Winston Churchill’s long, complicated, and controversial relationship with Ireland began with his arrival in Dublin as a young child when his grandfather, the 7th Duke of Marlborough, became the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and continued through his second premiership in the early 1950s. During those intervening years Churchill was regularly concerned with Irish affairs both personally and publically, with his greatest involvement being during the Home Rule crisis of 1912-14, when as Paul Bew points out he was at “the centre of everything,” and in the negotiation and implementation of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. His role in those events as well as in his approach to Anglo-Irish relations during the Second World War, lead Bew to observe in his brilliant study Churchill and Ireland that Churchill determined the “shape of the relationship between and within the two islands more than any other British politician.”
Paul Bew, a professor at Queen University Belfast and a cross-bench peer in the House of Lords, traces Churchill’s interaction with Ireland in ten concise, well-written, and thoroughly researched chapters that successfully explain the twists and turns in his subject’s approach to the island. Like his father, Lord Randolph, Churchill’s “trajectory” in Irish affairs went from initial unionist sympathy to engagement with Irish nationalism in the form of support for Home Rule and the Irish Free State before reverting back to a sympathy for the Ulster Unionism and support for reunification based only on the principle of consent.
Ironically Churchill, who is now held as “an imperialist John Bull figure” by Irish Nationalism, was loathed by Ulster Unionists during the Home Rule crisis, especially in 1914 when as Bew writes he was “at least close to attempting a coup against “Ulster.” During the violent years of the War of Independence Churchill was initially defiant and in an “uncompromising mood” before becoming a “dove in the Anglo-Irish War” who entertained Michael Collins in his own house and negotiated the Anglo-Irish treaty. In supporting negotiations in the summer of 1921 when the IRA had been weakened, Bew observes that Churchill “probably had the timing just about right.” After the mid-1920s Churchill was not greatly bothered with Irish affairs until the Second World War when he was consistently “infuriated” by Irish neutrality and annoyed about the loss of the use of Irish port facilities, rights to which Neville Chamberlain had given up before the war. The bitterness was evident in Churchill’s victory speech in 1945 in which he charged that the de Valera government had frolicked “with the Germans and later with the Japanese representatives to their hearts’ content.” This speech, Bew comments, has left behind “scars” and a “pain” that has “not been entirely extinguished to this day.”
Churchill and Ireland is an elegant, objective, and absorbing book. It is essential reading.