De Valera and Churchill

John Horgan

  • In Time of War by Robert Fisk
    Deutsch, 566 pp, £25.00, April 1983, ISBN 0 233 97514 4

When Michael Heseltine launched a not-too-oblique attack on Irish neutrality in the course of a visit to Northern Ireland on 4 May, he was – presumably – unaware of the fact that he was reopening a book which both Churchill and de Valera had decided peaceably to close almost exactly thirty years ago. That at any rate would be the charitable explanation. Within hours of his remarks, the Dail had been adjourned in uproar, the Irish ambassador in London was being told to protest to Whitehall, and the front pages of the newspapers were awash with ancient quarrels.

Anyone interested in exploring this now apparently pivotal aspect of Anglo-Irish relations will find Robert Fisk’s book both absorbing and provocative. Subtitled ‘Ireland, Ulster and the Price of Neutrality’, it begins its main narrative in 1938, with a brief look back to 1921, when the British military authorities insisted on the retention of the so-called ‘Treaty Ports’ in what was to become, eventually, the Irish Republic, but was then known as the Irish Free State.

The nature of the British authorities’ interest in these ports – the ‘sentinels of the Western approaches’, as Churchill was to call them – is admirably documented by Mr Fisk. What is not quite so clear from his narrative is that they were only part of Britain’s strategic equation. The other part was Northern Ireland, as recently released British official papers make clear. British policy in the period immediately prior to the Anglo-Irish Treaty was not conditioned solely by the intransigence of the Ulster Unionists: the Chiefs of Staff had made it clear that, from a defence point of view, creating a secure military bridgehead in Ulster was of vital importance. In 1932, when the question of the Treaty ports came up for review, it may well have been the existence of that bridgehead in the North-East which allowed the Chiefs of Staff to describe the ports as an ‘awkward commitment’. It was, as Fisk points out, the first time that the military had ever wavered in their defence of the territorial imperative. An opening was created for de Valera which enabled him to secure the return of the ports. Plainly, it would have been impossible for the Irish to maintain their neutrality during the war had the ports stayed in British hands. Less plainly, the surrender of the ports reinforced the importance, in strategic terms, of Northern Ireland remaining under effective British control.

Churchill, who had been curiously unemphatic about the ports in discussions with his government colleagues before 1921, was under no illusions in 1938. He had bitterly opposed their transfer, and resentment at Irish neutrality fuelled the sharp attack on de Valera in his victory broadcast at the war’s end. He believed passionately that this neutrality could, at one stage, have cost the Allies the war, and had no doubt that it prolonged it. He saw the maintenance of the policy by de Valera as little more than the personal foible of a twisted nationalist consciousness (he was backed up in this view by Maffy, his envoy in Dublin). It was not until 1953 that the two leaders finally met, in a reconciliation which was as low-key as their 1945 confrontation had been dramatic.

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