Faulkner is the elder of two sons of James, owner of the Belfast Collar Company, and Nora Faulkner. His younger brother is Colonel Sir Dennis Faulkner. He is educated initially at Elm Park preparatory school, Killylea, County Armagh, but at 14, preferring to stay in Ireland, is sent to the Church of Ireland-affiliated St. Columba’s College at Whitechurch, County Dublin, although he is Presbyterian. His best friend at the school is Michael Yeats, son of W. B. Yeats. He enters Queen’s University Belfast in 1939 to study law, but, with the advent of World War II, he quits his studies to work full-time in the family shirt-making business. He is the only Prime Minister of Northern Ireland to have been educated in the Irish Free State and one of only two to have been educated in Ireland.
Faulkner becomes involved in unionist politics, the first of his family to do so, and is elected to the Parliament of Northern Ireland as the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) Member of Parliament (MP) for the constituency of East Down in 1949. His vociferous traditional unionist approach to politics ensures him a prominent backbench position. He is, at the time, the youngest ever MP in the Northern Irish Parliament. He is also the first Chairman of the Ulster Young Unionist Council in 1949. In 1956 he is offered and accepts the job of Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Finance, or Government Chief Whip.
In 1959, Faulkner becomes Minister of Home Affairs and his handling of security for most of the Irish Republican Army‘s border campaign of 1956–62 bolsters his reputation in the eyes of the right wing of Ulster unionism.
When Terence O’Neill becomes Prime Minister in 1963 he appoints Faulkner, his chief rival for the job, as Minister of Commerce. He resigns in 1969 over the technicalities of how and when to bring in the local government reforms which the British Labour government is pushing for. This is a factor in the resignation of O’Neill, who resigns as Prime Minister in the aftermath of his failure to achieve a good enough result in the 1969 Northern Ireland general election.
In the ensuing leadership contest, Faulkner loses out again when O’Neill gives his casting vote to his cousin, James Chichester-Clark. In 1970, he becomes the Father of the House. He comes back into government as Minister of Development under Chichester-Clark and in a sharp turn-around, begins the implementation of the political reforms that were the main cause of his resignation from O’Neill’s cabinet. Chichester-Clark himself resigns in 1971 as the political and security situation and the more intensive British interest proves difficult.
Faulkner is elected leader of the Ulster Unionist Party and Prime Minister. In his initial innovative approach to government, he gives a non-unionist, David Bleakley, a former Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP) MP, a position in his cabinet as Minister for Community Relations. In June 1971, he proposes three new powerful committees at Stormont which would give the opposition salaried chairmanships of two of them.
However, this initiative (radical at the time) is overtaken by events. A shooting by soldiers of two nationalist youths in Derry causes the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), the main opposition, to boycott the Stormont parliament. The political climate deteriorates further when, in answer to a worsening security situation, Faulkner introduces internment on August 9, 1971. This is a disaster and causes the situation to worsen.
Despite this, Faulkner continues his radical approach to Northern Irish politics and, following Bleakley’s resignation in September 1971 over the internment issue, appointes Dr. G. B. Newe, a prominent lay Catholic, as Minister of State in the Cabinet Office. His administration staggers on through the rest of 1971, insisting that security is the paramount issue.
In January 1972, an incident occurs during a Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association march in Derry, during which paratroopers shoot and killed thirteen unarmed civilians. A fourteenth civilian dies later. What history has come to know as Bloody Sunday is, in essence, the end of Faulkner’s government. In March 1972, he refuses to maintain a government without security powers which the British government under Edward Heath decides to take back. The Stormont parliament is subsequently prorogued, initially for a period of one year, and following the appointment of a Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, William Whitelaw, direct rule is introduced.
In June 1973, elections are held to a new devolved parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly. The elections split the UUP. Faulkner becomes chief executive in a power-sharing executive with the SDLP and the centre-ground Alliance Party, a political alliance cemented at the Sunningdale Conference that year. The power-sharing Executive lasts only six months and is brought down by a loyalist Ulster Workers’ Council strike in May 1974. In 1974, he loses the leadership of the UUP to anti-Sunningdale elements led by Harry West. He subsequently resigns from the Ulster Unionist Party and forms the Unionist Party of Northern Ireland (UPNI).
The UPNI fares badly in the Northern Ireland Constitutional Convention elections of 1975, winning only five out of the 78 seats contested. Faulkner wins the final seat. In 1976 he announces that he is quitting active politics. He is elevated to the House of Lords in the 1977 New Year Honours list, being created Baron Faulkner of Downpatrick on February 7, 1977.
Faulkner, a keen huntsman, dies on March 3, 1977 following a riding accident while hunting with the County Down Staghounds at the Ballyagherty/Station Road junction near Saintfield, County Down. He is riding at full gallop along a narrow country road when his horse slips, throwing him off and killing him instantly. He is laid to rest at Magherahamlet Presbyterian Church near Spa, County Down where he had been a regular member of the congregation. His twenty-four-day life peerage is thus the shortest-lived until the death of Lord Heywood of Whitehall in 2018 just nine days after ennoblement.