Michael Collins is undoubtedly one of the most important and significant men in the history of Ireland. He is, at the same time, a great and tragic figure, both determining the course of history and perishing as a result of how he himself determined it.
Collins was born at Woodfield, Sam’s Cross, in County Cork, Ireland in October 1890. He is one of the most prominent and well-known figures in the Irish struggle for independence, 1919–21. After working as a clerk in London he returned to Ireland and fought in the Easter Rising of 1916. Collins was arrested by the British and detained at Frongoch camp in Wales before being released in December 1916.
In December 1918 Collins was amongst the 73 elected Sinn Fein members who assembled as Dail Eireann and declared for the Irish Republic. Dail Eireann made a declaration of Irish independence as a Republic and repudiated British jurisdiction in Ireland. Their elected President, Eamon De Valera, and Vice President, Arthur Griffith, were both in British prisons so much responsibility fell on Collins, who became Dail Eireann’s Minister of Home Affairs.
Michael Collins was also the director of the activities of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), the old Fenian conspiracy against British rule in Ireland, that supervised the national resurgence in the period after the 1916 Rising and which radicalized Arthur Griffith’s Sinn Fein from a monarchist party into a Republican political organisation. Kathleen Clarke, the widow of Tom Clarke, an old Fenian and one of the leaders of the 1916 Rising, passed on to Collins the secret organisational information of the IRB for “the next blow” for Irish freedom and the next phase in the independence struggle.
After arranging for De Valera’s escape from Lincoln jail in February 1919, Collins was appointed Minister of Finance. However, it was as Director of Intelligence of the Republican Army (IRA), that he became most famous. In this role he oversaw planning and coordination of the armed struggle, aimed at asserting the authority of the Irish Government and defending it from British military repression. Collins organized numerous attacks on the British security apparatus in Ireland and the assassination in November 1920 of many of Britain’s leading intelligence agents in Dublin. The British were very impressed by the ability of Collins and his Squad to disrupt their experienced intelligence operations and he became one of their most wanted men, placing a price of £10,000 on his head.
By mid-1921 the British Government saw that the Black and Tan terror methods it was using to supress the Irish democracy were not working. They were not only helping to line up the Irish populace behind Sinn Fein but outraging sections of liberal British public opinion and causing difficulties with America. Britain hesitated about relaunching an all-out war of conquest because its Great War on Germany and Ottoman Turkiye, though victorious, had damaged Britain severely both internally and in its international standing. Britain could no longer act as it did in the world before August 1914. It was heavily indebted to the United States, which had saved it in the Great War, and Irish America, which had been made by the refugees from the Great Hunger of 1847, was a very powerful force in US politics. Also, a powerful Turkish resistance had developed against Lloyd George’s plans for Ottoman Turkiye which Britain was struggling to defeat through its Greek and Armenian proxies. All these factors deterred Britain from applying the “thorough” methods traditionally applied to supress the Irish.
The British Government, having failed to break the Sinn Fein Government by military and political intimidation invited the Irish Republicans to London for negotiations in October 1921. President De Valera insisted that Collins be included, against his wishes, because of the reputation he had acquired with the British as the mastermind behind the independence war. The Irish delegation were, however, representatives of the Dail Government and saw themselves until the vital moment as bound by its instructions and forbidden to sign any agreement without its express authority.
It was agreed in Cabinet that “the complete text of the draft treaty about to be signed will be submitted to Dublin and reply awaited.” So, any agreement made would be referred to the Dail before it was signed by the London delegation. President De Valera’s strategy was to negotiate the difference with Britain down to the distinction between his Document No.2/external association with the British Empire and the Treaty on offer. It was understood the British would never countenance an Irish Republic in the current circumstances. These were two ways of recognizing the Crown but making it difficult for the British to contemplate a declaration of war on the basis of the difference. De Valera’s primary objective was to maintain a united Irish leadership in the face of whatever Britain threatened.
However, under threat of immediate and terrible war if they did not instantly sign the document presented by Lloyd George, the plenipotentiaries, led by Collins, signed on their own authority, presenting their own Government with a fait accompli – which was first heard about through the British newspapers. Both the terms of the document, and the way the delegates usurped the authority of their Government, divided Sinn Fein, Dail Eireann and the country.
Why did Michael Collins sign the Treaty?
Collins believed he had got the best deal possible from the British in the situation he was placed, which he did not wish to be in, in the first place. He believed that everyone in Dublin understood that what happened would be the final outcome from the truce and negotiations they had entered into. For Collins the Treaty he signed was a kind of compromise in principle in return for gaining certain practical advantages.
The practical reason he signed was that he felt the military effort of 1919-21, which brought Britain to the negotiating table, could not be sustained and that if the British ultimatum of December 1921 was rejected, the Irish military position would collapse in the face of a British economic and military offensive of the kind that had won the war against the Boers 20 years earlier. This had involved vast military sweeps, the building of a chain of military blockhouses across the country, the forced migration of the population, and the establishment of concentration camps for them. Naval blockade and aerial bombing were also expected from the British to soften up the civilian population for a reconquest of Ireland. Memories of these events and Britain’s activities in the Great War were still fresh in Ireland.
