One of the many reasons Malcolm could not write a novel is his inability to manage convincing dialogue.
In a different context, he came across a very telling example from real life. That exchange on Slugger O’Toole had worked round to the topic of conscientious objectors in the two World Wars, and that since conscription wasn’t applied in Ireland, there were no Irish conscientious objectors.
If anyone needed further proof positive of the obtuseness of the Northern Irish administrations run by Craig and Andrews, then the Unionists’ gung-ho enthusiasm for conscription amply provides.
First, before Malcolm recapitulates the story so far, here is that piece of actualité, taken from parliamentary questions of 20th May 1941:
Brigadier-General Clifton Brown (MP for Hexham): asked the Prime Minister whether he will reconsider the question of conscription for Northern Ireland; and whether he can make any statement about it?
Sir Annesley Somerville (MP for Windsor) asked the Prime Minister whether, in view of the strong feeling in Ulster in favour of conscription, he will consider the desirability of introducing this measure?
Mr Henry Harland (MP for East Belfast) asked the Prime Minister whether His Majesty’s Government will reconsider the policy of not applying military conscription to Northern Ireland, in view of the fact that the people of Northern Ireland are in favour of this course?
The Prime Minister: This question has for some time past engaged the attention of His Majesty’s Government, and I hope to be in a position to make a statement about it on the first Sitting Day after this week.
Sir A. Somerville: Does not my right hon. Friend remember that the people of Northern Ireland regard this negative policy up to the present as a slight on their patriotism, and also that one frightful result of it is that the good men volunteer while the less good men get their jobs?
Sir Hugh O’Neill (MP for Antrim): Would my right hon. Friend agree that the reason conscription was not originally applied in Northern Ireland was that strong representations were made to the British Government by Mr. De Valera against it, and that Mr. De Valera stated that if it were imposed, it would lead to strong opposition from the minority in Northern Ireland? Is not the present time, when people of all classes and parties in Northern Ireland are mercilessly bombed, a good opportunity for reconsidering the whole matter?
The Prime Minister: The facts are, I believe, as stated by my right hon. Friend, but I hope to be in a position to make a statement on the whole subject shortly.
Mr George Buchanan (MP for Glasgow, Gorbals): Seeing that the Prime Minister of the Irish Free State did make representation, will the right hon. Gentleman agree that before he makes any statement on the matter, any new representations which Mr. de Valera may make will be considered also?
The Prime Minister: Representations which reach His Majesty’s Government from any quarter are always considered.
Professor Douglas Savory (MP for Queen’s University of Belfast): Will the Prime Minister bear in mind that the Cabinet of Northern Ireland were unanimous in 1939 in pressing that conscription should be applied to Northern Ireland?
The usual image of Churchill is one of pugnacious bombast: in this exchange we see him being measured, shrewd and reticent, even evasive. He is being harried by aggressive questioners, men of some intellect, but here blind to the consequences of their intent. In all of the comings-and-goings over conscription for Northern Ireland Malcolm senses dissimulation: the Unionists are kept on side, the differences in the Northern Ireland cabinet allowed to simmer on, de Valera kept on the hop: the issue is kept bubbling, but never allowed to boil over. To what extent was this a deliberate, if tacit, policy from London?
Here, Malcolm feels, is a moment of pure theatre. It has a particular context, too, which makes the singlemindedness of the Unionists more understandable: this was in the shadow of the Belfast Blitz of Easter Tuesday, 15th April, 1941, with a thousand dead and nearly a quarter of the city’s population homeless.
A brief bit of history
Malcolm found his shelves had few immediate sources. Jonathan Bardon seems to address it just the once:
‘Is it credible’, the Daily Mirror asked in May 1939, ‘that the British government can even dream of enforcing conscription in any part of Ireland?’ Freshly returned from a long Pacific cruise, Craigavon announced in the spring that he wanted his people to make an equal sacrifice in defence of the realm. De Valera was outraged and declared that as his constitution claimed all Ireland to be part of Éire’s territoty, conscription in Ulster would be nothing short of ‘an act of aggression’. ‘I have just read a speech by de Valera, the Irish Taoiseach,’ Hitler told the Reichstag, ‘in which … he reproaches England with subjecting Ireland to continuous aggression.’ Next day the Manchester Guardian reminded its readers ‘that Herr Hitler, as he sarcastically reminded us yesterday, keeps a sharp eye on this rather vulnerable spot in our heel’. Determined to show that his people were prepared to accept the burdens as well as the benefits of the Union, Craigavon travelled to London in May in a high state of agitation. There Chamberlain gently and skilfully forced the premier to back down, as Lady Craigavon records in her diary:
The British Government were frightened of the issue being complicated by de Valera kicking up a dust, though Ulster affairs have nothing to do with him … J. was asked flat out by Chamberlain, ‘Is Ulster out to help Britain in her war effort?’ to which, of course, he answered, ‘You know we are …’ Chamberlain then said, ‘If you want to help us, don’t press for conscription. It will only be an embarrassment.’ What else could J. do than say, ‘Very well, I won’t!’
