Terence O'Neill was born on the 10 September 1914 at 29 Ennismore Gardens, Hyde Park, London. He was the youngest son of Lady Annabel Hungerford Crewe-Milnes (daughter of the Marquess of Crewe) and Captain Arthur O'Neill of Shane's Castle, Randalstown, the first MP to be killed as a result of World War I. The family assumed the surname O'Neill by royal license in lieu of their original name Chichester. The Chichesters trace their lineage to the name O'Neill through Mary Chichester, daughter of Henry O'Neill of Shane's Castle.
Terence O'Neill grew up in London and was educated at West Downs School, Winchester and Eton College. He spent summer holidays in Ulster. Following school he spent a year in France and Germany and then worked in the City of London and Australia. In May 1940 he received a commission at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and went on to serve in the Irish Guards during WWII, in which both his brothers died. Like many Unionist politicians, the rank he held during the war would follow him in his political career, hence "Captain" Terence O'Neill. Although coming from a long line of Protestants he attempted to reconcile the Catholics and the Protestants of Northern Ireland.
On 4 February 1944, he married Katharine Jean (16 January 1915 - 15 July 2008), the daughter of William Ingham Whitaker, of Pylewell Park, Lymington, Hampshire. They had one son, Patrick (b. 1945), and one daughter, Anne (b. 1947).
At the end of 1945, O'Neill and his family went to live in Northern Ireland in a converted Regency rectory near Ahoghill Co. Antrim. In a by-election in 1946 he was elected as the Unionist MP for the Bannside constituency in the Stormont Parliament. O'Neill served in a series of junior positions. He was Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health and Local Government from February 1948 until November 1953 when he was appointed Chairman of Ways and Means and Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons. In 1953, he served as High Sheriff of Antrim. He was Minister of Home Affairs from April to October 1956 when he was appointed Minister of Education.
In 1963, he succeeded Viscount Brookeborough as Prime Minister. He introduced new policies that would have been unheard of with Brookeborough as Prime Minister. He aimed to end sectarianism and to bring Catholics and Protestants into working relationships. A visit to a convent proved controversial among many Protestants. He also had aspirations in the industrial sector, seeking improved relations with the trade union movement and attracting new investment from abroad helping to replace failing industry in Northern Ireland. O'Neill seemed to strongly believe in industrialisation and modernisation. However, it is clear that he was in some ways trying to prevent the Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP) from gaining ground. Northern Ireland was influenced by British politics so the arrival of Harold Wilson in Downing Street meant the NILP had a significant ally in Harold Wilson, who was not a committed unionist, so that O'Neill was the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland who could not rely on the support of the UK Government.
As O'Neill promoted industrialisation and modernisation, the Taoiseach, Seán Lemass was doing similar things in the Republic of Ireland, thus leading to the first real rapprochement between the two jurisdictions since Partition. In January 1965 O'Neill invited the Taoiseach for talks in Belfast. O'Neill met with strong opposition from his own party, having informed very few of the visit, and from Ian Paisley, who rejected any dealings with the Republic. Paisley and his followers threw snowballs at Lemass' car during the visit. In February, O'Neill visited Lemass in Dublin. Opposition to O'Neill's reforms was so strong that in 1967 George Forrest - the MP for Mid Ulster, who supported the Prime Minister - was pulled off the platform at the Twelfth of July celebrations in Coagh, County Tyrone and kicked unconscious by fellow members of the Orange Order.
In December 1967 Taoiseach Jack Lynch travelled to Stormont for his first meeting with O'Neill. On 8 January 1968 they met again in Dublin. On 19 January 1968 O'Neill made a speech marking five years in office to members of the Irish Association, calling for "a new endeavour by organisations in Northern Ireland to cross denominational barriers and advance the cause of better community relations". On 20 May 1968 O'Neill was pelted with eggs, flour and stones by members of the Woodvale Unionist Association who disapproved of his perceived conciliatory policies.
