Finest Hour 145, Winter 2009-10
Churchill Proceedings – “The Dev” and Mr. Churchill An Irish Nationalist’s View of a Complicated Relationship
By Diarmaid Ferriter
Dr. Ferriter is Professor of Irish History at University College Dublin and was the 2008-09 Burns Scholar at Boston College. His latest book is Judging Dev: A Reassessment of the Life and Legacy of Eamon de Valera (2007). Two further papers on de Valera and Churchill, delivered at the 2008 Boston conference by Professors Thomas Hachey and David Freeman, will appear alongisde this one on our website. Professor Freeman’s will have been revised and expanded for a conference on the Churchills and Ireland at the University of Ulster last June. Papers from this conference will be published later by the Irish Academic Press.
What was the significance of the political relationship between Winston Churchill and Eamon de Valera (“the Dev”), the dominant politician of 20th century Ireland? How did they characterize each other during the course of their tempestuous relationship? The two crossed swords on many occasions and there are a variety of colorful quotations one could cite to encapsulate the essence of the relationship between them, and in particular Churchill’s view of de Valera. At various stages, he called him a liar, a fanatic, a murderer, a perjurer, a Bolshevist, and, perhaps most insultingly, a bore.
Eamon de Valera was more circumspect in how he used language, and generally tended to be more understated than Churchill. But it is also important to emphasize that for all that divided the two men, they had a lot in common, perhaps most obviously their extraordinary political longevity.
De Valera first came to public prominence in 1913 as a member of the Irish Volunteers, precursor to the Irish Republican Army. He was still in office as President of the Republic of Ireland in 1973; no other figure dominated Irish politics during this period to the same extent. His greatest political successes were achieved in the 1930s and the 1940s, but he remained preoccupied with the period of the Irish Revolution or the Irish War of Independence, particularly the years between 1918 and 1923, when Churchill’s rhetoric about de Valera was at its most visceral. De Valera made mistakes during this period; while never admitting that in public, he did tend to ponder in private the consequences of his actions, and in particular the consequences of the split in the Irish Republican family—the Sinn Fein movement—during the period after de Valera refused to travel to London for the negotiations that resulted in the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921 (see last issue, pages 44-62.) He supported the anti-Treatyites during the subsequent civil war, an opposition to which Churchill often alluded.
Many of the accusations Churchill made against de Valera, and much of the wild Churchillian rhetoric, can be traced back to this War of Independence period. Some can be seen as quite far-fetched, considering the many and bigger theatres of war that Churchill was associated with throughout his career. But Churchill reserved a considerable portion of his bile for those Irish whom he regarded as treacherous. It was an attitude that was shared by many of his contemporaries in British politics and it was chiefly born of ignorance. Churchill was also disingenuous in the language that he used about de Valera and about Ireland generally during the War of Independence. He liked to give the impression of the British government being a benign presence that was reacting to an insoluble and intractable Irish problem and, indeed, insoluble and intractable Irish personalities such as de Valera. Churchill wrote to his wife in the spring of 1920 about “that treacherous, assassinating, conspiring trait which has done them in in the bygone ages of history and prevented them from being a great, responsible nation with stability and prosperity.”
This was the kind of assertion that exposed a convenient and deliberate ignorance of Irish politics. He failed to recognize or acknowledge the various layers of the Sinn Fein movement. He had a tendency to depict de Valera as being a die-hard, an extremist and a fanatic. The reality was that de Valera was neither an extremist nor a fanatic; he was someone who presided over a Sinn Fein movement, from 1918 onwards, that was a broad coalition. There were many young, absolutist and idealistic republicans within the Sinn Fein movement, but there were others who were a lot more moderate and who were not necessarily looking to create an Irish republic as a solution to the Anglo-Irish problem. De Valera, in a sense, fell between those two different wings, and in presiding over the Sinn Fein movement, he was very conscious that there was diversity of opinion within its ranks. But this was not something that was recognized by Churchill, who tended to talk, in the early 1920s, about “the integrity of the Irish quarrel,” as being “one of the few institutions unaffected or unaltered by the cataclysm” of the First World War. The notion that the unreasonable Irish stubbornly stuck to their quarrels, no matter what was happening in the rest of the world, was a theme that he came back to repeatedly.