That is the judgment Collins acted upon in signing the Treaty and his action established the framework of subsequent developments. We will never know if that judgment was sound. Others believed that the British were bluffing and their bluff should be called – as the Turks subsequently did with success. This alternative view was founded on the belief that the unprecedented British agreement to a truce with the Irish demonstrated their demoralisation in the face of Irish resilience and their weakening by the Great War effort against Germany and Ottoman Turkiye.
We cannot say for sure who was right in the circumstances. All we can know for certain is what was done and what happened as a consequence of it.
During the negotiations in London Collins seems to have grown frustrated by the restrictions imposed upon him by Dublin and when he returned to Ireland he was unusually silent in a Cabinet meeting on 3 December 1921 reporting on progress of the negotiations. It was reported that Lloyd George’s “final offer” was well short of a Republic – giving an Irish state British Empire Dominion Status with an obligatory Oath of Allegiance to the Crown. Collins broke Cabinet confidentiality by leaking a copy of the draft Treaty to the IRB, where his primary loyalty lay, and whose views he regarded as being of greater value than those of the Government in Dublin.
The Irish Republican Brotherhood was Collins’ personal instrument of power and the institution whom had made his original oath to.
The IRB was the revolutionary nucleus of the Irish independence struggle, and had organized the Easter Rising and reorganized Sinn Fein after 1916 on Republican lines. Some like De Valera left it, believing its purpose to have been fulfilled by making the pursuance of the Republic possible in an open and constitutional way, through a remade Sinn Fein and the 1918 election mandate. But Collins and other Republican Brothers did not see its mission as accomplished or its usefulness exhausted. It still had its uses against Britain in the situation brought about by the Treaty. Collins knew that Britain does not end wars when it stops fighting. What it does is transfer conflict to diplomacy and other aspects of life, seeking to recover any ground temporarily surrendered on the battlefield. Where war sometimes fails Britain uses peace to restore power relations to their former advantageous position. Collins appreciated that fact and therefore placed his reliance on the IRB as the tried and tested vehicle of Republican struggle.
There was much to be said for Collins’ view. Conspiracy was the only possible route to Irish freedom from Britain prior to 1914. It was illegal to advocate an Irish Republic so the IRB was a necessary organisation for anyone who took the idea of a self-governing Ireland seriously.
However, the great electoral victory of Sinn Fein in 1918 had created, for the first time, a democratic basis for Republican power and this represented substance that the IRB had to take account of. Aside from that the deluging of the world by propaganda describing the Great War as a “war for small nations” had legitimized independence movements in places like Ireland, where the British Empire had never wished to legitimize them. On top of that the old conspiratorial form of Republican politics built up in the pre-democratic era had somewhat lost its influence over a populace after an independence party had openly campaigned on a Republican manifesto and had given purposeful guidance to the new Irish democracy in the first election conducted on a democratic electoral franchise, in December 1918, in which Sinn Fein had won a landslide victory.
These factors had a bearing on what subsequently happened in Ireland, giving the British Prime Minister, Lloyd George, leverage to open up a split in the Irish independence movement by exploiting the differences among Republicans over the relationship between democracy and conspiracy.
When Collins returned to the negotiations in London he missed the next meeting and preferred to meet the British Prime Minister in private. Lloyd George talked “man to man” with Collins making him private promises and establishing a rapport with him as a man he could do business with. Collins, confident of his own ability, and perhaps flattered by the attention directed at him by such a great statesman, seems to have been set on the road to making a deal with the British on his own volition against the instructions he had been given by his Government.
Both Collins and Griffith saw that further negotiations with the British, after Lloyd George’s threat of war, were futile. However, they should have referred the decision back to the Irish Government for decision at this point. As has been noted, the understanding was that De Valera, as President, who had insisted on Collins leading the delegation, should take over when the delegates had exhausted the process and achieved all they could achieve.
We will never know what would have happened if they had done this. However, it could be speculated that the prospects of a renewed war would have been increased but the possibility of a split would surely have been minimised.
What is certain is that without the signature of Michael Collins the Treaty did not stand a chance of acceptance in Ireland. And the British knew this well and did everything they could to obtain it on the Treaty.
It might have been that the signing of the Treaty warded off a British war of reconquest in December 1921. However, the result of Collins and Griffith deciding to sign on the spur of the moment, after Lloyd George’s take it or leave it offer, without the authority of the Irish Government, was a split in Sinn Fein into two parties: a Treaty party and an anti-Treaty party.
It should be noted that the British did not negotiate with the Irish as the elected government of their country, as one government to another, on equal terms. To the British, Collins and his comrades were still rebels (“the murder gang”) to be brought to their senses and placed back under the authority of the Crown.
Some of the history written recently in Ireland, of a revisionist kind, has distorted the nature of the division over the Treaty within the Republican movement. It was not about class, the North, conservatives versus radicals or such things. Both sides had pledged themselves to an independent Irish Republic, fought the war of independence together, and equally opposed partition of North and South. It was not a Civil War as such, because both sides desired the same form of Irish state. It was a war over the Treaty that was imposed by Britain and what to do in the circumstances. It is more accurately described as the Treaty War.
