Thursday, 14 January 2016

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.‭

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