As World War II dawned, Great Britain had already lost an important battle, one that would have costly consequences.
In a moving Victory in Europe speech on May 13, 1945, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill could not restrain his anger over what he believed was Ireland’s obstructionist role in World War II. Referring to three Irish ports that were off-limits to the British during the war, Churchill said: “We had only the northwestern approach between Ulster and Scotland through which to bring in the means of life and to send out the forces of war….The approaches which the southern Irish ports and airfields could so easily have guarded were closed by hostile aircraft and U-boats.”
A solid case can be made that Churchill was justified in his anger, and that the decision to withhold access to the ports—all in the name of Irish neutrality—was in no one’s best interest, particularly not Ireland’s. Because of official Irish obduracy, hundreds of Allied ships were sunk and thousands of lives lost transporting food and supplies—some that had even been slated for the “Emerald Isle.” In making his decision, Irish Prime Minister Éamon de Valera does not seem to have measured the absolute frightfulness of the Nazi regime or the consequences to his country had the British empire fallen.
What heavily affected de Valera’s decision was the long history of hostile Anglo-Irish relations. Although tensions extended a good 700 years into the past, the dispute over use of the ports was rooted in World War I. In 1914, Ireland was an integral part of Great Britain. But Irish nationalists, favoring independence, saw the war as an opportunity for a major revolt.
On April 24, 1916, Republicans organized in small battalions seized the General Post Office and other key points in Dublin. Britain considered the insurrection, occurring as it did in the middle of a war, the basest kind of treason and reacted harshly, promptly establishing military tribunals and moving quickly to execute 15 of the Republican leaders.
The last Republican to surrender was de Valera, at the time an obscure battalion commander whose unit of about 50 men had fought bravely. At 34, the tall and lanky mathematics professor was duly convicted and sentenced to death. Luckily for him, however, he had been born in New York City, not Ireland. Britain wanted no trouble with the American government and commuted his sentence. When released after a general amnesty, de Valera was acclaimed a hero and became the principal leader of the Irish independence movement.
The November 1918 Armistice ending the war brought no prolonged calm to Ireland. Prime Minister David Lloyd George, seeking to capitalize politically on the British victory, called a general election for December 1918. In Ireland, the Republicans took control of Sinn Fein, another political organization backing self-governance, and won 73 of 105 seats in the British Parliament. In a revolutionary gesture, the newly elected members gathered in Dublin instead of in London. On January 21, 1919, the new house of delegates, the Dáil, declared all Ireland an independent republic. Hostilities broke out almost immediately between Irish rebels and British forces.
Both sides committed savage acts of brutality during the three-year struggle. Indeed, the bloodletting was so severe that there were immediate calls for peace in Britain. Advised that it would take 100,000 men and cost tens of millions of pounds to pacify Ireland, Lloyd George opted to negotiate and invited Sinn Fein leaders to London. A charismatic military commander, Michael Collins, led the Irish delegation. A British participant was Churchill, the dominions secretary.
During the deliberations Churchill brought Collins to meet Admiral David Beatty, the former commander in chief of the Grand Fleet. Beatty, now first sea lord, detailed the value of the Irish naval bases against German submarines during WWI. “Of course, you must have the ports, they are necessary for your life,” Collins forthrightly declared. In the treaty that emerged, “His Majesty’s Imperial Forces” were to man Ireland’s coastal defenses until it could undertake them on its own. In addition, Ireland was to allow the British forces access to the harbors and use of facilities attached to the vital ports: Berehaven in the southwest, Queenstown in the southeast and Lough Swilly in the north. The treaty held that in time of war or strained relations with a foreign power, the British government could request other facilities as required.
The treaty also accorded southern Ireland semi-independence. Called the Irish Free State, the Catholic-dominated area was to be a self-governing dominion much like Canada and Australia. The heavily Protestant six counties of Ulster were to be an autonomous part of the United Kingdom with their own parliament.
The fact that Ireland would not be totally independent and also officially partitioned from Northern Ireland angered de Valera and his radical Republicans. The Irish people divided into pro-treaty and anti-treaty camps, and civil war ensued. The treaty passed in the Irish Parliament, by a narrow margin.
