The opening shots in the Liberal Irish Home Rule campaign were fired by Winston Churchill in West Belfast in February 1912. Churchill’s visit to Belfast seems to have been motivated by a desire to argue the Imperial case for Home Rule in Ulster. But like a lot of other things Churchill did in his political and military career, it was done in a particularly ham-fisted way.
Churchill’s father, Lord Randolph, had coined the phrase, “Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right” and had gone to the Ulster Hall in Belfast, in 1886 “to play the Orange card”. He had famously written to his friend, Lord Fitzgibbon, “I decided some time ago that, if the G.O.M. (Gladstone) went for Home Rule, the Orange card would be the one to play. Please God it may turn out the Ace of trumps not the two.”
Winston Churchill was as much of an Imperialist as his father, Randolph, but he differed from him on the question of which policy would best serve the Imperialist interest. Churchill announced his intention of going to speak at Belfast’s Ulster Hall in favour of Home Rule, with Lord Pirrie, who had also previously been a Unionist, but who had deserted and been made a peer by the Liberals. In Churchill’s mind there was nothing wrong in what he was doing. He was a committed Imperialist, Irish Home Rule was meant as a measure to strengthen the Empire – so he was going to go and tell Ulster that it was now mistaken in opposing it, as it did in 1886.
Churchill wanted to take the bull by the horns. But what he was doing was like a red rag to the bull. His proposal to talk at the citadel of Ulster Unionism in favour of Irish Home Rule, in the city and venue where his father had been welcomed as a king, represented an amazing provocation to the Ulster Unionists. Opposition was mounted, and when it became apparent that serious trouble would take place if Churchill went ahead with his intention, the public meeting was proclaimed and switched to Celtic Park, just off the Catholic Falls Road. As Churchill journeyed through Protestant areas of County Antrim and Belfast, he was jeered and effigies of him were burnt. But the Liberal Imperialist was greeted with great enthusiasm as he crossed into Catholic West Belfast.
The Times of 9 February reported Churchill’s visit like this:
“The yells of angry resentment were still ringing in Mr. Churchill’s ears when devoted friends were swarming around his car in ecstasy of passionate enthusiasm. The reception that the Falls gave him was, indeed, one of the most remarkable features of a memorable day. There were thousands of people lining the Falls Road, and the whole Roman Catholic community seemed to have turned out to do him honour. About half way to the ground Mr. Churchill’s car passed an open landau in which Mr. And Mrs. John Redmond, Mr Wm. Redmond, and Mr Joseph Devlin were driving to the meeting with the voluntary escort of a score off cheering mill girls.”
The peculiar circumstances of his visit made Churchill’s appearance the first public display of the Liberal/Irish Nationalist alliance. The audience at Celtic Park was a mixture of Ulster Liberals and Nationalist Home Rulers. Here is the Freeman’s Journal report of it:
“Eight thousand Ulster Home Rulers, chiefly Protestant Liberals, defied the lawlessness of Londonderry and Carson yesterday in Belfast, and gave Mr Churchill a welcome such as he never before experienced. The proclamations succeeded in converting a meeting at 3,000 into one of 8,000, and in securing the most remarkable demonstration our generation has witnessed of the race which gave to Ireland its Orrs and M’Crackens, its Mitchels and Martins, its M’Knights and Crawfords, still nourishes some of the old sacred fire, and that the spirit of nationhood and the love of liberty are still cherished by many a Protestant hearth in Ulster. Mr. Churchill’s speech was the speech of an Imperialist as well as of a Home Ruler. By its reception of the speech the meeting proved that the genuine loyalty of Ulster was represented in the hall, the loyalty that rises above the meanness of the ascendancy passion, that looks beyond the narrow selfishness of class and sect, and aspire to make not only the Empire stronger and more secure, but the whole English speaking world a brotherhood of free nations bound to the progress of humanity. That is the sentiment to which Mr Churchill appealed, and it is the only sentiment to which, in the existing conditions of the world, any British politician worthy of the name of statesman would make appeal. Home Rule is the first step in the last stage of Imperial concentration and Anglo-Celtic reconcilement was Mr Churchill’s theme.
