August 14, 2016

Finest Hour 173, Summer 2016

Page 39

Paul Bew, Churchill and Ireland, Oxford University  Press, 208 pages, £16.99/ $29.95.
ISBN 978–0198755210

Review by Robert McNamara

Robert McNamara teaches History at Ulster University and is the editor of The Churchills in Ireland 1660– 1965: Connections and Controversies (Irish Academic Press, 2011).

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Churchill and IrelandWhat did Winston Churchill really think about Irish nationalism and unionism?  Indeed who is the real “Churchill” when it came to Ireland: an ardent home ruler or a diehard unionist Tory? Since he, at least on the surface, changed his mind often regarding both the conflicting communities in Ireland, it is rather difficult to identify a coherent thread, let alone an idée fixe.

Remarkably, this is only the fourth book on the subject out of the many thousands published about Churchill. Paul Bew covers the intersections of Churchill’s career and Ireland from the baby in the pram in the viceregal lodge in Phoenix Park to the 1950s. Mainly he negotiates a delicate balancing act mixing praise and criticism in his portrait. Unlike previous books written on the subject, Bew takes a moderate unionist perspective on some of the issues.

Irish opinions on Winston Churchill are mixed, to say the least. The accusations levelled against Churchill are long. He was the son of Lord Randolph, the man who played the “Orange Card.” He supported coercion and, most infamously, reprisals during the 1919–21 Troubles. He was a leading figure in the Treaty that partitioned Ireland and led to a bitter civil war in the south. He showed no respect for Irish neutrality (and by implication independence) during the Second World War. In a victory broadcast in May 1945, he launched a venomous attack on Irish neutrality, which Eamon de Valera defiantly rebuked in a famous reply.

Bew demonstrates that all of Churchill’s virtues and vices are present in his shifting views on Ireland. There is the cynical political opportunist. One of the interpretations offered is that Churchill’s shifts on Irish matters, from implacable unionist to home ruler to advocate of coercion, then conciliation of Sinn Fein strongly relate to what he thought was best for his political career, as he went from Conservative to Liberal and back again.

This shifting sense of not what was right for Ireland but what was right for Churchill explains, at least partially, why the great man could be foolish and wise, impetuous and cautious (sometimes all at the same time) over Irish issues. There is also his magnanimity. He held no hard feelings towards Michael Collins or de Valera. Indeed, he seemed to like them a lot more than they liked him.

Bew argues that Churchill, on balance, was correct on the issue of Ulster. Churchill consistently emphasised the importance of unionist consent to the ending of partition. He also explains that Churchill, after the 1921 treaty negotiations, was clear that the Boundary Commission, on which many Northern Irish Catholics had relied for deliverance from what they understandably considered a sectarian state, was not going to deliver large tracts of Northern Ireland to the Irish Free State.  Churchill envisaged Irish unity on his terms. He saw an Irish Free State, by demonstrating her political and economic stability and her loyal membership of the Commonwealth, as the key driver of a unification process.

Bew, however, points out that Churchill’s decision, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, to bankroll the finances of the Northern Ireland government in the 1920s created a fiscal dependency on the United Kingdom that no independent Irish government has ever had the resources to match and probably, inadvertently, strengthened the unionist case. Moreover, Churchill did not anticipate the revival of the political career of de Valera.

Bew also challenges some of the arguments put forward more recently that Irish neutrality helped Britain, notably intelligence cooperation and large amounts of army recruits and labour for the war effort. While this was undoubtedly true, he makes the case that it was outweighed by the lack of access to the Irish ports, which was a factor in the sinking of many British ships. Moreover, neutrality strengthened the case for partition.  He also points out that Irish diplomats and politicians were at times ambiguous about the outcome of the war. Churchill’s famous offer of unity in June 1940, which is often dismissed by Irish historians, receives more favourable treatment here. Bew concludes that “the truth is that once such a discussion had begun in earnest between London and Dublin, it would have been very difficult to place limitations upon it. The momentum towards Irish unity would have been a very strong one.”

Bew’s moderate unionist and anti-neutrality perspective is likely to draw criticism from Irish nationalists. Nonetheless, this is an impressive work and the most significant overview of Churchill and the Irish that we have.

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