Conscription for Northern Ireland reported in Scottish newspapers
This week, Hanako Ishikawa (King’s College London) discusses how Scottish newspapers reacted when conscription for the Second World War was not introduced in Northern Ireland.
In this short blog, I will examine how the question of Northern Irish conscription in late May 1941 was reported in Scottish newspapers. Both Scotland and Wales processed their own nationalism, and during the Second World War they occasionally manifested their pride in their nation. Some newspapers in the two nations are known to have expressed dissatisfaction towards England and the British government, which was predominantly English. For example, some Scottish newspapers complained about Churchill’s choice of an Englishman as the Secretary of State for Scotland in 1940, and some newspapers in Wales complained about the decision of the British government in failing to establish the position of the Welsh Secretary in 1943. Nevertheless, their opinions towards the other nations within the United Kingdom have not been discussed much. Through Scottish reporting of the Northern Irish conscription question, the article will shed light on a relationship among nations, albeit partially.
During the Second World War, conscription was never applied to Northern Ireland. Prime Minister Winston Churchill tried to apply conscription to the territory in late May 1941 but was met by significant protest from the Catholic population in Northern Ireland as well as from Éire, and he concluded that it would be ‘more trouble than it would be worth.’
In Scotland, many Unionist and Conservative-supporting newspapers criticised Éamon de Valera, the Prime Minister of Éire, who bitterly opposed conscription in Northern Ireland and determined Irish neutrality. In the letter column of the Scotsman, A. Berriedale Keith attacked Irish neutrality, stating that, ‘by withholding the use of ports and aerodromes,’ it ‘is inflicting on us grave losses in ships, in cargoes, and, worst of all, in the lives of our seamen.’ He claimed that the conscription over Northern Ireland had nothing to do with Éire and that the Catholic population in Ulster could cross the border to avoid conscription anyway.[i] The Dundee Courier also criticised Ireland for not letting Britain use their ports, and claimed that, ‘if they had been at our disposal the Battle of the Atlantic would have been over and won by now’, and lamented that ‘never till the de Valera era had Irishmen, irrespective of their politics, any objection to serving in the wars of Britain.’[ii] Their descriptions show a negative feeling against Éire, and their lack of sympathy towards partitioned Ireland.
While criticising those who protested against conscription, many Scottish newspapers were anxious to include Nationalists in the British military services. The Scotsman claimed that it would be difficult to apply conscription to ‘a fair sprinkling of extremists of the I.R.A.’ and it feared that they might obtain weapons illegally by joining the services.[iii] It stated that, ‘the Nationalist minority cannot be trusted’, and that ‘The Irish are traditionally good fighters, but they are even better haters.’[iv] The Dundee Courier also claimed that applying conscription to Nationalists in Ulster was ‘a dangerous policy’:
‘Many members of the “Irish Republican Army” are Ulstermen, and we know precisely what to think about them in the event of our placing them in positions where they could do us a disservice. Until a statement on the subject has been made this week we do not know why the Government has changed its mind on the matter, or even that it has changed its mind.’[v]
It was apparent in some Scottish newspapers that Nationalists in Ulster were untrustworthy and would cause troubles if they would be included in British military forces.
While these Conservative-supporting papers attacked de Valera and questioned the feasibility of conscription, in a Nationalist newspaper, the Scots Independent, a columnist ‘Corroghon’ emphasised unfair treatment among territories in the United Kingdom, complaining that Scottish people had been forcibly conscripted by the British government:
‘While the Scottish press was praising Mr. Churchill for his “homely” commonsense in refusing to impose conscription in Ulster […] many readers were remembering quietly to themselves how the C.O. Tribunals in Scotland, apparently without legal sanction, have steadfastly refused to allow that a political objection might well be conscientious […] It seems that if political objection is present in sufficient strength to menace internal peace, the Government treat it with tender solicitude, as they have in Ulster. But if only a small number of political objectors declare themselves, the Tribunal act with bland political bias and dismiss them with minimum courtesy, as they have in Scotland […] The Scottish C.I.D. have done their utmost to prove to their London chiefs that the National movement is undesirable and that its small extreme section has been actively working against “the State.”’[vi]
As such, the newspaper criticised the British government over the issue of Northern Ireland, stating that protests in Scotland had been ignored due to their small scale and that Scottish people suffered from oppression by British authorities, while Ulster was excused from conscription.
As these reports have shown, Scottish newspapers questioned the feasibility of conscription in Northern Ireland, expressing distrust over Nationalist populations there as well as over Éire led by de Valera, and generally supporting Churchill’s decision not to implement it in Ulster. However, it was also understood as unfair treatment among anti-English circles. These descriptions show uneasy opinion towards Ireland and suggest that Scottish nationalism was not necessarily supportive of other nations’ self-determination and nationalism.
[i] Scotsman, 26 May 1941.
[ii] Dundee Courier, 26 May 1941.
[iii] Scotsman, 21 May 1941.
[iv] Ibid, 28 May 1941.
[v] Dundee Courier, 26 May 1941.
[vi] Scots Independent, July 1941.
Hanako Ishikawa is a PhD candidate at King’s College London, interested in the British media. Taking a comparative approach to studying national and regional differences expressed in national, regional and local newspapers, her PhD thesis looks at diverse identities of people in certain territories of the United Kingdom during the Second World War.