1940-1942: THE FULCRUM OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY? Missing in History: Britain’s offer of Irish unity in 1940

This is the fourth in a series of posts connected to the King’s College Second World War Research Group’s ‘1940-1942: Fulcrum of the Twentieth Century Conference’, held at the JSCSC on June 1st. 

DR KEVIN MATTHEWS

Sifting through the voluminous histories of Britain’s 1940 stand against Nazi Germany, it is remarkable that, with a few notable exceptions, one story often is left untold: the secret Anglo-Irish negotiations to reunify Ireland and bring the south, or Éire as it was then known, into the war. This oversight may be explained in part by the fact that few of the main actors come out of this episode looking very good. Their biographers have tended to downplay or to ignore the negotiations; in one official biography, a wholly inaccurate, not to say misleading summary dismisses this story in less than a page.

Unlike all of the other self-governing Dominions, Éire refused to join Britain when the latter declared on Germany in 1939. Southern Ireland’s neutrality had been made possible by a decision taken less than a year earlier. In an attempt to smooth relations between London and Dublin, Neville Chamberlain returned three military installations that had been retained by the British in the Treaty granting Ireland’s independence in 1921. Chamberlain believed he had an assurance from his counterpart, Eamon de Valera, that the Irish would allow British forces access to these ‘Treaty ports’ during any future conflict. According to Robert Fisk’s In Time of War, use of the bases could have extended the protective cover to Allied convoys across 500 miles of the Atlantic Ocean. But, crucially, the assurance Chamberlain relied on was never put in writing. When war came, de Valera, by denying the British access to the bases, was able to maneuver his country away from taking part in the conflict.

Crucial as the Treaty ports were, they were only one of several reasons for believing that Ireland would be targeted by Adolf Hitler after the fall of France. Even before then, Fisk claims that from May 1940 ‘the security of Ireland . . . began to dominate proceedings at Downing Street’. Yet, these discussions are wholly missing from accounts such as Five Days in London: May 1940, by John Lukacs. Archival documents in London, Dublin, and Belfast tell a different story. All three governments were convinced the Nazis had a network of spies throughout Ireland which was working closely with the outlawed Irish Republican Army. Other reports indicated that German U-boats were being supplied by villagers on Ireland’s west coast. Most worrying was the prospect that the Germans might stage a landing in southern Ireland to mount a backdoor invasion of mainland Britain. Taken together, these concerns prompted the British government, now led by Winston Churchill, to broach the idea of creating a framework for Irish unity in return for an Irish declaration of war. What is perhaps most surprising is that the driving force behind this proposal was not the new prime minister, but his predecessor – Chamberlain.

Chamberlain’s willingness to guarantee Irish unity in return for an Irish alliance is evident in the letters he wrote to his two sisters, Hilda and Ida, during the remaining months of his life. So, too, is his frustration with de Valera. Despite repeated warnings that having British forces in Ireland was necessary to ward off the expected German invasion, the Irish prime minister refused even to consider the idea. ‘I am still at him’, Chamberlain confided in one letter, ‘but fear he wont [sic] be moved till the Germans are in Dublin’. Robert Self, the editor of Chamberlain’s four-volume Diary Letters, followed up this massive work with a biography of the controversial British leader. Unfortunately, he deals with what might be called Chamberlain’s last major foreign policy battle in an epilogue, and then only briefly. It is also is wholly absent from Graham Stewart’s account of the Churchill-Chamberlain rivalry, Burying Caesar.

One of Chamberlain’s unlikely allies in this cause was Labour’s Ernest Bevin, another member of Churchill’s War Cabinet. According to Paul Canning’s comprehensive British Policy Towards Ireland, Bevin’s ‘first-hand knowledge of Ireland exceeded that of any other man in the Government’. The problem that neither Bevin, Chamberlain, nor any of their colleagues could ignore was that de Valera’s stance on neutrality was not the main hurdle blocking an Anglo-Irish front against the Nazis. As Chamberlain plainly stated at one War Cabinet meeting, ‘the main, and perhaps the sole, obstacle to such collaboration was the partition question’.

While the Ulster dimension of this story is ably told by both Canning and Fisk, it is given surprisingly short shrift elsewhere. There are tantalizing hints that at least two leading members of Northern Ireland’s Cabinet were prepared to accept an accommodation with the southern Irish if the latter were willing to join the Allied cause. ‘[L]oyalty to King and empire and the defeat of the Axis powers’, the historian Brian Barton has written, ‘transcended their commitment to the maintenance of the Union’. But in his chapter for The Northern Ireland Question in British Politics, edited by Peter Catterall and Sean McDougall, Barton did not pursue this angle. In any case, when it came to setting policy in Northern Ireland, only one man’s opinion really counted: its prime minister, James Craig.

Even with the course of the war hanging in the balance, Craig was as stubborn in his dealings with the British as was de Valera. By ruling out tripartite talks between the London, Dublin, and Belfast governments unless the southern Irish, first, joined the Allied cause and, second, dropped their goal of reunification, he foreclosed any chance of wartime cooperation. After the war, his official biographer, St John Ervine wrote that ‘Ulster was the bribe’ used in the attempt to win over de Valera and that responsibility for this treachery rested on one man’s shoulders: Chamberlain, who by then conveniently was dead. It is true that Chamberlain was prepared to force the Ulster Unionists to make concessions, while Churchill drew the line at persuasion.

Thanks to his own memoir of the war, Churchill’s part in this story largely has been obscured. According to David Reynolds, when Churchill wrote his multi-volume Second World War the Foreign Office advised that some wartime diplomatic issues ‘were still sensitive’; Ireland was one of them. This explains why Churchill did not even mention the Cabinet’s discussions about partition in his drafts of Their Finest Hour although, Reynolds points out, a reference to the issue is buried deep in a letter to Franklin Roosevelt quoted in the volume. Harder to explain is Martin Gilbert’s treatment of this story in Churchill’s official biography. Inexplicably, Gilbert suggests that Bevin alone was responsible for suggesting that partition be abandoned in exchange for the south’s declaration of war on Germany.

De Valera’s refusal to consider the British offer to end partition has been the subject of intense debate among historians. Characteristically, his authorized biographers are sympathetic to de Valera’s claim that abandoning neutrality would have sparked a second Irish civil war in the south. Others, notably John Bowman, Tim Pat Coogan, and T. Ryle Dwyer, are harsher when assessing de Valera’s motives. ‘Staying out of the war’, Dwyer writes, was ‘more important to de Valera than ending partition’. All three agree that in the summer of 1940, the Irish prime minister was sure that Britain was defeated. If that were so, why not wait to make terms with the winner in Berlin?

On the night of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Churchill was in touch with the leaders of only two other governments. The first, unsurprisingly, was Franklin Roosevelt. The other was de Valera. ‘Now is your chance’, his telegram to the Irish prime minister began. ‘Now or never. A Nation once again.’ Yet even America’s imminent entry into the war was not enough to entice de Valera to join the Allies. Earlier that same year, Churchill predicted that if de Valera persisted with neutrality to the end of the war ‘a gulf will have opened between Northern and Southern Ireland, which it will be impossible to bridge in this generation’. Churchill, not for the last time, was better at predicting the future than de Valera.

Image: Vickers machine-gun team of 2/8th Battalion, Middlesex Regiment, man their weapon on a clifftop in Northern Ireland, 15 July 1941, via the Imperial War Museum.

 

 

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