ANALYSIS:On this day 100 years ago in Belfast Winston Churchill was attacked by a loyalist mob trying to stop him promoting Home Rule, but his vision was of an Ireland loyal to Britain, writes PAUL BEW
WINSTON CHURCHILL made his first public appearance in Ireland in 1878. In 1877 Disraeli had sent his family into a form of internal exile – the Duke of Marlborough was appointed viceroy in Dublin Castle and his son Randolph decided to act as his aide. Randolph’s wife Jenny – proud mother of cherubic Winston – painted his portrait and placed it on public display at a Dublin exhibition, to the joy of the local press.
He also learned his first political lesson. His nanny warned him against the dangers posed by the Fenians, reasonable advice as in 1882 republican assassins murdered Lord Frederick Cavendish, the incoming chief secretary, in the nearby Phoenix Park.
Churchill’s relationship to Ireland is encapsulated for many by a few famous phrases – his celebrated reference to the integrity of the quarrel of the dreary steeples in Fermanagh and Tyrone, and his sharp critique of de Valera and neutrality in the fight against Hitler. But what did Churchill really think about Ireland?
Churchill’s conversion from Conservatism to Liberalism owed everything to domestic social pressures in Britain and nothing to the Irish question. At the moment of conversion in April 1904 he signalled to the Liberals of northwest Manchester that he was not impressed by the great Gladstonian theme of Home Rule: “I remain of the opinion that a separate parliament for Ireland would be dangerous and impractical.”
His support for the Home Rule Bill in 1912 was always qualified by a view that a substantial partitionist concession should be made to Ulster unionism. This sympathy for their case was combined with exasperation when he felt they rejected reasonable offers of compromise, exasperation which led him to agree to speak to a Belfast nationalist meeting at the Ulster Hall on February 8th, 1912.
The Ulster unionists regarded this as an act of gross provocation. At this venue Winston’s father Randolph had declared in 1886 his passionate identification with their cause. In the end the venue was shifted to Celtic Park in Belfast. Nevertheless an angry Belfast loyalist crowd waited for Churchill and his wife Clemmie outside his hotel in Berry Street. “The roar that greeted the attempt to start the motor car was as angry as had been heard in Belfast for many a day.” Within the narrow confines of the tiny and enclosed Berry Street the car was jostled by beefy shipyard workers including ironically one William Grant who was to be minister of public security in the Ulster unionist government during the second World War.
The Northern Whig, a local liberal unionist paper, wished to downplay the level of threat and argued that the crowd merely wished to send a strong political message. But "it was as rough a five minutes as anybody could desire until at last, with a final rush, the police got the car around the corner and all danger was at an end". Perhaps not all dangers, however. In March Clementine Churchill had a miscarriage and one can only imagine Churchill's anger when at a 1917 dinner Lloyd George twitted him that he fully deserved his Belfast reception.
Churchill’s speech in Belfast has been rather neglected by historians. Unlike 1904, he now defended the creation of a Dublin parliament: “History and poetry, justice and good sense, alike demand that this race, gifted, virtuous and brave, which has lived so long and endured so much should not, in view of her passionate desire, be shut out of the family of nations and should not be lost forever among indiscriminate multitudes of men.” He saw the new relationship of Great Britain and Ireland as fostering “the federation of English speaking peoples all over the world”.
He assumed that the growing Westminster subvention of Ireland undermined the case for significant economic powers for a Dublin parliament. The new loyal Ireland would constitute a strategic security asset for Britain.
Churchill threw himself into the treaty negotiations arising from the Sinn Féin revolution of 1918-21. Accused by Liberal prime minister Asquith of dealing with these issues in a purely pragmatic rather than a Gladstonian high-minded fashion, Churchill replied with a comment marked by a deep sense of political history, self-knowledge and an eye for cant. He argued, with some precision, that Lloyd George’s 1920-21 government had done exactly what Gladstone had done in 1880-82: announced determination to fight nationalist violence, then performed an about face, capitulated to it, and negotiated with its leaders.
During the treaty negotiations Churchill bonded closely with Michael Collins at London dinner parties. His intentions were twofold – to ensure that the new Ireland would retain links, especially on defence, with Britain and to bolster understanding between Collins and Sir James Craig, the new Northern Ireland prime minister.
When Collins showed occasional signs of backsliding from Churchill’s view of this deal, Churchill had no hesitation in throwing military support behind the Ulster unionists. In 1926 he visited Belfast and spoke now as an honoured guest in the Ulster Hall and praised his father’s speech of 1886 whilst still indicating a long-term hankering for a united Ireland linked to Britain.
The electoral rise of de Valera, and with it the dominance of Anglophobic separatism in Irish politics, blighted Churchill’s hopes as did the amazing (to him) decision by the Chamberlain government to evacuate the strategically significant port facilities in Ireland to placate de Valera and to convey the idea to Hitler that negotiation not war was the way to resolve historical disputes.
On April 3rd, 1940, at a moment of extreme vulnerability, much obsession existed in Whitehall about getting Dublin onside. Churchill met David Gray, Roosevelt’s cousin and the incoming US ambassador to Dublin, and told him he would not be party to any attempt to override the wishes of the Ulster unionists to secure this end.
As late as 1948 Harold Nicolson and Sir John Maffey, the British ambassador in Dublin, had to tell Seán MacBride in the Kildare Street club that Churchill’s apparent sympathy for Irish unity was only on the basis of an Ireland more closely linked to Britain.
Today with de Valera’s once hegemonic party now in disarray and Collins’s party never stronger, an Irish government is reconsidering the role of the thousands of Irish soldiers who left the Irish Army for the British army in 1940.
Today Ireland is increasingly nervous about Germany – the gallant allies of the men of 1916 – and its ambitions, and at a time when Ulster unionists were never more über-reasonable. In the past weeks unionist First Minister Peter Robinson made a piece of history by being an honoured guest at a Gaelic football match. What would Churchill think?
Paul Bew is professor of politics at Queen's University Belfast, and an Independent (cross bench) member of the House of Lords. He has just published Enigma: A new Life of Charles Stewart Parnell(Gill and Macmillan 2011).