern Ireland's apparently peaceful veneer began to come under pressure from an upswing in communal tension with attendant civil disturbance.
Brian McConnell, as he was usually known, was born in Belfast, son of Alfred E. McConnell, a Registrar of the King's Bench Division of the High Court who was the second son and fifth child of Sir Robert McConnell, Lord Mayor of Belfast in 1900 and the 1st Baronet McConnell, of the Moat, Strandtown, Belfast. His father's elder brother, Sir Joseph McConnell, 2nd baronet, was Ulster Unionist Member of Parliament for Antrim at Westminster from 1929 until 1942 and Deputy Lieutenant of Belfast. Brian was educated at Sedburgh School, Cumbria, whose strict regime was not to his liking, and then Queen's University, Belfast, where he graduated BA (1945), LLB (1947) and was called to the Bar of Northern Ireland in 1948.
While at Queen's University he was a member of the Literary and Scientific Society, which had been founded in 1850 (for students to "improve themselves by writing papers on literary and scientific subjects to be read and discussed before the society") and would play a minor but important rôle in events eleven decades later. But already interested in politics, McConnell and others had found a society, the Queen's University Young Unionist Association, and it was not long after entering legal practice that subordinated this to his political ambitions. In 1951 the incumbent MP for Antrim South, the Right Honourable Sir John Milne Barbour, died and McConnell was selected by the Ulster Unionist Party to contest the seat in the ensuing by-election; in the event he was elected unopposed. He would be returned unopposed in the subsequent elections of 1953, 1958 and 1962; he faced his only contested election in 1965, when he defeated his Labour challenger resoundingly, by 14,491 votes to 4,113.
McConnell's first Parliamentary appointment was on 20 November 1962, in the last months of the government of Sir Basil Brooke (Lord Brookeborough) who had been Prime Minister since 1943, as Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means and Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons to (a new post created in 1958). The following year, on 28 March 1963 he was appointed Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health and Local Government, and the year after that, on 22 July 1964 he was appointed to the important position of Minister of Home Affairs, becoming a Member of the Northern Ireland Privy Council. This was in the government of Terence O'Neill, who had taken office the previous year following the resignation on health grounds of the 75-year-old Lord Brookeborough.
Northern Ireland at this time was enjoying a relatively positive period economically and civilly. There were signs of thawing relations between Protestants and the Roman Catholic Church: the Catholic Bishop of Down and Connor, William Philbin, attended a Belfast City Hall reception, leading nationalist politicians addressed McConnell's former Young Unionists at Queen's University, and both the Governor of Northern Ireland, Lord Wakehurst, and Prime Minister O'Neill expressed condolences on the death on 3 June 1963 of Pope John XXIII (who had summoned the ecumenically-leaning Second Vatican Council). These were not universally welcomed by Protestants, and stridently and vociferously opposed by some, who tended very much to equate such movement with a more expressly political one of weakening the Union with Great Britain and thus foreshadowing what was feared as the end of Northern Ireland as a political entity, or at least movement towards this.
McConnell was soon to be tested in his new post, which included responsibility for security and policing matters. In September 1964 a general election was called for the following month, and the outgoing MP for West Belfast, Ulster Unionist Patricia McLaughlin, was not seeking re-election. The seat was contested for the Ulster Unionists by James Kilfedder, an Ulster-born barrister based in London; Harry Diamond, for Republican Labour; Billy Boyd, Northern Ireland Labour; and Billy (or Liam) McMillen, Independent Republican and a former IRA prisoner (later assassinated by a rival Republican organisation during a feud). Boyd was a former shipyard worker and Member of the Northern Ireland Parliament for Belfast Woodvale; the Ulster Unionists feared his popularity would draw too many votes from their candidate. During the election campaign, notice was taken by unionists of a small Irish tricolour flag (or a representation of one) in the window of Republican headquarters in Divis Street, an almost entirely nationalist district in west Belfast. Normally, such displays were regarded by the police as too innocuous to make them enforce the Flags and Emblems Act 1954, doing so seen as more trouble than it was worth. This legislation, an Act of the Northern Ireland Parliament, placed on the police a duty to remove any flag or emblem from public or private property which was considered to be likely to cause a breach of the peace (except the Union flag which was specifically exempt).
