Articles

UK Parliament Open Lecture – Churchill and Ireland

February 7, 2020


Open Lecture delivered by Lord Bew: Churchill
and Ireland [26 Jan 2015, Queen’s University, Belfast] Thank you very much for all your help in organising
this event. And may I say how glad I am to see so many friends in the room. Daniel has explained the work of the Parliament
Outreach programme and one of the key things it’s trying to do this year is assist with
something else I’m involved with at Westminster, as co-chair of the 2015 Anniversaries committee. The main work of the 2015 Anniversaries committee
is frankly Magna Carta, but you will all be aware that it also covers the 50th anniversary
of the death of Winston Churchill. And it seemed appropriate therefore that we would
have in this particular week a number of events commemorating Winston Churchill’s life. There
will be events later on in the week in Westminster. I want to start, in talking about Churchill
and Ireland, the most important point I want to make is actually to agree with something
written on Saturday in the Irish Times by Charles Lysaght, when he talks about ‘an
absence of condescension’ in Churchill’s attitude towards Ireland. There is always
an engagement – sometimes an angry engagement but never dismissive; sometimes a warm engagement.
I want to explain to you why – in terms of the practical political history, in terms
of Churchill’s temperament – why that is the case. What is absolutely missing is any sense of
condescension in what he says or writes about Ireland, north or south, Nationalist or Unionist.
Sometimes there’s quite a lot of anger but that’s not the same thing. Churchill told Parliament in December 1925:
‘The Irish Question can only be settled when the human question is settled.’ And
that kind of sums up… there was a slight ruefulness in that because one of the things
that Churchill had already experienced is that they were not great at gratitude. He had twice lost his parliamentary seat,
first of all in Manchester in 1908, and secondly in 1922 in Dundee.
On both occasions he was supported by the official Nationalist leadership – John Redmond
in 1908 and in Dundee in 1922. On both occasions the significant reason for his defeat was
the defection of the Irish electorate which turned on him and didn’t actually vote for
him. I’ll try and explain why later. But the two occasions on which Churchill lost
his seat he had the support of mainstream Irish Nationalism – the Free State Government
on the second occasion – and it wasn’t good enough with the Irish voters. So he had a certain rueful attitude towards
the Irish. His earliest memories are however Irish memories.
From 1877 to 1880 his grandfather was appointed as Lord Lieutenant in Dublin by Disraeli and
his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, then only 28 years old, came to Dublin to act as
a kind of aide to his father as Lord Lieutenant. Churchill therefore, his earliest memories
– as he makes quite clear in his autobiography – are Irish and Dublin memories. His nurse
warns him against ‘the Fenians’ – they were very dangerous men – they might come
and get you. He actually explains very interestingly he
was given a childhood present, a drum, which he had received from Thomas Burke. Now Thomas
Burke was the leading civil servant in Ireland at the time – a catholic civil servant at
the top of the civil service system of governance in Ireland. He was the victim, along with
Lord Frederick Cavendish, of the Phoenix Park murders when he was sliced to pieces by the
‘Irish National Invincibles’ – and Churchill says in his memoirs that he can’t actually
remember what Burke looked like, as he’d left Dublin, but he could remember the present
that he’d received from Thomas Burke. So these early political conversations or
experiences are very much part of Churchill’s life and he makes this quite clear that the
earliest things he can remember are things, conversations, about Dublin and indeed conversations
about Dublin politics, of a fairly elementary sort, it might be said. Now when he died the Irish Times had a leader
which referred to him coming to Dublin at this early youthful age and says it was ‘the
beginning of his long, unhappy relationship with Ireland’.
I have to say that of all the things written in obituaries at the time – most of them libatory
– that would have upset him most of all. He did not regard his relationship with Ireland
as long and unhappy; he regarded it as punctuated by considerable areas of success, areas of
sharpness at certain times but always a certain degree of warmth and he would have been disappointed
by that. He was aware that he wasn’t loved by everybody
in Ireland. There was a moment in Belfast in 1942 when RTE had a quiz show – a very
popular radio quiz show at the time – called Question Time. And the contestant is asked:
‘Who is the biggest teller of Fairy Tales in the world?’