This was very convenient for Churchill and the British government. It absolved them from having to take responsibility for what was going on in Ireland. It absolved them from the mistakes of British government policy in Ireland. Churchill’s bogus contentions were that the Irish had “a genius for conspiracy rather than government,” and that it was impossible to reason with an absolutist Anglophobe like de Valera. The truth was that de Valera was not anti-British. What he had was a profound distrust for many British politicians, something that stemmed from the controversy over the treaty negotiations in 1921.
Reluctance: The 1920s
De Valera made perhaps the most controversial decision of his career not to travel to the treaty negotiations in 1921. It was a decision that had a huge impact on the course of the Irish Republican endeavor, and it had a significant personal impact on de Valera as well. Whether or not he should have gone to the treaty negotiations is something that historians have debated vigorously. In one sense, it was a grave mistake on his part.
But it is also the case that many, in the aftermath of the treaty and the division within the Sinn Fein movement, blamed British politicians for duping the Irish delegation into signing this treaty, under threat of “immediate and terrible war.” This was the exact language that was used by the British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George.
During the Irish War of Independence, Churchill had often defended the use of counter-terror in Ireland. He was conscious of the broader significance of the Irish problem; the wider issue of the fate of the British Empire. Ireland was striking out, at a very early stage, for its own independence, and Churchill was nervous about the domino theory. If Ireland was allowed to go its own way, what would the consequences be for Egypt, for South Africa, and perhaps most obviously, for India? The MI5 file on de Valera revealed a continuing unease after 1922 at “the links between Irish and Indian radicals.” Nonetheless, Churchill was a pragmatist. He may have defended the use of counter-terror, but he was also somebody who was keen to see negotiations start, and he urged David Lloyd George to talk to Irish Republicans, or “Irish terrorists,” as they were usually referred to in the early 1920s.
But he retained his narrow outlook when it came to de Valera and the belief that the trouble in Ireland, particularly as it slid towards civil war in the summer of 1922, was being fomented by a very small minority of malcontents led by de Valera, the idea being that once they were crushed, a moderate majority would emerge in Ireland.
This was a serious underestimation of the complexity of Irish politics, and indeed of the appeal of de Valera. Despite the fact that the Irish electorate endorsed the treaty, that did not mean that there was not considerable support for de Valera. Churchill and others were slow to recognize that complexity, and were loath to acknowledge the appeal that de Valera had beyond the so-called “die-hards” of the IRA.
Interestingly Churchill used his accusatory language at a time when de Valera was very vulnerable. The civil war period was undoubtedly the most difficult of his career. He was not in a position to influence those who rejected the treaty in a way that he might have liked in 1922 and 1923. In the midst of the civil war he wrote to a close colleague of his, the Cork Republican Mary Mc-Swiney, suggesting that nature had never fashioned him to be a partisan leader or the leader of a revolution. He went on: “Every instinct of mine would indicate that I was meant to be a dyed-in-the-wool Tory or even a bishop”—hardly the words of a fanatic.
These were the sentiments of a man under huge pressure, a man who, some would argue, had lost the plot, and a politician turned reluctant soldier who was in danger of becoming politically irrelevant. De Valera was imprisoned by the Free State government in 1923 and remained incarcerated for a year. It was one of the most important years in his life, because it gave him time to focus on the splits in the Sinn Fein movement, to mourn colleagues that he had lost in the civil war, and to determine that any new political strategy he developed would prioritize unity, to ensure that what happened as a result of the treaty would never happen again.
Assertiveness: The 1930s
De Valera brought single-mindedness to his new political movement, the new Fianna Fail organization he established in 1926, which evolved in the long term into one of the most successful political parties in the world. He experienced his wilderness years, just as Churchill did, but de Valera recovered relatively quickly, leading his party to victory in the general election of 1932 and remaining prime minister until 1948. He was thus in power in the early 1930s, at a time when Churchill was struggling against enormous odds to make his voice heard in British politics.
