Winston Churchill’s Victory broadcast of 13 May 1945, in which he claimed that but for Northern Ireland’s “loyalty and friendship” the British people “should have been confronted with slavery or death,” is perhaps the most emphatic assertion that the Second World War entrenched partition from the southern state and strengthened the political bond between Britain and Northern Ireland.
Two years earlier, however, in private correspondence with US President Roosevelt, Churchill had written disparagingly of the young men of Belfast, who unlike their counterparts in Britain were not subject to conscription, loafing around “with their hands in their pockets,” hindering recruitment and the vital work of the shipyards.
Churchill’s role as a unifying figure, galvanising the war effort through wireless broadcasts and morale-boosting public appearances, is much celebrated in accounts of the British Home Front. The further away from London and the South East of England that one travels, however, the more questions should be asked of this simplistic narrative. Due to Churchill’s actions as Liberal Home Secretary during the 1910 confrontations between miners and police in South Wales, for example, he was far less popular in Wales, and indeed in Scotland, than in England during the war. But in Northern Ireland, too, Churchill was a controversial figure at this time. The roots of this controversy are to be found in events that took place more than a quarter of a century before, in 1912.
Then First Lord of the Admiralty, Churchill was booed on arrival in Belfast that February, before his car was attacked and his effigy brandished by a mob of loyalist demonstrators. Later at Belfast Celtic Football Ground he was cheered by a crowd of five thousand nationalists as he spoke in favour of Home Rule for Ireland. Churchill was not sympathetic to the Irish nationalist cause but believed that Home Rule would strengthen the Empire and the bond between Britain and Ireland; he also saw this alliance as vital to the defence of the United Kingdom.
Loyalists were outraged. Angry dockers hurled rotten fish at Churchill and his wife Clementine as they left the city; historian and novelist Hugh Shearman reported that their car was diverted to avoid thousands of shipyard workers who had lined the route with pockets filled with “Queen’s Island confetti,” local slang for rivet heads. (Harland and Wolff were at this time Belfast’s largest employer, and indeed one of the largest shipbuilding firms in the world; at the time of the Churchills’ visit the Titanic was being fitted out.)
Two years later in March 1914 Churchill made a further speech in Bradford in England, calling for a peaceful solution to the escalating situation in Ulster and arguing that the law in Ireland should be applied equally to nationalists and unionists without preference. Three decades later, this speech was widely reprinted and quoted in several socialist and nationalist publications in Northern Ireland, embarrassing the unionist establishment by highlighting their erstwhile hostility to the most prominent icon of the British war effort. Churchill’s ignominious retreat from Belfast in 1912 was also raised by pamphleteers and politicians who sought to exploit a perceived hypocrisy in the unionist government’s professed support for the British war effort as it sought to suppress dissent within the province. One socialist pamphlet attacked unionists by arguing that “The Party which denied freedom of speech to a member of the British Government before it became the Government of Northern Ireland is not likely to worry overmuch about free speech for its political opponents after it became the Government.”
And in London in 1940 Victor Gollancz’s Left Book Club published a polemic by the Dublin-born republican activist Jim Phelan, startlingly entitled Churchill Can Unite Ireland. In this Phelan expressed hopes that Churchill’s personality itself could effect positive change in Ireland. He saw Churchill as a figure who could challenge what Phelan called “punctilio,” the adherence to deferential attitudes that kept vested interests in control of the British establishment. Phelan identified a cultural shift in Britain following Churchill’s replacement of Chamberlain as Prime Minister, characterised by a move towards plain speaking: he argued that for the first time since the revolutionary year of 1848 “people are saying and writing what they mean.”
Jim Phelan’s ideas in Churchill Can Unite Ireland were often fanciful, but they alert us to the curious patterns of debate that can be found away from more familiar British narratives of the Second World War. Here a proud Irish republican could assert his faith in a British Prime Minister with a questionable record in Ireland as capable of delivering Irish unity.
Despite publically professed loyalty to the British war effort, unionist mistrust of the London government in London endured over the course of the war, partly due to Churchill’s perceived willingness to deal with Irish Taoiseach Éamon de Valera. Phelan’s book concluded with the words: “Liberty does not grow on trees; it must be fought for. Not ‘now or never’. Now.” Eerily these lines presaged the infamous telegram from Churchill to de Valera following the bombing of Pearl Harbor the following year in 1941, which, it is implied, offered Irish unity in return for the southern state’s entry into the war on the side of Allies, and read in part “Now is your chance. Now or never. A Nation once again.”