As we celebrate St Patrick’s Day it seems fitting to remember and honor the man that Irish historian Tim Pat Coogan called the “Man who Made Ireland”, Michael Collins. Collins remains a controversial historical figure, having made decisions that have been both hailed and vilified. To this day there is discomfort in some Irish republican circles talking about the historical record when it comes to Collins. The signing of the Good Friday Agreements in 1998 inevitably led to comparisons with the Collins decision, as one of the Irish plenipotentiaries, to sign the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. Is it a fair comparison, and does it help us to assess the Collins legacy? I submit that it does.
The Collins legacy was created by his immense contributions to the Irish cause in the War of Independence that began in 1919. Collins had multiple roles in the self proclaimed Irish government, including Minister of Finance, and Director of Intelligence. As Director of Intelligence Collins was responsible for combating the British intelligence service, as well as being instrumental in the formulation of the guerilla tactics employed by the Irish Republican Army with such great success against the occupying British army. The tactics of Collins allowed a smaller, lesser equipped and self trained guerilla army to fight the world’s greatest military power to a draw. Collin’s creation of “The Squad” also allowed him to brutally eliminate British intelligence assets in Ireland, reversing the ability of the British to know what the Irish resistance was planning, and giving the Irish an insight that had never been available to them prior to his efforts, namely an insight into what the British were planning. His contributions, recognized by all as indispensable, led Arthur Griffith, the founder of Sinn Fein, to remark that Collins was “the man who won the war.”
With the declaration of truce in July of 1921 the Irish and the British began to talk about settlement of the issues outstanding. The Irish position was indeed difficult, as the political agenda had been laid out by the Easter Proclamation of 1916, which declared an Irish Republic, with governing authority over the entire island. The political and governing authority of the self proclaimed Irish Dail, flowed from that document. The British had other ideas.
Michael Collins was sent to London in October of 1921 as part of the Irish negotiating team, empowered by the Irish Dail to sign a treaty with the British. Space will not allow a full examination of the issues involved in the sending of Collins, but it is clear that the Irish President, Eamon De Valera, having been to London in July with a negotiating team that did not include Collins, realized that any agreement would, by necessity, fall short of the Irish ideal. He chose not to go again, but to send Collins and Arthur Griffith as the heads of the Irish delegation. De Valera’s decision, and subsequent actions, had tragic consequences for the Irish nation.
Collins brought home a treaty, later ratified by the Cabinet, the Dail, and the Irish people, that gave the unionist element in the North a veto over entry into the Irish Free State, gave Ireland Dominion status and recognized the British King as sovereign, and allowed British control over Irish ports. But it removed the British military presence from the 26 counties of the newly created Irish Free State, which enabled Collins to correctly state that the treaty was a “stepping stone” to true Irish independence. History has borne out the Collins judgment, but the treaty itself propelled the Irish Civil War, and split the Irish political leadership in two, and led to the death of Collins.
The political arguments centered principally on the oath of allegiance to the British King, and the acceptance of partition through the unionist veto in the northern six counties. Collins principal political opponent on the Treaty, Eamon De Valera, entered the Free State Dail in 1927 and took the oath. He later, using the Free State apparatus that he had so vehemently opposed, got rid of the oath and produced a new constitution for Ireland. The Irish Free State, under a Fine Gael Taoiseach, proclaimed Ireland a Republic in 1940. Collins argument, that the Free State would propel Ireland towards a fuller freedom, had come to pass.
And so we arrive at the Good Friday Agreement, reached in 1998. The agreement included the I.R.A., and dealt with the issue of partition, amongst a host of other issues. In short it codified the principle that the northern six counties could not be compelled to join the Irish Republic, but would do so only by vote of the six counties. It deleted the provision in the De Valera constitution that made a territorial claim to the Northern six by the Irish Republic, and did so after approval by the voters of the Republic of Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement, as well as the evolvement of the Free State into the Irish Republic, provides undeniable proof of the essential brilliance of Michael Collins. He saw in 1921 what it took so many others multiple decades to see. That vision and the record that follows him surely vindicates the difficult, but ultimately necessary decisions he had to make to create the Irish Free State and ultimately the Irish Republic. He truly is the father of modern Ireland.