Churchill, the British leader and the Irish problem

Churchill, the British leader and the Irish problem Winston Churchill
Churchill & Ireland

by Paul Bew (Oxford: Oxford University Press) £9.99pb



One of the problems that an historian faces is the asymmetric. In the case of Britain and Ireland, that is particularly acute. The Irish see Britain through the telescope the right way round. It looms large in our consciousness. Most Britons, though, look at us through the other end of that telescope – and they see, if they see at all, something small and relatively insignificant.

It is given to very few British politicians to comprehend Ireland – north and south – as anything more than a side-dish to the main course. Arthur ‘Bloody’ Balfour – Chief Secretary for Ireland in the later 19th Century – was quite proud of “the Ireland that we made”: landed, devout and conservative.

Churchill never saw Britain’s role in Ireland as state- or people-maker particularly in that light. But that did not mean that Ireland was unimportant to Churchill – it just meant that we were largely seen as irritant and indigent.


He spent some five years of his infancy living in Irerland.  He also had  had Irish cousins – the gentry family of Leslie in Monaghan – and he maintained a life-long connection with Sir Shane Leslie. But Sir Shane was idiosyncratic, to put it mildly, and was hardly representative of anyone but himself.

Winston’s father was Lord Randolph, another one-off, famous for playing the Orange Card in 1886 against Home Rule. It is arguable, of course, that the Orangemen were equally adept at playing the ‘Union Card’. Who was manipulating whom? And while Churchill was a significant player in the 1920-22 period, he is probably best remembered in Ireland for his unremitting hostility to the southern Irish state’s policy of neutrality during the Second World War.

De Valera’s condolences on the death of Hitler enraged him. Yet Churchill failed to appreciate that on war’s outbreak at any rate, the policy of neutrality had broad public support – and that included most of the Protestant representatives in the Oireachtas, as well as the Irish Times, a community that one suspects might have been reasonably susceptible to Churchillian flights of fancy.

Paul Bew’s book attempts to explain the almost unexplainable – Churchill’s twists and turns in regard to Ireland.

It is a thoughtful and engaging exegesis, and it holds a mirror to the larger Churchill – also one of contradictions, twists, turns, word-drunkenness, great confusion and above all personal and political calculation.

I still find it difficult to forgive his insistence on the disastrous Gallipoli campaign in the Great War. He attempted to second-guess the generals and admirals on the spot.  The results were enormous Irish casualties. My grandfather was one – a ‘Pal’, a loyal Catholic. He was lucky, getting out of Suvla Bay with ‘only’ a Turkish bullet in his leg, but a lifetime of disability.

Churchill may have redeemed himself, in British eyes at least, with holding fast in the darkest hour of 1940. Shakespeare in Twelfth Night writes that “‘there is no darkness but ignorance”. In relation to Winston Churchill, Lord Bew ably reminds us of that.

This book, first published in hardback in 2016, is now happily re-issued in paperback for a wider readership. Though his attempt to establish a psychological empathy between Churchill and Collins was called by one reviewer “psycho-babble”, the settled critical view of the original edition was that Bew’s analysis of where Churchill and Ireland intersected and diverged was broadly on target; that is this reviewer’s judgement, too.

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