He was the one who conceived the idea of forming the notorious Auxiliaries to serve as special police in Ireland during the War of Independence.
They perpetrated the infamous incident at Croke Park – on Bloody Sunday, November 21, 1920 – when they fired indiscriminately into a crowd of spectators at a football match, killing 15 totally innocent people, including one of the footballers on the field.
Churchill was also part of the British team that negotiated the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921. His main contribution was insisting that Britain should retain the right to use any Irish bases it desired in time of war, but those rights were renounced in 1938.
Today, President Mary McAleese is opening a heritage centre on Bere Island. As mentioned elsewhere (page 9), Churchill came up with the harebrained proposal to seize the base at Berehaven in October 1939. Was he really that stupid?
De Valera had already secretly assured the British he would give them all possible aid short of declaring war. Time proved that he delivered on the promise, but Churchill tried to turn the clock back and act as if Ireland were still a British colony.
Anthony Eden – one of Churchill’s strongest backers and the man who ultimately succeeded him as Conservative leader – thought Churchill’s attitude towards Berehaven was “madness.” Yet there was method to that madness. Churchill used Ireland to cover up British disasters during the war, such as the sinking of the battleship Royal Oak at anchor in Scapa Flow, with the loss of 833 sailors.
Churchill was the minister in charge of the British navy. When he suggested seizing Berehaven, the cabinet forgot about the Royal Oak disaster. Ireland could have done no more to protect Scapa Flow than it could have to prevent the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour two years later.
Whatever importance Berehaven might have had to the British in 1939, this vanished with the fall of France in June 1940. Thereafter, even if the British had Irish bases, ships approaching Britain via the south of Ireland would have been extremely vulnerable to attacks from German aircraft and submarines based in France. Hence British shipping went around Northern Ireland, where they already had bases.
On November 5, 1940, as the American people were voting in the presidential election, Churchill lashed out publicly against the denial of the Irish bases. “The fact that we cannot use the south and west coasts of Ireland to refuel our flotillas and aircraft, and thus protect the trade by which Ireland as well as Great Britain lives,” he said, “is a most heavy and grievous burden and one which should never have been placed on our shoulders, broad though they be.”
The remarks came out of the blue. Some feared Churchill believed that once President Franklin D Roosevelt was safely re-elected, Britain could seize Irish bases without having to fear any reaction from the US. But it is more likely Churchill was again diverting attention from another disaster.
Word had just been received from mid-Atlantic that the German battleship Admiral Scheer was attacking a convoy of 39 ships bound for Britain. The British had been unaware there was a battleship loose in the Atlantic, so the Jervis Bay, a lightly armed merchant cruiser, was all that was protecting the convoy.
That night Berlin radio announced the Germans had wiped out the convoy. All further convoys were suspended for what became the longest delay of the war. Most of the ships in the convoy had actually escaped thanks to the delaying tactics of the Jervis Bay, but it was some days before this became apparent.
On Easter Monday, April 15, 1941, Dublin celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Easter Rising. People had reason to be particularly thankful for Irish independence the following night when some 180 German bombers attacked Belfast, killing at least 745 people, compared with the highest estimate of 554 people killed in the infamous bombing of Coventry the previous November.
Belfast should have been one of the easiest places for the British to defend against German attacks on account of its geographic location, but the city was blitzed four times by the German aircraft in the four weeks from April 8 to May 6, 1941. A total of 1,100 people were killed in the raids. About 3,200 houses were destroyed and 56,000 others damaged. Some 220,000 people abandoned the city to live elsewhere, at least temporarily.
In the aftermath of the bombing Churchill backed a plan to introduce conscription in Northern Ireland. Many Protestant unionists were working in defence-related plants and yards, so they would have been exempt. It was expected Catholic nationalists would be most likely to be drafted. This would obviously lead to serious complications, so Churchill was probably using the controversy as another diversionary stunt. President Roosevelt and prime ministers Mackenzie King of Canada and Robert Menzies of Australia all warned Churchill that conscription difficulties in Northern Ireland would cause serious problems for their governments, but Churchill pressed ahead. Virtually all of his cabinet opposed him.
Alexander Cadogan, permanent under secretary at the Foreign Office, noted that Churchill was in the habit of jumping to ill-considered decisions and then arguing that to recede from them would demonstrate weakness. “It shows stupidity to jump to them,” Cadogan noted.
THE conscription controversy actually drew attention away from the naval conflict in the Atlantic, in the days surrounding the sinking of The Hood, the pride of the Royal Navy, by the German battleship Bismarck. In the following days the British searched frantically for The Bismarck. On the morning of May 27, Churchill gave full play to his sense of the dramatic as he told parliament that British aircraft had located and damaged the Bismarck, and the Royal Navy was moving in for the kill.
He then announced that the proposed introduction of conscription in Northern Ireland was being dropped because “it would be more trouble that it was worth”. By switching from the Bismarck drama to conscription, he “left the House with a sense of coitus interruptus,” one member noted. Suddenly an aide conspicuously passed a note for the prime minister.
“I crave your indulgence, Mr Speaker, ” Churchill said. “I have just received news that the Bismarck has been sunk.”
The chamber erupted into wild cheering and the conscription crisis was forgotten. The focus of the war turned away from Ireland for the remainder of the conflict following the German invasion of Russia a few weeks later.
Churchill was a master propagandist who did more than anyone to distort the true benevolence of Irish neutrality towards the Allies. With his flair for publicity, especially self-publicity, he became the personification of John Bull, with the bulldog spirit, but his distortions in relation to Ireland were pure bullshit.