James Craig - backbone of revolt, ‘the soul of intransigence’

“He came to symbolise the very soul of Ulster intransigence” - FSL Lyons

If Edward Carson was the charismatic voice of Ulster resistance to Home Rule, James Craig, later the Six Counties’ first prime minister, was its heart and organising genius. As Carson would admit in later years, “it was Craig who did most of the work and I got most of the credit.”

Working closely with Carson, he masterminded the mobilisation and rallies in Ulster, stage-managed Covenant Day on September 28th, 1912, and supported and helped found and organise the Ulster Volunteers.

He chaired a committee set up by unionists to draft a constitution for a provisional government to rule Ulster in the event of Home Rule being passed.

Craig recognised early and sought to persuade colleagues of the need for Unionists to build an army and to arm themselves, writing to Major Fred Crawford in April 1911 about the supply of rifles: “I am convinced that unless a steady supply is started, we will be caught like rats in a trap.” He would be a strong backer of the successful 1914 Larne gun-running adventure.


Born in Belfast in January 1871 to the wealthy director of Dunville and Company, the distillers, Craig was educated in Scotland, then trained as a stockbroker. He joined up to fight in the second Boer War, rising to captain, and was captured by the Boers, then released because of a fractured eardrum. In the Great War, having urged unionists to enlist, he would to his chagrin repeatedly fail his army medical.

Returning from South Africa in 1906 to Belfast and an inheritance of £100,000, he plunged into politics and was elected to the Commons to represent South Down. Throughout, his overriding concern was to keep Ulster within the Union but, unlike Carson, by 1914 he had embraced partition with enthusiasm rather than resignation, and played a key role in the decision that the province would be six counties rather than four or nine.

From 1921 until his death in 1940, by which time he had become 1st Viscount Craigavon, he led Northern Ireland, ironically, as the first prime minister of the only Home Rule parliament to emerge.