And the correct answer was supposed to be Hans Christian Anderson but the contestant
replied: ‘Winston Churchill’ – and the whole audience laughed its head off – to the great
rage of the English population when they discovered that this particular, largely nationalist,
audience had been so expressing themselves in Belfast in 1942. There is another moment I recall of a similar
sort relating to 1944-45 when Churchill’s prestige was probably at its greatest and
his world renown was greatest. It’s from Hugh Leonard’s play, Da, and I hope you’ll
forgive the slightly bad language – or more than slightly bad language – that’s about
to follow if I’m to quote the play. And, by the way, this is a real – not an imagined
– incident by Hugh Leonard because in his biography he makes clear that this was a real
incident that actually happened in his life. Leonard’s father in late 1944/early 1945
is trying to convince a visitor to the house – a civil servant – that his son, Hugh, would
be an ideal chap for a civil service job and he’s discoursing in a way to win favour for
his son with this civil servant. The discourse goes as follows, as the conversation
turns to politics, and the Da’ says, (the mother’s slightly uneasy about all this, I
should say) – but the Da’, who had been in the IRA in a small way, says:
‘Hitler’s the man that’s well able for them (the British). He’ll give them lacquery the
same as we done. Sure, isn’t he the greatest man under the sun, himself with Hitler, that
de Valera’ Mother: ‘Now, now – that will do.’
The Da’ carries on: ‘What the hell luck could the English have? Didn’t they come into the
town here and shoot decent people in their beds? But they won’t see the day when they
can crow over Hiel Hitler – he drove them back into the sea in 1940 and he’ll do it
again. Sure, what’s Churchill anyway? Bad scran to him, only a yahoo with a cigar stuck
in his fat gob and the face on him like a boiled shite’ So Churchill was aware that not everybody
in Nationalist Ireland loved him and he was also aware of the fact that between 1912 and
1914 at least that he was very unpopular with the Nationalists. After all, a serious attempt
was made to turn over his car with his pregnant wife in it by a crowd of shipyard workers
when he came to speak in Belfast in February 1912. It was a serious and nasty incident
when he was on his way to speak in favour of Home Rule and his wife lost the baby a
month later. In the crowd of shipyard workers who’d kindly
given themselves a holiday for the day for this event was William Grant, who actually
was the Minister for Public Security in WWII. So it’s not the least of paradoxes of Northern
Ireland’s life that our Minister of Public Security probably came nearer to killing Churchill
than any Nazi did in the 1940s. So he’d encountered, how can we put it, the
disapproval of both political communities here. And he himself could reply in a pretty
firm way. In April 1940 he met Roosevelt’s cousin who was going to be ambassador effectively
of the US in Dublin and was passing through. David Gray, this was, passing through London. David Gray calls in to see Churchill and because
he’s Roosevelt’s cousin everybody treats him very seriously – he gets a very nice a lunch
– but Churchill talks about the Irish: ‘He was sick of the Irish. The English gave Ireland
a very generous settlement and very immediately they began to break their engagements and
were now stabbing England in the back,’ he says in 1940. In 1942 he takes John de Lancie aside, who
is the Irish ambassador. Some of you will have seen, in recent days, the Irish Times
have published an interview with John de Lancie in 1948 in which Churchill talks about the
long-term desirability of Irish Unity and says how much he likes the Irish. John de
Lancie was an old friend; he was there in 1908 when Churchill lost the Manchester seat;
he was Dean of the Faculty of Technology in Manchester at the time and he was one of the
few Irish who actually voted for him. And Churchill would have remembered this.
