When Winston Churchill said the wrong thing . .

Posted By: November 20, 2014

Gordon Lucy. News Letter (Belfast) February 22, 2012
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 unionist