What’s striking about de Valera’s and Churchill’s relationship at this stage is a failure on the part of Churchill to appreciate the logic of Irish foreign policy in the 1930s, in the context of de Valera’s tearing up the treaty of 1921. Churchill could only look on in horror at what he regarded at yet another manifestation of the genius for conspiracy.
Historians and researchers now have a lot more information on the thinking behind the framing of Irish foreign policy in the 1930s. The Royal Irish Academy in Dublin has sponsored a series of books of documents on the subject. Notable about the 1930s is the sheer clarity of thinking that existed on the part of de Valera and his colleagues and civil servants after they took power in 1932. The framing of this foreign policy involved the prioritization of Anglo-Irish relations. De Valera was adamant that the treaty could be torn up—wrecked in a very systematic way—yet that this could be done in a way that Britain could live with. In this sense he found it much easier to deal with the likes of Austen Chamberlain than he did with the likes of Churchill, though in any case, Churchill was not in a position to control British foreign policy at that stage.
But despite that clarity of thinking about asserting Irish independence—as de Valera put it, “letting the people at home and the rest of the world know that Ireland is independent”—there was also the issue of how de Valera viewed the Commonwealth. De Valera was not antipathetic to the Commonwealth, though Churchill did not appreciate this. The Irish leader would have been quite happy for Ireland to remain in the Commonwealth as a united Ireland. But ultimately what became much more important in the 1930s and the 1940s was preserving the integrity and the security of the twenty-six counties, the Free State which declared itself to be Eire after the constitution of 1937. Whatever the theoretical issues surrounding partition—which had been a reality since 1920 and were not caused by the treaty despite many assertions to the contrary—de Valera was determined to control that twenty-six county unit, and that informed his foreign policy and particularly the decision to remain neutral after the outbreak of the Second World War. De Valera was determined to ensure that the Irish body politic supported neutrality, and maintaining unity about the integrity of Irish foreign policy was a political priority of de Valera from the early 1930s onwards.
Determination: The 1940s
De Valera used a very simple phrase to justify neutrality. It was, he said, “the logical consequence of Irish history and the forced partition of this country.” But in a meeting with the British representative in Dublin at the outbreak of the war, Sir John Maffey, he did talk at length about the wider consequences and the broader dilemmas associated with neutrality. He talked about the fact that he needed to be evenhanded and about the difficulties that he would have with the pro-German Irish Republican Army. Maffey found him a very difficult man to interrupt: He was prone to very long lectures about what he regarded as British responsibility for the partition of Ireland. But De Valera also suggested that two-thirds of the Irish people were pro-British; interestingly, Churchill suggested that three-quarters of the Irish people had such sentiments. In that meeting with Maffey, he also spoke positively of a united Ireland as a member of the Commonwealth.
Churchill believed de Valera would do nothing to offend the IRA during this period, but that is untrue. In order to defend the integrity and the security of the twenty-six counties, de Valera was quite prepared to see IRA men imprisoned and dead on hunger strikes during World War II. It is important to underline that point, given the many accusations Churchill made about the relationship between de Valera and the IRA. Whatever common cause he may have made by releasing IRA prisoners in 1932, de Valera was very much poacher turned gamekeeper by the end of the 1930s, when the IRA was proscribed as an illegal organization.
There were other important meetings during the Second World War, particularly between de Valera and Malcolm MacDonald, a British cabinet minister who had negotiated with de Valera in the 1930s. MacDonald suggested, after they met in Dublin in 1940, that de Valera’s physical and mental vigor was lower than it had been in their previous (very positive) dealings in the late 1930s. He observed that he was not making the same long, narrow speeches. When it came to reacting to MacDonald’s proposals about a joint defense council for the north and south of Ireland, perhaps a precursor to a united Ireland, de Valera responded negatively and vigorously. He insisted that if they had to, the Irish would fight the Germans if they invaded; that they would “fight them from hedge to hedge,” mentioning that the Irish had a very long tradition of guerrilla fighting and were very skilful in that regard. He even suggested that perhaps Britain should begin negotiating with Hitler. We can imagine the reaction of Churchill to that idea.
