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William Morgan (1914 - 1999):
Politician, government minister; businessman and religious activist


William Morgan had a long career as a politician, over which he occupied several Northern Ireland ministerial posts and was briefly a Senator; during this time he also ran the family business. Later in his life he left politics and business to concentrate more on his religious activities.

William James Morgan, commonly known as Billy, was born in Belfast and went to Finniston primary school in the north of the city; he left secondary education at 14 and entered the family business, John Morgan & Sons, one of the leading furniture removal companies in Northern Ireland. After serving for a year on Belfast Corporation, at the 1949 General Election he stood for the Ulster Unionist Party in Belfast Oldpark and unseated the outgoing Labour MP with a majority of 2938 votes. He held the seat in 1953 with a similar majority, though in 1958 was defeated, albeit very narrowly, by just 155 votes. The following year he was back at Stormont, having been nominated as the Unionist candidate to contest the by-election in Belfast Clifton resulting from the sitting MP Robin Kinahan's election as Lord Mayor of Belfast. Morgan was returned with a 1232 majority. He held the seat in 1962 and 1965 with majorities of 1903 and 2836, though was defeated in 1969 by an Independent Unionist, with a margin of 2851.

His first Parliamentary post was as Assistant Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Finance from 15 December 1958 to 17 February 1961 and he was Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Commerce and Production from 15th December 1959 until 17 February 1961, when he was appointed Minister of Health and Local Government where he remained for over three years. During this period he was confronted with a housing case in Dungannon, County Tyrone, in which several catholic families in need of housing (this was a difficult political, not to say human, problem at that time) occupied some prefabricated housing due for demolition. The local urban district council attempted to remove them by cutting off utilities, though it had them restored when media attention was aroused. More families began to occupy the housing but Morgan declined to support the council who wanted to initiate eviction proceedings. However, housing matters like this in and around Dungannon would prove to be one of the contentious matters sparking off momentous events throughout Northern Ireland later in the decade.

In July 1964 he was appointed Minister of Labour and National Insurance and in January 1965 Minister of Health and Social Services. He was in post until January 1969, though his departure had nothing to do with Health matters. The previous June, in the town of Caledon, near Dungannon, County Tyrone, a similar situation arose to the one Morgan had dealt with some years before. A young single Protestant woman was allocated a council house in preference to Catholic families.  A protest march against the housing allocation system was organised but prevented by the RUC (the police) from entering central Dungannon. A similar march was planned for Derry the following October, and was similarly banned from entering the city centre; there was serious rioting, including highly controversial police actions. For the first time, television pictures of these events were broadcast nationally and internationally, this in 1968, the year of Prague, Paris and the southern United States. The Managing Director of one of the local broadcasting stations, Ulster Television, later identified the date of these events, 5 October 1968, as the real date of the start of the Troubles.

Politically, an important element of the context was that there were certain reforms demanded in the area of civil rights, housing being one of them, and another local government reform. The emotive slogan, "one man one vote", was the expression of the demand for just that: Northern Ireland had inherited the London system of local government franchise in 1921, which essentially awarded the franchise according to property ownership. In Northern Ireland, this effectively gave more than one vote to about 1.5% of the parliamentary electorate, whereas about one-quarter of that electorate had no local vote at all. A majority, though by no means all, of this latter category were Catholic. It was a common enough Protestant fear that it would be against their interests to enfranchise these Catholics. Pressure was being put on O'Neill from the government in London to reform amongst other things the local government franchise. When O'Neill, under pressure from London, introduced a package of reform measures in November 1968, local government franchise was not included. To some, O'Neill was bravely trying to introduce reform against hardline opposition; to others, he was trying to bypass Party structures (O'Neill had not been elected Party leader in any ballot), for example by broadcasting to the people of Northern Ireland on 9 December 1968 effectively asking that his reforms be supported.

In January 1969 a march was planned from Belfast to Derry, a distance of 75 miles. As the march progressed through largely Protestant countryside, there was increasing tension due to elements of the local population opposing the marchers who were a mixture of students and more overtly political organisations. Prime Minister O'Neill decided not to ban the march, which therefore had to be protected by the police, many of whom were opposed to the marchers. After several days of provocation of the marchers, they were openly attacked at Burntullet, County Londonderry, by a crowd which was later shown by television pictures to have included policemen. Barricades were erected in Derry and there was a demonstration in Newry, County Down, though trouble there was limited. O'Neill announced an inquiry to be chaired by a Scottish judge, Lord Cameron. Twelve days later, Faulkner, who supported the reform but not the way he saw O'Neill as aiming to introduce it, resigned in protest at his move, arguing that appointing external commissioners in the expectation that they would recommend what he otherwise should have done himself was an abdication of leadership. Morgan resigned with him. On the same day O'Neill called a General Election.

In the Belfast Clifton constituency, Morgan defended his seat against Major Robert Lloyd Hall-Thompson. There was a legal controversy about how Morgan could describe his Party affiliation; nevertheless, his opponent stood as an avowedly pro-O'Neill candidate while Morgan was seen as being close to Faulkner. Morgan lost by 6066 votes to 3215. He was then elected to the Northern Ireland Senate. In April 1970 a by-election was called in the Northern Ireland parliamentary constituency of South Antrim following the resignation of Richard Ferguson, whose liberal views were apparently so odious that his home was petrol-bombed. Morgan contested the seat for the Ulster Unionists (and so had to resign his Senate position), but lost by 958 votes to Rev William Beattie, standing as a Protestant Unionist; the Stormont parliament was prorogued (suspended) in 1972 and abolished in 1973.

At the elections to the new Northern Ireland Assembly in 1973, Morgan was elected in the multi-member constituency of North Belfast, as was Hall-Thompson, both standing for the Ulster Unionist Party. Like many unionists of various shades, Morgan was not in favour of the "Council of Ireland" element in the Sunningdale proposals of December 1973; Faulkner being in favour of this body in some form, Morgan broke with him and in 1975 was elected to the Northern Ireland Constitutional Convention representing the anti-Faulkner bloc, the United Ulster Unionist Council.

Morgan had retired from the family business in 1970, and after 1975 concentrated less on politics and more on his religious interests. He had always been keenly involved with a number of these: he was a lifelong member and longstanding Elder of Oldpark Presbyterian Church, where he was a Sunday School teacher, chairman of the YMCA, and led a Men's Fellowship. In addition he was a superintendent of the Belfast City Mission and President of the Irish Temperance League, and was involved with a large number, if not wide range, of groups of religious. A member of the Orange Order, Morgan was Worshipful Master of LOL (Loyal Orange Lodge) 1332.

As a Northern Ireland Privy Councillor (1961), the Right Honourable William Morgan died at his home in Holywood, County Down, on 12 May 1999.



Born: 17 July 1914
Died: 12 May 1999
Richard Froggatt
Acknowledgements:

Wesley McCann

Bibliography:
Dictionary of Irish Biography; Who's Who 1991; J Bardon, A History of Ulster