…Mr. Churchill, undaunted by the malignancy of the Londonderry conspirators, called upon Ulster and upon independent Unionist opinion to face the Irish question in the spirit of true Imperialists… within Ulster and without there are thoughtful Unionists who will give patient consideration to a policy of Home Rule put forward by Mr. Churchill as part of the great and necessary work of Imperial consolidation. As soon as such Unionists come to consider the matter they will agree with Nationalist opinion that what is best for Ireland is in the long run best for the Empire. Mr Redmond speaking after Mr Churchill, endorsed every word that he had said regarding the effect of national self government in the reconcilement of Ireland to the Empire, and accepted all his conditions for the assurance and security of the rights of the minority… The spirit of Mr. Churchill’s declarations… encourages the hope that the Home Rule Bill will be one upon which Nationalists, Democrats, and truly Imperial opinion may unite as upon a measure calculated to advance the well-being of Ireland, and to strengthen the bonds that hold together the self-governing nations of the Empire.” (Freeman’s Journal, 9 February, 1912.)
It was the logical extension of the argument that Home Rule would strengthen the Empire, that Unionist opposition to Irish self-government was an anti-Imperial phenomenon. And there was no contradiction in the belief that Irish Catholic-Nationalism would prove a strength to the Imperial world by being given Home Rule, whilst Ulster Unionism, by opposing this process, was acting against the long-term interests of the Empire. And in the light of what subsequently happened in the relations between Britain and Ireland and to the British Empire, could it really be argued that the Freeman’s Journal was wrong and Ulster Unionism was right? In this sense, I don’t think there was anything ridiculous in arguing that there was a Protestant Liberal opinion in Ireland, favourable to Home Rule, which was progressively imperial while there was Ulster Unionism, which was living in the past, and was now, detrimental to the Empire’s interests.
The Freeman’s claim that the majority of the audience were “Protestant Liberals” rather than local Irish nationalists was probably an exaggeration. But in support of this claim the Freeman’s Journal noted that there were greater cheers for Churchill and Pirrie at the meeting than for Redmond and,
“… as to the singing, no one would expect a Belfast Nationalist crowd to raise their voices in ‘For he’s a jolly good fellow,’ or ‘God save the King’. They are not practiced, to put it mildly, in these choruses. People who know Belfast intimately, say it was, in a very remarkable degree, a mixed crowd. Adopting that conclusion, the reception given to various parts of Mr. Churchill speech become interesting. When he praised Dublin for its welcome to King George one of the loudest cheers of the day burst forth from thousands of throats, and again, when, in a dramatic passage, he lauded the heroism of Boer and Irish soldiers on the Tugela heights, it was noticeable that it was the Irish, rather than the Boer, warriors who were loudest acclaimed.”
It would be very unusual today for a crowd to attempt to sing the English National Anthem in West Belfast. So if there wasn’t great enthusiasm for it in 1912, there was, at least, toleration. Two years later, there was, in fact, according to the Freeman’s Journal, an enthusiastic and spontaneous rendition of ‘God save the King’ sang on the Falls. And it was only John Redmond and Joe Devlin who were visiting that time!
Before Churchill took the platform, Lord Pirrie, the Chairman of the Harland and Wolff Shipyard in Belfast, asked, “Is loyalty supposed to mean steadfastness to inherited phrases and that an evolution either in religion or politics is lacking in reverence to our ancestors?” He was probably speaking of his own evolution, but his question would have also been relevant to his Catholic-Nationalist audience.
Here are some extracts from Churchill’s speech concerning Ireland and the Empire:
“I am glad to be with you today. Contact with Ireland is contact with history; and how can we tell but that the great meeting which has assembled here under circumstances of such peculiar significance this afternoon may not in future years be looked back to as a beneficient landmark in Irish and British history (cheers)… I come to you on the eve of a Home Rule Bill (loud and prolonged cheers). We intend to place before Parliament our plan for the better government of Ireland. It will be a plan harmonious with the Imperial interest (hear, hear) and we are resolved that it shall be a plan creditable to it authors (cheers)… We have consulted, and we shall consult fully with the leaders of Irish public opinion. But the decision rests with us, and the Bill we shall introduce – and I believe carry into law (cheers) – will be a Bill of the British Government designed to smooth the path of the British Empire and liberate new forces for its services (hear, hear).
