When Winston Churchill said the wrong thing . . .

Sir Winston Churchill in the cabinet room at 10 Downing Street.
Sir Winston Churchill in the cabinet room at 10 Downing Street.

This month one hundred years ago Winston Churchill addressed an audience of nationalists in Celtic Park, Belfast, and told them of his support for Home Rule. Local historian GORDON LUCY reflects on the infamous visit

ELECTED as a Conservative MP in 1900, Winston Churchill crossed the floor of the House of Commons in 1904 and became a Liberal MP.

By 1912 Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty in Asquith’s Liberal Government, which in April would introduce the third Home Rule bill. Churchill parted company with the Conservatives on the issue of Tariff Reform but he was never other than a lukewarm convert to Home Rule. He had after all in 1904 described an Irish Parliament as ‘dangerous and impractical’.

Nevertheless, in January 1912 Churchill, with some encouragement from the Master of Elibank, the Liberal Chief Whip, accepted an invitation from the politically insignificant Ulster Liberal Association to share a platform with John Redmond, the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, and Joe Devlin, the Nationalist MP for West Belfast, and to speak in support of Home Rule in the Ulster Hall in Belfast.

The Ulster Liberal Association’s choice of venue and Churchill’s acceptance of their invitation were both tactless and provocative. Twenty-six years earlier, at the time of the first Home Rule crisis, Churchill’s father, Lord Randolph Churchill, had paid a celebrated visit to Belfast and delivered a speech in the same venue urging his unionist audience to wait and watch, organise and prepare so that the catastrophe of Home Rule might not come upon them ‘as a thief in the night’. However, contrary to popular belief, Lord Randolph did not utter the famous words ‘‘Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right’’ on that occasion.

A letter to Redmond on January 13 possibly casts some light on Churchill’s motivation in accepting the invitation. Churchill explained that it would be useful to set at rest any genuine apprehensions felt by Ulster Protestants. But, perhaps more significantly, he continued: ‘‘it will be a great gain even to give the appearance that a fair and reasonable discussion of the subject [Home Rule] has begun in Ulster’’.

Augustine Birrell, the chief secretary for Ireland, was furious with Churchill’s intervention, not least because Irish affairs formed no part of Churchill’s departmental responsibilities. More importantly, Birrell feared Churchill’s intervention would prove to be the catalyst for serious rioting in Belfast.

Another Cabinet colleague, Lord Morley, who as John Morley had been chief secretary for Ireland at the time of the first and second Home Rule bills, regarded Churchill’s action as reckless and believed he was destroying any prospect of introducing the Home Rule bill in a calm atmosphere.

An angry Unionist reaction was predictable. The Ulster Unionist Council regarded the meeting as a ‘deliberate challenge’ and resolved to prevent it taking place. As the meeting was scheduled for the evening of February 8, Ulster Liberals booked the Ulster Hall for that evening.

Unionists proposed to hire the hall for February 7 and planned to pack it with a solid mass of men who would resist all efforts to eject them the following day.

The liberal press accused unionists of seeking to suppress free speech. The unionist response was that Churchill was free to make his case anywhere in Belfast except the symbolically significant Ulster Hall.

Churchill and the Ulster Liberals, with some prompting from Birrell, decided to hold their meeting on the afternoon of February 8 in a marquee erected in the grounds of Celtic Park, a strongly nationalist part of the city. Nevertheless, the authorities in Dublin feared violence and were sufficiently alarmed to send five infantry battalions, two companies of cavalry and a significant force of police to Belfast.

Churchill’s arrival in both Larne and Belfast were marked by hostile but peaceful demonstrations. Admittedly, after Churchill had lunch in a hotel in central Belfast, a group of shipyard workers surrounded his car with a view to overturning it but, when they discovered that Mrs Churchill was in the car accompanying her husband, the cry went up, ‘mind the wumman’.

The shipyard workers then chivalrously refrained from carrying out their intention. Observers noted that Churchill never flinched. But then Churchill was never deficient in physical courage.

Speaking in a leaky tent, during a downpour, Churchill addressed an almost exclusively nationalist audience, leavened only by a few liberals. Yet his speech was, in many respects, pitched at unionists and represented a futile attempt to persuade them to embrace Home Rule.

The fact that they had a Cabinet minister in their midst endorsing Home Rule must have been a greater source of satisfaction to nationalists than the precise contents of Churchill’s speech.

The meeting provided rich pickings for pickpockets. Otherwise it passed off without serious incident. Churchill’s day trip to Belfast was brought to a close by his being hastily dispatched to the railway station by a circuitous route to avoid angry unionist crowds in the centre of Belfast.

A special train conveyed him to Larne. Many unionists felt that Churchill left Ulster rather like the thief in the night that his father had warned them of a generation earlier.

The great irony surrounding Churchill’s visit to Belfast was that two days previously he and Lloyd George, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, presented the Cabinet with a formal proposal for the exclusion of Ulster on a basis of county option from the operation of the Home Rule bill but at this stage their case fell on deaf ears.

Despite his public utterances, Churchill privately recognised the strength of Ulster unionist hostility to Home Rule. In his book, The World Crisis, he was to claim that he had always advocated some form of Ulster exclusion ‘‘from the earliest discussions on the Home Rule Bill in 1909’’.

Throughout the third Home Rule crisis there was a fascinating dichotomy, a dichotomy that admittedly comparatively few would have been aware of, between the privately conciliatory and the publicly combative Churchill.

For example, in the House of Commons in November 1912 Churchill gratuitously taunted Unionist MPs by waving his handkerchief at them, provoking Ronald McNeill into hurling a small bound copy of Standing Orders at Churchill’s head. McNeill did not miss.

In March 1914 Churchill delivered a bellicose anti-unionist speech in Bradford which he followed up by sending the 3rd Battle Squadron to Lamlash on the Isle of Arran with the purpose of ‘overawing’ unionist Ulster.

His orders to the squadron included supporting the Army, if necessary, ‘with guns and searchlights’. Did he seriously contemplate using the Royal Navy to bombard Larne or Bangor into submitting to Home Rule? Yet this is the same Churchill who accepted the Ulster Unionist case for exclusion and through conversations with Bonar Law and other Conservative leaders sought a way out of the crisis along those lines.

The reason for the dichotomy between the privately conciliatory and the publicly combative Churchill is at least partly attributable to Churchill’s acceptance of the doctrine of collective responsibility, the lynchpin of cabinet government in the United Kingdom.