The Treaty that Collins signed was not even a Treaty as such. Treaties are signed between recognized sovereign authorities and Britain never recognized the Dail as having any legitimate standing. The Treaty Party, in order to be recognised as a legitimate government by Britain, had to meet as the Parliament of Southern Ireland under the British 1920 Government of Ireland Act, which had been previously rejected by the Dail.
Britain was enforcing UK legality on the Irish in order to divide them, knowing that convinced Republicans could not accept this demand. They then were required to form themselves into a Provisional Government on British authority. They were allowed to establish a new Army, armed by Britain, with the understanding that this would repress those who disagreed with the Treaty and made any attempt to restore the Republic.
The Treaty Party met in January 1922 and its leaders, including Collins and Griffiths, were installed as the Provisional Government of Southern Ireland until an election could be held later in the year.
The Republican opposition to the Treaty was simple: it was based on the fundamental right of the Irish nation to control its own affairs and a refusal to accept the British Crown’s authority in Ireland. Acceptance of the Treaty would be an acceptance of British Imperial rule and was therefore impossible for Republicans who had pledged allegiance to the Irish Democracy and its Government established through the General Election victory of 1918. This was a defence of the Irish democracy voted for by the Irish people, and could not be compromised on.
Collins knew all this but he believed he could overcome it in favour of the way he thought necessary in the circumstances. He believed his realism could overcome other people’s principles.
Collins instinctively disliked politics, distrusted politicians and preferred the webs of intrigue and manipulation that had necessarily characterised Irish attempts to break the Union with Britain. He looked at it all in the tradition of the Irish Republican conspirator rather than as a Republican democrat. He believed that conspiracy was still necessary against Britain in a situation in which “immediate and terrible war” was threatened. There had to be a retreat to victory.
Michael Collins calculated that what was offered by Britain should be taken and then what was not on offer should be worked for, and conspired for, through various methods that would involve breaking the Treaty that had been signed up to. That was Britain’s way in the world and it had to, through necessity, be Ireland’s way. Principles meant little for Collins. He felt that with the IRB behind him, he was capable of dominating the situation in Ireland and carrying the national forces with him. His intention was to zig-zag back and forth within the Treaty, toward the Republic, as opportunities arose.
Collins relied on his great reputation as the “man who won the war” to carry his policy through but the shock effect of his unexpected signing of the Treaty, which might have been explicable within the closed ranks of the IRB, was to split the Dail and to lose him the support of the bulk of the IRA, which split on the issue, making him dependent on a new army that was established through British support and which was made up of many elements of Irish society which were not at all Republican in instinct and who were Collins’ natural allies.
The problem he faced was that for many in Sinn Fein and the IRA principles were very, very important. The IRA, which had seen its government, the Dail, being replaced by a Provisional Government subject to Crown authority, that it did not hold allegiance to, responded by asserting its independence from government.
And the second problem Collins faced was that the British had not given up on holding Ireland and would monitor every move in his implementation of the Treaty. Whitehall would employ all its great resources and political ability to trap and cage Collins and force him into meeting the obligations he had entered into with them when he signed the Treaty. Collins was undoubtedly an ingenious conspirator, skilled at manipulation but in those he encountered in 1922 he was to meet his match.
Those who signed the Treaty got a slim majority in the Dail in support of it, largely on account of Michael Collins’ prestige as a signatory of it. There were days of rancorous dispute in secret session over it revealing bitter division in the independence movement toward it. The majority then left the Dail and met as the Parliament of Southern Ireland and appointed a Provisional Government to take the place of the Dail Government which Britain continued to refuse to recognize. The Parliament of Southern Ireland then returned to the Dail and joined the anti-Treaty deputies in maintaining the Dail Government – the Government of the Republic. The Parliament of Southern Ireland never met again after performing its Treaty function, while the Provisional Government continued without its parliament.
All this British imposition was very confusing and made power contestable in Ireland.
De Valera resigned as President of the Dail and was replaced by Arthur Griffith. But the actual head of Government after the Treaty was the Chairman of the Provisional Government, Michael Collins.
The dual and conflicting authority, which the British instigated against the general will in Ireland, was temporarily coped with by the Dail by overlooking the fact that the Parliament of Southern Ireland had been established under the British 1920 Government of Ireland Act, which had been previously rejected by it. In the vital interests of Irish unity the situation was, by necessity, worked with.
However, the British Government did not allow this situation to continue. It asserted what it took to be its continuing authority in Southern Ireland, despite the Treaty it had made with the Irish, and effectively ordered the Treaty Party to break the functional arrangement it had made with the anti-Treaty part of Sinn Fein, or else be set aside itself, through British action.
The whole matter came to a head in June 1922 over the election that was forced on Ireland by the Treaty. Collins postponed this election for as long as possible while he attempted to hold the IRA together, behind his stepping stones policy. He knew, unlike Griffith, that confronting the society with the Treaty in an election decision, whose purpose would be to revoke the declaration of independence, would be disastrous. When Griffith was finally allowed to call an election, after further British pressure, Collins and De Valera united to neuter its effects.