In 1908 the rest of the Irish, I should explain, voted for the Conservative candidate who was
a violently aggressive unionist and a strong supporter of repression in Ireland. But it
was because he had the right position on Catholic education, which was what the church hierarchy
basically got the rest of the Irish community to vote for. But John de Lancie stuck with Churchill and
he’d known him for a long time. In 1942 he tells John de Lancie: ‘Ireland’s just lost
its soul’. He talks about: ‘Well, you had great men like Redmond and those around him
but now you don’t have anybody worth talking about. And you had great writers but now you
don’t have anybody worth talking about.’ In 1943 he tells Attlee, who of course takes
over as Prime Minister, that his job is to save the Irish from themselves: they don’t
realise how ignominious their position is, standing aside in the war against Hitler,
but he’s going to find a way of bringing them into the war. He doesn’t – but he’s going
to find them a way so that they will be ‘saved from themselves’ and their own moral – he’s
thinking of moral cowardice here. And as I’ve mentioned, he regarded the Unionists
as very unreasonable for much of this period from 1912-1914 during the third Home Rule
crisis. And while he fully and famously insists that Northern Ireland was strategically vital
in 1942 he also was very confident – fairly or not – that war-time production levels were
much lower than they ought to have been and also that the voluntary recruitment from NI
was much lower than it ought to have been. So there’s actually another side to his assessment
of NI’s contribution to the war effort which is not to be found in the victory speech. He was encouraged in his view about war-time
production by a man who also was to become Prime Minister later – Harold Wilson – who
was actually the young civil servant who did the analysis of the shipyard production levels
and so on and convinced him that it wasn’t very impressive. So Churchill was quite.. At one point he meets
a very early consignment of American troops; he looks at them and he counts them – they
were a very small number – and he says: ‘I reckon now that a higher percentage of Americans
have now signed up than have already signed up from Northern Ireland, with you people
in this room.’- which is a sign in the back of his mind of how he was thinking about NI. So everybody remembers the speech and the
condemnation of Mr de Valera’s frolic with Hitler and the praise for NI; his actual attitude
in all these things is much more complicated. The answer is that he knew so much more about
us. He knew so much more about us than we know about him, if I’m blunt about it. If you look at what he writes about Ireland:
if you look for example at his essay on Parnell, there is no comparative essay of that sort
written by an Irish politician about any British politician. That’s the test – a brilliant
essay like that – nothing on the Irish side written about Britain. He had a curiosity
about us and our ways, Unionists and Nationalists, which considerably ran beyond our curiosity
about them and their ways. Now I’d better moderate this scepticism he
had had about the Irish, which I’ve been stressing, a bit.
These observations that we’re talking about are actually based on realities of one sort
or another. But there’s one thing he did believe – he believed that when they went to war they
were good soldiers – both Catholic and Protestant, Nationalists and Unionists. His writing about
the Boer War is full of the bravery of the Irish soldiers in the British Army. He rode into Ladysmith with two of the fighting
brooks alongside him and of course he makes one of them his leading soldier in the war
– along with three other generals that are all Northern Irish. And the victory speech
with the criticism of de Valera frolicking with Hitler is softened by the reference to
the thousands of Irish men and women who joined the British army in WWII. He refers to three Irish VCs – he was very
unlucky with his choice: two of them were absolutely paid up Redmond-ite families – so
there was no possibility of a residence in Ireland for them. They were well-known to
be part of the old Irish elite in terms of their family connections. And the other one,
John Patrick Kenneally – supposed to be an agricultural labourer from Tipperary – his
real name was actually Leslie Robinson and he was from Bradford and was English. He wasn’t
Irish at all which is why nobody can find John Patrick Kenneally’s roots. Leslie Robinson, I should explain, had been
a tearaway, had joined the army and at first found it really boring. He had gone off, got
drunk, been arrested, got locked up. At one of these spells he was locked up with Irish
