October 14, 2008

by Mary Bromage

ALTHOUGH it is three decades old, Mary Bromage’s Churchill and Ireland is useful for anyone who wants to know where Churchill stood on Ireland and its social and political convolutions‹or who simply cannot understand the internecine “troubles” which have beset Ireland in the 20th century‹this volume is ideal.

Churchill’s involvement with Ireland and its sad, tragic story, began in the 1870s when his father and family spent some three years in Dublin. From there, Mary Bromage follows Churchill’s Irish participation through the Great War, the founding of the Irish Free State in 1921, World War II, and his retirement.

Throughout, one constant tenet of Churchill’s political creed vis-a-vis Ireland was the well-being of Britain; any change in the political structure of the Emerald Isle should be permitted only if such change can be shown not to be detrimental to the integrity of the United Kingdom as a whole.

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This approach, for someone in Churchill’s position, is natural and indeed quite correct; a politician, particularly a member of the Government, who wittingly made concessions which weakened his own country would be most unlikely to have much of a future in politics. Nevertheless this fundamental belief has to be borne in mind when considering any of Churchill’s actions in relation to Ireland and its politics, its economy and its seemingly interminable fratricide.

Lord Randolph Churchill’s 1886 words, “Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right,” referred to the question of Home Rule for the whole of Ireland. When in 1912 his son, in Belfast, quoted his father’s words, he was referring rather to the partition of Ireland into a Catholic South and a Protestant North. Not all agreed: Churchill and his wife were pelted with rotten fish as they boarded their ship for the return trip to England.

The next thirty years led to the divided Ireland we know today. The boundaries controversy alluded to above by Churchill subsided during World War I but quickly reemerged, and in 1920 the Government of Ireland Act offered partition as a fact of life. The following year, the Anglo-Irish Treaty created the Irish Free State. One of the Irish leaders with whom Churchill dealt over the Irish Treaty was Michael Collins, the Irish Republican Army revolutionary turned negotiator who was assassinated shortly afterwards by his own comrades for his efforts. Shortly before his death he sent a message to London: “Tell Winston we could have done nothing without him.”

In the 1930s a border treaty was signed, and in 1937 the Irish Free State wrote itself a new constitution, changing the country’s name to today’s Eire. Nineteen thirty-eight saw completion of Anglo-Irish agreements which, inter alia, meant the relinquishment of Irish ports upon which Britain had depended in World War I. For much of this period Churchill was out of office, but in or out of power he maintained his involvement and interest in Ireland. His sense of history and of justice made him strive to ensure that any change in the status quo did not unduly prejudice either Ulster or Eire. In particular he believed the Loyalists of Northern Ireland should not be coerced into unwanted reunion with their former compatriots in the South, although he also believed that unification would come by free will one day.

With the outbreak of World War II the Irish ports assumed greater significance. Churchill by then was back in the Government and in a position to become actively involved in negotiations. Queenstown and Berehaven in particular, being in the south coast, were ideally situated for refuelling the Royal Navy, extending the range of the ships used to escort trans-Atlantic convoys, and reducing the chance of loss to U-boats.

A darker side of the ports question was the possibility of their use by the German Navy. Though Ireland had proclaimed neutrality, there was a real risk of the ports falling into German hands, either as the result of invasion or by action by the IRA. Aware of the danger, Churchill worked hard to gain some concession from the Irish leader Eamon De Valera, but was only partially successful. His approaches on the same topic to Franklin Roosevelt similarly met with limited success. It would of course have been quite possible for Britain to have seized the ports, but when this was suggested Churchill refused even to consider such a course, saying that this was just the sort of thing he was fighting against.

In the event, the lack of Irish ports was overcome by the combination of using ports in Ulster, rerouting convoys and improving ship design and construction. If World War II saw the peak of Churchill’s career, then the ports in the south of Eire were perhaps the crux of his dealings with that country.

On Ireland as on so many subjects, Churchill’s consistency of approach emerges: that of an Englishman who is also a politician. He endeavours to deal fairly with a complex issue, sometimes with people less than congenial to him, but with the overriding requirements of the security and good of Britain herself. The sheer length of time over which he was connected either intimately or peripherally with the “Irish Question” and the “Troubles” shows that Churchill was unique among British politicians in this as in so many other things.

I was in Dublin in September 1969, just after the present “Troubles” began. En route to town from the airport I asked my taxi driver’s opinion on the renewed terrorism. He thought for a bit and then said: “They’re all bloody mad.” He didn’t say anything else for the rest of the trip, and didn’t need to; he’d said it all quite succinctly. It is not inconceivable that Churchill may have had at times a similar opinion.

SIDEBAR: CHURCHILL ON IRELAND, 1922

I remember on the eve of the Great War we were gathered together at a Cabinet meeting in Downing Street, and for a long time, an hour or an hour and a half, after the failure of the Buckingham Palace Conference, we discussed the boundaries of Fermanagh and Tyrone. Both of the great political parties were at each other’s throats. The air was full of talk of civil war. Every effort was made to settle the matter and bring them together. The differences had been narrowed down, not merely to the counties of Fermanagh and Tyrone, but to parishes and groups of parishes inside the areas of Fennanagh and Tyrone. And yet, even when the differences had been so narrowed down, the problem appeared to be as insuperable as ever, and neither side would agree to reach any conclusion.

Then came the Great War. Every institution, almost, in the world was strained. Great Empires have been overturned. The whole map of Europe has been changed. The position of countries has been violently altered. The modes of thought of men, the whole outlook on affairs, the grouping of parties, all have encountered violent and tremendous changes in the deluge of the world.

But as the deluge subsides and the waters fall short, we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again. The integrity of their quarrel is one of the few institutions that has been unaltered in the cataclysm which has swept the world.

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