The two parts of Sinn Fein, aware that the British intention was to fatally divide them, decided it would not be in the national interest to contest the election against each other, bringing the Treaty division to the fore. So the two parts of Sinn Fein attempted to nullify the British desire to engineer a fatal division in the Irish people through an election that would be a plebiscite on the Treaty. Instead, they agreed that the election would only be held for the purposes of electing a representative government and they formed a pact, sharing out the constituencies to produce a pre-determined Treatyite majority and anti-Treaty minority of ministers. This arrangement, the Collins/De Valera Pact, was formally ratified by the Dail.
The British Government, determined to divide Sinn Fein and the Republican forces, was shocked by this clever manoeuvre on the part of the Irish. It was an abrogation of the Treaty in British eyes. The British were used to deciding what constituted democracy in the World and they deemed this Irish manoeuvre an affront to democracy, even though the Lloyd George Government had recently won its great majority through a similar method in the 1918 “coupon election”.
The Treatyites had been put in office to break the national cohesion that obliged Britain to negotiate in 1921, not to reinforce and strengthen this.
Collins ultimately got a majority to support the Treaty with his idea of “freedom to achieve freedom” and the argument that an Irish Free State could be “a stepping stone” to a Republic. During the 6 months of Provisional Government authority he sought to implement this policy, particularly in drawing up a Constitution for the Free State which would lead it back toward the Republican position. But could a silk purse be made from a sow’s ear?
This Constitution was being finalised by Collins around the time of the June election.
If Collins had been successful, if the election was held as agreed by the Dail, and a Coalition Government installed, the British purpose in making the Treaty would have been subverted. It would then have been faced with the prospect of going to war with the Irish democracy and a government which it had put into power, armed and financed.
This represented a crisis for Britain and Michael Collins was summoned to London to account for himself. Collins’ Constitution was declared too Republican and was ripped up by the British. Collins returned from London, obviously chastised, and made a speech on the eve of the election that was presented as having ended the Pact with the anti-Treatyites. Although the speech was too late to influence the result, Collins had obviously been intimidated by what was said to him regarding the election pact and Constitution. It led to the beginning of the Irish Civil War, which would be more correctly described as the Treaty War, a fortnight after the election.
Before considering that event what was happening in the North has to be outlined to understand Collins’ increasingly difficult predicament after signing the Treaty.
Ireland had been effectively partitioned since the passing of the 1920 Government of Ireland Act and the establishment of a government of Ulster Unionists in Belfast in 1921 to administer the new political entity of ‘Northern Ireland’. Both sides in the Republican division over the Treaty were strongly anti-partitionist and desired the reunification of the country, although both were at a loss about how to achieve this.
One thing that can be said in Collins’ favour is that he seems to have been the only Southern leader to think about the necessity of having a Northern policy: Most simply engaged in wishful thinking about ending Partition.
Before the Truce and Treaty Collins had come up with the idea of dealing with the North by whittling down the Six County partition area until it became unviable. He proposed doing this by supporting Anti-Partitionist councils in the North that had raised the Irish tri-colour in defiance of Belfast to make their areas ungovernable by the new administration.
Collins’ thoughts were later included in The Path to Freedom collection:
“The decision of the boundary commission, arranged for in Clause Twelve (of the Treaty), would be certain to deprive ‘Ulster’ of Fermanagh and Tyrone. Shorn of those counties, she would shrink into insignificance. The burdens and financial restrictions of the Partition Act will remain on North-East Ulster if she decides to stay out. No lightening of these burdens or restrictions can be effected by the English parliament without the consent of Ireland. Thus, union is certain. The only question for Northeast Ulster is – How soon?” (p.80)
That might seem an over optimistic reading of the situation. But Collins had great faith in his own abilities to change it. Once he had got an army and government from the Treaty he would use these to break free of the Treaty restrictions and get rid of the unwanted, new-born, ‘Northern Ireland’ in collaboration with his old comrades.
Under Article XII of the Treaty if the Six Counties opted out of an all-Ireland Dominion a Commission was to be established that would redraw the boundaries between the Irish Free State and ‘Northern Ireland’ “in accordance with the wishes of the inhabitants”.
The British Government had succeeded in getting the Irish delegation, led by Collins and Griffith, to sign the Treaty confining Ireland to Dominion status within the Empire and ending the Irish Republic declared in 1918. The statelet of ‘Northern Ireland’ remained in being, but Lloyd George led Collins to believe, in getting his signature on the Treaty as a whole, that the financial position of Ulster – which was to continue to pay an Imperial contribution as an inducement to join the South – and a Border Commission, would undermine it and reduce its territory to the extent that it would prove unviable.
Collins, therefore, rather than accepting Partition – as some later historians have alleged – saw the Treaty as reopening the question of the status of the Six Counties from the fait accompli of the 1920 Act.
Collins and Griffith were convinced by what Britain was doing in Europe that a Boundary Commission would whittle the artificial construction in the North-East down to nothing, as the historic position overrode the issue of local sentiment very quickly.