Guards for a while. He looked out of the window and thought: ‘These are real soldiers not
like the regiment I’m with – these are real soldiers. If I get a chance, that’s what
I’m gonna do.’ He deserted for a while, hung out with Irish
agricultural labourers who had non-photographic ID documents, bought the documents of John
Patrick Kenneally, rejoined the British army and joined the Irish Guards as John Patrick
Kenneally! But that was why nobody could find him at the time. And that’s why Churchill turns later to Brendan
Finucane when he talks about Irish war heroes: the RAF pilot. And Brendan Finucane’s father
had been out in 1916, indeed his father also joined the RAF by the way in 1939, so that
was somebody who really was authentically part of the republican tradition. So that’s why you hear less about John Patrick
Kenneally, ‘cos I think they worked out who he was after a while, when he talks about
Irish war heroes he talks about Brendan Finucane who was ‘racy of the soil’, as they say. So I just want to very briefly track through
the real story of this career. The crucial thing I think that has to be said is that
it really starts, in terms of serious engagement with Ireland, when he switches as a young
Conservative MP to becoming a Liberal. Now the Conservatives are Unionists in 1904
when he makes the switch, so at first he says: ‘I’m still a Unionist’ and for a while he
retains that position. But you can see steadily throughout 1905-6 that he’s actually drifting
away from a Unionist position. His uncle, Moreton Frewen, and one of his two relatives,
praised a speech he gave supporting devolution in Ireland in September 1903 on the grounds
that it ‘split the unionists’. Frewen later on became an MP for cork in NI
and Shane Leslie was the other one who stood as a Liberal candidate – one a cousin, one
an uncle – stood in broadly the Nationalist interest for Parliament. Of course on the other side were the Londonderrys
– also cousins but very much on the Unionist side of the argument throughout the century
but with whom he had pretty scratchy relations – starting with, by the way, leaving the Conservatives
for the Liberals – for which the Londonderrys could never quite forgive him. But in 1905 he makes a speech in Parliament
in which he accepts that nationality is a vital principle and it’s obvious it’s
leaning towards a pro-Home Rule argument and one sentence is vital: ‘Burns was as much
an Englishman as Shakespeare – [i.e. Burns is not an Englishman] – and Shakespeare is
as much an Irishman as Thomas More – [the Irish poet]’. So what he’s actually talking about is there
are distinctive voices reflecting different nationalities and you can see it in our great
literary tradition. And secondly he talks a lot about the way
Ireland is ruled through Dublin Castle. And he lists some not particularly well known
officials who worked in Dublin Castle in the 19th and into the early 20th century who had
said: ‘This isn’t right; this is not the way to govern, this is not democratic. It’s
a colonial system of government.’ – or words to that effect. And he lists with great detail what they’d
said and that disillusionment – it’s not casual, it’s not two or three names – it’s six
or seven names, some of them not really well known. That shows he was really researching
the question. And when he completes his biography of his
father in 1905, while he defends his father’s Unionism, he actually does say in that biography:
‘Someday people will think Home Rule is not a particularly controversial idea..’ So he’s
moving steadily.. And Tom Kettle incidentally, one of the Redmond-ites, is saying: ‘This
is a great fellow. He’s moving in the right direction.’ There’s self-interest in this: this makes
him more popular in the Liberal Party which hadn’t really trusted him very much as a recent
convert from the Tories. And then in 1908 he’s offered a job in the
cabinet and then, as the tradition was at the time, he had to resign his seat and fight
it again in Manchester. The problem was that the high tide of pro-Liberal feeling of 1906
had gone and it was now a highly marginal and risky seat. He needed the Irish catholic
vote – but why not? Had he not been moving toward Home Rule? But the problem here is that Redmond at that
moment is perceived by other Nationalists as being bossed around too easily by English
politicians and being led up the garden path with false promises. So Redmond and Kettle
and others want to support him, but there’s a mood of: ‘No, why are we always supporting
these Liberals? They never give us anything in return.’ So what Churchill does is basically – how
shall I put this? – push Asquith, the Prime Minister, into firmer language in support
