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Book Review

Churchill and Ireland, Paul Bew, Oxford University Press, hdbk, 240 pages, €26.85

Earlier this month, I was on Parliament Square in London and bemoaning the clutter of often kitsch statues (Mandela, Gandhi, and a windblown Lloyd George), not least because it blunts the original impact of one statue, the marvellous hulking sculpture of Churchill, in overcoat and cane, standing in front of the great House of Commons in which he dominated for so long.

Churchill is an extraordinary character who shaped modern Europe, spanned multiple wars and, in 1940, single-handedly kept the lights on to save the world from Nazism. Brexit advocates take note.

There are few historical figures so engagingly quotable, not least about Ireland, with which Churchill had a long, intimate and often affectionate relationship, as this short but utterly compelling book by Paul Bew makes clear. On hearing that the pro-Treaty forces had retaken Dublin’s Four Courts, but with its archive destroyed, Churchill quipped, “better a State without an archive, than an archive without a State”.

But his most famous quote is the “dreary steeples”, describing how Europe had been transformed but Ireland, and especially Northern Ireland, remained divided. This was in 1922 – how far-seeing. It is oft repeated but still worth paraphrasing:

“The position of countries has been violently altered. The modes of thought of men, the whole outlook on affairs, the grouping of parties, all have encountered violent and tremendous change… But as the deluge subsides and the waters fall short we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again.

The unaltered integrity of their quarrel is one of the few institutions that have been unaltered in the cataclysm which has swept the world.”

It is a brilliant and prescient observation which, by referring to the “integrity” of the quarrel, is respectful as well as despairing. Indeed, the quote epitomises the very essence of Churchill’s long and complicated relationship with Ireland.

He had respect for both sides of the Irish question and yet knew deep down that Britain’s conquest (or development) of Ireland had created the complication. He respected the Irish wish for self-government and ultimately independence and yet passionately wanted Ireland to stay within the Empire as a vital and friendly component. Ironically, he later wanted this precisely so that Ireland could overcome the division and partition of 1920.

Far from being some knee-jerk imperialist, Churchill had a deep and engaged understanding of Ireland. It began early. His grandfather, the Duke of Marlborough, was Viceroy of Ireland and Churchill’s father, Lord Randolph, served as the Duke’s secretary. From age two to six, Churchill lived in the Phoenix Park, and remembered tales of the Fenians and Home Rule intrigues.

As a result of the family’s Irish stay, Lady Randolph Churchill’s American sisters both married Irishmen: one Irish first cousin was a Bolshevik (Claire Sheridan) and another was an Irish nationalist – Shane Leslie, of Castle Leslie in Monaghan. Churchill was also related to the Londonderry family.

Later, in 1886, Lord Randolph became notorious for saying that “the Orange card was the one to play” in stirring up opposition to Home Rule, but Winston himself became a committed Home Ruler, having defected to Gladstone’s Liberals from the Conservatives. However, he was always balancing this with a heartfelt commitment to Irish Unionism and Bew, offering a refreshing Ulster perspective to all this, expertly teases out the development of Churchill’s thoughts on this dilemma. Managing the demands of Redmond’s Nationalists and Carson’s Unionists took some doing.

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The onset of the First World War postponed Home Rule, and serious ethnic unrest, and Bew is interesting about the traumatic effects of trench slaughter on both Irish sides, with even Carson baulking at the carnage wrought by Churchill’s own disastrous decision to land at Gallipoli (picture above). He also interestingly credits Carson with later having reservations about the arming of the UVF at Larne in 1912, which introduced the gun into the Irish question. Carson merely wanted the threat of armed resistance, not the real thing.

Through Churchill’s mediation, Redmond and Carson were almost at a settlement. But the 1916 Rising occurred and Irish Republicanism swept away limited Home Rule demands. Not that the Republicans were able to gain a whole lot more, even after an armed struggle. Churchill’s reaction to this armed struggle was very hard-line and uncharacteristically so.

However, he was often a contradictory figure and, as a master politician, he could hold contrary views. Having publicly mocked Terence Mac Swiney’s hunger strike, he then concedes to the Mayor of Cork’s bravery

With Treaty talks underway, Churchill again tried hard to find an accommodation. Ulster was already gone, by 1920, so it was a matter of accommodation between Republic and Empire. Nationalist mythology paints the Treaty as done under great duress, but it is hard to see how the British could have offered more. Churchill watched as those he became close to, such as Collins and Kevin O’Higgins, were cut down by Irish Republicans.

His relationship with Eamon De Valera was later sorely tested by Irish neutrality in World War Two. It is hard to overestimate the incredulity and hurt this caused in the UK.

Churchill took it personally, and his anger publicly and unfairly later, famously responded to by De Valera in a speech which is often considered heroic but which many of us would consider just as myopic and self-pitying as Churchill’s. Europe is in ruins, millions have died but the main focus for neutral De Valera is his 800-year-old Irish struggle. The Long Fellow was a bit of dreary steeple himself.

To Churchill’s dismay but grudging respect, De Valera eventually dismantled the 1921 Treaty and won full freedom for Ireland, but he also reinforced partition. The two men became friendly and Churchill repeated his wish for a united Ireland. He never wanted otherwise.

This is a provocative and fascinating book, all the more enjoyable for the energy and charm of its singular focus.

Irish Independent, 15 May 2016

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