Ladies and gentlemen, the case for Home Rule as it stands today after the controversies of so many years, rests upon three main sets of argument – the Imperial argument, the House of Commons argument, and the Irish argument (hear, hear). Let me survey these very briefly. I take the largest and the widest first, and I leave that which is nearest home to the end.
I take the Home Rule argument. A settlement of the long quarrel between the British Government and the Irish people would be to the British Empire, a boon, a blessing, a treasure ship, a wonderful reinforcement, precious beyond compare (cheers) (A voice – ‘And to America’). In their own island the Irish race have dwindled. While the populations of Europe have overflowed, that of Ireland has ebbed away, but elsewhere all over the world they had held their own, and in every country where the English language is spoken the Irish are a power for good or a power for ill, a power to harass or a power to help us, a power to unite us or a power to keep us asunder.
… Since Mr Gladstone rallied half the British nation to the Home Rule cause, things have got better. A gentler feeling has supervened; but still the Irishmen overseas have done us much harm in the past. They had been an adverse force in our Colonies. They have on more than one occasion unfavorably deflected the policy of the United States. They are now the most serious obstacle to Anglo-American friendship. We have got on in spite of all that… If, we had their aid instead of their enmity, their help instead of their opposition, how much smoother our path, how much quicker our progress (cheers). What new possibilities would be opened!
…And there is no final reason for this antagonism between the races or the countries. The Irish people are, by character and tradition, attached to monarchical institutions. The idea of a King – a King not only of Great Britain, but a King of Ireland – is familiar and grateful to Irish minds. No natural barrier stands between the Irish people and the Throne…”
Churchill’s point that “the Irish people are, by character and tradition, attached to monarchical institutions” was, at least, historically correct – certainly before the famine. And there probably was some degree of truth in it up until Britain disregarded the 1918 General Election result. The fact that Dual Monarchy was the official policy of Sinn Fein at this time, at the very least, demonstrates the truth in it.
Churchill continued with an appeal to the Ulster Protestants:
“…it is this that makes me put my first question to earnest and generous minded Unionists in Ulster… Is it really necessary to your safety and welfare that this natural sentiment of Irish loyalty should be repulsed? Must The British Empire be made for all time to stand out of all advantage there from?… Are British Governments to be compelled to govern them only by force as a subjugated race? Surely, at the very least, it is incumbent upon the Ulster Unionists, if they take that view, to offer very grave and substantial reasons to make it clear to the British public and to the Colonies… to justify… the attitude which attempts to bar the path of Irish hope and Imperial needs.”
After the interruption of some suffragette protesters (who were “speedily ejected” by the Hibernians, according to the Freeman), Churchill moved on to the subject of South Africa:
“How often have we been reminded of the handful of Irishmen who fought against us in the Boer War? Have we forgotten the brave Irishmen who never failed in their duty to the Queen and to the Army? Why, gentlemen, in these days, when the Irish Catholics are assailed with so much ill nature, are they never to be remembered too? I cannot help thinking of the scenes of which I was a witness when the heights of the Tugela were stormed, and when Ladysmith was relieved (cheers). On the crest of the hill facing the fire of sixty guns, in a veritable whirlwind of exploding shells stood the valiant Boers. Up the Boer slopes marched unflinchingly the Dublin and the Inniskilling Fusiliers (cheers). There was a struggle of heroes – ranged by fate and duty on opposite sides. What a tragedy, what a cruel pity, that such noble breeds of men should be locked together in hateful carnage (hear, hear); and now we have made friends with our enemies. Can we not make friends with our comrades, too?… Can we not win and keep them both… and all within the shelter of the great mother Empire, which for all the disparagement of modern times still raises her broad shield against every foe that threatens and still keeps open what is perhaps upon the whole the surest road to human progress (cheers).”
This is what one might call retrospective argument. Boer self-government within the Empire was being used by both Churchill and the Irish Party to justify Irish Home Rule. Although Churchill was a Unionist at the time of the war, he was being reasonably consistent, as a Liberal, to argue this position. After all, during the war, the bulk of the Liberals, although opposed to the war for the annexation of the Boer Republics, accepted the British conquest as fact and differed only from the Unionist Government in the form of administration that was to be imposed upon the Boers.