of Home Rule. And he basically blackmails him into it. And it was quite a hard thing
to do because Asquith – we now have a view of him as a ditherer but in 1908 he was regarded
as a hard man, a tough new Prime Minister. But Churchill manipulates the situation so
that Asquith in the end and the liberals are forced to use language warmer about Home Rule
than they had been using. At the last minute Redmond says: ‘That’s good
enough for me. Irish nationalists should support him.’ The Catholic Church said: ‘No – we don’t
support him. The Liberals have the wrong position on education.’ The Catholic Church wins and
Churchill loses his seat. But he goes off to Dundee – which also has
an important Irish constituency – and he makes quite clear when he arrives in Dundee in his
first speech: ‘I am a paid up Home Ruler now – I am completely on the Home Rule side of
the argument’. And it’s in that guise that he comes to Belfast
in 1912 as a senior cabinet minister to speak in favour of Home Rule; to dance on his father’s
grave, some would say – certainly Unionists at the time – as his father had come and spoke
solidly against Home Rule. And he came and he makes his speech – I’ve
already explained the violent circumstances which surround his speech. I have to say something
else: it was the most boring speech he ever made. He read it for 55 minutes, something
he’d never done before. One reason why he read it was he wanted to
get the finances of Home Rule right – that was the source of some controversy – but it
was also something not explained in the speech. Five days before, he’d said to the rest of
the cabinet – and he and Lloyd George were the only two cabinet ministers saying it at
this point – ‘We should say straight away that Home Rule can’t be applied to the 32
counties. There’s going to have to be some special arrangement made for the Unionists
in the North East.’ And that was what he was saying in the cabinet
but he doesn’t say a word of this when comes to West Belfast – but that undoubtedly is
his view. And it is consistently his view throughout this crisis. The Unionists don’t like the speech because
it’s Home Rule and it talks about the principle of nationality. He talks about how important
Ireland could be in bringing together America and Britain and the role that Irish America
could play if we get this right. What the Unionists reject most of all is the
idea that there ever has been, ever can be or ever will be a Nationalist loyalty to Britain
– which Churchill argues has been demonstrated by the success of the King’s recent visit
to Dublin and so on and so forth. The Unionists regard this all as spurious:
the Irish soldiers who’d fought in the British army in the Boer War? ‘Yes’ said the Unionists
‘but the Irish parliamentary party, the political representatives, were all against
Britain in the Boer war – that’s what really matters.’ So that’s what they disliked most
about the speech. What the Nationalists disliked most was the
emphasis on economic dependence. What basically Churchill says is: ‘Ireland
is now subsidised.’ Old age pensions and other good things that had come to Ireland
had only come to Ireland from the British Treasury; there is therefore no possibility
of a development towards separatism. Ireland is economically dependent – and, even if
they did try moving that way, Westminster is still sovereign. So it’s a vision of Home Rule or a Dublin
parliament which actually for many Nationalists lacks dignity. And there are many, many strong
Nationalist criticisms of the speech and a great sense of disappointment. And indeed throughout 1913 Churchill becomes
more and more recognised as the member of the cabinet who is calling for concessions
to be made to the Unionist side – and more and more disliked by Nationalists, throughout
1913 into 1914. Then there comes a moment in the spring of
1914 when what happens is that the Asquith Govt finally makes an offer to the Unionists
which Churchill thinks is reasonable: temporary exclusion of the North East. The Unionists
won’t accept it because it’s only temporary. Churchill thinks: ‘Well, it’s temporary
because in six years, there’s bound to be an election in that time – and the Conservatives
are likely to win – so it really is long-term exclusion. It’s unreasonable to throw out
this offer.’ He gets very angry. He has other reasons because
he’s been pushing the naval estimates up and lots of Liberals don’t like that; he has other
self-interested reasons to win back the good feeling of his party. So he goes to Bradford and he makes this fantastically
threatening speech about: ‘These matters will be tried’ – clearly implying that there’d
be military movements against the North – no question – the language is very specific.