De Valera, determined to break the deadlock with his pro-treaty opponents, decided to forsake his warlike approach and instead pursue a constitutional plan to achieve his goal of a complete and independent Irish republic. He headed Sinn Fein until 1926 before breaking away. He then formed the Fianna Fail Party and sat in the Dáil in opposition until 1932, when he was elected president of the executive council of the Irish Free State. Finally, in 1937 the de Valera government promulgated a new constitution, which, as one author put it, “turned the twenty-six counties of southern Ireland into what was virtually an independent nation—a near republic, at least near enough that it would conduct its affairs entirely independent from the United Kingdom.” De Valera became Eire’s prime minister.
One limitation to the total sovereignty of Ireland remained, namely the matter of the treaty ports. On assuming office in 1937, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain set about trying to mend Anglo-Irish relations. Although economic and other issues were involved in the negotiations, as an act of faith Chamberlain agreed to allow the leases on the treaty ports to lapse. This official renunciation of all rights to occupy the three ports was signed on April 25, 1938. Incredibly, the British chiefs of staff were in agreement. They had concluded that in a hostile Ireland defense of the ports would require at least one division of troops each, and the costs of maintenance and personnel would be onerous. They also believed that in case of war, the Atlantic sea lanes could be protected by using French instead of Irish ports.
Churchill, however, was staunchly opposed to the giveaway. He said that since the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, “everything had worked smoothly.” He further noted that the loss of Berehaven and Lough Swilly had reduced the action radius of escorting flotillas by “more than 400 miles out, and home.” Finally, he declared, “that many a ship and many a life were soon to be lost [by] this improvident example of appeasement.”
Chamberlain held to the naive wish that Ireland would reissue the leases if war came, but it was not to be. Shortly after the agreement was signed, de Valera said “there were no conditions at all to the cession and there was no constitutional or political claim that the United Kingdom would advance for their return.”
In a May 1939 speech to Parliament, Churchill noted the threat that Irish neutrality would represent: “What guarantee have you that southern Ireland will not declare neutrality if we are engaged in war with some powerful nation? The ports may be denied to us in the hour of need and we may be hampered in the gravest manner in protecting the British population from privation and even starvation.”
War came on September 1, 1939. The next day, the Dáil officially announced Eire’s neutrality, and France declared war against Germany. Even at that late date, the British government could not bring itself to believe Ireland’s stance. After all, England was Ireland’s largest trading partner and the Irish forces could not defend their country against a German invasion. But de Valera, with large majority support both in his parliament and among the Irish people, held fast. Withholding the former treaty ports from Britain was the only way, he believed, to convince Adolf Hitler that Ireland would truly be neutral in the war.
The British reopened negotiations with the Irish government for the return of the ports, to no avail. Churchill, appointed first lord of the Admiralty at the outset of war, and later prime minister, raged at Ireland for its perfidy “at that time of peril.” On September 5, he requested a comprehensive naval report covering the ramifications of the deprivation “of Berehaven and other South Irish antisubmarine bases,” but admitted that “we may not be able to obtain satisfaction as the question of Irish neutrality raises political issues.”
Churchill’s fears would be validated the first night Britain entered the war, with the sinking of the British liner Athenia by a German U-boat off Donegal in northernmost Ulster. Due to a shortage of escort vessels, the Admiralty had intended to use a policy of “evasive routing on the ocean.” But the torpedoing of Athenia without warning pointed to the dangers of unrestricted German submarine warfare and the immediate need for a convoy system in the North Atlantic.
The difficulties of operating a convoy without the southern Irish ports, particularly Berehaven, were evident. Using English and Welsh ports such as Plymouth and Milford Haven reduced the limit of convoy escort to 200 miles west of Ireland. The range was extended slightly by the available Northern Irish ports of Londonderry and Belfast, but progress was slow and losses were heavy.
Increasingly, American naval and merchant ships and air units became involved in the Battle of the Atlantic. The United States also took an increasingly dim view of de Valera and his country’s policy of neutrality. Lacking more convenient alternatives, bases had to be set up in Greenland and Iceland for use in escorting and reducing the size of gaps in coverage.
Churchill later wrote that the U-boat was the only thing that frightened him. On March 24, 1941, he cabled to the Canadian prime minister “that the issue of the war will clearly depend on our being able to maintain the traffic across the Atlantic.” It took a combined Allied endeavor to accomplish this. British historian Len Deighton wrote, “It was the vast resources of the United States which decided the outcome as Ireland stood idle.”
Originally published in the February 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.