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.

Based in Birmingham, Dan is a journalist, broadcaster and actor.

  • Great post, Dan. I won’t need to attend Professor Paul Bew’s commemorative lecture now 🙂

  • Ernekid

    When it came to Ireland, Churchill acted like a complete scoundrel.

    Odd that the above article doesn’t mention that in 1940 Churchill was considering giving the six counties back if Dev dropped the Free State stance of neutrality and let the British use the Treaty ports.

    Churchill was only unionist when it suited him. By today’s standards he was a monstrous imperialist. for me his crimes at Gallipoli and in Irish war of independence outweigh his triumph in 1940.

  • chrisjones2

    Easy to say but if he hadn’t been PM in 1940 you would probably be speaking German or working in a Labour Camp in eastern Europe ….so enjoy

  • SeaanUiNeill

    And if he had given the six counties to Dev, you, chris, would be speaking Irish and the crossroads would have been thick with dancing men in sashes!

    My grandmother was amongst those east Belfast women who tried to turn his car over in 1911. To her dying day she used to spit every time that “auld oportunists” name was even mentioned.

    Stalin and Roosevelt were going to beat Hitler in the long run, all that Churchill’s grandeloquent act of “making a place for himself in History” achieved was the loss of the Empire he so loved.

  • Ernekid

    If Churchill hadn’t been Prime Minister in 1940, I doubt id still exist as my Paternal Grandparents met when my grandfather was in the army.

    The What if? Game can be fun with a few drinks with friends but it doesn’t add anything to any historical discussion.

    A good example of the alt-history genre is CJ Sansom’s novel ‘Dominion’ which imagines what might have happened if Churchill was sidelined in 1940 and Britain decided to sue for peace with the Germans.

    Even if the Brits had lost the Battle of Britain, uncle Joe coming from the East and the Yanks coming from the West would have finished off the Nazis sooner or later

  • Turgon

    It is unclear whether Churchill was motivated by democracy and the rule of law or pragmatism and indeed frequently personal opportunism. He was a great war time leader but also had the advantage of being a great writer and a good historian and had the far sightedness to write an early account of the war which painted him rather well and has informed many views since.

    Whilst he was a great war leader the UK was by that time clearly a democracy. Churchill became a figurehead but he was not the sole creator of victory. Without him the Germans would still have sealed their own fate on 21st June 1941; the Japanese on 8th December.

    Even in 1940 after France fell it is not clear that Germany could have defeated Britain. There was still the RAF – largely built up under Chamberlain’s prewar government and maybe even more importantly there was the Royal Navy which was the largest navy in the world at that time. All of these weapons could have been wielded by their servicemen just as easily without Churchill. His leadership could have been provided by others maybe with less flair and panache but not necessarily with any less success.

    Churchill seems to have been an opportunist and a pragmatist first and foremost. The eulogies which always surround him come more than anything from a justifiable pride which many feel in facing Nazi Germany. That and the fact that especially since the war his personality cult has been inflated so that the heroism of that generation is conflated with his undeniable political brilliance and iconic nature. It means that all too often people are cautious to say even slight things against Churchill lest they are seen as dishonouring the generation which saved us from Nazi tyranny. The scared, tired, cold 18 year old bobbing about on a corvette escorting the Russian convoys is just as much a hero as Churchill. The problem is that in casting any aspersions or even questioning any decisions of Churchill’s leadership is too often seen as criticising those servicemen.

  • Practically_Family

    Roosevelt ultimately presented a far greater wartime threat to Ireland than did Churchill. “Antipathy” vastly understates his personal feelings toward De Valera and there was an ongoing “ire” from US military sources at Ireland’s neutrality, particularly the failure (as the US saw it) to allow USN ships and aircraft to operate from Irish ports and airfields in the ’39-’41 period to protect US merchies on convoy duty.

    Once the US entered the war, the pressure on Ireland to “play friendly” was implicit. The US garrison here peaked at around 125,000. They weren’t here for the scenery.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Thank you Turgon for getting entirely to the heart of the matter here.

    “The scared, tired, cold 18 year old bobbing about on a corvette escorting the Russian convoys is just as much a hero as Churchill. The problem is that in casting any aspersions or even questioning any decisions of Churchill’s leadership is too often seen as criticising those servicemen.”

    I have it from family, and about five of my close family served the last war, (including my mother, WRAF) that the attitude of many through the services to Churchill was rather less start eyed than the civilian or the post war assessments. My uncle, who had served in the desert under several of the desert generals always spoke of Auchinleck, removed by Churchill to get his boy Monty in place, as the true architect of Second Alamein. For him, as for many certain officers who had served there, Monty’s changes to Auchinleck’s depositions served to almost snatch “defeat out of the jaws of certain victory,”

    Churchill’s passion for carpet bombing and his, blessedly, unsuccessful demands for the use of poison gas and the like in his war was viewed by my grandfather, a gunner and a survivor of the Somme and the later campaigns of the Great War, as showing a taste for methods any decent Christian gentleman would think of as atrocity.

