Irish History Live

James Craig

James Craig was born on 8 January 1871 at the Hill, in the Sydenham area of east Belfast. His father had made his millions in the whiskey industry and Craig would go on to inherit a large portion of this fortune on his father’s death. Craig was raised as a Presbyterian and attended Merchiston Castle School in Edinburgh, which was run by the Church of Scotland. After leaving school in 1888 he entered the world of finance and was one of the founding members of the Belfast Stock Exchange, before volunteering for the army during the Boer War.

During the Boer War Craig served in the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles, rising to the rank of Captain. Craig’s experiences during the war clearly influenced the development of his unionist ideology. Patrick Buckland writes that ‘the war had given him a heightened awareness of the Empire and a pride in Ulster’s place in it’.[1]

After his return from Africa, Craig became actively involved in unionist politics and was elected as the Unionist MP for East Down in January 1906. He became Grand Master of the Co. Down Orange Lodge and this close link with the Orange Order would prove to be both beneficial and detrimental at different times during his political career.

James Craig played a key role in the Ulster Crisis of 1912-14. Whilst he allowed Sir Edward Carson to present the campaign’s public image, Craig was responsible for the tight organisation of the movement that was crucial to its success in resisting the implementation of the Third Home Rule Bill.[2] Craig was also a leading member of the commission established to prepare a constitution for the proposed provisional government, which was to be assembled in the event of Britain attempting to force Ulster to accept Home Rule. Craig regularly travelled to England and Scotland in order to rally British unionist support for Ulster’s cause. Craig’s impressive organisational skill was further highlighted in his orchestration of the signing of the Solemn League and Covenant on 28 September 1912 and in the role that he played in the establishment of the Ulster Volunteer Force as a well-trained paramilitary force. During this period of crisis, Craig became a strong proponent of partition and argued effectively for a six county Northern Ireland, in order to ensure the maintenance of a strong unionist majority.

On 26 January 1921, James Craig became the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland. Craig’s tenure as leader of Northern Ireland contained several major achievements. He was largely responsible for the establishment of the ministries of the Northern Irish government and continued his electoral success by holding his North Down seat from 1921 until his death in 1940. Craig was also successful in resisting attempts by the British and Irish governments, such as the Boundary Commission of 1923-5, to reopen the constitutional question. It is largely thanks to Craig’s determination that Northern Ireland maintained its territorial integrity as set down in 1921. The abolishment of proportional representation in Northern Irish local government and parliamentary elections took place in 1929 at Craig’s recommendation. This can be acknowledged as an achievement for Craig as it was a key factor in strengthening the electoral dominance of the Ulster Unionist Party. Craig was also created Viscount Craigavon of Stormont in 1927.

 As a result of his failing health, Craig became less involved in the everyday running of the Northern Ireland government in the 1930s. However, his commitment to maintaining the constitutional integrity of Northern Irish state remained strong. [3] When Eamon De Valera published his new constitution for the Irish Free State in 1937, Craig called a general election in Northern Ireland in January 1938. The election resulted in a further victory for Craig’s Unionists and reaffirmed Northern Ireland’s position within the United Kingdom.

James Craig died on 24 November 1940 and was entombed on the grounds of Stormont Castle. Craig will always be viewed as a staunch defender of Northern Ireland’s constitutional integrity by the unionist community and his legacy was further enshrined in 1965 when the newly built town of Craigavon was named after him.


[1] P. Buckland, James Craig (Dublin, 1980), p. 8.

[2] A. T. Q. Stewart, The Ulster crisis (London, 1969), p. 42.

[3] D. G. Boyce, ‘James Craig’ in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (accessed 2 May 2011).


Further Reading

Boyce, D. G., ‘James Craig’ in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Buckland, P., Irish unionism 2: Ulster unionism and the origins of Northern Ireland 1886-1922 (Dublin, 1973).

Buckland, P., The factory of grievances: devolved government in Northern Ireland 1921-1939 (Dublin, 1979).

Buckland, P., James Craig (Dublin, 1980).

Ferriter, D., The transformation of Ireland 1900-2000 (London, 2005).

Hennessey, T., A history of Northern Ireland 1920-1996 (Dublin, 1997).

Stewart, A. T. Q., The Ulster crisis (London, 1969).


This entry was written by Chris Irvine. At the time of writing Chris is a third-year student in the School of History and Anthropology at Queen’s University Belfast studying for a Single Honours BA degree in Modern History. His research interests include Modern Irish and European history.  


To read another entry written by Chris Irvine, please click here.

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