All based on an idea, by the way, that is central to the argument here: that who fires
the first shot, loses. So if the unionists fire the first shot, or
the first British soldier is killed in a public order situation, their case is lost – he actually
says this. So he’s clearly implying troop movements and
so on. A few weeks later the Government finally decides to do this and it leads to the Curragh
Mutiny, as it’s called; not technically a mutiny but it leads to senior army officers
saying they’re not willing to march north on an enterprise which they see as one of
political coercion. This is a more complicated thing than you
might realise though. Because the officers were being threatened with losing their pensions,
losing their salaries – not everybody can afford that in any given situation. One of the men who couldn’t afford it was
a man called Colonel Ian Hogg and Colonel Ian Hogg had a particular significance because
he had joined the Hussars in 1896 alongside Churchill. They came in together; he was his
brother officer. Hogg sends this telegram, which Paul O’Brien
in his recent book says he didn’t think would reach Churchill. It does reach Churchill and
the telegram says: ‘This is a real mess-up here. I’ve got to talk to you – we’ve got
to sort something out here.’ And Churchill, almost on receipt of the telegram
from Hogg who he knows and trusts and knows is not particularly right-wing – he was denounced
in parliament by Conservatives for having friends in the Liberal government – he was
certainly not a right wing soldier. He gets the telegram and thinks: ‘God, there
is a big problem here!’ Before he gets the telegram, Churchill’s idea is: ‘We’re going
to push this through and cashier people or whatever it takes to make sure that the army
acts decisively against the Ulster Unionists’ – not to do anything other than to overawe
them, to convince them of the limits of their power, to make them more reasonable – that’s
the objective. But he was determined to push it through. When he gets the telegram from Hogg he just
goes completely the other way. By Monday he’s having lunch with Hogg in the Admiralty and
the two of them basically develop the story that the whole thing is just a huge misunderstanding:
the Curragh Mutiny is dissolved into ‘people didn’t quite understand what people wanted’.
It’s not true. Churchill had actually generated the tension. He then blamed other people for
misunderstanding what he really wanted. Actually he was hot for a conflict and it
was Hogg who pulled him back and you can see – it’s a very interesting moment – one of
the few moments when he loses his cool in parliament. The newspapers cover it – Hogg’s
telegram becomes known about some days later and a right-winger gets up and says: – ‘What’s
the significance of Hogg’s telegram?’, and all this – (and there was quite a lot
as I’ve just been telling you). And, ‘On hearing this,..’ one of the press
reports of it goes like this : ‘..he started violently, turned white to his lips and hastily
interposed that the document was private. It took him something like a quarter of an
hour to recover his equanimity..’ Churchill wasn’t normally shaken but he was
shaken by this revelation at that moment – it shows its significance in 1914. But Churchill reverts back from that moment
onwards to his more conventional role during the Home Rule crisis, as the chap at cabinet
level who’s saying, along with Lloyd George, some concession must be made to the Unionists.
And this goes on, through these very difficult negotiations which are eventually terminated
by the outbreak of war and the decision of both leaderships – Unionist and Nationalists
– to support the British side in the war. Some people say the outbreak of war alone
averted civil war in Ireland and I can’t honestly say a deal was done before the outbreak of
war, but it was very close. The two sides had come very close and Redmond in particular
had come to concede the idea it was impossible, or a bad idea, to try and rule, from a Dublin
parliament, parts of NI that didn’t want to be under a Dublin parliament. Well not
impossible – but the two sides were close. In the end the war sweeps everything aside
and there’s a moment when Edward Grey is speaking – announcing, effectively, war is about
to happen – Churchill’s beside the speaker with tears rolling down his cheeks and the
person who stops and shakes his hand is Carson. And that’s the end of the Carson-Churchill
antagonism over the Home Rule crisis. And during the war Churchill and Carson become
very close indeed. Churchill – persuaded incidentally by another Irishman – is most famous in the
first part of the war for Gallipoli. It was a disaster for the British army. ‘Get away
from the stagnant conflict in France and have some strike which will change everything!’
