14 January 1965: For the first time since the partition of Ireland the two current leaders of the respective parliaments on this island, Sean Lemass and Terence O’Neill, met in person. The meeting was held over cups of tea at Stormont, site of the Northern Parliament. O’Neill had approached Lemass through T. K. Whitaker, Secretary of the Department of Finance, and invited the Taoiseach to travel North.
On the face of it this was a most unlikely encounter. Sean Lemass was a veteran of the Easter Rising, the War of Independence and the Civil War. A long time member of Fianna Fail he held Ministerial Office for many years until he came to power as Taoiseach in 1959 on Eamon De Valera’s election as President of Ireland.
Terence O’Neill, despite his Irish name, was a true son of the British Empire. He had been educated at Eton and served with the Irish Guards in World War Two. He was later elected an MP and served as a Minister of Government in the North. A dyed in the wool Aristocrat he had taken over the top job as Prime Minister of Northern Ireland when Lord Brookborough retired in 1963.
Both men were however anxious to bring about a thaw in North –South relations and thus it was agreed that they meet to break the ice on this day. However not everyone was happy with this development and a certain Reverend Ian Paisley organised a group of followers to protest at this perceived outrage. Upon the Taoiseach’s motorcade arrival at Stormont they threw snowballs at his car. The following month the Reverend gentleman denounced O’Neill as a ‘Traitor’, but such an outburst did not stop the leader of the Unionist Party from paying a complimentary return call on Sean Lemass in Dublin later in the year that was meant to further cement the relationship.
However events precluded a further development of such contacts. Lemass retired the following year and Jack Lynch, who had little interest in the idea, replaced him. O’Neill then thought better of pursuing such contacts, which he knew clearly upset such a wide body of the Unionist opinion. He was well aware that Paisley was all too ready to make use of any further such episodes to undermine him at a time when the political situation in the North was becoming increasingly fragile.