    And I repeat, I value your entire posting as a model of clear balancing argument. Again, thanks.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Geography helps, BETF, forget the Atlantic. The USA also links to the Asiatic mainland, and Russia, across the Pacific, and who knows what Stalin would have done for essential US help, such as open a front against Japan. Halford Mackinder comes into play here, and a link of the “periphery” with the “pivot area” of the “world island” is actually what ended Hitler’s bid for dominance of the “world Island”. Britain’s role was pretty negligible in this, and the real military defeat of Germany was essentially a Russian business.

  • T.E.Lawrence

    Clement Attlee’s Labour Party Election success in July 1945 two months after VE day is the defining political moment of Churchill, when the soldiers and their families (the people) of the UK voted for a political movement that would implement the Beveridge Report and Social Reform and the expansion of the National Insurance and the creation of the NHS. Labour did not need to have a Gostopo as Churchill claimed they would need to implement socialism across the country all they needed to have was the peoples X on a ballot paper !

  • Practically_Family

    Even the isolationists would have had a problem in suggesting that they could ignore a declaration of war.

    Nazi Germany declared war on the USA remember.

  • Practically_Family

    You’d really need to write FDR out the story too though.

  • chrisjones2

    and in the i980s the OO might have dominated the banking industry in Ireland

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Yet, all this speculation is ignoring the insignificant contribution Britain’s “bravely standing alone” actually was. BETF, drawing the U.S. into a war some years later rather than forcing the issue in 1939 might have avoided the image of a failed beggar coming cap in hand in the years before Pearl Harbour.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    My good money, chris, would have been on yourself as an accomplished Gaelgoir with dancing skills.

  • WindsorRocker

    Unionists are very often asked to broaden their horizons, look at the bigger picture, stop being so parochial. The irony is that this article asks them to be insular looking and to judge Churchill based on his views of this island and to ignore the geo-political impact of his Premiership of the UK in those dark days of 1940 and the effect that had on the country they live in.
    Had Churchill not prevailed, the UK would have sued for peace with a rampant Nazi Gerrmany. No matter how the border was drawn, post that peace, on these islands, the two states would have been subservient satellites of Nazi Germany as even a nominally netural Free State would have been forced into the same position as a post armistice UK.
    Churchill’s views on Ireland were but a tiny piece of his overall political outlook. And today, those unionists who remember Churchill will look to those spring days of 1940 rather than to the odd speech and comment he made here and there about how people on this island should deal with things.

  • WindsorRocker

    Surely, the decision of the UK to stay in the war in 1940, which Churchill gets a lot of acknowledgment for being the driving force behind, provided a platform for the second front. A Germany fully focused on defeating Russia in 1941 without having to worry about looking over it’s shoulder to the beaches of France or to the airfields of England for American materiel, might have well achieved a different result.
    Even Churchill himself realised that the UK would never have been in a position to win that war. He hoped for and was relieved to receive the deliverance that was the involvement of the USA in that war but without a Britain still at war with Hitler to provide a staging post for a European invasion, the geographical realities would have precluded any American involvement in the European campaign. De Valera’s Free State, Franco’s Spain and Salazar’s Portugal were not realistic subsititutes for Britain’s role in acting as the continental Launchpad for the USA as happened in 1944.
    Operation Barbarossa, Pearl Harbour and the declaration of war by Hitler on the USA a few days later were indeed major geo-political turning points but without a belligerent UK at that time the impact would have been far far less.

  • Turgon

    Windsor Rocker,
    I am not terribly interested in alternative histories: fun they may be but they are not history; hence, my disinterest in most of the above thread. My point was two fold: that Churchill was a pragmatist and opportunist.

    The second point which has slight (but only slight) alternative history tendencies is that I suspect even without Churchill Britain would have stayed in the war. The long term danger to the UK’s position from a completely dominant European power was one of the major reasons for Britain fighting Napoleonic and Bourborn France and before that Spain.

    That analysis (preventing someone else’s European hegemony) had not changed in 1940. Although there was a pro peace “party” and even some Nazi sympathisers I am doubtful that without Churchill the UK would have made peace with Germany: long term it was a bigger danger and risk than fighting especially from a position even in 1940 where the likelihood of successful invasion was much lower than we often think now.

    Churchill openly admitted he played up the danger in 1940 to enhance national togetherness etc. We are so used to the”Britain alone” narrative and the shattered BEF at Dunkirk (complete with little ships etc.). It is part of our founding myth as a nation that against overwhelming nay impossible odds we stood alone. Indeed we stood alone but with the whole of our vast empire at the time and with probably the most modern airforce and the largest navy in the world facing a country which had not planned a sea born invasion and had not expected to fight a major war for another five years or so.

