Churchill and Ireland

Churchill and Ireland
Paul Bew
Oxford University Press 240pp £16.99

Winston Churchill had a long association with Ireland, from his infancy in Dublin in the 1870s to his second premiership in the 1950s. During his life he adopted various stances on Ireland’s political relationship with Britain. As a young Conservative he was a strong Unionist and opponent of Irish home rule. As a young Liberal minister, he supported home rule and appeared to favour coercing Protestant Ulster into submission to a Dublin government. After the Irish War of Independence, he switched from a policy of suppressing Sinn Féin and the IRA to closely cooperating with Michael Collins and the Free State government in defence of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. While he supported the right of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland to determine their own fate, he always hoped that Ireland would be reunited with the United Kingdom. 

Churchill’s shifting position prompts the charge that his Irish policy was motivated by self-serving opportunism. Indeed, in Ireland, Churchill has been denigrated as an anti-Irish imperialist. But, as Paul Bew points out in this informed, balanced study, Churchill liked the Irish – nationalist as well as unionist – and had many personal contacts with them. As a distinguished Irish historian, Bew brings much knowledge of the Irish background. However, he pays less attention to the ministerial aspect of Churchill’s policies, which were partly fashioned by his changing departmental responsibilities. Bew arguably attaches too much weight to some of Churchill’s outspoken private comments, which were less moderate than his actions as a minister.

Churchill’s Irish policies were initially influenced by those of his father, Lord Randolph, who favoured reform in Ireland but within the union with Britain. Bew acknowledges that debt but underestimates the extent to which Winston’s speech at Belfast in 1911 was compatible with Randolph’s speech there in 1886. Both men appealed to Protestants and Catholics to avoid sectarian hatred. 

Churchill’s response to the IRA campaign, after the First World War, was to win a military victory and then negotiate a generous peace settlement. In
that respect his Irish policy echoed his stance on other conflicts such the Boer War and two world wars. More particularly, as Bew points out, Churchill’s antagonism to the IRA between 1918 and 1921 was partly conditioned by his hostility to Bolshevik terrorism in Russia. It would also have been revealing if Churchill’s response to insurrection in Ireland had been compared with his views on disorders elsewhere in the Empire.

Bew concludes by observing that, although Churchill wished to see Ireland reunited, the generous financial settlement that he secured, as Chancellor, for the Stormont government in Northern Ireland helped to perpetuate Partition. Yet the division between north and south in Ireland was much deeper than a merely fiscal one and, in any case, the Ulster Unionists were a powerful element in the Conservative Party, which Churchill could not ignore.  

Roland Quinault is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London and the author of British Prime Ministers and Democracy, from Disraeli to Blair (Bloomsbury, 2011).

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