Book review: Churchill and Ireland

Winston Churchill shaped the relationship between Ireland and the UK more than any other British politician but his motivation was not nationalism but personal ambition, according to a new biography, writes Ryle Dwyer.

Paul Bew

Oxford University Press, €26.85

WINSTON CHURCHILL “achieved vastly more in Ireland than any chief secretary of Ireland since the act of union”, in the opinion of Professor Paul Bew, who goes on to conclude that Churchill shaped “the relationship between the two islands more than any other British politician”.

He played a central role in the home rule crisis in Ulster, the independence struggle in the rest of the island, and controversies surrounding Irish neutrality during the Second World War.

On joining the Liberal Party in 1904 Churchill supported Home Rule for the whole island, but then proposed the exclusion of the Unionists counties of Ulster in the hope that they would grow weary of the isolation. 

He argued that the Liberals needed to be more considerate of the views of Unionists while the Conservatives needed to do likewise with Nationalists.

All sides needed to accommodate each other. 

Winston Churchill on May 8, 1945, as the prime minister prepares to make s his VE Day broadcast to the world.
Winston Churchill on May 8, 1945, as the prime minister prepares to make s his VE Day broadcast to the world.

“Meet the grievance, hear the quarrel, bury the hatred,” but above all, Churchill argued, “conciliate, conciliate, and unify — by this and this alone shall we be able to surmount the toils and the perils which the future may have in store.”

He tried to promote accommodation between the Irish factions through a federal solution to the Home Rule crisis, but Edward Carson rejected this, and Churchill reversed himself again. He was even prepared for war with the Orangemen on the eve of the first world war.

The Germans thought Britain was essentially paralysed by the Home Rule controversy. As a result they thought they could ignore the British in the broader European crisis that led to the First World War.

Later, when it came to dealing with Irish nationalism, Churchill was unwilling to adopt a conciliatory approach. 

In 1918 he supported Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson’s call for the introduction of conscription in Ireland. 

“Churchill simply did not see how quickly the political culture of Ireland was changing,” argues Dr Bew. 

“Nor did he understand his own role in that phenomenon.”

The conscription crisis assisted Sinn Féin more than any other issue in gaining its democratic landslide in 1918. 

This electoral success led to the formation of Dáil Éireann and to the Irish War of Independence, during which Churchill adopted an extreme militant approach. 

He advocated confronting Irish republicans with “the most unlimited exercise of rough-handed force”. 

He was even more extreme than Field Marshal Wilson.

“Churchill was much more responsible for the heavy-handedness of the ‘Black and Tans’ in the south or the ‘B Specials’ in the north than Henry Wilson,” writes Dr Bew. 

“It was, however, Henry Wilson who was blamed most and was, indeed, to lose his life on this account.”

“Winston suggested arming 20,000 Orangemen to relieve the troops from the North,” the Field Marshal noted at the time. 

“I told him that would mean ‘taking sides’, would mean civil war and savage reprisals, would mean, at the very least, great tension with America and open rupture with the Pope. Winston does not realise these things in the least and is a perfect idiot as a statesman.”

In December 1920 Michael Collins concluded that Wilson and Churchill were “chiefly responsible for the whole reign of terror”. 

Dr Bew recognises that Churchill was primarily motivated by his own political ambition, which determined his political outlook. But this was no different than most politicians.

The book provides excellent coverage of 1916-22, and establishes a solid basis for understanding the later period. 

Like the proverbial old dog, Churchill did not learn any new tricks. He was always guided by his own political interests. 

Winston Churchill: Engaged in a number of outbursts against Irish neutrality during the war.
Winston Churchill: Engaged in a number of outbursts against Irish neutrality during the war.

Having been conscious of Britain’s reliance on the US during the First World War and its aftermath, he would undoubtedly have been even more conscious of the importance of relations

with the Americans during the early years of the Second World War when Britain was standing virtually alone against Germany.

Dr Bew suspects that Churchill thought Éamon de Valera “was blind to evil of the Nazi regime”, but the real explanation was more likely that it suited Churchill to pretend this and ignore de Valera’s secret co-operation. 

One needs to be particularly careful in determining what Churchill actually believed in relation to Ireland.

As first Lord of the Admiralty he did call for the seizure of Berehaven in October 1939, but he would have known that Chamberlain would baulk at such action. 

What Churchill was really doing with this proposal was diverting attention from a British naval disaster — the sinking of the Royal Oak at anchor at Scapa Flow.

Berehaven could no more have protected Scapa Flow — in the Orkney Islands off the north coast of Scotland — than it could have protected Pearl Harbour from the Japanese. 

Churchill engaged in a number of outbursts against Irish neutrality during the war, such as his further denunciation of the denial of Irish ports in November 1940. 

This was after he learned that a German battleship was attacking a large lightly armed British convoy south of Greenland.

In May 1941 he supported the idea of introducing conscription in Northern Ireland, even though Dr Bew notes that Churchill was on record as pointing out that the threat of conscription in Ireland in 1918 “had been highly counterproductive”.

Did he really think differently in 1941, or was this just another diversion to detract attention from the loss of life in the bombing Belfast and the sinking of HMS Hood, the pride of the Royal Navy, by the Bismarck?

More people were actually killed in one night in Belfast than “any British city outside London except Coventry,” according to the author.

More people were actually killed in Belfast on that one night than had ever been killed in Coventry — some 740 compared to 568. 

Surely Belfast should have been the easiest city to defend in the British Isles in view of its location.

The damage in Belfast was a warning of what might happen to Cork or Limerick with no anti-aircraft defences or bomb shelters. 

The author notes, however, that the Admiralty reckoned that the denial of Irish ports cost 368 ships and 5,070 lives during the war. But those figures were surely just naked propaganda.

Unlike during the First World War, the sea route south of Ireland was too vulnerable to attack from German aircraft based in France after June 1940. 

Thereafter all Britain’s Atlantic shipping went around Northern Ireland, where the British had bases, and de Valera facilitated aircraft based on Lough Erne engaged in shipping protection by authorising them to fly directly over Donegal.

In 1943 the American Minister David Gray persuaded Roosevelt and Churchill to ask for Irish ports, but this was blocked by both the British and American forces, because they were opposed to taking any chance of de Valera might agree, as they had already concluded that the Irish ports would actually be a liability.

“In many instances, Churchill’s Irish stances fitted rather suspiciously all too neatly with his contemporary political ambitions,” Dr Bew notes in his conclusion. 

This was an eminently fair assessment, because he demonstrates that Churchill’s Irish policy was, indeed, “primarily motivated by self-serving opportunism”.


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