Going Forward Together (or not): Winston Churchill and the Unionist cause

It looks impressive, doesn’t it? The face has the look of determined, quiet confidence, with a backdrop of ever-ready war material underlying how serious he is about his country’s advance. Underneath are unmistakable stirring words of leadership: “Let Us Go Forward Together”.


There is a long and interesting history behind the slogan. Winston Churchill, who died exactly fifty years ago, used it in two speeches – both of them conflict-themed. The poster was issued shortly after he had been given the keys to 10 Downing Street in May 1940. Speaking in the House of Commons, he confidently concluded his first parliamentary speech as British Prime Minister thus:

I feel sure that our cause will not be suffered to fail among men. At this time I feel entitled to claim the aid of all, and I say, “come then, let us go forward together with our united strength.”

That speech was the second occasion in Churchill’s career in which the slogan “Let Us Go Forward Together” was used, and while this occasion would doubtlessly have been inspiring to Northern Ireland’s Unionist community, the same cannot be said about the first one. That was in March 1914, in a speech that he gave in Bradford City Hall. It came amid growing concern about the determination of the Ulster Volunteers to resist Home Rule – due to be enacted later that year after having gone through the proper democratic and parliamentary processes. Churchill, clearly irritated at the destabilising impact that the tactics of Edward Carson, James Craig and the Unionists were having on the British state, effectively responded to their activities with words to the effect of ‘Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough’:

If all the loose, wanton and reckless chatter we have been forced to listen to these many months is in the end to disclose a sinister and revolutionary purpose, then I can only say to you: “Let us go forward together, and put these grave matters to the proof.”

The slogan neatly encapsulates Winston Churchill’s complicated image among Unionists – as someone admired and excoriated at different times.

The reputation of the man whom BBC viewers voted the Greatest Briton in 2002 remains poor among Republicans and Nationalists – sending over the Black and Tans to take on the IRA in the 1919-21 War of Independence was, after all, his idea. Plus, at the height of the Second World War he toyed with the idea of invading Eire – so irritated was he by De Valera’s policy of neutrality, which he thought was impeding the British war effort.

In his “History of Britain”, the historian Simon Schama wrote that ‘Unionism ran in [Churchill’s] veins.‘ He was, after all, the son of Lord Randolph Churchill, who, at the height of his political career in the 1880s, counselled the Conservatives on the political benefits of tying themselves to the cause of Ulster Unionism, remarking ‘The Orange Card is the one to play.’ Whatever Unionists, Nationalists and Republicans think about Winston today, however, he was politically not just another chip off the old Churchill block. Winston looked at Ireland and Ulster the same way in which he looked at all the great political issues of the age. Whether the problem was in Ireland, Russia, Central Europe or India, he considered that the principles of democracy and the rule of law must be adhered to at all times, and that when negotiation is required it must be initiated from a position of strength rather than weakness. It was the same strategy that was on his mind when he originated the plan to send the Black and Tans over to Ireland in 1920: first confront an enemy bent on trouble militarily, and then sit down and talk. Moreoever, before Churchill’s career had run its course, he would ultimately be minded to forget about the Orange Card altogether.

Shocking though it must have been for Unionists in 1912 to see Lord Randolph’s son backing Home Rule for Ireland, as far as he was concerned it was a political necessity. As First Lord of the Admiralty in H H Asquith’s Liberal government, he understood that the Liberals needed John Redmond’s IPP to stay in power. Privately he believed that the government would eventually have to negotiate with the Unionists on how best to exclude them from the Home Rule arrangement, but at the same time he did not believe that the Unionists should be allowed to get away with trying to intimidate the government. Hence, his unilateral decision in the spring of 1914 to send a fleet of Royal Navy warships off the coast of Belfast, which some have argued was a bid to provoke the Ulster Volunteers into launching a military insurrection.

That was not the first time that Churchill had roused the ire of Belast Unionists. In February 1912, as part of the government’s Home Rule “road show”, he had planned to speak in its support at the Ulster Hall. Ultimately, perhaps in recognition that such a speech would be needlessly provocative in such an iconic venue, the event was moved to Celtic Park in nationalist West Belfast, but Churchill was still surrounded by an angry crowd of local Unionists outside his hotel as he and his wife got into a waiting car.

Such actions by Lord Randolph’s son would not be easily forgotten or forgiven by Carson and his party. In the upcoming Great War, as Churchill’s star spectacularly nosedived amid the Gallipoli disaster, they demanded his dismissal from the Cabinet as part of their price for joining the Liberal government in a new Coalition in 1915.

Though Churchill would later mend his links with Unionists in the years after he had helped to negotiate the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty, he ultimately believed, deep down – notwithstanding his very public feud with Ireland’s then Taoiseach Eamon De Valera in the days after VE Day – that the partition of Ireland would not last long. In papers that were only recently made public, he expressed this hope to Eire’s London ambassador John Dulanty shortly after the Cenotaph service in November 1946, but added that the key to the success of the Nationalist dream was to persuade the Unionists peacefully of its merits:

I said a few words in parliament the other day about your country because I still hope for a united Ireland. You must get those fellows in the North in, though; you can’t do it by force.

Just under five years later, in words that would have dismayed Unionists, had they known about them at the time, he said to Dulanty’s successor, Frederick Boland:

You know I have had many invitations to visit Ulster but I have refused them all. I don’t want to go there at all, I would much rather go to southern Ireland.

Throughout Winston Churchill’s long career he was utterly consistent in his own mind about sticking to democratic and parliamentary methods of politics, and whether he was faced with strikers, suffragettes, the IRA or Ulster Volunteers, he absolutely could not abide what he considered to be unconstitutional challenges to the parliamentary system. As for the future of Ireland, a country that he insisted that he held in great affection, the evidence would suggest that the man considered by many to be the Greatest Briton who ever lived ultimately grew not only to sympathise with the Nationalist cause, but also to have little time or respect for the Unionist one.