In 1968, the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) began street demonstrations. The march in Derry on 5 October 1968, banned by William Craig the Minister of Home Affairs, was met with violence from the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) who batoned protesters, among them prominent politicians. The O'Neill government had a hard time dealing with this kind of violence and so Harold Wilson summond O'Neill to Downing Street. The Stormont cabinet minutes from the 14th of October show O'Neill recalling his time in Britain. He states that Britain has threatened to enter forcefully themselves O'Neill could not manage to gain control. Finally he states that if they can not manage it politically then they will be forced into a period of governing Ulster by police power alone. This violence was recorded by television cameras and broadcast worldwide. The date of this march is taken by many historians as being the start of the Northern Ireland Troubles, although other dates are arguable; there had been sporadic political violence in the region since the 1920s.
In response to these events O'Neill introduced a Five Point Reform Programme. This granted a number of the concessions that NICRA had demanded but importantly it did not include one man one vote. Despite this the NICRA felt it had made some ground and agreed to postpone its marches. Things were expected to improve but many in the Catholic community felt let down by the limited reforms. A group was formed by university-based activists including Bernadette Devlin and Michael Farrell, named People's Democracy, which began a four-day march from Belfast to Derry on 1 January 1969. On the fourth day the march was met at Burntollet Bridge by around 200 hardline unionists. Although many RUC men were present during the attack none intervened. It later emerged that many of the assailants were in fact off-duty policemen. Many marchers were injured, 13 requiring hospital treatment. The Burntollet attack sparked several days of rioting between the RUC and Catholic protesters in the Bogside area of Derry.
In February 1969, O'Neill called a surprise general election because of the turmoil inside the Ulster Unionist Party caused by ten to 12 anti-O'Neill dissident members of the Unionist Parliamentary Party and the resignation of Brian Faulkner from O'Neill's Government.
From O'Neill's point of view the election results were inconclusive. O'Neill in particular was humiliated by his near defeat in his own constituency of Bannside by Ian Paisley. He resigned as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party and as Prime Minister in April 1969 after a series of bomb explosions on Belfast's water supply by the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) brought his personal political crisis to a head.
In an interview with the Belfast Telegraph published on 10 May 1969 he stated: "It is frightfully hard to explain to Protestants that if you give Roman Catholics a good job and a good house they will live like Protestants because they will see neighbours with cars and television sets; they will refuse to have eighteen children. But if a Roman Catholic is jobless, and lives in the most ghastly hovel he will rear eighteen children on National Assistance. If you treat Roman Catholics with due consideration and kindness they will live like Protestants in spite of the authoritative nature of their Church..."
He retired from Stormont politics in January 1970 when he resigned his seat having become the Father of the House in the previous year. In that year he was created a life peer as Baron O'Neill of the Maine of Ahoghill in the County of Antrim.
He spent his last years at Lisle Court, Lymington, Hampshire, though he continued to speak on the problems of Northern Ireland in the House of Lords where he sat as a cross-bencher. He was also a trustee of the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust. He died at his home of cancer on 12 June 1990 survived by his wife, son, and daughter. His estate was valued at £443, 043: probate, 28 Aug 1990, CGPLA England and Wales.
|16. Rev. Robert Chichester|
|8. William O'Neill, 1st Baron O'Neill|
|4. Edward O'Neill, 2nd Baron O'Neill|
|18. Robert Torrens|
|9. Henrietta Torrens|
|2. Arthur O'Neill|
|20. Thomas Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald|
|10. Thomas Cochrane, 11th Earl of Dundonald|
|21. Katherine Corbet Barnes|
|5. Lady Louisa Cochrane|
|22. William Mackinnon of Mackinnon FRS, FSA, DL, JP|
|11. Louisa Mackinnon|
|1. Terence O'Neill|
|24. Robert Pemberton Milnes, of Fryston Hall|
|12. Richard Monckton Milnes, 1st Baron Houghton|
|25. The Hon. Henrietta Monckton|
|6. Robert Crewe-Milnes, 1st Marquess of Crewe|
|26. John Crewe, 2nd Baron Crewe|
|13. The Hon. Annabel Crewe|
|27. Henrietta Walker-Hungerford|
|3. Lady Annabel Crew-Milnes|
|28. Rt. Hon. Sir James Graham, 2nd Bt.|
|14. Sir Frederick Graham, 3rd Bt.|
|29. Fanny Callender|
|7. Sibyl Graham|
|30. Edward Seymour, 12th Duke of Somerset|
|15. Lady Jane St. Maur Seymour|