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Northern Ireland and the British Empire–Commonwealth, 1923–61

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 March 2016

Philip Ollerenshaw*
Department of History, University of the West of England, Bristol


Despite the unprecedented interest shown by historians in Ireland and empire in recent years, comparatively little research has focused on Northern Ireland’s connections to the British Empire-Commonwealth in the post-partition decades. This article utilises some new sources to throw light on both the centrifugal and centripetal aspects of the imperial relationship. The discussion begins with the imperial significance of visits to Northern Ireland by statesmen such as William Massey, Prime Minister of New Zealand, to his native Ulster in 1923, and that of Gordon Coates, also Prime Minister of New Zealand, three years later. At the end of the period, the visit of Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker to both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland can add to our knowledge about the changing relationship between Northern Ireland and the Commonwealth.

Ireland and the British Empire-Commonwealth
Copyright © Irish Historical Studies Publications Ltd 2008

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1 Previous versions of this paper were given at the University of Leeds, the Queen’s University of Belfast, the University of Ulster at Coleraine, and the University of Toronto. I am very grateful for the comments of members of the audience on those occasions. My thanks also go to Kent Fedorowich, Georgina Sinclair and an anonymous referee for their constructive criticism.

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3 For a general account, see Ilersic, A. R., Parliament of commerce: the story of the Association of British Chambers of Commerce, 1860–1960 (London, 1960).Google Scholar

4 Howe, Ireland & empire, p. 198.

5 ‘The Imperial Economic Conference, 1923: confidential report by the minister of commerce’, Nov. 1923 (P.R.ON.I., CAB/8F/11/1).

6 McMahon, Deirdre, ‘Ireland, the Empire and the Commonwealth’ in Kenny, (ed.), Ireland & the British Empire, p. 209.Google Scholar

7 Ollerenshaw, Philip, ‘Businessmen in Northern Ireland: the imperial connection, 1886–1939’ in Jeffery, (ed.), ‘An Irish empire’?, p. 180.Google Scholar

8 Anon., ‘Ireland: an Australian impression’ in Round Table, 13 (1923), esp. pp 795-9Google Scholar; anon., ‘The Irish boundary question’ in ibid., 15 (1924), pp 24–47; anon., ‘Dyarchy in Ulster’ in ibid., 16 (1926), pp 736–7 drew attention to the fact that Northern Ireland was neither a dominion, a province nor a Crown colony, that it had less control over its affairs than a dominion, but also that, unlike a Crown colony, it had responsible government.

9Premier Massey’s Ulster visit’, commemorative brochure by Robertson, , Ledlie, , Ferguson & Co. Ltd, Manufacturing Warehousemen (Belfast, 1923) (P.R.O.N.I., PM/6/13).Google Scholar

10 Ibid.

11 Typed extract from Lady Craig’s diary, 14 Jan. 1924 (P.R.O.N.I., Craig papers, D/1415/B/38).Google Scholar

12 Daul, F. to SirCraig, James, 9 June 1925 (P.R.O.N.I., PM/6/1).Google Scholar

13 Thomson, F. D. to Blackmore, C. H., 7 Dec. 1926 (P.R.O.N.I., PM/6/7).Google Scholar

14 The Times, 27 Nov., 20 Dec. 1926.

15 Coates, J. G. to SirCraig, James, 13 Dec. 1926 (P.R.O.N.I., PM/6/7).Google Scholar

16 See the obituary of Evelyn Wrench in The Times, 12 Nov. 1966.

17 Ibid., 3 Feb. 1922.

18 Cowan, Phyllis to SirBlackmore, Charles, 22 Mar. 1937 (P.R.O.N.I., PM/6/64).Google Scholar

19 Belfast News-Letter, 9 May 1937.

20 The Times, 6 July 1938.

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22 Viscount Craigavon to Lieutenant-Colonel Sir William Wayland, 19 May 1939, ibid. Wayland was chairman of the Empire Day Movement. For a useful assessment of this organisation, see Hume, David, ‘The Empire Day Movement in Ireland, 1896–1962’ in Jeffery, (ed.), ‘An Irish empire’?, pp 149-68.Google Scholar

23 Typed extract from Lady Craig’s diary, 2 Sept. 1926 (P.R.O.N.I., Craig papers, D/1415/B/38).Google Scholar

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25 For examples, see typed extracts from Lady Craig’s diary, 2, 16, 20 Sept. 1926 (P.R.O.N.I., Craig papers, D/1415/B/38).Google Scholar

26 Craig, James, ‘We will be British’ in Sunday Dispatch, 9 Apr. 1933.Google Scholar

27 Typed extract from Lady Craig’s diary, 20 Sept. 1926 (P.R.O.N.I., Craig papers, D/1415/B/38).Google Scholar

28 Address of welcome from the Orangemen and Orangewomen of the province of Manitoba to the Right Honourable Sir James Craig, 27 Sept. 1926 (ibid., D1415/D/10).

