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Winston Churchill spoke of his "longing" for a united Ireland

New Irish foreign policy documents suggest that the wartime Prime Minister may have had unexpected feelings regarding Ireland’s partition.

Politics - Winston Churchill Winston Churchill, pictured in December 1952 Source: PA Archive/PA Images

BRITAIN’S WARTIME PRIME Minister Winston Churchill spoke of his enthusiasm for a united Ireland according to Irish foreign policy documents of the time.

Churchill was Conservative Prime Minister of the UK twice, between 1940 and 1945 and between 1951 and 1955.

The documents detailing his opinions on the Irish partition situation are contained in the newly released Documents on Irish Foreign Policy Volume X, which covers the years 1951 to 1957, as published by the Royal Irish Academy.

Many of the documents concerning Churchill are the hearsay of then Canadian High Commissioner in London Norman Robertson, who was in the habit of regularly meeting the UK’s Irish ambassador Fred Boland for exchanges of “views and gossip”.

Others are official reports and communiqués by Boland himself to the then Irish Department of External Affairs, now the Department of Foreign Affairs.

A letter from an official in the Department to Boland in January 1952 confirms that a ‘British spokesman’ who had in Washington recently expressed himself “as ‘longing’ for a United Ireland provided that we could woo the Six Counties successfully” was Churchill himself.

This assertion was allowed to be published in the media on the condition that the source would not identified.

‘Cultured, gracious’

In February 1952 Churchill reportedly addressed the British Embassy in Washington DC and spoke in praise of the ‘cultured, well-ordered, gracious way of life’ that had developed ‘in the 26 counties’.

DUBLIN1 Eamon de Valera speaking in Dublin in 1949 Source: AP/Press Association Images

Boland in his communications with Dublin on the subject is at pains to emphasise “the value and importance to us of these public tributes – particularly coming from Mr Churchill”, and his belief that international reporting had fudged details of the Washington speech as it would “have caused more indignation and alarm in Belfast”.

“…as the people in Stormont must know well, nothing is better calculated to sway public sympathy in Britain to favour us on the partition issue than a growing appreciation of our tolerance and fair-mindedness in public and private conduct,” Boland wrote.

He does stress however that Churchill’s seeming appreciation for all things Irish at that time was “probably to a large extent a personal one”.

Ireland’s own international affairs were not in an ideal state in the early 1950s. Neutrality during World War II (or The Emergency as it was referred to here) and the economic fallout of same had done little to aid the country’s standing. That would change with Ireland’s ascension to the United Nations in 1955.

‘Irish unity within reach’

Churchill meanwhile, had made his scorn for Ireland’s neutral stance during the World War II perfectly clear in the aftermath of that conflict’s end in a victory address on the BBC in May 1945 (itself believed to have been prompted by then Taoiseach Eamon de Valera’s expression of Irish condolence upon the death of Hitler).

In that address Churchill suggested that should Britain’s ‘necessity’ have required it to take over Ireland during the war (most particularly due to the military significance of our ports) then it would have been easy for it to do so, making his seeming enthusiasm for a united Ireland in the years following the war all the more unusual.

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De Valera’s own speech in response to Churchill at that time became renowned for its ‘dignity’ and lack of hostility, describing the Prime Minister’s attitude as “precisely why we have the disastrous successions of wars – world war number  one and world war number two – and shall there be world war number three?”

The newly published Irish documents do indicate however that there were two occasions during the war itself when “Irish unity might have been within reach of attainment… in view of the wider interests involved”.

Brookeborough1 Lord Brookeborough Source: AP

This information was delivered by Canada’s Robertson to Fred Boland in October 1954, the twilight days of Churchill’s premiership, and came from a most unusual source – the unionist Prime Minister of Northern Ireland Lord Brookeborough, who served in office for 20 years between 1943 and 1963.

One of those occasions was immediately after the fall of France to the Nazis in June 1940, the other occasion however could not be remembered specifically by Robertson.

“Although he was absolutely firm in his present attitude of inflexible resistance to all outside pressure, Lord Brookeborough did not exclude in his own mind the possibility of an ultimate solution of the partition problem by agreement,” Boland wrote in his report regarding Robertson’s news. However:

Allowance must, of course, be made for the fact that Lord Brookeborough is probably concerned to win the sympathy of the Canadian government (regarding the unity of the British commonwealth) and therefore, in talking to Mr Robertson, would probably be at pains to sound more moderate and reasonable than he really is in fact.

Winston Churchill left office for the final time in April 1955 amid increasing concern over his mental health and wellbeing (he had suffered a number of strokes, the most recent in 1953). He died in January 1965 aged 90.

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