– absolute disaster. The main person persuading him was Admiral Carden who was Irish – a bad
idea and his reputation suffered enormously. What I want to say to you is, one of the difficulties
about Churchill if you’re assessing his record is how often – in 1919-‘20- ’21, when
Ireland goes into this pit of civil war and violence – he says: ‘Where’s the moderate
ground? Where’s the centre-ground? Where has it disappeared to?’ Actually a lot of it dies in Gallipoli and
he never fully acknowledges that, even though he knew some of the people who died. Cecil
Grimshaw died, the son of TW Grimshaw, the Irish Registrar-General for example, had actually
been imprisoned in the same cell with him when he was imprisoned by the Boers in the
late 1890s. So he knew these people; Carson’s friends who died; the first son of a Redmond-ite
MP, Michael Fitzgibbon. These are the Tenth Irish Division, described
in a recent book as ‘neither Unionist nor Nationalist’. I’m not certain that’s an
accurate description but I know why it was used in the most recent book about the Tenth
Irish Division. These are the centre-ground, so far as Ireland’s capable of having it,
of Unionists and Nationalists and thousands of them died in Gallipoli on both sides; Carson’s
friends, that he was at school with, died. So when Churchill complains thereafter about
‘where has the centre-ground gone?’- actually a good part of the centre-ground had gone
on a scheme of his that wasn’t the wisest in terms of the loss of life; when he complains
during the war of independence, for example. He resigns from the cabinet for seven months
after Gallipoli which has the great advantage for him that he goes to fight in France himself
and is not in office when the Easter Rising happens. He comes back shortly thereafter
and starts to rebuild a political career and he’s in the cabinet when the ‘war of independence’,
as it’s called, breaks out, by 1919 onwards. And he takes at first a violently anti-IRA
line. Here’s one quote from a speech on Russia and Ireland given in Dundee in October 1920:
‘Could a republic be given to a miserable gang of cowardly assassins like the human
leopards of Africa?’ The ‘human leopard society’ of Sierra Leone, he was referring
to here, are actually cannibals and the whole speech is based on the idea that the IRA are
cannibals. Now they were a lot of things but they weren’t
actually cannibals. What he’s saying is: ‘can you give a republic to people as primitive
as this?’ – and it’s really over the top. You should read John Steele’s coverage of
it in the Chicago Tribune because John Steele’s offices had been used, on the same day as
the speech was given, by a cabinet minister meeting a Sinn Fein emissary and the dialogue
had already begun. Steele couldn’t believe the speech, the insults
that are cast toward Terence MacSwiney who died on a hunger strike. And somebody gets
up in parliament and points out: ‘How can he go on about MacSwiney like this when everybody
knows Churchill can’t get through the day without a drink!’ – and this was one of
the put-downs. When MacSwiney dies, by the way, Churchill
fully acknowledges the dramatic impact of that. It’s a major turning point in terms
of Churchill’s attitude: the idea that one is, as he says, facing the spirit of a nation. But Churchill does associate himself, from
November through these key 6 months before the negotiations started to begin again properly,
with the idea that if the IRA uses these disgraceful methods, we have no choice – it’s a dirty
war and we have no choice but to reply. These are the methods of a dirty war. And the auxiliaries,
the Black and Tans, the B Specials – all of whom he supported and provided money for in
a big way – were striking down in darkness (is his phrase) ‘those who struck from darkness’. Rather generously he said, the Irish understood
this; the Irish ‘got it’. If you use these methods of assassination you can’t complain
if people use them against you as a means of war. I see no evidence that anybody on
the Irish side actually took the view that they couldn’t complain about the same methods
being used but Churchill says: ‘..no, they understood. It was terrible for us and we
didn’t want to use such methods that were in many ways morally disgraceful but we had
actually no choice.’ But he is quicker than most people in the
cabinet to say, by May 1921: ‘Let’s negotiate – we’ve softened them up, they will compromise.’
