Northern Ireland History - World War Two In Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland History World War Two

Britain declared war on Germany for the reasons of the defence of the principle of democracy and the rights of small nations to determine their own destiny.  When the war actually started in 1939, the Republic of Ireland declared a neutral state.  Generally they were supported in that stance by the nationalists in the North of Ireland.  The Northern Ireland Nationalists used the British reasons for going to war to try and highlight where they perceived their own plight to be.   However with Britain now at war and with Northern Ireland being part of the United Kingdom, it simply meant that Northern Ireland was also at war.

The Irish Republican Army (IRA) was still conducting various campaigns and recognised neither the Irish Free State nor the Northern Ireland Government.  They also viewed the war as an opportunity to attack Britain at a time when they were more focused on fighting a war with Hitler and in a statement also declared war on Britain.  They did continue to bomb Britain during 1938 and 1939 and tried to build and develop relationships with Nazi Germany, however these came to nothing.

In 1940 the British and Irish Governments began talks and this was of some deep concern to the Ulster Unionists.  The purpose of these talks was to consider that Ireland would abandon its neutral stance on the war if Britain stated that they agreed with the principle of a United Ireland.  The position of Ireland made it a strategically important country, as throughout the centuries there was always a fear that Ireland could be used as a land mass to launch an attack on nearby Britain.  Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister at that time had suffered several heavy defeats in Europe and this increased the worry that Ireland would become even more important.  He sent Malcolm McDonald to visit the Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) Eamon de Valera to consider this.  You can imagine the Unionist anxiety at the danger of being sold out from their view point.

Craigavon who represented the Northern Ireland Government then called upon the British to consider their preferred solution which included a Military Governor over all of Ireland and various other clauses that would protect Northern Ireland as a state, linked with Britain.  The situation passed quickly though as deValera refused to discuss the British proposal, his memory still fresh with how Redmond had agreed something similar with the British during the First World War, and which subsequently had been abandoned once the war had ended. DeValera had a deep mistrust that anything agreed would instantly be rejected or ignored as soon as any threat of war had passed.  He had seen this happen in the past and would not consider being duped.

Northern Ireland turned its mind now to the actual war itself and provided food to the war effort and the ship yards built war ships and air craft carriers.  The Harland and Wolff factory produced tanks and aircraft parts and the Short and Harland factory produced Stirling bombers, Sunderland flying-boats and made many aircraft repairs.  Munitions, bayonets, shells and bullets were all produced to help with the war effort.  It was a time of great industry for the North of Ireland.

Northern Ireland History World War Two - Belfast Blitz

On the 7th, 8th, 15th and 16th April and again on the 4th, 5th and 6th of May 1941, Belfast was bombed for ten hours by the German Luftwaffe, killing 1,100 people, wrecking close to 60,000 homes and leaving 100,000 people homeless.  I talked with a friend of mine who lived in Templepatrick at the time and he told me this, "I remember looking towards Belfast and all I could see was a bath of redness, I thought it was the end of the world."

Conscription was considered for Northern Ireland and a rally was organised by Nationalist organisations and the Catholic hierarchy to protest against this.  The British government in agreement with the new Northern Ireland Prime Minister John Andrews (Craigavon had passed away) agreed that trying to force conscription could actually create more trouble than it was worth.

I will write a more in-depth piece on the Belfast Blitz which you will be able to read when I have it finished.

After the war, a social programme was developed to deal with the aftermath of the war and included new housing, major infrastructure projects and better educational systems.  The Unionist government followed the lead of the British parliament and introduced a National Health Service.  It was a difficult time for the Unionist government as they had to work with a socialist British Labour government and at the same time although fundamentally against these socialist principles, the Unionist government had to balance their independent nature and control that they desired against funding from the British state. So for the three years after the end of the war in 1945, the Northern Ireland government pressed ahead with taxation, national insurance and then the final pieces which included, family allowance, pensions and the health service.

