‘A Protestant Parliament for a Protestant People’?

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 2 (Mar/Apr 2008), Letters, Letters, Northern Ireland 1920 - present, Volume 16


—The errors in Tony Canavan’s piece on the vandalised painting at Stormont (‘A papist painting for a Protestant parliament?’, HI 16.1, Jan./Feb. 2008) lead me to wonder whether he really researched the topic or rather acquired his information at second or third hand. The man who attacked the painting was Charles Forrester, not ‘Forster’. Forrester, a former Communist, was to split bitterly and irrevocably with Ratcliffe’s Scottish Protestant League in the aftermath of the painting incident. The Northern Ireland premier, James Craig, did not utter his ‘Protestant parliament for a Protestant people’ remarks in the context of the debate over the painting. John Nixon was widely thought to have been involved in atrocities such as the McMahon murders but this has never been proved. Speculation about what the painting depicted is nothing new. At the time the Northern Whig newspaper (3 May 1933) suggested that it concerned the campaign led by the then Prince of Orange against the French in the Low Countries before he became king of England. Indeed, the title given to a BBC Northern Ireland radio programme about the affair, scripted by myself and broadcast in September 1983, was ‘The Prince, the Pope and the Portrait’.

—Yours etc.,
Queen’s University


—Did the Unionist leader James Craig really describe Stormont as a ‘Protestant parliament for a Protestant people’, as quoted by Tony Canavan in ‘A papist painting for a Protestant parliament’ (HI 16.1, Jan./Feb. 2008)? This is at variance with the version given by Craig’s biographer, Patrick Buckland (James Craig, Gill and Macmillan, 1980). Citing Northern Ireland House of Commons records, Buckland says that Craig was making a comparison between the north and the south. Craig is recorded as saying that southerners had boasted and ‘. . . still boast of Southern Ireland being a Catholic State. All I boast of is that we are a Protestant Parliament and a Protestant State.’ Note that in this version there is no reference to the northern state and parliament being ‘for a Protestant people’. Critics may draw that inference, but that does not mean that the prime minister uttered those words.
Mr Canavan conjoins his version of that quotation with another comment he says Craig made about his membership of the Orange Order: ‘I am an Orangeman first and a Protestant and a member of parliament afterwards’. There may be a slip of the pen (or typo) here, but, as it stands, this too conflicts with Buckland’s account. Again he quotes Craig from parliamentary records: ‘I am an Orangeman first, and a politician and Member of this Parliament afterwards’ (my italics). Buckland’s highly critical biography generously says that Craig was no bigot and never endorsed the Order’s more extreme sentiments. His controversial remarks about the Protestant nature of the northern state, says his biographer, were made ‘in the heat of debate’ and can be explained as a rhetorical response to events in the south. Nevertheless, Buckland says that these remarks reflect the influence of the Order and the extent to which Craig totally identified with the Protestant/unionist position, and used the power of the state to advance it.

—Yours etc.,

We are grateful to Graham Walker for pointing out (correctly) that James Craig did not utter his ‘Protestant parliament for a Protestant people’ remarks in the context of the painting controversy and to John Draper for pointing out that he never uttered them at all! Like Humphrey Bogart’s ‘Play it again Sam!’ or Jack Lynch’s ‘standing idly by’, it is an interesting contrast between what we think or assume people said and what’s actually on the record.


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