Churchill and Ireland: The British Bulldog’s Complicated Relationship with the Emerald Isle

August 10, 2016

Paul Bew, Churchill and Ireland (Oxford University Press, 2016)

 “The Irish question will only be settled when the human question is settled.” 

Winston Churchill, 3 December 1925.

Debates over Winston Churchill lend themselves to easy stereotypes, and this is particularly so when discussing his career in relation to Ireland. Churchill’s defense of imperialism, his family’s prominent role (father and son) in the tortured history of Home Rule and modern Irish nationalism, and his occasional use of pungent language in describing Irish traits, history, and leaders all lend themselves to caricature.

The accomplished Belfast-born historian Paul Bew refuses to fall victim to this temptation in his new concise book, Churchill and Ireland. He weaves a story of Churchill’s engagement on Irish issues that highlights consistency rather than excess, a deep but ultimately unrealizable belief in shared Anglo-Irish cultural ties that could overcome often deep political hostility, and a ruthless and pragmatic willingness to continue to try to engineer a satisfactory answer to a deep, complex, and enduring political rivalry. The book is a nuanced and ultimately fair portrait of a politician wrestling with a problem that ultimately proved intractable — at least in his lifetime. It will also make many readers squirm with discomfort, because it is inherently sympathetic to the man.

The first section of the book examines Churchill’s father Randolph and his impact on the Irish problem — the ongoing struggle to incorporate Irish identity into the United Kingdom after the Act of Union in 1801. As Bew points out, both father and son followed an interesting political transformation. Each began with a strong unionist stance. Each then engaged closely with constitutional nationalism, which meant, in the father’s case, building a friendship with Charles Stewart Parnell, whose Irish party was indirectly linked to more radical and violent activism in the form of the Land League and the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). Winston, of course, converted to becoming one of the strongest supporters of Home Rule — the effort to enable some level of Irish self-government by creating an Irish parliament with limited powers under Westminster — in the Liberal Party. Both then shifted course again to a defense of Ulster Unionism — recognizing that the Protestant community of Northern Ireland had its own unique identity and relationship to the United Kingdom.  This required a stark act of political manipulation on the part of the father, playing the “Orange Card” — mobilizing the most sectarian sentiments in the Protestant community and threatening unconstitutional opposition to any Parliamentary legislation if necessary – to defeat Gladstone’s Home Rule bill in 1886. This mobilization of militancy ironically came back to haunt the son with the formation of the Ulster Volunteers and near-civil war in 1914 — but Winston, like his father, ultimately defended the Ulster Unionist community and became an architect of Ireland’s partition.

The bulk of the book focuses on Churchill’s influence on four of the five critical episodes in 20th-century Anglo-Irish relations: the Home Rule crisis of 1912-1914, the Anglo-Irish war of 1919 to 1921, the Treaty Debate and Irish civil war of 1921 to 1923, and the emergency of 1939 to 1945 (the one episode Churchill did not play a role in was the Easter Rising of April 1916).  Tracing Churchill’s participation in and across these periods reinforces the consistency of Churchill’s views, whether he was acting as a Liberal or Conservative leader. He hoped to find a political solution that would grant the Irish enough autonomy to satisfy their political needs, but that would maintain the connection between the two islands and respect the rights of the Unionist community.

Bew, the author of more than 15 books, writes candidly and lucidly with remarkable sympathy for the “man in the arena” and great understanding of the nature of politics. Yet Bew is not afraid to point out Churchill’s errors and dissect them in detail. The book’s account of Churchill’s mishandling of the Curragh Mutiny — when British Army officers threatened to resign their commissions rather than carry out lawful orders to move forces into Ulster to secure British armories — and his hasty public re-packaging of events is particularly compelling. Churchill was motivated, as a former Conservative, to be more aggressive on Home Rule than other Liberal leaders. Underestimating the likelihood of Unionist violence and the mood of the British Army, he pursued an apparently contradictory policy. Having pushed Prime Minister Asquith to offer concessions to Ulster, he overreacted when these were refused.  He encouraged the War Office to send troops into Ulster to secure key facilities, setting the stage for what can charitably be called gross insubordination among the Army officer corps and a political crisis in London in March 1914. Churchill then had to rewrite the narrative, putting the blame on the military by claiming that the orders were modest, but the military had over-interpreted them.

