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Michael Portillo: ‘Conservatives see Ireland exclusively through the unionist prism’

The former Conservative politician and historian on his new documentary about the Irish Civil War

Michael Portillo is the product of a civil war. His father Luis, a university professor of law and a supporter of the vanquished republican side, fled Spain in January 1939. He walked over the Pyrenees in the depths of winter and eventually found asylum in Britain. There he met his wife Cora, and Michael was one of the couple’s five children.

Portillo was regarded as a trailblazer for the Conservative right as defence secretary in the John Major government. Though Portillo and his father were on opposite sides of the political spectrum, there was no civil war within the family, he says.

“He [Portillo’s father Luis] was very generous about it. He was to the left, that’s true, but he was a democrat fighting against a dictatorship and he rejoiced that I participated in British politics. He was keen on British politics. He voted Labour. We had Labour posters in the house. We used to go to political meetings together. He loved debate and free speech.”

The Spanish and Irish civil wars were very different in scale and character, but, like all civil wars, they are characterised by a particular form of vicious internecine fighting and leave a troubled legacy.


Portillo’s new documentary for RTÉ, Taking Sides: Britain and the Civil War, is the fourth and last in a series of documentaries made from the British perspective about the Irish revolution. The first, The Enemy Files, broadcast in 2016, was about the Easter Rising. The second, Hawks and Doves, was about the War of Independence, and the third, Partition 1921, was about the events leading to partition.

Though the Irish Free State ostensibly received its independence with the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921, in reality it was a state on probation. The British retained a garrison in Ireland to ensure that the Treaty was implemented, which was by no means certain in early 1922. There had to be a general election and the ensuing government would have to swear fidelity to the Crown and pass an agreed constitution.

None of these outcomes were inevitable and the British government looked on with increasing irritation as a group of anti-Treaty rebels entered the Four Courts in April 1922 and remained there with impunity for two months.

In February 1922, Winston Churchill, then the secretary of state for the colonies and therefore in charge of British government policy in Ireland, predicted civil war. What he hadn’t predicted was how the British government’s decisive intervention was the catalyst for that war. “Ireland is sure to bring us every difficulty and embarrassment,” Churchill wrote to his wife.

In early June of that year, British prime minister David Lloyd George counselled Churchill against behaving impetuously given rumours that the IRA was planning to invade the relatively newly created Northern Ireland. The veteran journalist and historian Max Hastings told the Portillo documentary that the use of violence in colonial campaigns was a “very ugly side of Churchill’s character. British policy at that time was to ensure that Britain kept effective control of Ireland.”

The event that triggered the Civil War was the assassination of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson MP on the steps of his home on June 22nd, 1922. Churchill was possessed with a “feverish impetuosity” as a result and ordered the Provisional Government to remove the anti-Treaty garrison from the Four Courts – or he would do it for them. Fortunately the officer commanding British forces in Ireland, General Sir Nevil Macready, baulked at such a move as it would have led to a resumption of hostilities between Britain and Ireland.

Churchill offered the Provisional Government some converted Bristol F2B fighters based at Collinstown to bombard the Four Courts from the air. Churchill suggested that they be painted in Free State colours but with RAF pilots. Wisely, the Provisional Government declined the offer. The RAF even practised for a bomb drop on the Four Courts. Churchill was very quickly ashamed of his impetuosity and tried to destroy a draft proclamation which would have seen British forces storm the Four Courts. Fortunately the document was preserved for posterity.

“Part of the documentary is about other people saving Churchill from his own blunders. This was clearly an obvious one, as the people who seized the Four Courts wanted it to happen as it would unite the people against the British,” Portillo said.

“Fortunately, Nevil Macready does not declare martial law and seize Dublin, yet Churchill was horribly unprepared for the trap that was set for him.”

Quite the most extraordinary revelation in the documentary is a request from the Provisional Government to the British in early July 1922 for gas canisters to rout anti-Treaty rebels out of their strongholds.

The Four Courts garrison had fallen on June 30th and the Provisional Government was now attacking the anti-Treaty garrison which had occupied buildings on the northeast side of O’Connell Street.

The request is contained in a British cabinet minute from July 4th and revealed in the documentary. “The cabinet was informed that the Irish Free State government had intimated that if they could be supplied with some kind of gas grenades, the task of clearing the rebels out of the Four Courts would be greatly simplified.”

The British government responded by pointing out that the UK was a signatory to the recently ratified Washington Treaty on noxious gases which states that a ban on poison gas, which killed so many soldiers in the first World War, shall be “universally accepted as a part of international law binding alike the conscience and practice of nations”. It would therefore be “improper” to hand over gas canisters.

Portillo concludes that the documents showed how the Provisional and then Free State governments were aligned with British views on the Treaty and would eventually prove decisive.

The British were very wrong, he adds, to believe that partition and the creation of two polities on the island was the end of the so-called Irish question in British politics.

“There are strong prejudices against the Irish. Conservatives are inclined to see Ireland exclusively through the unionist prism and that’s how they made mistakes,” he said.

“I don’t think the issue of civil rights in Northern Ireland crossed the British radar until the North blew up in the late 1960s.”

Taking Sides: Britain and the Civil War will be broadcast on RTÉ One on Wednesday, May 10th, at 9.35pm.