Some actually ridiculed the idea that Ireland could do anything to defend its shores. The Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh, for example, suggested the Irish army was not equipped “to protect a field of worms from an invasion of crows,” while one parliamentarian offered the following questions: “What exactly are you going to do if a German U-Boat appears on the Irish coast? Take a pot-shot at it with a rifle?” The idea that Ireland was in any way militarily equipped to deal with a German invasion was laughable to many. But it is important to point out that the fear of British invasion was genuine. When de Valera was told that a message would be coming from Churchill, he said he never knew what it was going to be. It could have been an ultimatum.
There was also another controversy centered around the idea of imposing conscription on Northern Ireland. That set off particular historical alarm bells for de Valera and others who had made much political capital out of their opposition to a similar suggestion towards the end of the First World War in 1918. Ultimately, it was also deemed not to be worth the acrimony it would create in 1941. The controversy surrounding the suggestion rekindled a lot of Churchill’s old animosities, partly because of the kind of language that de Valera used. He insisted in a letter to Churchill that there had been a vast improvement in Anglo-Irish relations, that things were better between Britain and Ireland than they had been for some time, but he went on to suggest that to impose conscription on Northern Ireland would “revolt the human conscience,” and that Churchill was in danger of repeating the historic mistakes of various British governments. Churchill was clever enough to know at that stage that it was better to drop this particular proposal. But it angered him and led to him bemoaning what he called “the ignoble Irish fear of bombing.”
“Now or Never”
There was also the question of how de Valera interpreted Churchill’s famous wartime telegram: “Now or never! ‘A nation once again,'” after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Some historians have suggested that this was not an offer to get rid of partition, but was an invitation to Ireland to recover its lost soul by joining the war effort on the allied side. De Valera in some respects saw it as a wild gesture, though Sir John Maffey, who delivered the message, said Churchill was in high spirits.
Interestingly, there was also a suggestion that de Valera should travel to meet Churchill during this period of the Second World War. De Valera, again thinking in terms of his overall strategy for neutrality, decided against. He feared he might be accused of doing deals with Churchill, and was conscious of what Downing Street deals had done historically for those of his generation. He was afraid he would be accused of undoing the 1938 Ports Agreement, which returned the Irish ports that had been retained by Britain for defense under the terms of the Treaty—and that he might provoke the Germans as well.
The Irish ports became largely irrelevant as the war progressed, but it still seemed that Churchill, in the words of one MI5 officer, still had “a bee in his bonnet” about Ireland, which underlines the extent to which he still saw neutrality as an affront. At that stage, Churchill was considering new proposals to deal with the Irish question, which caused some amazement on the part of his colleagues, including Leo Amery. Churchill was persuaded to drop these proposals from the British Cabinet agenda in 1943, and Amery recorded that he withdrew them “with not too good a grace.” Amery observed: “I was always afraid that at some point Winston might lose his balance, and it may be that this is the one.”
Not widely known is the extensive Anglo-Irish security liaison during World War II. This was based on mutual interest and trust, albeit qualified, between intelligence professionals. (Both Irish G2 Army Intelligence and the British MI6 spy network were quite interested in spying on each other, while preventing spying by their opposite numbers.)
Overseeing all of this on the Irish side was the Department of External Affairs, with de Valera at its helm. There did seem to be at times a reluctance or a naivete in London about de Valera’s willingness to cooperate. He presided over a group of very independent-minded cabinet ministers who had various different views on how to approach many of these issues. But de Valera was adamant about one thing; that he would control the Department of External Affairs, and in doing so he was aware of the detail of this intelligence network.
Ireland was not necessarily unique in its experience of neutrality. The British management of the intelligence and security challenges resembled the treatment of other neutrals contiguous to the Empire. Afghanistan, for example, was subjected to the same mix of covert security cooperation, invasion threats, and diplomatic coercion, the latter often urged by Churchill against the advice of his officials. The important point for de Valera was that he kept his nerve under considerable pressure as a result of these various gestures and maneuvers.