    The British love the underdog status and yes we were alone but nothing like as helpless as we like to think. As such I doubt it needed Churchill to make the difference between surrender / compromise and fighting on. Clearly his iconic speeches and wartime leadership were very important but with two much less exciting or nationally unifying leaders (Asquith and Lloyd George) the UK had managed an easier and arguably more impressive victory a generation before. One hundred years before that assorted leaders some of whom died along with a demented King stopped Napoleon.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    If you check out my bigger posting in praise of Turgon above, BETF, I mention my families contribution to the war. I’m afraid that I’m being product of my upbringing, and simply repeating those bitter criticisms I’d heard in my childhood from my elders who felt that Britain was used and abused just as much by its own rulers as by its allies. Not that any one of them would have wanted to see the boy from Braunau am Inn running Britain or Ireland, mind. But I’d think of myself as rather more a realist, than an Anglophobe, as my own critical reading seems to have confirmed their opinions.

    Of course you are perfectly correct in citing SOE, for its all too true that nothing would have been done in those areas you mention without Britain’s war effort in the early years of the war, but again, how much significance did their contribution have, beyond stimulating reprisals in the countries they “set afire” and an early end to the lives of the idealistic and patriotic young men and women that SOE used.

    But had Britain stayed out of the war, poor resources alone would have slowed Hitler up, and his inevitable war with uncle Joe would have involved uncle Sam too, to his final bane. Also, should one so “Anglophobe” as I appear to be care about such things, the British Empire would have perhaps not have imploded so violently during its own inevitable process of being stood down to providing the prima materia of the modern Global world.

    But it is all vain speculation, we are where we are, and “beaten” Germany actually did win the war, as in Philip Dick’s “The Man in the High Castle.”


  • puffen

    The one thing that Churchill had in common with Stalin and Hitler, was the mindset that allows you to roll the dice, and lose thousands of lives.and carry on, all war leaders have this capacity, and its not one I understand.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Regarding Auchenleck (and indeed Dorman-Smith/Gawen):

    A fantastic book which has a similar theme to the one you laid out above

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Duplicated comment. Said it all in its twin.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Thanks for the Book AG, I think it may be in my back corridor bookshelves somewhere! This attitude to Monty and his organ grinder was pretty common amongst those who had been in Egypt and watched the leaders at first hand.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    As someone who believes that he was something of a postmodernist before postmodernism, BETF, I’m only too aware of the extreme relativeness of historiography. All “final solution” approaches to history are going to be faulted in what they leave out to arrive at their “truths”, and these closed narratives are never more “power discourses”, driven by personal baggage, yes, indeed, I could not agree more.

    However, once the sentimental simplifications have been removed from the face of what has been said and written about any historical event, certain patterns arise from any reading of the information, and if there is any reality in the act of communication, the communication with the past that engenders these patterns tell us something about what occurred that is not simply crude subjectivity.

    Your own approach in its extreme form undermines any possibility of communication, let alone historiography! So why if all is reducible to baggage and subjectivity are you concerned to describe the events in any way whatsoever? It’s simply your version, with no authority beyond that. But for a real historian the personal baggage can itself be deconstructed, some empathy will permit the “other” to enter and new insights will be gained if not any final utter truth. The recognition that the UK war effort was rather vainglorious is such an insight, quite quickly borne out if you compare our war effort with that of Russia, say.

    I’m not being defensive, simply explanatory in referencing my family. They actually did fight in the war, and met some of the significant players also, so I’ve found their experiences both useful and compelling. I’m always very inclined to use oral material in my own historiography as I have a high powered anthropologist in the family and so have none of the “text only” prejudices of so many historians. I’ve even found in my researches into the 1688/9 period that local family stories coming down from the 17th century are interestingly borne out by careful research into the French military archives!

    I’ve also imbibed enough of the discipline of modern historiography, I hope, to attempt the impossible act of striving for the objectivity that qualifies the essential subjectiveness of every position in my own work. History is never going to be a science such as physics, but it may be rigorous and careful in its research and analysis, and the very first rule of this is to look at things outside of your own inclinations, and especially outside of the canonic version of events you inherit. You may come back to the accepted version, but not without gaining something important in the process of seriously questioning it. All responsible historic analysis is a process that must involve a revision of the past, and the crude “all is subjectivity” argument collapses when you are actually stretching yourself in genuine primary source research to attempt the understanding what might have happened, and touch on the real human experiences that the big generalizations crush.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    American opinion, BETF, would have done exactly what they were persuaded to do by those actually deciding on policy. “US opinion” as a decider, eh, but is US opinion not actually something rather complex and fugative, so using it in one big lump like this is ignoring the fact taht it is something a reification when so used, do you not think? But, on a supportive tack for my first sentence, have you ever come across Edward Bernays, whose principal ideas were well established in US government circles by 1940;

    From the opening of his 1928 book “Propaganda”:

    ” The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society.”


    FDR and his associates were very influenced by Bernays and carefully crafted US entry into the war over a period of time, luckily for GB, Europe, etc. A decent amount of genuine historical research has been a carried out examining this activity.