Collins, in agreeing to the Treaty, had been led to believe that the Boundary Commission would reduce down the area allocated to ‘Northern Ireland’ to unviable proportions. Lloyd George was a tricky operator and master of negotiations. The British Prime Minister, at the same time, had privately told the Ulster Unionist leader, Craig, that it would only transfer pockets of Protestants and Catholics to the other side of a slightly amended borderline to benefit Unionists.
It was widely understood that the Irish delegates would never have signed the Treaty without such an assurance and Lloyd George said in Parliament, on 14 December 1921, that Fermanagh and Tyrone were probably unsustainable within ‘Northern Ireland’ because the majority in these counties wanted to live under a Southern jurisdiction. Churchill suggested the same in very careful language a few months later when he said that Britain had agreed to the Boundary concession when it was “sore-pressed with burdens, with threats, with menaces in every quarter of the world” that made agreeing to this part of the Treaty a necessity. The only alternative, he said, was “the re-conquest of Ireland at enormous expense in money and men.”
The Sinn Fein assertions about the Border Commission were reinforced by the attacks Ulster Unionists made in Parliament on Article XII arguing that if it was carried out properly, and large border areas lost, ‘Northern Ireland’ might indeed be unsustainable for them to govern.
On 4 February Collins issued a statement to the press in which he claimed: “majorities must rule, and… on that principle we aim to secure immense anti-partition areas.” Collins then attempted to undermine the Unionist regime by a combination of force and political pressure, waging a campaign of military and civil subversion in the North in the early part of 1922.
Michael Collins sold the Treaty to Northern Nationalists as a means of undoing the 1920 Act which had cut them off from the rest of the Nation: The Free State was to be the base of operations against the Unionist regime; the new Dublin government, which was on intimate terms with Whitehall, would influence British policy towards the Ulster Unionists; and then, finally the Boundary Commission, which, Collins had secured in the Treaty, would whittle away ‘Northern Ireland’ by awarding predominantly Nationalist areas to the Free State, making the rest of it unviable.
That was the Collins plan for the deliverance of the North.
The first thing Collins did upon signing the Treaty was to assume the leadership of the Northern Catholics. The signing of the Pact with James Craig was the opening move in this. Collins had no intention of making peace in Ulster through this Pact in January 1922. It was part of his campaign of subversion of ‘Northern Ireland.’
Collins then moved to take direct control of the Northern IRA. The IRA, while maintaining a central command structure in its GHQ staff, had remained a fragmented and local-orientated force based on geographical divisions. Collins got Eoin O’Duffy to establish a new Northern Command through an Ulster Council making the IRA in the North the united instrument of his policy. The Ulster Council was headed by Collins himself and it was conducted under the auspices of the IRB – indicating that its work would be conspiracy, even though open government had by this time been attained. One of the first things it did was to begin paying the salaries of all Northern IRA officers, securing their personal loyalty to Collins.
The Northern IRA was a effectively a blank slate for Collins. The split in the IRA over the Treaty in the South had not been reproduced within the Northern IRA. There had been a great increase in IRA membership and training in the North during the Truce with the British and Collins decided to use his new men in a spring offensive by providing them with the necessary weaponry and support from the South.
The Collins strategy, operated through the Ulster Council was to alternatively escalate and de-escalate IRA activity in the North as Collins saw fit in order to exert pressure on the Unionists. It seemed a contradiction but it was a policy of zig-zag. IRA activity was to be increased to demonstrate power and then decreased at the time when negotiations were desired to obtain concessions from the Unionists.
In early February 1922, just a few weeks after Collins concluded a Pact with the Ulster Unionist leader, James Craig, the escalation began with Collins telling Craig he intended taking half the territory of the Six Counties into the Free State through the Boundary Commission and then ordering an attempt to kidnap 100 prominent Unionists. These were to be held as hostages for the release of IRA men captured in the North, who were under sentence of death. Over 40 Unionists were successfully abducted in the Border raids that Collins’ men made and much destruction was caused along the Border.
Collins’ campaign in the North continued into March and April with raids, shootings, burnings of Unionist big houses and the capture of several barracks. But it had significant repercussions for Catholics in Belfast who began to pay dearly for Collins’ escalation. Nearly half of all Catholics who died in communal violence between 1920 and 1922 perished in the first half of 1922. Collins denied all knowledge of the Border raids he organised. He wrote a letter to The Times, published on the 24 March expressing outrage that he could be accused of such things. He also denied all knowledge of the raids to the new Sinn Fein President, Griffith, as his IRB clique continued to plan and organize mayhem within the Six Counties.
At the same time Collins concluded another pact with Craig in late March which boasted in its first clause: “Peace is today declared…” Collins ordered the IRA to scale down its activity after the Pact. The immediate purpose of the Pact was to get Craig to stop the escalating killing and intimidation of Catholics in Belfast by official and unofficial Unionist forces that Collins’ own military sallies into the North had sparked off.