A new education act was introduced in 1947 for primary schools amending the age bracket from aged 4 until aged 11 and then children would move to a secondary school education and remain there until aged 15.  At that stage they also introduced free services to schools such as free milk, transport, books and stationery.  It was clearly a time of great change for all as the people and the government tried to come to terms with the aftermath of the war.

Politically too things were changing and in 1948 the Irish Government announced that it was severing all ties with the British Commonwealth.  This bill issued by the British stated that Eire would no longer be part of His Majesty's Dominion and would be known as the "Republic of Ireland".  It also stated that Northern Ireland would remain part of the Dominion and would remain so unless it was changed with the consent of the Parliament of Northern Ireland.

The Nationalists had also formed an Anti-Partition League in 1945 with the main objective of uniting all those who were against partition.  They were closely linked with the "Friends of Ireland" who were a group of Labour MPs in Britain, sympathetic to the grievances of the minority population in Northern Ireland and who believed in a United Ireland. A huge publicity and propaganda campaign was launched to bring partition once again back into prominence.  They wished to be represented in the Irish Parliament but this was declined as there was not agreement amongst the members of the Dail to do such a thing and pass any legislation. 

They returned to a policy of abstention and this political vacuum created an opportunity for the IRA to make a return.  This has always been a recurring theme in Irish politics that when talking ceases, violence simply takes its place.  This time it was a Liam Kelly from Pomeroy in County Tyrone who was expelled from the IRA for taking what they described as unauthorised action.  He took most of the Tyrone brigade of the IRA with him and set up a new paramilitary organisation known as "Saor-Ulaidh" which translates into English as "Free Ulster".  They took over Pomeroy, set up road bocks and read the Irish proclamation in the middle of the village.  He stood for election and got elected, was arrested, refused to recognise the courts and jailed.
This caused outrage with nationalists who organised a rally and established a new political party called Fianna Uladh whose main aim was to develop an organisation of republicans in occupied Ireland and by all legitimate means, bring about the re-unification of the country."  Kelly was made president and when released from jail was welcomed home by a crowd of 10,000 people and a pitch battle followed between his followers and the RUC.The IRA then followed this example of contesting elections to try and garner support for a military campaign.

Northern Ireland continued to grow but did depend heavily on the agriculture and manufacturing industries.  At that time it did include the biggest ship building industry in the world with just over 21,000 employees.  This was to drop heavily around the 1960s as competition from other countries increased.  The linen industry also began to decline as it was owned typically by small family run units where either unaware or reluctant to change their ways to compete with other nations now delivering the same type of goods at a much cheaper price.
The opposing communities did live together but each had a deep mistrust of the other and in truth much of this was built quite frankly on ignorance of each other and misconceptions.    There was a lot of finger pointing, allegations and counter allegations.


In 1955, Sinn Fein named candidates for all twelve seats available at Westminster who all stood on an abstentionist policy even though many of them were in jail.  Two were elected in Mid-Ulster and in Fermanagh South Tyrone and both were in jail.  They were Phil Clarke and Tom Mitchell but they never got their seats as they were challenged on legal grounds and the unionist candidates were elected by default.  

The IRA, convinced of their success began to prepare a military campaign against the Northern Ireland government which was known as "Operation Harvest".  Four columns of 25 men each would commence the assault with the aim of destroying targets such as telephone, petrol stations and railways and roads.  In early December ten targets were attacked in Derry, Enniskillen, Magherafelt, Fermanagh and Newry.  This campaign continued for a full six years and along the way brought down the Republic of Ireland government.  Eamon de Valera got the majority vote and in 1958 he introduced internment against the IRA.  With many IRA members interned and the effectiveness of the RUC reserve in the North, the campaign weakened and lost the support of the nationalist community.  Their vote dropped considerably and the IRA volunteers were told to dump their arms in 1962 and that campaign was ended with a total of 17 deaths, damages of over £1 million. 

Click on the link to read about the Northern Ireland Troubles beginning.