29 Johnson, D. S., ‘Northern Ireland as a problem in the Economic War, 1932–38’ in I.H.S., xxii, no. 86 (1980), pp 144-61.Google Scholar

30 Irish Times, 20 May 1932.

31 R. Dunn of Dunn, Johnston & Co., Linen and Woollen Wholesalers, Belfast to Viscount Craigavon, 7 May 1932 (P.R.O.N.I., CAB/9F/123/1).Google Scholar

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33 Scott, W. D. to SirBlackmore, Charles, 10 May 1932 ((P.R.O.N.I., CAB/9F/123/1).Google Scholar

34 Ward Pirie, J. to Craigavon, , 14 Nov. 1932 (P.R.O.N.I., CAB/9F/123/7); for further appreciation of this, see the joint memorandum of the Ulster Tourist Development Association and the Ulster Industries Development Association on ‘Publicity during the visit of His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales’, Oct. 1932(P.R.O.N.I., CAB/9F/123/1).Google Scholar

35 For a general account, see Loughlin, James , ‘Northern Ireland and British fascism in the inter-war years’ in I.H.S., xxix, no. 119 (1995), pp 537-52Google Scholar. Rothermere’s forays into politics are examined in Addison, Paul, ‘Patriotism under pressure: Lord Rothermere and British foreign policy’ in Peele, Gillian and Cook, Chris (eds), The politics of reappraisal, 1918–1939 (London & Basingstoke, 1975), pp 189208.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

36 Rothermere, Lord to Mosley, Oswald, 12 Apr. 1934 (P.R.O.N.I., CAB/9F/123/7)Google Scholar. Rothermere avoided the telephone as much as possible in private discussions about Ireland, judging that, in the words of a close colleague, ‘there are so many, many Irish persons in the Postal and Telephone Service that it is almost certain that somebody would listen in and communicate your conversation to De Valera’: Sir Lynden Macassey to Craigavon, 30 Jan. 1933, ibid.

37 Rosalind Brandreth of Goodwill Holiday Parties to the secretary of the Ulster Tourist Association, 25 June 1932 (P.R.O.N.I., CAB/9F/123/1).Google Scholar

38 St John Ervine, ‘Northern Ireland for the holidays’, June 1932 (ibid.).

39 W. G. S. Ballentine to J. Milne Barbour, 31 Mar. 1932 (P.R.ON.I., COM/62/1/271); M. R. Whitham to J. Milne Barbour 8 Apr. 1932 (ibid.).

40 The best discussion of this is McMahon, Deirdre’s Republicans and imperialists: Anglo-Irish relations in the 1930s (New Haven & London, 1984), esp. pp 74-9Google Scholar; see also Canning, Paul, British policy towards Ireland, 1921–1941 (Oxford, 1985), pp 137, 139, 150.Google Scholar

41 Belfast News-Letter, 23 July 1932. This newspaper substituted ‘John’ for ‘Seán’ when referring to both O’Kelly and Lemass.

42 Belfast Telegraph, 29 Aug. 1932.

43 Ulster Industries Development Association, memorandum on helping the Empire, May 1932 (P.R.O.N.I., COM/62/1/271).

44 Belfast Telegraph, 13 Sept. 1939.

45 The background is discussed in Ollerenshaw, Philip, ‘War, industrial mobilisation and society in Northern Ireland, 1939–1945’ in Contemporary European History, 16 (2007), pp 169-97.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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47 R.U.C. report on the first meeting of the Anti-Partition meeting in Dungannon, 20 Nov. 1945 (P.R.O.N.I., HA/32/1/900).Google Scholar

48 Longbottom, H. D. to SirBrooke, Basil, 10 July 1948 (P.R.O.N.I., CAB/9B/201/5); The Western Mail, 26 Oct. 1948, reported de Valera’s hostile reception at a Cardiff Business Club lunch, and his plans to speak at a dinner and reception to over 300 supporters organised by the Welsh executive council of the Anti-Partition League in Cardiff. On countering the impact of de Valera’s speeches on this tour of Scotland, England and South Wales, see Note on Anti-Partition activity by the minister of finance (J. M. Sinclair), 9 July 1948 (P.R.O.N.I., CAB/9B/201/5).Google Scholar

49 For a valuable discussion of some aspects of this, see McIntosh, Gillian, The force of culture: Unionist identities in twentieth-century Ireland (Cork, 1999), esp. ch. 4–6.Google Scholar

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51 Notice of a debate at the Cambridge Union, 17 May 1938 (ibid.).