The same applies to the implications for Ireland of American involvement in the war and the U.S. demand that Ireland close down the German embassy in Dublin, which de Valera saw as a threat. Churchill remarked to President Roosevelt, “Don’t disabuse him of that notion. Let fear work its healthy process.” But de Valera refused, and again was able to ensure the unity of the the two other main political parties, Fine Gael and Labour, for his stance.
This emphasis on national unity also did wonders for de Valera electorally. He was continuously fighting elections, winning more than he lost. His Fianna Fail party received 51.9 percent of first-preference votes in the 1938 general election; in the 1943 general election 41.9 percent of first-preference votes, and in the 1944 election, in the aftermath of this American controversy referred to above, it got 48.9 percent. Clearly, de Valera was able to capitalize electorally on threats to Irish neutrality. Had Churchill’s party received such a first-preference vote in the 1945 election, he would have won the peace as well as having won the war.
Condolences and Regrets
Most historians (see next article) regard it as an appalling gaffe that in May1945, de Valera visited the German legation to offer his official condolences on the death of Hitler. De Valera refused to back down; he justified it on the basis of the seriousness with which he took neutrality, right up to the last mathematical dot. This is where de Valera’s frustrating character came to the fore, where his stubbornness was evidenced by his acting against the advice of his officials.
Finally, there is the question de Valera’s reaction to Churchill’s victory broadcast that same month, criticizing Irish neutrality, and de Valera for “frolicking” with the Axis and praising Britain for not violating that neutrality through invasion. In reality, Churchill did de Valera a huge favor by attacking him in such a personal way. De Valera’s response demonstrated considerable political maturity. He acknowledged at a later stage that if he had been a younger man, he would have responded immediately and mirrored the drama and overstatement.
What he did instead was very clever: He waited for three days. It was an important pause. There was a buildup of expectation in Ireland about how he would respond. When it came, the response was thoughtful, focused, and dignified. More importantly, perhaps, it diverted attention away from a neutrality that had always, in any case, been Anglophile. His broadcast was also a brilliant forensic exercise, an indication of his ability to use rhetoric to satisfy national psychic needs, by re-asserting historic Irish claims, restating basic truths about the international order as he saw them.
It is fair to point out that de Valera had to face his own irrelevance in the postwar world, just as Churchill had to accept rejection from the British electorate in 1945. After he temporarily lost power in 1948, de Valera made trips to different Commonwealth countries, making long speeches about partition at a time when there was very little international appetite for long-winded oratory about Ireland.
Both men returned to power, and they finally met, at Downing Street, in 1953. It has been suggested they had considerable mutual respect for each other at that stage, though de Valera could not resist once again bringing up the issues that had long divided them, urging Churchill to address the question of partition.
More important is what the two had in common. Obviously, they were very different men from very different backgrounds. De Valera, born in New York in 1882, was the son of an Irish immigrant mother and a Spanish Cuban father; Churchill was a privileged member of the British aristocracy. Nonetheless, there were parallels that bound them together. Both came to encapsulate the destinies of their respective countries. Both came to symbolize the animosities that existed between Britain and Ireland. Both made extraordinary political comebacks. Both showed political spirit and skill.
In 1940, when Churchill felt that he was walking with destiny, de Valera also seemed to feel that way, because the most important point about his foreign policy was that neutrality presented the world with Ireland’s the first practical claim to independence. Unless you implement an independent foreign policy, you cannot claim to be truly independent—an awareness of which dominated de Valera’s agenda throughout his time in power.
Churchill could be imperious, had an affinity for drama, and had a big brain. We know he thrived when challenged. De Valera was more understated. He was not a natural orator. But he was focused, dignified and, like Churchill, an effective strategist. Both were natural leaders. Both experienced political longevity. Both had reputations as die-hards, but were in reality well capable of the art of compromise. Most importantly, both had courage, which Churchill had always suggested was the most important trait, because it guaranteed all the other traits that were necessary for effective leadership.
Churchill was wrong about one fundamental thing: believing that the Irish had a genius for conspiracy rather than government. Ultimately, what the career and independence of mind of Eamon de Valera proved was