Winston Churchill: ‘I hope there will be a united Ireland’

Winston Churchill, who died 50 years ago on January 24th, 1965, supported brutal military actions in Ireland but also had great affection for the country. It was seldom requited


When Winston Churchill died 50 years ago, President Éamon de Valera paid tribute to him as a great Englishman but could not forebear from describing him also as “a dangerous enemy of the Irish people”.

This view was widely shared. It found some justification in Churchill’s support for the disgraceful policy of reprisals by crown forces during the war of independence and his opposition in the 1930s to moves towards greater independence. It was also held against him that he was a bitter opponent of this country’s wartime neutrality.

For all that, Winston Churchill cannot be described justly as an enemy of the Irish people. He had an abiding affection for Ireland where he had spent some boyhood years while his grandfather, the Duke of Marlborough, was lord lieutenant.

Churchill was free of the condescending attitudes to the Irish found among many of his contemporaries in England. He treasured friendships across a wide spectrum of Irish people during his life beginning with Burke Cochrane, the Irish-American orator to whose guidance on the art of public speaking Churchill felt indebted.

As a member of Asquith’s Liberal government between 1908 and 1914, Churchill was an enthusiastic supporter of home rule, albeit that he believed the right of the unionist population in northeast Ulster to opt out had to be respected,. He even persuaded his Monaghan cousin Shane Leslie to stand for election on behalf of the Irish Party. Churchill himself had once to be protected by the police from an Orange mob in Belfast.

Appalled – as were most people in Ireland – by the assassination of police that set off the war of independence in 1919, Churchill was complicit in the response of Lloyd George’s government in 1920 that included indiscriminate reprisals. This alienated moderate opinion in England and Churchill led the volte face in the government in 1921 that culminated in the treaty setting up the Irish Free State.

This volte face followed a stinging letter of reprimand to Churchill from his wife, Clemmie, urging him to put himself in the place of the Irish: “You would not be cowed by reprisals which fall like rain from heaven upon the just and upon the unjust: It always makes me unhappy and disappointed when I see you inclined to take for granted that the rough iron-fisted ‘Hunnish’ way will prevail.”

During the treaty negotiations and in their aftermath Churchill struck up a friendly relationship with Michael Collins, who appreciated his support and goodwill. At the end of the negotiations for the 1925 agreement relieving the Irish government of some financial obligations in the treaty, President Cosgrave felt moved to express his personal gratitude to Churchill, who was then chancellor of the exchequer, for what he described as his generosity.

In the following years, Churchill was involved in negotiations to secure Irish unity on the basis of the kingdom of Ireland initiated by Kevin O’Higgins, whom he described memorably as “a figure from the antique world cast in bronze”.

Churchill turned sour when in the 1930s de Valera unpicked the treaty settlement and felt that by their pusillanimous acceptance of this, British governments let down those in Ireland who had negotiated that settlement and risked their lives defending it.

Implicit in the treaty was a promise of Irish support in war, which Churchill saw as dishonoured by the wartime neutrality. Even that did not make him anti-Irish. In his speech on VE day upbraiding de Valera for Irish neutrality he was careful to pay tribute to “the thousands of southern Irishmen who hastened to the battlefront to prove their ancient valour”:

“I think of Lieutenant-Commander Esmonde VC, of Lance-Corporal Kennealy VC, and Captain Fegan VC, and other Irish heroes whose names I could easily recite and then I must confess that bitterness by Britain against the Irish race dies in my heart. I can only pray that, in years that I shall not see, the shame will be forgotten and the glories will endure and the people of the British Isles and of the British Commonwealth will walk together in mutual comprehension and forgiveness.’

Even in the acrimonious days of 1948 when we were leaving the Commonwealth, Churchill paid tribute in parliament to “the orderly Christian society with a grace and culture of its own, and a flash of sport thrown in, built up in southern Ireland in spite of many gloomy predictions”. “I shall always hope,” he added, “that some day there will be a united Ireland.” But he insisted that this could come about only with the consent of Northern Ireland. “They should be courted,” he said, “they should not be raped.”

He repeated this conviction when he met de Valera for the first and only time at 10 Downing Street in September 1953. When the lunch was over, Churchill remarked to his physician Lord Moran: “A most agreeable occasion. I like the man.”

Sadly his magnanimity was not reciprocated.

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