I suppose I should begin an assessment of Michael Collins’ importance in history by quoting the judgement of a former British Ambassador to Ireland who told me that: “He was a young man who took on the most powerful empire in the world at the time and beat the imperial power.”
Certainly, that assessment is true insofar as it goes. Michael Collins was the father of modern urban guerrilla warfare and respected by leaders as disparate as Mao Tse Tung and Yitzak shamir who took the codename Micheal for his guerrilla unit in the war against Britain. In fact, talking with the editor of The Jerusalem Post, Mi Nath, I got another evaluation which has particularly appropriate —and ominous — resonance today. He said of the State which Shamir helped to found: “If they (the Arabs) ever get a Michael Collins, we’ll wake up one morning to find there is not a supermarket left in Israel.”
However, Collins should not be regarded purely as a military figure. It must never be forgotten that, barely in his 30s, he sat down across a table at No. 10 Downing 5treet to face possibly the greatest negotiating team that Britain ever assembled.
Winston Churchill came only fourth behind Lloyd George, Birkenhead and Austin Chamberlain.
What Collins, Arthur Griffith and the other three siguatories achieved there has stood the test of time.
Modern Ireland demonstrates that it was possible to use the Treaty, in Collins’ phrase, “as a stepping stone to achieve freedom”.
The half loaf proved to be better than no bread, when in fact, De Valera used the independence which the Treaty set in train so dramatically, and emphatically delineating Irish sovereignity, in the teeth of another Treaty signatory’s outrage — Winston Churchill — who railled unsuccessfully at Irish neutrality during the Second World War.
If we compare Collins’ moral and physical courage in upholding the Treaty with the lack of leadership shown in upholding another vital Anglo-Irish agreement in our day, the Good Friday Agreement, we get some measure of Collins’ stature.
He was prepared to face the heartache of parting with men whom he literally loved like Harry Boland and Rory O’Connor to uphold the Treaty. How stands the performance of David Trimble in arguing for the Good Friday Agreement with his critics?
The answer is simple: there is no comparison, but the allusion is valid.
Another contemporary yardstick, and it is one which stands the test of history, is to judge Collins’ integrity in the light of our tribunal culture.
He raised a national loan while living a life “on the bicycle” but he saw that every subscriber got a receipt and (equally importantly) ensured that they all paid up.
If one examines the myriad of memoranda he wrote — on every sort of topic from politics, to arms procurement, to the assassination of spies —one finds plentifully sprinkled throughout them reminders to friends, who have since become household names, that they still owed a pound or two, or even a few shillings to the National Loan.
He subjected himself to an unbelievable regime of stress and danger, without any question of monetary gain.
Watching the forces pile up against him as the Black and Tan War intensified, he shrugged and remarked: “Well, we’ll see which wears out first, the body or the lash.”
It is reasonable to speculate that the lash of his tongue, and possibly his fist, would be bestowed on those who in our day used the opportunities originally secured by the Treaty in a manner so much at variance with his idealism.
Collins is a much more complex figure than the rather simplistic, country boy portrayal of him in the Neil Jordan film which left out the vital Treaty negotiations.
There was also no mention of his policy towards Northern Ireland, his economic theories or his plain common sense.
On the North, while suppressing the IRA in the South, he was driven to supporting the republicans in the North, because of the pogroms directed against the Catholics by the Orange element. And it is clear from the minutes of his last conversations with fighters from the North and the testimony of his closest colleagues that he intended, once the Civil War was over, to make some major effort to “get back the Six”.
How this would have squared with the democracy which he did so much to install in the 26 counties, we simply don’t know. Perhaps the forces against him were such that he would have simply given up.
As it was, we know that the day after his funeral, his colleagues decided to pursue a policy which was the direct opposite of his own toward the Northern State.
In this area, it is instructive to consider Collins’ position at the time torn between a desire to make the Treaty work and the plight of the Northern Catholics, with the position of today’s republicans who have opted to uphold the Good Friday Agreement.
In some ways their position parallels Collins’. They want to uphold the Good Friday Agreement, but at the same time have to contend, not merely with critics from their own side, but with hostility and obstruction from the unionist camp and its allies in the British security establishment.
In this regard, we are not talking about history. The narrative continues.
In other areas, some of Collins’ ideas stand the test of history. He had a policy of trying to find the best examples of progress in other countries which could be followed at home.
For example, in the last major memorandum of his to Desmond Fitzgerald, who was in charge of publicity, he proposed that it would be useful to follow the use of propaganda methods such as the cinema which Lloyd George used to rally the Irish public behind a programme of investment and development in agriculture, fishing, forestry and industry following the examples of Denmark, Germany and Holland.
He also at other times advocated the development of tourism and hydroelectric power.
He was at all times eager to find models which would be better suited to the Irish experience than simply slavishly following British examples.
For example, he thought that Ireland could benefit by studying the Swiss Citizen Army model.
And, in the summer in which he died, he had circulated his colleagues with a memorandum instructing them to develop policies, including reforms, economies, extensions and improvements. He wanted everything to be altered from the old so as to be “thoroughly Irish”, and he wanted the use of the Irish language to be introduced where possible.
We don’t know where any or all of the foregoing might have led Collins and Ireland, but it is a fact, when we come to evaluate his position in our history, that great credit must be given to a young man who made the time to commit to paper these ideas while dealing with the hideous pressures of war, civil war and pogrom.
Men like Collins do not come the way every day, or in every generation.
Tim Pat Coogan is the author Michael Collins, published by Arrow, stJ2lO