But how could the Irish Party advance such an argument with honesty and consistency? They had been opposed to the war to subjugate the Boer Republics to the Empire. Was it then consistent to welcome Imperial occupation of the Republics, in whatever form it took, and forget about all the British war crimes which went into conquering the Boers?
I think this goes a long way in explaining why the Liberal Imperialists like Churchill were so confident they could say what they wanted and do what they desired to Ireland. The mind of the Ireland was surely taken, and was ripe for re-tuning, when Churchill could get away with what he was saying on a platform with John Redmond and Joe Devlin in West Belfast – and it went unchallenged even in the Freeman’s Journal.
After dealing with the main and important benefits of Home Rule – the Imperial ones – Churchill went on to argue that Irish self-government would also relieve the congestion of business at Westminster and be good for Ireland, itself. But Churchill did not tell his audience in West Belfast how free they would be under Home Rule. He told them how free they wouldn’t and couldn’t be:
“Would not the arrival of an Irish parliament upon the brilliantly lighted stage of the modern world be an enrichment and an added glory to the treasures of the British Empire? (cheers). And what of all this vain and foolish chatter about separation? The separation of Ireland from Great Britain is absolutely impossible (cheers). The interests and affairs of the two islands are eternally interwoven. Ireland, separated thousands of miles by ocean from any western country, finds at her door across the Channel the great English market on which she depends for the welfare of her agriculture, as well as the materials for her trades and industries. It is not impossible that Ireland may in the future wholly displaced Denmark in the supply of agricultural products to the great cities and populous districts of England and Scotland. The whole tendency of things, the whole irresistible drift of things is towards a more intimate association. The economic dependence of Ireland on England is absolute and quite apart from naval, military, and constitutional arguments, and quite apart from all considerations of the Imperial Parliament, of the flag, and of the Crown, none of which ties will be in any respect impaired, the two nations are bound together till the end of time by the natural force of circumstances. Is it not worthwhile for English statesmen to try to make their lifelong partner happy and content and free? (Cheers)”
Redmond spoke after Churchill. And his speech was mainly concerned with emphasizing how much he agreed with Churchill on matters, Imperial and domestic:
“There are many of us in Ireland who, for a long time past, have looked to Mr. Churchill as a man who, by temperament, by experience, and by his sense of statesmanship, seems especially singled out to bear a large part in what I may call saving Ireland for the Empire (cheers). I well remember almost his first official work in the House of Commons, when, under the leadership of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman (cheers) Mr Churchill was responsible for saving South Africa to the Empire. And from the moment that I heard his speeches on that question, I, for myself, have always looked for the day when he should be in the very front rank of those who would extend the same principles of freedom to Ireland (cheers)… With Mr. Churchill’s Imperial argument I absolutely agree. We want to make a settlement with our Protestant fellow countrymen (hear, hear), and one of our chief reasons for wanting it is that we may come at last into our rightful place in the Empire, which we built as well as they (cheers)… We ask to be allowed to enjoy that oblivion of the past which Mr Gladstone reminded England was as much in her interests as in ours (hear, hear). We want to have our proper place in the Empire… I sincerely hope that in a comparatively short space of time this great healing policy, which has in a few months obliterated the scars of the bloody war in South Africa (hear, hear), this great hearing policy which has welded together two races and two creeds bitterly at war only a few years ago in Canada – will have the same effect here, and that this island will have a future of peace, prosperity, unity and loyalty (loud and continued cheers).”
Winston Churchill and John Redmond shared the ambition of making the Irish into good Imperialists through Home Rule. That was the position of the leadership of Irish Nationalism and the most advanced and vigorous British Imperialist of the time. And the intention was to make “an oblivion of the past” in Ireland for the Empire, and “liberate new forces for its services.”
But it was not an argument that impressed Protestant Ulster. The Ulster Unionists much preferred to remain as the Imperial garrison in Ireland over the disloyal Irish Catholics and were not at all intent on becoming a mere component of an activist Irish Imperialism led by John Redmond.