‘Use the stick’ Bill Craig dies

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A unionist politician who urged the RUC to “use the stick, use the stick” on civil rights marchers in Derry has died at the age of 86.

William Craig has been described as the man who lit the blue touchpaper on the North’s ‘Troubles’ by banning a civil rights march in the city in October 1968.

Craig, a senior Ulster Unionist who broke away to form the Vanguard movement, passed away this week after earlier suffering a stroke.

His decision to ban the October 5 march in Derry is said to have ignited years of simmering resentment among the North’s Catholic minority and provoked the first violent clashes of what turned out to be three decades of conflict and thousands of deaths.

As Minister of Home Affairs in Terence O’Neill’s unionist government of the late 1960s, Craig ordered the RUC to “use the stick, use the stick” to deal with the October 5 demonstrators.

Craig publicly branded the civil rights movement a front for Irish republican activity and, in December 1968, was dismissed from his ministerial post by PM O’Neill.

He left the Ulster Unionists and formed the Vanguard movement.

There followed a series of Nazi-style rallies where, flanked by motorcycle outriders, Craig inspected lines of masked men.

His speeches became progressively more intemperate and, at one event, before a crowd of 60,000, he said “...if and when the politicians fail us, it may be our job to liquidate the enemy.”

Later in the year, addressing a meeting at the House of Commons at Westminster, he boated he could mobilise 80,000 men. “We are prepared to come out and shoot and kill,” he said. I am prepared to come out and shoot and kill. Let us put the bluff aside.”

In March 1973, he led a walkout from the Ulster Unionist Council when party leader Brian Faulkner won a vote to support William Whitelaw’s proposals for a mould-breaking power-sharing administration between unionists and nationalists.

By the end of the year, when the Sunningdale powersharing agreement deal had been done, Craig vowed to make the administration unworkable.

With new allies, Ian Paisley and the Ulster Unionist leader Harry West, he treated the February 1974 general election as a referendum and, after winning the East Belfast seat at Westminster, became a pivotal figure in the preparations for the paralysing Ulster Workers’ Council general strike, which led to the collapse of Whitelaw’s bold initiative in May.

Having conceived the idea of a “voluntary coalition” to rule Northern Ireland until the Troubles could be sorted out, he secured the support of both the Ulster Unionists and, more surprisingly, the SDLP.

But the initiative was quickly torpedoed by Paisley, who withdrew provisional approval after his supporters refused to countenance it.

In 1978, he rejoined the UUP but, in 1979, his political career effectively ended when he lost his Westminster seat to the DUP’s Peter Robinson.