Though the Royal Constabulary usually ignored displays of nationalist flags in nationalist areas, where there no unionists to see them, Kilfedder sent a telegram to McConnell requiring that he have the tricolour flag removed as its display was "aimed to provoke and insult loyalists in west Belfast". (There was also on display in the same place a "Starry Plough" flag, which represents specifically Irish Republican socialism including violent groupings, but Kilfedder's telegram did not mention this other flag; perhaps he never knew it was there or what it was.) An increasingly well-known figure in Northern Ireland, Ian Paisley, a fundamentalist Protestant preacher and hardline anti-nationalist politician, was threatening to march with supporters to Divis Street and remove the offending flag himself. McConnell ordered that the flag be removed, "in response to calls and feelings in adjacent Protestant districts". The flag was removed, not without scuffles between police and local residents. McConnell also banned Paisley's threatened march, so he held a demonstration at the City Hall which Kilfedder attended. Several days later, a tricolour appeared in the premises again, and the police entered with force and removed it. This time there was very serious rioting, with dozens of injured, many seriously, vehicles burned, missiles including petrol bombs thrown at police, and other widespread vandalism. These were the worst riots in Belfast for nearly 30 years.
On 3 November 1964, it was reported by the Belfast Telegraph that McConnell's former Literary and Scientific Society (known by its contraction the "Literific") had invited the Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) Seán Lemass to address it in Belfast. Some thought this was a deliberately attempted scheme to influence the Northern Ireland Government into inviting him as well; in any case such a move was supported by a range of Ulster Unionist opinion, not least the leading, and staunchly, Unionist newspaper the Belfast News Letter, which on 20 November 1964 recommended - in a highlighted front-page editorial - that O'Neill explore the possibilities of co-operation with the Republic on matters of mutual concern such as tourism, transport and trade. Some Unionist politicians, however were opposed to such a meeting and O'Neill, mindful that enough such opposition from his Party and Government could effectively prevent it, told virtually none of them about it until it was imminent. In the end the meeting itself passed off relatively without incident, and while of far more symbolic than practical significance, the symbolism was itself significant.
1966 was a busy year for McConnell. The 50th anniversary of the Dublin Easter Rising would fall on April 17, and already in December 1965, intelligence reports prompted O'Neill to set up a Cabinet Security Committee consisting of himself, Minister of Commerce Brian Faulkner, Minister of Development William Craig and McConnell. Referring to events planned by nationalists throughout the province to commemorate Easter 1916, McConnell announced in the Northern Ireland House of Commons in March 1966: "The events which being celebrated do not commend themselves to the people of Northern Ireland as a whole. It is the duty of the Government to ensure that any celebrations taking place within Northern Ireland do not offend our citizens." As it turned out, there were about 20 such celebrations, none of which had police permission and were therefore illegal, but all of which passed off without incident; the government had anyway been less apprehensive about IRA activity than about loyalist vigilantism setting off sectarian conflict. By choosing a path taken before the Divis Street controversy of 1964 but not during it, by mobilising policing resources deploying them, the Government was able to avoid public disorder, and potentially a major crisis. Later in the year, though, events did not pass off so well for McConnell.
In June 1966, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland held its annual General Assembly. Ian Paisley and supporters decided to picket this event, seeing in O'Neill's perceived liberalising reforms and some developing ecumenical trends in Christianity parallel and unwelcome developments. The picket was not entirely peaceful. Delegates and visitors arriving for the meeting were jostled and verbally abused. These included the Governor of Northern Ireland, Lord Erskine, and his wife. Some attributed to this treatment of Lady Erskine her subsequent serious health difficulties. McConnell was widely blamed for these events, as he was absent in London at the time. O'Neill instructed him to make an appearance at the assembly and to apologise for the disturbances.
The Twelfth of July celebrations feature an estimated 50,000 marchers, which would have been the largest ever number. Ian Paisley, speaking at the Derriaghy demonstration, sharply castigated McConnell to the obvious approval of his listeners. In the autumn, a rather shadowy petition was circulated, believed to have been signed by 12 of the 36 Ulster Unionist MPs (some, such as Robert Simpson of Mid-Antrim later admitted to having signed it), calling for the departure of O'Neill, Craig, and McConnell. At a meeting of the Ulster Unionist Parliamentary Party on 27 September, with the largest attendance to have been recorded until then, O'Neill survived as Leader, but in a Cabinet reshuffle in October, partly in response to dissatisfaction at the Government's failure to assert itself forcefully with regard to law and order, McConnell was moved to the post of Minister of State at the Ministry of Development - definitely a demotion. He was appointed Leader of the House of Commons on 27 September 1967; on 14 August 1968, he resigned his seat and left politics.
He served as President of the Administrative Tribunals Court from 1968 to 1981 (later the Industrial Court of Northern Ireland); National Insurance (later Social Security) Commissioner for Northern Ireland, 1968 to 1987; Vice-Chairman of the European Movement in Northern Ireland, 1987 to 1992 and President, 1992 to 1995.
He enjoyed an Indian summer in politics, during which he was very diligent: on the recommendation of the Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, James Molyneux, he became a member of the House of Lords as Baron McConnell, of Lisburn in the County of Antrim, on 10 February 1995.
|Born:||25 November 1922|
|Died:||25 October 2000|
© 2021 Ulster History Circle