By David Freeman
Abstract: The 2008 International Churchill Conference in Boston had as its theme “Churchill and Ireland,” and numerous papers have been published in Finest Hour 142-145 under the rubric “Churchill Proceedings,” which are downloadable by registered users of this website.
One of the most important omissions from the printed pages was the following paper by Finest Hour contributing editor David Freeman, who delivered the original in person. The paper in its present form was substantially enlarged for a forthcoming book, The Churchills and Ireland: Connections and Controversies from the 1660s to the 1960s (Irish Academic Press). It is based on Dr. Freeman’s presentation at a conference of the same name in Belfast in June 2009 sponsored by the University of Ulster. Copyright © David Freeman, 2010.
Winston Churchill enjoyed a good joke. According to Dennis Kelly, one of Churchill’s former literary assistants, the following was one of his boss’s favorite stories, one that ‘he used to adore telling’: ‘British bomber over Berlin, caught in the searchlights, flak coming up, one engine on fire, rear-gunner wounded, Irish pilot mutters, “Thank God Dev kept us out of this bloody war.”’i
‘Dev’, of course, was Eamon de Valera who as Taoiseach maintained a policy of neutrality for Ireland throughout the Second World War despite the fact many thousands of Irish citizens served in the armed forces of the United Kingdom and other Allied powers while thousands more moved to Britain to perform vital war work in the civilian sector. Clearly the irony was not lost on Churchill, but the British Prime Minister never understood the domestic political reality in Ireland during the war, resented de Valera’s stance, and failed to acknowledge the tacit assistance the Irish government did provide in the war against Germany. The source of both Churchill’s attitude and that of the Irish population which de Valera’s policy of neutrality reflected obviously pre-dated the 1939-45 conflict. Still, it was never in Churchill’s nature to nurse a grudge, and he was happy to pursue a rapprochement with the Taoiseach when hostilities ended.
They were certainly an amazing pair sitting down to lunch in Downing Street in 1953: Winston Churchill and Eamon de Valera, both in their times the dominant political personalities of their countries. Each featured in the story of Ireland’s journey to independence, and by the time they first shook hands each had been reacting to the words, initiatives, and policies of the other for more than thirty years. Yet, the luncheon was the only occasion in which they spoke face to face, and it came late in each man’s career. In assessing what Churchill and de Valera thought of one another, therefore, the historian is tempted to reply ‘not much,’ not as sarcastic comment, though, but rather as quantitative analysis. The two men only had the one experience upon which to form personal impressions. Tracing out the story of the relationship must depend, then, primarily on examining what each man had to say about the other from a distance. Still, in important ways each influenced the career of the other, and the subject calls for examination.
Prior to their 1953 meeting, there had been three distinct periods when the careers of Churchill and de Valera intersected albeit each time indirectly. The first came during the struggle for Irish independence when Churchill served as Colonial Secretary in 1921/2. The second period started when de Valera first became Taoiseach in 1932 ‘with every resolve,’ as Churchill saw it, ‘to violate the [1921Anglo-Irish] Treaty in every way possible.’ii This period culminated with the return of the Treaty Ports to Ireland by the Chamberlain government in 1938. The third and final phase started with the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939 when Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty felt it imperative to re-visit the matter of the Treaty Ports and de Valera felt it even more imperative to keep his nation neutral. This quarrel simmered after Churchill became prime minister in 1940 and continued until one final initiative was made following the attack on Pearl Harbor. After that Churchill had little time for de Valera except as we shall see for the odd notable occasion.
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The first phase of interaction between Churchill and de Valera started with the Anglo-Irish Treaty talks in 1921. However, apart from a speech critical of de Valera’s rejection of possible treaty terms made by British Prime Minister David Lloyd George that summer, Churchill left no contemporary account of his views of de Valera during the talks that ensued. Instead Churchill set down his assessment of de Valera only in retrospect when he published his book The Aftermath in 1929. This means Churchill’s recorded views of de Valera’s actions before and during the treaty negotiations in 1921 are coloured by Churchill’s impressions of de Valera’s subsequent behavior during the period of treaty ratification and implementation in 1922. As Colonial Secretary, Churchill by his own admission played only a marginal role in the treaty negotiations and the events leading up to them. He did, however, have direct responsibility for Ireland once the treaty had been signed. Thus, de Valera’s opposition to the treaty caused Churchill much anxiety that lingered for years afterward.
