23 May 2002 Edition

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Death of Chichester-Clark

James Chichester-Clark, later Lord Moyola, who was Prime Minister of the Northern State in 1969 when British troops came onto the streets of Belfast and Derry, died last Friday, 17 May.

Chichester-Clark was 79. He took over from his cousin Captain Terence O'Neill as Prime Minister at Stormont and was in power from April 1969 until March 1971.

Indeed, Chichester-Clark resigned from O'Neill's government over his introduction of 'one man one vote', although he claimed he was not against the principle. However, within the next five days O'Neill himself resigned and Chichester-Clark was elected as Prime Minister.

Some commentators, in obituaries to Chichester-Clark, say his death marks the end of an era for the unionist party, as he was the last Prime Minister of the Six Counties to come from the 'Big House' strand of unionism. It was the eruption of the conflict in 1969 that eventually led to the disintegration of unionism and the end of its one-party rule in the North. From a monolithic political entity in the 1960s, unionism has increasinglt become a faction-riven group of parties, who are trying to 'out-unionist' each other in the early years of this new millennium.

In the late '60s, with the upsurge in street protests of the Civil Rights Movement, unionism was unable to change. The simple demands for a fair voting system that would enfranchise Catholics and the fair allocation of housing left unionist leaders frozen like a rabbit transfixed in the headlights.

When they did move it was to the right of each other as they promised to be tougher than the next man on the trouble makers. In typical fashion, unionism always blamed nationalists for the trouble so instead of making any serious attempt to introduce political reform they clamped down.

Because of their political paranoia, they preferred to see an IRA plot behind the Civil Rights Movement rather than a movement seeking political change and reacted violently.

In their obituaries to Chichester-Clark, writers described how violence intensified or that rioting in Belfast and Derry forced Chichester-Clark to ask the British government to send in the troops. These writers do us all a disservice. The rioting of 1969 was the expression of popular revolt against a corrupt government and the British government acted not in the interests of democracy but in the interest of the British state.

For the record, the violence of the 1960s was largely provoked by the Unionist state and its allies in the Orange Order, as well as the Paisleyite mobs. The unionist leadership bears the responsibility for that violence and for subsequent events.

Chichester-Clark will be remembered by nationalists as one of those who tried to prevent change, only to be subsumed by the force of change.

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