The cabinet doesn’t agree for another 6 weeks. And the IRA were hit very, very hard. The
intelligence war was decisively lost by Michael Collins in Dublin in the 6 months. It’s
lost between November and May /June 1921 – and it’s lost often by the use of appointments
and tough men that Churchill had himself personally appointed into Dublin to carry out what was
a very rough task. Now Churchill then has responsibility in 1922,
as Secretary of State for the Colonies, for the settlement. He’s told by Lloyd George:
make sure it beds down, North and South. This is his great triumph because everybody thinks
he’s going to blow it again and do something crazy. And he does things that are crazy but they
kind of work. What he say is: ‘I am going to support the Unionists and I don’t care
about criticisms of the Unionist regime; I’m going to tell them you should do your best
to support minority rights. And I’m going to support Michael Collins. And I don’t care
about stories about Protestants being shot in their bed. Of course I care, I’m a human
being but basically what’s got to happen here is that Collins and the Free State Government
have got to be able to settle down in the South and the Craig Government settle down
in the North – and minorities,’ he said, ‘must stew in their own juices.’ It’s very brutal but he’s made up his mind
that’s how you did it. He was widely criticised for some of the very rough steps along the
way and for the use of force along the way. But actually it works because another thing
that’s central to this is that he’s sending a signal to Michael Collins: ‘I know you think
you can reconstitute republican loyalty by taking on the North – I know a lot of people
fancy that idea on both sides. I’m not going to let you do that. You’re going to have to
carry on on the basis of the Treaty in Dublin. You’re not going to be allowed to displace
your own internal argument onto the North, although that’s what a lot of you want to
do.’ He knew perfectly well that Collins was arming,
sending arms to, the North and was behind a lot of the violence that took place in Belfast. Now this is a line that’s attacked by people
who were sympathetic to southern Protestants and loyalists in British politics and it’s
attacked by people who were sympathetic to the plight of Belfast Catholics in British
politics. It’s attacked consistently – quite understandably in view of the horrors of that
period. But by the summer/autumn of 1922 both regimes are stable and in place. And for Churchill this is his first unmitigated
success from the point of view of British politics – not from the point of view of minorities
north or south – but from the point of view of British politics. And before, you might
have said his work was ‘alpha gamma’: yes, he was a very humane reformer in the
Home Office, but any time the threat of violence was involved or any type of violence he seemed
to go a little bit crazy. Yes, he supported
the building up of the Navy but look at Gallipoli:
the question was always of judgement. With Churchill, Ireland understood: the Irish
settlement was his one great achievement that everybody could acknowledge. He followed this
up with the work on the boundary commission and a generous settlement to both sides in
the mid-1920s both to the North and the South. In the late ‘30s, when Churchill is now
isolated, marginalised in Irish politics, and de Valera seems to be tearing up the settlement,
part of his lament is that ‘nobody remembers how I delivered on Ireland’. That’s part
of his bitterness in the late 1930s when he goes through that terrible decade of marginalisation. I want to make some concluding remarks about
Churchill and temperament and Ireland. It’s become increasingly fashionable to talk
about the ‘myth of strong leadership’ and it’s partly a function of the hangover
in our society of the Iraq war. And it has affected now the way – you can see it in recent
discussions of Churchill’s legacy increasingly in some of the most recent books – the assessment
is that Churchill is like a stopped clock: right twice a day, as stopped clocks are!
Right about Hitler. Right about Stalin. Wrong about everything else. And Ireland is one of the cases used for the
prosecution. Now what I’ve tried to say in this lecture is that that actually underestimates
the seriousness of his engagement with Ireland and it’s important to understand this. At the simplest level its worth pointing to
his favourite Irish joke which conveys quite a lot. It’s a joke he loved: It’s the story of a British bomber with two
Irish airmen in it, which is over Berlin. They’re two Irish volunteers from the South.
Anti-aircraft fire is coming up and the plane is rocking from side to side. And being Irish
they’re having a political argument about Ireland in the midst of all this. And one
guy supports de Valera and the other guy doesn’t. The sweat pours off them and the plane rocks
from side to side and one guy turns to the other and is shouting and the other guy who
supports de Valera shouts: ‘Say what you like about de Valera – at least he kept us out
of this war!’ The joke expresses a pleasure in the joys
of contradiction and paradox which were never far from Churchill’s attitude towards the
Irish. There’s another clue to that kind of temperamental
affinity in the belief that language should be used to excite, to move things on – not
the political leadership that was just about management. It’s the attraction to Collins,
I have to say, there’s also an attraction in that they were both of a manic-depressive
temperament – a number of people have written about that. An interesting story, is the compelling story
of Arthur Lynch. Arthur Lynch was the MP for Clare – de Valera’s predecessor. A typical
Churchill friendship, it began by Churchill trying to get him tried for treason. Lynch
was one of the Irish who fought for the Boers and there was a treason trial in 1904. And
they started off with Churchill saying: ‘You’re guilty of treason.’ Of course they became friends and by 1916-17
they’re very real and close friends and Lynch, who’s very pro-France, strongly supports
Churchill in the First World War. And Lynch recalls him saying at one point : ‘You’ve
got to understand something, Arthur: to govern is to discontent.’ And it was that temperamental affinity with
the Irish which I think is worth recalling, 50 years after his death. Thank you.

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