Churchill’s ‘backward’ view of events in his memoirs helps explain the withering sarcasm he reserved for de Valera when he wrote his account of Irish independence in 1929. For example, when describing a meeting between de Valera and Northern Irish leader Sir James Craig for secret talks in May 1921, Churchill recorded that: ‘At the end of four hours Mr de Valera’s recital of Irish grievances had only reached the iniquities of Poyning’s Act in the days of Henry VII.’iii Similarly, Churchill expressed his displeasure for what he saw as de Valera’s time-wasting posturing to establish the terms on which the forthcoming treaty talks would take place. ‘Mr de Valera,’ Churchill wrote, ‘would no doubt have gone on indefinitely fighting theoretical points without the slightest regard to the resultant misery and material ruin of his countrymen.’iv
As a member of the British team that negotiated the 1921 Treaty, Churchill felt a sense of comradeship with those primarily responsible for concluding the agreement. The political sacrifices made on the British side by his Cabinet colleagues Lloyd George, Austen Chamberlain, and his close friend Lord Birkenhead combined with the supreme sacrifices made on the Irish side by Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins deeply resonated with Churchill’s sense of history and chivalry. Against this background, Churchill saw de Valera as both a malignant force and shameful opportunist who disgracefully used the sacrifices of his countrymen to advance his own career.
Churchill again resorted to satire when describing de Valera’s actions during the period of treaty ratification and implementation in 1922. Churchill believed de Valera’s pronouncements clearly committed him to the spirit if not the exact form of the treaty and expected the Irish leader to ‘stand by his colleagues’ who signed the agreement and ‘make allowances for their difficulties.’ ‘But we speedily learned,’ Churchill observed, ‘that Mr. de Valera was still maundering about Poyning’s Act, and that his view of Anglo-Irish relations and of the griefs of Ireland had not yet reached the sixteenth-century part of the story.’v In fact, of course, de Valera had quite caught up with the times and come out firmly in opposition to the Treaty. It was this action that so embittered Churchill.
If de Valera had accepted defeat gracefully in 1922 and taken up a position of political opposition within the structure of the new Irish Free State, Churchill most likely would have shown him some measure of respect. But de Valera could not accept the new structure as in any way legitimate. He viewed the treaty as a document that had been signed under duress. Lloyd George, after all, had threatened the Irish delegation that without their signatures on the treaty there would be ‘war—and war within three days.’vi Consequently de Valera felt justified in resorting to extra-legal means to oppose the establishment of a ‘Free State’ which he viewed as an imposition of the enemy. It was this decision more than anything else that led de Valera to incur the wrath of Churchill. Above all Churchill believed in the institution of parliamentary democracy and never failed to castigate those whom he perceived as throwing over this priceless inheritance.
As the cabinet minister responsible for the transfer of power from British to Irish authority following the signing of the treaty, Churchill was anxious that the necessary elections in Ireland take place as soon as possible. During the first months of 1922 he repeatedly urged the Provisional Government led by Collins and Griffith to expedite the process but appreciated their enormous difficulties. As Churchill saw it, ‘Mr de Valera, knowing himself to be in a minority, and, as it proved, in a small minority, set to work by every means in his power to obstruct, to delay, and if possible to prevent, such an election.’ ‘For this purpose,’ Churchill continued, de Valera ‘had recourse to the Irish Republican Army.’vii In fact the IRA was itself split over the treaty. But a radical Republican rump, Churchill asserted ‘was always available, and around them and behind them gathered those predatory elements which in a greater or less degree exist in every society and claim to lead in times of revolution.’viii
The preceding remarks, taken from the text of Churchill’s 1929 account The Aftermath, were based on speeches that Churchill made in Parliament in 1922 and, if anything, constitute a toned-down version of the rhetoric he originally put on record. For example, while addressing the House of Commons on 25 March 1922, Churchill said that he was encouraged for the hope of a settlement when as he saw it de Valera resorted to desperate remarks about the need ‘to wade through blood’ in order to get freedom. ‘In this case you will notice,’ Churchill observed, ‘that it is Irish blood that Mr de Valera was going to wade through.’ ‘There is the true spirit of madness,’ Churchill insisted.