Bew briefly discusses the First World War and the Easter Rising. In these and later passages, the reader might wish that the book were not quite so concise. His discussion of Gallipoli emphasizes Churchill’s efforts to again regenerate the narrative after that failed operation and the damage the campaign did to Ireland, which lost thousands of men. Bew writes “…As a result, he did not face up to the significance of the event in Irish history: it was a key moment in popular disillusionment with the British war effort.” This is certainly true.  But he also states that Gallipoli “…undoubtedly helped create the atmosphere…” that provided the Irish rebel leaders with a moral justification for the Easter Rising. This statement begs more discussion, as the leaders of the Rising based their moral authority on an entirely different foundation: the Constitution of the Irish Republican Brotherhood — a fifty-year old transnational organization dedicated to overthrowing British rule — and a centuries-long tradition of violent rebellion.  If Bew is correct, then the amplifying effect of Churchill’s military disaster overseas on Ireland’s own shift toward violent nationalism might actually bear more attention and focus from historians.

Churchill’s political isolation — due to his resignation after Gallipoli — from the Easter Rising may have contributed to another startlingly poor act of judgment: his support of conscription in Ireland in 1918 after the German Spring Offensive began in March. Due in part to his detachment from Ireland in this crucial period, he underestimated the degree to which the war and the Rising had undermined Irish constitutional nationalism.  He was not alone in this error, but nothing contributed more to the radicalization of Irish politics between 1916 and 1918 than this short-sighted decision. British military intelligence reports — whose accuracy varied widely in this period — did correctly anticipate a major surge in support for Sinn Fein as a result of the conscription crisis. That support manifested itself in a devastating political defeat for the Irish Parliamentary Party in the elections of November 1918 and the election of 73 Sinn Fein candidates. These met in Dublin in January 1919, refused to take their seats in Westminster, swore to defend the Irish Republic declared in 1916, and formed a Dail (parliament) along with ministries to represent the wishes of the Irish people.

Political violence began almost immediately, beginning with an assassination and ostracization campaign against the police, later escalating in 1920 to systematic attacks on barracks. Churchill became increasingly angry with “attacks on police at will” and planned a variety of measures to respond. These included the formation of new forces to supplement the police, the infamous “Black and Tans” and Auxiliary Corps. Bew is quite candid about the tactics Churchill and these groups pursued, a candor rarely found in the now-abundant counterinsurgency literature. Regarding the Auxiliary Corps, he notes that they became formidable opponents of the IRA “…by the simple expedient of borrowing the method of assassination with rather better weapons.” Or “it appeared to many in London that Britain was countenancing a dirty war of ‘reprisals’ in Ireland as the only viable response.  It appeared to be so, because it was so.”

As Bew notes, England faced many crises simultaneously across the empire at this time. Winning in Ireland required innovative, inexpensive measures. Churchill also looked at arming Ulster Unionists (eventually the A, B, and C Specials, who were full and part time volunteers who supplemented the police and Army and became a powerful sectarian symbol in Northern Ireland after partition), the use of armored cars in larger numbers, and even the employment of airpower as alternatives. Bew’s discussion of Churchill’s pragmatism laced with the occasional hyperbolic language the British leader is known for is both interesting and compelling.  There was an inner logic to Churchill’s strategy of rhetorical excess, brutality, and support for negotiation. As Bew explains, “In fact, the strategy – though lacking in moral dignity – was not faulty.”

Here again, having made a powerful argument, Bew draws an abrupt conclusion. He states that the strategy worked; the combination of brutality and negotiation drove Sinn Fein to a truce. The reality may be more complicated. Sinn Fein had begun secret negotiations with the British in December 1920, but these fell through. It is far from clear that Sinn Fein leadership felt they were on the verge of defeat in May and June 1921. If anything, it appears that the IRA was considering military escalation in response to British pressure, including by expanding operations in England and restructuring to a divisional system in response to British counterinsurgency efforts. Despite improvements in British military performance, violence escalated up until the truce was declared.  Sinn Fein, therefore, may have agreed to negotiations simply because formal talks were actually openly offered for the first time, rather than out of any sense of imminent collapse.