Craigavon faced sharp criticism from his cabinet colleagues when he returned and Brooke recalled that the premier felt ‘resentment, anger and hurt pride’. Craigavon’s response was that, in compensation, he had pressed strongly for an increased share in rearmament work.
Again, a passage pregnant with hidden messages. We are used to the neat conflation of the six counties with “Ulster”; but might usefully muse on Craigavon’s reference to “his people”. And, of course, the compensation for forgoing the gesture of conscription is improved employment for the loyalist urban workforce.
The topic is much more complex even that that. Brian Girvin, in The Emergency addresses it over a couple of pages. The British conscription law applied to Irishmen who had been resident in Britain for two years or more. There was an opt-out for anyone returning to Ireland, and staying there for the duration. It seems to exploit this bolt-hole, one needed an address in Ireland to which to return, and John Dulanty, the High Commissioner in London, was selective in issuing certification. Girvin has a couple of exemplary anecdotes:
- In one case the Department of External Affairs tersely and explicitly told a Mrs Curran that her English-resident son had obligations under the 1939 Act, and the Department had no control.
- In another, a Mr Faulkner in Paisley had a certificate from the High Commissioner, but hadn’t applied for an exit visa. He expected to fight conscription on the basis of his citizenship, but was sadly disappointed by the Scottish courts. This led to a review and clarification at the highest levels. It didn’t prevent further actions, which went all the way to a ruling of the British Lord Chief Justice, and a response by de Valera.
Reading even these cursory accounts, it is patent that both sides sought to avoid confrontation, anything that would obstruct the flow of volunteers, both combatant and civilian, to Britain.
Enter Uncle Sam
Tim Pat Coogan quotes at some length a cable David Gray, the US minister in Dublin, sent (24th May, 1941) to Cordell Hull, FDR’s Secretary of State. One might, just might detect a whiff of overheated panic:
Opposition leaders informed me that conscription without a conscientious objector’s escape clause for minority Catholic nationalists will constitute a major and probably fatal political blunder at this time and play directly into de Valera’s hands with grave possibilities for American interests. They predict draft riots, the escape of draft dodgers to Southern Ireland who will be acclaimed as folk martyrs by three-quarters of the population and the fomenting of trouble by Republicans and Fifth Columnists. The clearest headed leader predicts that de Valera will seize the opportunity to escape from economic and political realities by proclaiming himself the leader of the oppressed minority and with the blessings of the Cardinal will arouse anti-British feeling and call a Holy War. I think it a very likely prediction. All classes of opinion here unite in condemning the move as calamitous. It appears to be a repetition of the same blunder made during the last war. The weak and failing Ulster Government is probably seeking to sustain itself by provoking a crisis. Unless Great Britain is prepared from a military point of view to seize the whole country it appears to be madness. So little can be gained and so much lost.
Had conscription been imposed, much of Gray’s predictions seems reasonable. One has to wonder who were his sources in the Northern Irish “opposition”: could they include Tommy Henderson, the independent and highly critical Unionist (Gray’s avoidance of word “nationalist” is suggestive of something)?
Gray was not alone in that rush of blood to the head. De Valera sent a strong complaint to London. The US Ambassador in London, John Winant, had extended sessions with Churchill and the Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden. Churchill eventually sent Hull a cable of concession:
The Ulster Government has weakened considerably over the weekend and in consequenc the Cabinet is inclined to the view it would be more trouble than it’s worth to go through with conscription …
Coogan’s reading of that is:
Andrews had drawn back leaving Churchill with no option but to call off the attempt. Andrews apparently took the RUC’s estimate of the situation more seriously than did the hard-liners in the cabinet, notably Sir Basil Brooke …
It is equally possible that Churchill was merely playing with Andrews, de Valera and the Americans: he was not above such machinations. On many occasions, despite public eruptions and mutterings, his dealings with things Irish were well-intentioned. Soon after, in July 1941, the imprisonment of Cahir Healy under Defence Regulation 18B gave the Unionist a consolation prize.
Matters would proceed without too much friction until the US forces started to arrive in Northern Ireland. They noticed that the local citizenry, unlike themselves, were immune to conscription. This raised eye-brows and GI hackles.
Churchill, either seriously or as a palliative gesture, again raised the matter with Washington, declaring he his sympathy for
young Americans taken by compulsion from their homes to defend an area where young fellows of the locality loaf around with their hands in their pockets.
FDR showed no enthusiasm to impose conscription; and Churchill let the matter lie. Again he had shown concern, but no great intent. By then the tide had changed, passions cooled, and conscription for Northern Ireland was quietly dropped.