The Northern Unionist Government was only recognized by Collins in order to undermine it. And when it became apparent that the Pact was not producing what Collins wanted of it, a combined IRA offensive against the North was decided upon by the Ulster Council in late April 1922.
This is where the IRB had further importance for Collins. The Treaty had split the IRB but the Brothers continued to observe its constitution. There was a large Treatyite majority on the Supreme Council and Collins proceeded to utilize it for political purposes. At the same time the Anti-Treaty IRB men like Liam Lynch were encouraged to see in it a possible instrument for reconciliation.
Most importantly Collins’ IRB considered itself the true government of Ireland and not the Dail or the Provisional one. These were two temporary institutions to be worked within as far as the IRB was concerned. For Collins the great advantage of the IRB was that the Republic could be concealed within it for a later date whilst he proceeded with the Treaty for the eyes of the British. In February 1922 the IRB’s Supreme Council passed Resolution 27 which while accepting the fact of the present governmental structure of the Free State declared itself to be “the sole government of the Irish Republic, until Ireland’s complete independence is achieved, and a permanent Republican Government is established, and the Supreme Council shall be unquestioned by its members.”
It was through the IRB that Collins and Liam Lynch, the chief Anti-Treaty Republican commander, had got together on the joint invasion plan for the North. Collins used the IRB to secretly organize an offensive with Eoin O’Duffy and Richard Mulcahy from his side and Lynch, Rory O’Connor and Joe McKelvey from those opposed to the Treaty. The policy decided upon was that the Northern Divisions should be reinforced by men and material from other areas, and that it should strike vigorously in the North in a widespread and concerted way.
Arms were supplied for the Northern offensive by an arrangement between both IRAs. Weapons left by the British forces in the hands of the Pro-Treaty IRA were given to the Anti-Treaty IRA in exchange for their arms, which did not contain British serial numbers. The Anti-Treaty weapons were dispatched northwards while Liam Lynch received the British weapons in exchange from Collins.
The plan, as the Anti-Treaty fighters saw it, was to smash the Northern government by military means. Collins insisted that the British be left alone as he did not want to compromise his straining relationship with Whitehall.
Collins invasion of the North, using the three Northern and two Midland Divisions of his army and Anti-Treaty fighters began on 18th May. The Third Northern Division opened this up with a concerted campaign of arson and destruction across the Eastern half of Ulster involving attacks on police barracks, business premises, railway lines and stately homes. In the most provocative incident the Unionist M.P. W.J. Twaddell was assassinated in Belfast.
The coordinated and expansive nature of these attacks unleashed a great backlash against the Catholic community in Belfast over the weekend of May 20/21.
The IRB fully supported Collins in the North but it began to fail him in the South. His best friend, Harry Boland, former President of the IRB, went into active opposition to Collins over the Treaty, taking many of the Brothers with him.
The invasion of the North was a desperate throw of the dice by Collins to engage his former comrades in something that would distract them from the inevitable he was being forced toward by the British. Perhaps Collins, being an instinctive conspirator, even thought it would be a good thing to have some of his most experienced and vigorous opponents out of the way, up North, if (or when) the bit came to the bit. And they were all too likely to go along with something that was dear to their hearts in unified activity against Partition, something both Treatyites and anti-Treatyites were united against.
However, having drawn many of the most active Republican fighters to the North Collins, presumably under increasing British pressure, decided to subvert the Northern offensive himself, resulting in it going off at half-cock. The whole affair ended in disaster after Churchill ordered the British Army to intervene directly, defeating Collins’ forces at Beleek/ Pettigo, along the border.
Collins was angry at Churchill’s military intervention and protested to Whitehall. Why? It seems that Collins was led to believe by the British that they were, after the Treaty, no longer an element in the conflict in Ireland. This seems to have convinced Collins that it was only the Ulster Unionist government that he needed to defeat to end Partition. This explains why Collins’ war in the North was directed almost exclusively at local Unionist forces. He seems to have, as a matter of policy, avoided attacking the British, the prime targets of Republicans in all their campaigns, to avoid coming into conflict with them. However, it was now clear that an attack on ‘Northern Ireland’ was regarded as an attack on the British State itself and the British were not about to leave the North any time soon.
It is unquestionable that Collins deluded himself over the Treaty with regard to the North with tragic consequences for Northern Catholics. The ambivalent policy of Collins, the failure of two pacts with Craig to protect Catholics from Unionist violence and then the final withdrawal by the Free State were very harmful to Northern Republican morale. The Northern IRA was effectively destroyed by it and it did not recover for two generations and the events of August 1969.
The reasons for Collins’ actions remain unclear but they can be understood. Having promised the Northern Catholics to deliver them Collins found himself increasingly boxed in by the British over the implementation of the Treaty. On April 12th Churchill had sent a personal letter (“man to man”) to Collins reminding him that the alternative to him fully implementing the Treaty he had signed was “a state of war with the British Empire.” In this letter Churchill showed his awareness that arms he had supplied to Collins for repressing opposition to the Treaty had fallen into “bad hands.” He warned Collins against seeking an accommodation with those opposed to the Treaty, saying that any such move would be interpreted as opposition to the Treaty. Churchill urged him to rally as wide a range of forces behind him to defend the Treaty State and move against its opponents. Collins’ room for manoeuvre was running out.
