James Craig is rightly regarded by Ulster unionists as the founding father of the Northern Ireland state. More than any other leader, he mobilised the pre-war unionist resistance to home rule and then became the first premier of Northern Ireland, holding that office for almost twenty years.
Craig was born near Belfast, the son of a self-made millionaire whiskey distiller. He attended school in Scotland before working as a stockbroker and serving in the second Boer War. Entering parliament as a Unionist in 1906, representing East Down, 1906-18 and Mid-Down, 1918-21, he quickly established a reputation as a promising backbencher. He was the architect of Ulster unionist resistance to home rule, 1912-14. His contribution was not as an ideologue or charismatic leader; his strength lay in his organisational ability. He arranged for Edward Carson to act as unionist leader, its public face, whilst he masterminded the campaign of resistance; he stage-managed Covenant Day (28th September 1912), supported and helped organise the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and helped persuade colleagues of the need to import arms prior to the Larne gun-running. Throughout this his overriding concern was to keep Ulster within the Union. Unlike Carson by 1914 he had embraced partition with enthusiasm rather than resignation.
In wartime, Craig encouraged the UVF to enlist; he himself repeatedly failed his army medical. Between 1917-21, he held a succession of junior British government posts with distinction. He also helped influence the terms of the Government of Ireland Act, 1920. It was partly due to Craig that a six county territory for Northern Ireland was chosen, rather than the nine counties favoured by English ministers and some unionists. Though reluctant to abandon a promising ministerial career at Westminster, he accepted the premiership of the six counties in 1921, and remained in office until his death in November 1940.
Craig overcame the military and political opposition which the new state faced, especially from the IRA campaign of 1920-22. He withstood the British government’s efforts during the Treaty negotiations to subordinate Northern Ireland to a Dublin parliament. In addition, he sustained substantial unionist majorities in successive elections for the devolved parliament (1921, ‘25, ‘29, ‘33, ‘38) and secured his party’s domination of local government. But his successes were achieved at the price of a harsh security policy and the neglect of pressing problems. Craig made no sustained attempt to integrate the disaffected minority in the north and no energetic effort to halt or compensate for the decline of the regional industrial economy. Housing, health, and education provision were likewise neglected. Mainly because of declining health, Craig’s premiership was marked by his own increasing political disengagement and long absences from the province. In later years, he presided over the state in a casual, paternalistic manner. His ineffective wartime leadership, 1939-40 generated mounting criticism, even from within his own party. He died at home on 24th November 1940.