Churchill & The Irish
My parents immigrated to the U.S. from Ireland. It is typical of smaller nation states that its citizenry have unqualified grasp of their own history. I’ve noticed it in the Balkans, and throughout eastern Europe. The Irish, perhaps better than any people have a unique understanding of the British.
The genocidal conflict of the 100 Years War is northern Ireland. It is also Elizabethan foreign policy; England being an island feared encirclement of Papist Spain and France, so London sought permanent refuge in securing its rear. Preventing any nation from flanking her, London forcibly removed Dutch and Scottish into Ireland’s northern corridor, then watched as these Scotch Irish willingly became a proxy for foreign interests. Interests that would become so archaic it solicited a fascist Fenian response.
Winston Churchill is part of this drama, perhaps the only man with the temerity to openly seek conciliation with Dublin. But that was after he initiated brutal, near genocidal reprisals in Ireland. The truth isn’t so straight forward here, but its main tenets can be openly discerned. Winston, after having openly supported the Crown in the violent suppression of civilians in Ireland, returned home to England ashamed.
Churchill’s earliest memories are of Ireland. In 1876, Winston’s grandfather, the Duke of Marlborough received a royal appointment in Dublin, taking his son (Randolph, Winston’s father) as his private secretary introduced Winston to Ireland. Winston’s first memory of Dublin was witnessing radical armed Fenian separatists in Phoenix Park.
Why is this important?
It fell to Abraham Lincoln to say that Reconstruction was the greatest question ever presented to practical statesmanship, but he never tried reconciling Irish rural Catholic nationalism to the stalwart unionism of the Union Jack. So central was the Irish question in British politics throughout the early 20th century, it lambasted and damaged many prominent British foreign secretaries. Gladstone, Disraeli, even Wellington, Salisbury, Palmerston, Canning, and Castlereigh all cut their teeth on Fenian separatism.
The Act of Union in 1801 abolished Irish parliament, but the Home Rule party began growing under the leadership of Charles Stewart Parnell, with more than one hundred seats in English Parliament and favorable positioning by William Gladstone, the Home Rule Bill passed in 1893, only to be vetoed by the House of Lords. The stumbling block was Ulster, and these Scottish besieged farmers believed that “Home rule was Rome rule.”
Elected to Parliament as a Tory in 1900, he cast aside his father’s public admonition to Home Rule, publicly stating that “Ulster will fight, and Ulster will be right.” Casting aside his fathers fervent Unionism, Winston crossed over to the liberal side in 1904 and became a passionate supporter of Home Rule. In 1914 British parliamentarians passed a redundant bill advocating for Irish Home Rule, irreconcilable Unionists in northern Ireland began arming themselves. The Irish Civil War was coming.
Events in Dublin were eclipsed by the emergence of World War I. The Balkans fiasco permitted London to suspend Home Rule; 200,000 Unionist men joined the fight against Germany, while trench war besieged nation states throughout western Europe, Irish separatists launched the East Rising in 1916. Tory encirclement was nearly complete.
With the Dardanelles disaster nearly finishing Winston’s career, he rode out the 1918 elections only to watch new radical separatists called Sinn Fein (translated as for ourselves alone.) Sinn Fein never arrived in London for Parliament, they instead set up an Irish parliament and executive in Dublin. The Irish War for Independence began. Churchill returned to government as minister of war only to be given the northern Ireland portfolio. He dispatched illegal irregulars known as Black & Tans, men taken from the British Army in India and South Africa and given orders to kill civilians.
It was Churchill who overtly sought political accommodation by both carrot and stick. London gave partial independence to Dublin while advocating that Sinn Fein leadership Michael Collins crush separatist irreconcilables led by Eamon de Valera. Collins was murdered, but the Irish Free State party defeated de Valera’s faction and consolidated Irish Independence. By 1932, Eamon de Valera re-wrote an Irish Constitution while Winston fumed as a civilian that a nascent Republic was emerging in the Tory rear. By 1938, it was Chamberlain who gave away three Irish treaty ports of Berehaven, Queenstown, and Lough Swilly to Irish nationalists. Winston’s fear was imminent.
Churchill’s only ploy was to solicit for the end of partition, if de Valera ended neutrality and backed London. Winston has openly sought what he most feared and hated: an Irish Republic.
What specifically could Winston never understand about British foreign policy in Ireland.
Winston was an imperialist at heart and could never properly access the strength of anti-British sentiment in Irish nationalism. The Irish simply never had any interest in Winston’s grand vision of a union of English speaking people.
Even still, the man’s magnanimity outlasted his ambivalence for a free Ireland.
Originally published on William Holland’s website.