The IRA was at that stage dividing over the Treaty in the South. Most of the IRA, and a substantial minority of the country, including its most active element, saw the signing of the Treaty as much more significant than Collins saw it – as a mere tactical retreat within which it was possible to conspire to recover what had been actually signed away in the Treaty. For many, particularly in the Republican Army, the signing of the Treaty represented the surrender of the Republic and the negation of the Irish people’s democratic decision in 1918. The bulk of the Army considered itself duty-bound by its Oath to the Republic and it would not take another Oath in contradiction to the one taken earlier.
Collins sold the Treaty as a “stepping stone to freedom” and decided not to bring himself to be open about the power politics involved i.e. that he had signed it under duress. If he had done so – as Lenin did in relation to the signing of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty – he might have held the Republican forces together. As it was they could not bring themselves to adopt Collins’s conspiratorial approach as a substitute for democratic principle.
Collins insisted that the only duress he suffered was the “duress of facts,” by which he meant the general circumstances in which Ireland found itself in relation to its powerful and threatening neighbour which had given it an ultimatum of war or peace treaty.
In this period there seemed to be two successful approaches to dictated treaties – Lenin’s one of honest surrender to terms that preserved the power of the Soviet state within a smaller territory and Ataturk’s approach of smashing the Treaty imposed on the Turks at Sèvres. Collins approach fell between the two stools and divided his forces – which, of course, was the chief objective of those who imposed the Treaty on Ireland in the first place.
On June 22 1922 Sir Henry Wilson, former Chief of the Imperial General Staff and security advisor to the ‘Northern Ireland’ government was assassinated in London by two IRA men, who were captured at the scene. Collins had blamed Wilson for what happened at Pettigo/Belleek and was apparently going to get him to pay with his life for it.
The assassination, it seems, was carried out on orders from Collins, perhaps as another conspiratorial attempt to maintain Army unity, and in the belief that Lloyd George would not have minded seeing the back of Wilson either – which he didn’t. Collins expressed responsibility for it to General Sweeney on the following day, according to Ernie O’Malley.
The British, however, had no intention of blaming their instrument in Dublin for Sir Henry’s assassination and blamed the Republican leadership in the Four Courts complex, ordering Collins to dislodge them or they would do it themselves. The British had regarded the results of the June 16 election as a mandate for the Provisional Government to move on the occupiers of the Four Courts and the killing of Sir Henry Wilson helped bring things to a head.
The British had treated Collins with patience in the first half of 1922 and given him great latitude because he was indispensable to them. He was the strongman on the lines of General Botha of British South Africa who was the most likely to carry off the new policy they had in mind for Ireland. A number of English periodicals commented that Collins, and not John Redmond was the real “Irish Botha,” having a successful guerilla military background against the British instead of just being a man who served out his life in the House of Commons. And so Collins was left on a long leash despite the knowledge of his subversive behaviour in the North because he was the best hope for establishing the new regime, indispensable to the overall policy, in the South.
Having tolerated Collins’ duplicity and shenanigans for six months in the interests of bedding in the new Imperial settlement in Ireland Churchill brought his activities to a halt with an order to make war on the Republicans or face a resumption of British control. Collins was given the choice of making war on the Republicans with the army Britain had provided for him or letting the British Army do it, which would have been fatal to the Provisional Government’s authority.
The attack on the Four Courts occurred on June 27 1922 after Collins gave the occupiers an ultimatum to evacuate. On the night before Collins’ assault that began the Treaty War IRA officers leaving for Donegal to join Collins joint-offensive in the North were led to believe that an accommodation had been reached that had prevented a ‘Civil War.’ The agreement, they were told, that was reached revolved around a common policy of war in the Six Counties that would re-unify the national forces. They left believing this to be the case.
After three days of shelling with heavy artillery, on loan from the British, to take the Four Courts, Rory O’Connor, and the other Army Executive members who had occupied it since April, surrendered. The Four Courts were then destroyed by a massive explosion of mines lying on lorries awaiting transportation to Donegal for use in the Six Counties.
Michael Collins may have believed that his short military operation to disperse the Republican occupiers of the Four Courts could be a limited strike that would get the British off his back. But he was wrong. Republicans down the country, where the independence war had been largely fought and where the most substantial IRA brigades operated took the assault on the Four Courts to be an assault on the Republic which they were sworn to defend. Liam Lynch, the most resolute force on the anti-Treaty side, left Dublin to defend Munster against Collins’ National Army.
The men down the country were not as impressed by Michael Collins reputation as the British were. They saw Collins’ role in the independence war as the organizer of counter-intelligence and assassination in the Dublin area. But he had not fought the major battles with them in Munster against the British Army. His role was indispensable in the conduct of the war but they did not regard him as indispensable to the victory.
