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Churchill and his uneasy Irish legacy


Winston Churchill had a difficult, ambivalent relationship with Ireland

Winston Churchill had a difficult, ambivalent relationship with Ireland

Winston Churchill had a difficult, ambivalent relationship with Ireland

Whenever a list appears depicting historical figures most hated by the Irish, Sir Winston Churchill - alongside people like Oliver Cromwell and Margaret Thatcher - usually features in the top 10. Churchill's relationship with Ireland - a nation he once described to the British Parliament as "a small poor, sparsely populated island, lapped about by British sea power" - was diabolical. In 1912, giving a speech at Celtic Park in Belfast, advocating Home Rule - of which he was an ardent supporter - Churchill, at a time when sectarian hatred was rife, reiterated his father's divisive phrase, that "Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right".

As First Lord of the Admiralty, in August 1915, Churchill, with poor military planning, led thousands of young Irishmen - like lambs to the slaughter - to their deaths at Suvla Bay in Gallipoli.

In May 1920, as a key member of the War Office, Churchill was responsible for the recruitment and deployment of the Black and Tans and the auxiliary cadets; two ruthless emergency police forces set up to crush the IRA. Both treated the law, and the Irish civilian population, with contempt.

During World War II, as Britain's prime minister, Churchill spoke about saving the Irish "from themselves." In his victory speech, Churchill turned sourly to Dublin's role, patronising de Valera's government, whom he claimed had frolicked with fascists, despite their so-called neutrality. He even insinuated that Britain could have taken Ireland by force during this uneasy period, but refrained from doing so out of goodwill, honour and decency.

Paul Bew, a professor of Irish politics at Queen's University, and a member of the House of Lords, covers this ground, and much more, in this concise book: which attempts to salvage some good from the wreckage that was Churchill's disastrous relationship with Ireland.

Lord Bew is a measured historian of notable experience.

And structurally, this is a well crafted tome. But one should approach his commentary and analysis- despite the sense of balance he brings to his work - with slight caution. The thesis he presents here - as he admits himself - is one that runs against the tide of most conventional narratives of modern Irish history. Still, the historian must be given credit for pointing out his subject's numerous flaws.

Namely, Churchill's failure to take responsibility for the Gallipoli disaster in 1915; Churchill's lack of knowledge about the drastic sea change in Irish nationalism after the Easter Rising; Churchill's insensitive language in parliament towards the Irish, where he claimed that allowing a nation across the Irish Sea to become a Republic was akin to offering a country up to a miserable gang of human leopards in West Africa; and then there is Churchill's cheap and inappropriate swipe at the Lord Mayor of Cork, Terence MacSwiney: just before he died on hunger strike in a Brixton prison in 1920.

Churchill's critics, Bew posits, accuse him of being a Hibernophobe, and tend to see his Irish legacy in black and white terms.

Churchill did, however, the historian believes - to paraphrase Othello - do the state some service.

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Bew reminds us here that it was Churchill, as both Secretary of the State for the Colonies in 1921, and as chairman of a Provisional government of Ireland committee, who played a crucial behind-the-scenes-role in the Anglo Irish Treaty: particularly in his diplomatic games of poker with Michael Collins, whom he greatly respected and admired.

Churchill did want to see a united Ireland. But the nation he envisioned was one that would be a dominion of the British Empire.

Bew certainly gives a passing mention here to Churchill's imperial 18th century mindset.

But he doesn't analyse it scrupulously enough. One needs to comprehend Churchill's moral and ideological compass to understand how he saw the Irish people.

It's not just nationalist historians who labour this point. Conservative-imperialist historians say it too. Lawrence James, in his book, Churchill and Empire, has argued that Churchill was a fervent advocate of social Darwinism: viewing the Anglo-Saxon-English-speaking races at the top of the pile.

The Celts, the Indians, the Egyptians, the Russians, and everybody else? Well, Churchill saw them as second class "savages, "rascals", and "rapscallions", who could learn a thing or two about civilisation from the British Empire: which he believed was gracefully guiding mankind towards perpetual progress.

Even historians and commentators of a more nuanced and moderate persuasion predominately view Churchill as a John Bull-like-figure, who epitomises everything that's wrong with British imperialism: hubristic, self-righteous, hypocritical, and full of grandiose notions of paternal-democratic-values, obsessed with hierarchy, class, and loyalty to the Crown.

Lord Bew makes a real effort here to paint a well-rounded view of Churchill's relationship with Ireland, warts and all. And the book is a brilliant and fascinating read in parts.

It's unlikely, however, to alter Churchill's existing poisonous Irish legacy. The damage has already been done.

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