A more compelling explanation emerges from Bew’s discussion of the internal politics of England and Northern Ireland. There was significant public sympathy for negotiations in England and an ongoing Cabinet debate. A speech by the King actually played an important role in creating the circumstances whereby Lloyd George could offer a truce and talks with the rebel leadership. In addition, the emergence of James Craig as a leader of the Ulster Unionists and the new provincial government in Northern Ireland played a key role. Bew’s discussion of the role of Craig in Churchill’s political calculations is fascinating. Here and elsewhere, the author’s personal experience of the political dynamics in Northern Ireland contribute to a uniquely nuanced view. He reaches the conclusion — which will infuriate a whole range of different readers — that there was some equivalence in Churchill’s mind between Michael Collins and James Craig (both trying to support the Anglo-Irish Treaty), and a similar equivalence between Eamon De Valera and Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson (each trying to undermine the Treaty). The murder of Wilson by former members of the IRA outraged Churchill and the Cabinet.  Their threats may have contributed to the decision by Collins to suppress the anti-Treaty movement by force, beginning a civil war. The tragic death of Collins in an ambush by anti-Treaty forces in August 1922 left a weakened pro-Treaty government, which won the war but was defeated at the polls by De Valera less than a decade later.

De Valera, of course, dominated Irish politics for the rest of Churchill’s career. His success in restoring Irish control over its ports infuriated Churchill. The Irish decision to remain neutral in World War II, though known by London ahead of time, became a constant source of friction, especially in the nightmare years of 1940 and 1941, when England’s survival depended on vulnerable sea lines of communication to the Americas. Bew highlights Churchill’s bold efforts to persuade De Valera to join the war, as well as his frustration and occasional anger with Irish neutrality. The author suggests that Churchill fundamentally underestimated both the strength of anti-British sentiment in Ireland and the support for partition in England. The ultimate costs of Irish neutrality remain a matter of debate, and Bew captures both sides of that argument. Even though Irish cooperation with the Allies accelerated after the entry of the United States into the war, Churchill remained alternately optimistic and bitter. His victory speech, given a few days after De Valera’s stunning offering of condolences to the Nazi legation in Dublin after the death of Hitler, captures that bitterness. Despite his efforts to temper his condemnation of Ireland’s government with appreciation for the sacrifice of individual Irishmen, Churchill’s generosity was overwhelmed by the scathing condemnation of Irish neutrality:

This was indeed a deadly moment in our life, and if it had not been for the loyalty and friendship of Northern Ireland we should have been forced to come to close quarters with Mr. de Valera or perish forever from the earth. However, with a restraint and poise to which, I say, history will find few parallels, we never laid a violent hand upon them, which at times would have been quite easy and quite natural, and left the de Valera Government to frolic with the German and later with the Japanese representatives to their heart’s content.

The dismissal of Irish political concerns and the strong support for Northern Ireland did little to heal the Anglo-Irish divide.  Bew notes that “…the pain left by his remarks has not been entirely extinguished to this day.”

That comment perhaps best encapsulates Churchill’s complex legacy. No single individual has had greater impact on Anglo-Irish relations. Churchill’s optimism for a future Anglo-Irish partnership and his warm feelings for Ireland and the Irish are obscured by moments of harsh rhetoric and memories of reprisals and counter-brutality in 1920 and 1921. Churchill’s Irish policies, as Bew shrewdly notes, “…fitted rather suspiciously all too neatly with his contemporary political ambitions.” But efforts to stereotype him as an arch-imperialist, a brutal oppressor, or a conniving Machiavelli fail to do justice to the underlying consistency of his views — that the genuine aspirations of Irish nationalism must somehow be realized, while preserving the rights of the equally genuine Unionist community. His struggles to “square that circle” ultimately failed, but so did those of others who took up this unhappy task: Gladstone, Lloyd George, and Thatcher, to mention just a few. The man who began his political career with a penetrating biography of his own father’s political career ended his own with just as complex a legacy. Bew’s book is a thoughtful, discerning study of an extraordinarily complicated relationship between a man and a nation. It will satisfy no one, but will force every reader to reconsider assumptions.


Timothy D. Hoyt is the Professor of Strategy and Policy and John Nicholas Brown Chair of Counterterrorism at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed in this review are those of the author alone, and not those of the U.S. Naval War College, the U.S. Navy, or any other organization of the U.S. government.

Image: U.K. National Archives, sketch by G. Harrington