Collins was becoming increasingly frustrated. He saw that the best of his men outside Dublin had gone against him and those he now was committed to destroying were those he most wished were with him. He no longer liked the company he was increasingly gathering around him, who were far too ‘Treatyite’ for his liking and did not seem to appreciate his policy of using the Treaty to undo the Treaty. They seemed to be far too attached to the Treaty itself against those who opposed it and were getting increasingly fed up with Collins and cohering against him. This probably prompted his fateful decision and fatal excursion to West Cork where his home and former trusted comrades were.
This was dangerous enemy, Republican, territory where ambush was likely. Security was lax and proper precautions were not taken to protect such an important figure as Michael Collins. Collins himself seems to have been overconfident and reckless.
Michael Collins’ convoy was ambushed. It might have driven off at speed when it was engaged by Republicans but the Commander-in-Chief decided to fight for dubious reasons. The ambush was fought off but Collins decided to leave cover to personally fire on the retreating Republicans. In the open Collins was exposed to a sniper and shot dead on the road at Béal na Bláth on 22 August 1922.
The Treaty War lasted for 10 months. It was conducted with great brutality by Free State forces after the death of Michael Collins in order to win it. The war ended in military victory for the Treatyites, after Liam Lynch was killed, but it was inconclusive in many ways. The side that won it, without its leader, did not know what to do with its victory. Any purposefulness it had originally possessed died with Michael Collins at Béal na Bláth and the remaining purposefulness of the nation lay with the forces that were beaten but refused to acknowledge defeat in 1923. These forces dumped their arms with perhaps the intention of resuming the war at a later date. However, they proved so successful at politics against the Treatyite regime that this was never necessary.
The outcome in the North, in ‘Northern Ireland,’ may have been very different if the independence forces had remained united. The pressure would have been much greater on the Ulster Unionists and on Whitehall. The Boundary Commission Collins had won could possibly have whittled away parts of the Border counties and made it less politically viable if confronted by greater power from the Southern State. Pressure would have made a greater area look less stable and the smaller area more functional from a British point of view.
Things may have also been different if Collins had not been killed on his expedition to Cork. The conspiratorial policy he had operated against the North was his policy alone, a policy only he could have pursued, and it died with him. Collins was the irreplaceable strongman whom the other Treatyites knew they could not replace and none of them even tried. The North settled down into a one party statelet that finally exploded into violence in 1969 and produced a conflict that lasted 28 years.
In the Irish Free State the victorious Treatyites were lost without Michael Collins. They could not sustain the Republican momentum that Collins hoped for in the Treaty that would make it “a stepping stone” to the Republic. Republican momentum was maintained within the Treaty entirely by those who had opposed Collins in the Treaty War. A few years after the Treaty War the last remaining people with the Collins spirit in the Treaty side were suppressed after the revolt of the Major-Generals. The Treatyites were reduced to a law and order party who came to flirt with fascism in the 1930s under General O’Duffy’s leadership.
The defeated opponents of the Treaty emerged within a decade as the superior political force in the Treaty state, the Irish Free State, by making a relatively seamless transition from war to politics under the leadership of Eamon De Valera. They took power as Fianna Fail and became the natural party of government, achieving anything of substance that has been achieved in Ireland over the century of independent government.
It has been the fashion lately in Ireland to write up Michael Collins at the expense of Eamon De Valera. And a major movie starring Liam Neeson as Collins and Alan Rickman, an English actor noted for his portrayal of “bad guys” as De Valera, reinforced that trend in the popular imagination. But that dichotomy is false. It is De Valera, after all, who took up Collins’ “stepping stones” project and succeeded in it after Collins’ failure and death.
The Turkish war of independence and establishment of the Turkish Republic is personified, quite rightly, in a single outstanding historic figure – Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk). But Ireland is more complicated, as a result of the unauthorised signing of the Treaty and subsequent events. De Valera led the Treatyite Irish Free State to independence and a government led by Treatyites declared it to be a Republic, in 1948, and ended its association with the British Empire and Commonwealth.
In fact, Ireland availed of the defeat Turkiye inflicted on the British Empire at Chanak and Lausanne, around a century ago, to use Collins’ stepping stones to Irish freedom. De Valera’s supporters in The Catholic Bulletin studied the Turkish war of independence carefully and used Ataturk’s victory to inspire them in the aftermath of their defeat toward ultimate victory. The weakening of the British Empire was a prerequisite for the success of Ireland in using the stepping stones on the path to freedom. The Irish observed the weakening of the Empire and took their opportunity to push for independence as Britain’s difficulties increased, as it blundered toward a second World War. After an economic war in the 1930s Britain acquiesced and Ireland demonstrated its independence by abstaining from the latest of Britain’s wars in 1939 and defending its neutrality against threats from Churchill against it.
If Ireland has an Ataturk he is a combination of Michael Collins and Eamon De Valera. But that is, to be sure, a stretching of the parallel.
There is no doubt, however, that Michael Collins, in his actions, set the framework for Irish history and the course taken by independent Ireland. Whatever is thought about Collins his historical importance cannot be denied.
(The above piece was written as a Preface to a Turkish translation of Michael Collins’ Path to Freedom by Turan Cetiner, who recently translated Roger Casement’s The Crime Against Europe. Details of the book will be posted when published.)