Brian Faulkner (1921-1977) was the last prime minister (1971-1972) of Northern Ireland under Great Britain's experiment in devolution that began in 1921.
Arthur Brian Deane Faulkner was unusual in being from a strictly business rather than a landed background. Born on February 18, 1921, and educated at St. Columba's College, Dublin, he entered the family firm, The Belfast Collar Company, at the age of 18 and simultaneously began farming 120 acres of land for wartime food production. In 1949, at age 28, he entered the Northern Ireland parliament for the East Down constituency, retaining the seat until the end of that parliament's life. Government chief whip from 1956 to 1959, he became minister for home affairs in 1959 and served as minister of commerce from 1963 to 1969, when he resigned from Terence O'Neill's government.
Faulkner returned to office under Chichester-Clark as minister of development, 1969-1971, before becoming prime minister (with home affairs), 1971-1972. Subsequently he served as chief executive of the short-lived coalition experiment in power-sharing from January to May 1974 and was leader of the Unionist Party of Northern Ireland from 1974 to 1976. In 1977 he was raised to the peerage as Lord Faulkner of Downpatrick, taking his seat on February 22. He was killed in a hunting accident shortly afterwards on March 3, 1977.
A Presbyterian, teetotaller, country-lover, and hunting enthusiast, Faulkner was also a family man (he married Lucy Forsythe in 1951 and they had three children) and a determined politician who never lost touch with his business background. Ambitious from the start of his political career (he had already joined the Orange Order in 1946), he was prepared to take an uncompromising traditional line in defense of the Union and to play a prominent role in asserting the rights of the Protestant settler community as he saw them. He thus early carried a hardline reputation, but he also showed a concern for modern economic issues and saw himself apart from the usual landed figures of the Unionist leadership. By careful attention to detail and hard work he rose to prominence, severing his connection with the family firm and becoming a full time politician on his appointment to ministerial office in 1959. Conservative and cautious, he upheld tough law and order policies at Home Affairs, favoring capital punishment and resisting franchise reform.
As minister of commerce under O'Neill, 1963-1969, he did much to extend the positive side of his image, bringing badly needed jobs to the province, building up a modern industrial base, and developing economic planning. He had not easily accepted O'Neill's premiership, however, and at successive crises in these years was accused of giving O'Neill less than wholehearted support. The tension between the two men, compounded by contrasts in style and background and political instinct, eventually brought Faulkner's resignation on January 24, 1969. When O'Neill resigned in April 1969, Faulkner contested the succession. He lost by one vote to James Chichester-Clark but then supported him loyally until Chichester-Clark in turn resigned in March 1971. This time Faulkner easily won the premiership by 26 votes to four. It can be argued, however, that his opportunity had come too late in the history of the troubled province.
Faulkner—hardman of the Union, Orangeman, and bigot to some; fair and flexible political pragmatist to others—continued to show both sides of his character as prime minister. His first moves showed more imagination and his first months more action and experimentation than had been witnessed in the previous 50 years. In March he set out his intention to serve all the people of Northern Ireland and to open participation in decision-making to the elected representatives of the Catholic minority: he also appointed Labour politician David Bleakley to a new Ministry of Community Relations (later in the year he added G. B. Newe, a Roman Catholic, to his cabinet, another startling break with tradition). In June, Faulkner outlined many practical and radical steps to bring confidence and cooperation to the divided province, including the offer of parliamentary committee chairmanships to the Opposition. He had already legislated against discrimination in employment, and he now admitted past mistakes and looked to the future harnessing of Protestant and Catholic alike to the cause of the Union.
Alas, street violence and community suspicions soured feelings, led the opposition to withdraw from Parliament, and in the end led Faulkner himself to gamble on the introduction, in August 1971, of internment of suspected subversives without trial. This one move, accompanied though it was by an account of all the positive political reforms and an outline of a brave new economic program, outraged his opponents. Its unfair application undid much of his positive achievement, drove the communities apart once more, and opened a Pandora's box of civil disobedience. The atmosphere was worsened further on January 30, 1972, by the shooting by the army of 13 people in Derry in the confused circumstances of an illegal demonstration. On March 22 Edward Heath, prime minister of the United Kingdom, insisted on taking over control of all security matters in Northern Ireland. Brian Faulkner and his cabinet refused to carry on under such conditions, and the Westminster government then assumed direct responsibility once more for Northern Ireland. Fifty-one years of local, devolved autonomy came to a close on March 30, 1972.
This did not bring to an end Brian Faulkner's political career nor to his attempts to find a form of provincial authority acceptable to all moderate shades of opinion. William Craig and the Reverend Ian Paisley from the Unionist right jockeyed to oust him, while the IRA (Irish Republican Army) sought by physical force to impose republican Irish unity from the nationalist left. Only the partnership of moderate men seemed capable of winning respite and permitting economic, political, and social progress. At a conference in Darlington in September 1972 and throughout 1973 Brian Faulkner worked to this end. Through an elected assembly which met in July 1973 agreement was reached in November between Unionists, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, and the Alliance Party to form a power-sharing executive. This came into being under Faulkner's leadership in January 1974, but only after a preparatory conference at Sunningdale in December 1973 had worked out details, including the creation of a Council of Ireland to give a role to the Dublin government. This alarmed Unionist grass-root opinion. Unfortunately for this hopeful experiment, the British government called a snap general election in February, which allowed early electoral expression of this alarm, and subsequent weak handling of an anti-power-sharing strike by loyalists brought down the executive in May. Faulkner's promising final bid had not had sufficient time to win credibility. Direct rule from London was resumed.
There seems little doubt that Brian Faulkner was the most pragmatic and imaginative of the holders of the office of prime minister of Northern Ireland. Perhaps ambitious for office and traditional in outlook early on, he learned from experience that the Union could best be served by harnessing all interests to it and ending the exclusive domination of one section only. His plans, the reforms he helped to introduce, and the institutions he suggested did give an opportunity for equality of opportunity and benefit for all. Traditional animosities and community hatreds exacerbated by para-military violence and by sectarian extremism could not easily be overcome. Thus, like his two immediate predecessors, Faulkner proved unable to survive long enough to see reason prevail over emotion. Described as "the Prime Minister who came too late," Faulkner gave a frank statement to his autobiography which perhaps fairly sums up his philosophy: "You can do three things in Irish politics, the right thing, the wrong thing, or nothing at all. I have always thought it better to do the wrong thing than to do nothing at all."
Brian Faulkner, Memoirs of a Statesman (1978), largely completed at the time of his death and published posthumously, gives the most valuable insights. Faulkner: Conflict and Consent in Irish Politics (1974), by David Bleakley (a Labour opponent who served in his cabinet), gives a largely favorable view of a man whose career was always controversial, while Brian Faulkner and the Crisis of Ulster Unionismby Andrew Boyd (1972) is unremittingly harsh and critical. There is much background information as well as a short profile in W. D. Flackes' Northern Ireland: A Political Directory, 1968-83 (1983). □