52 J. Milne Barbour to Craigavon, 27 Oct. 1938 (P.R.O.N.I., CAB/9F/123/2); Sir Roland Nugent, confidential memorandum on publicity, 7 Oct. 1938 (ibid.).

53 Anon., , ‘Ireland re-emerges’ in Round Table, 35 (1945), pp 307-13Google Scholar, has one of the earliest assessments of ways in which the Dublin government assisted the Allies during the war.

54 Eisenhower also received an honorary LL.D. from Queen’s University; see the government press release, 24 Aug. 1945 (P.R.O.N.I., CAB/9 A/7/52).

55 Reply by Field Marshal Montgomery on being made an honorary burgess of the city of Belfast, 14 Sept. 1945 (P.R.ON.I., CAB/9 A/7/55).

56 Reply by Field Marshal Montgomery on receiving the Freedom of Londonderry, 15 Sept. 1945 (ibid.).

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59 Ibid., 28 July 1945.

60 Ibid., 13 Nov. 1945.

61 Ibid., 3 Oct. 1945.

62 ‘Government publicity: a short résumé since 1922’, 1944 (P.R.O.N.I., PM/5/31/4).

63 Sir William Crawford to Sir Basil Brooke, 28 June 1946 (ibid.).

64 Diary of Sir Basil Brooke, 17 Feb. 1950 (P.R.O.N.I., D/3004/D/41).Google Scholar

65 An example was Brooke’s speech to the National Press Club in Washington: The Times 12 Apr. 1950. For a valuable recent article on this theme, see Walker, Graham, ‘Northern Ireland, British-Irish relations and American concerns, 1942–1956’ in Twentieth-century British History, 18 (2007), pp 194218.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

66 Diary of Sir Basil Brooke, 24 Jan. 1950 (P.R.O.N.I., D/3004/D/41).Google Scholar

67 Ibid., 14 Mar. 1950. Brooke was met by ‘boos, catcalls and chants’ from some 200 demonstrators at New York’s Idlewild airport. One managed to get through the police cordon during Brooke’s speech, shouting ‘Up the I.R.A. for the thirty-two’, The Times, 8 Apr. 1950.

68 The story was denied by Brooke. What had actually happened was that William Lowry, M.P. for Derry City and minister of home affairs, had responded to a nationalist M.P. who had remarked that an Orange Hall near Portrush had been used by U.S. military service personnel to celebrate Mass by saying that ‘preparations are being made for its fumigation’. The U.S. forces sought and received an apology from Lowry. See Lowry to Most Revd. Dr Farren, Roman Catholic bishop of Derry and vicar delegate to the U.S. forces, Nov. 1943 (P.R.O.N.I., CAB/9B/205/1). Brooke was questioned about this story in the U.S., Canada and also on his return to Liverpool.

69 Lieutenant-Colonel Baptist Johnston to SirGransden, Robert, 4 Apr. 1950 (P.R.O.N.I., PM/11/7).Google Scholar

70 Johnston to Gransden, 11 May 1950 (ibid.).

71 T. T. Shields to Sir Basil Brooke, 18 May 1950 (ibid.).

72 County registrar of Royal Black Knights of Ireland, County Black Chapter to Sir Basil Brooke, 19 May 1950 (ibid.).

73 Bessie Ross to Sir Basil Brooke, 19 May 1950 (ibid.).

74 Cooke’s Church Toronto, presentations to Sir Basil and Lady Brooke, 17 May 1950 (ibid.).

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79 Belfast Telegraph, 15 Oct. 1954.

80 Northern Whig, 18 Dec. 1954.

81 Irish Independent, 3 Jan. 1955.

82 Northern Whig, 3 Jan. 1955.

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84 Belfast News-Letter, 15 Feb. 1955; Irish News, 15 Feb. 1955.

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87 Belfast Telegraph, 4 Mar. 1961.

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