Parnell and now Michael Collins – What’s with Tory Brexiteers quoting Irish heroes?

What was Collins’s ‘freedom to achieve freedom’ speech all about?

Owen Paterson became the latest Tory Eurosceptic MP to invoke the name of an Irish nationalist politician during the protracted Brexit debates in the House of Commons.

Mr Paterson, a former secretary of state for Northern Ireland, referenced Michael Collins in a speech in which he signalled his reluctant support for British prime minister Boris Johnson's Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB), having previously voted against Theresa May's Bill three times.

Last month the leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg invoked the name of Charles Stewart Parnell in a debate in the chamber.

The Collins speech that Mr Paterson referred to was made in Dáil Éireann on December 19th, 1921, during the Treaty debates.

Thirteen days prior to the debate Collins had been one of signatories of the Anglo-Irish Treaty that established the Irish Free State and the independent Irish State as it is today.

The treaty gave Ireland the same dominion status as Canada and Australia, although it stopped short of the Irish Republic that the IRA had fought for in the War of Independence.

The terms of the Treaty included an oath of allegiance to the British monarch, the presence of a governor-general on his behalf and the retention by Britain of the Treaty ports of Berehaven, Queenstown (Cobh) and Lough Swilly.

This was anathema to many Republicans who would eventually take the anti-Treaty side in the Civil War.

The Treaty delegation comprising Arthur Griffith (chairman), Collins, George Gavan Duffy, Eamonn Duggan and Robert Barton signed the Treaty without referring it back to the President of Dáil Éireann Éamon de Valera who famously did not attend the negotiations.

Collins defended his decision by stating the letters approved by Dáil were explicit that they the delegations were “envoys plenipotenary from the elected government of the Republic of Ireland”.

A plenipotenary is described as a person, especially a diplomat, invested with the full power of independent action on behalf of the government.

In his famous speech to the Dáil, Collins stated the British prime minister David Lloyd-George had made it clear that an Irish Republic was not on the table before the negotiations began, therefore: “I say if we all stood on the recognition of the Irish Republic as a prelude to any conference we could very easily have said so, and there would be no conference.”

He then went on to state: “What I want to make clear is that it was the acceptance of the invitation that formed the compromise. I was sent there to form that adaptation, to bear the brunt of it. Now as one of the signatories of the document I naturally recommend its acceptance.

“I do not recommend it for more than it is. Equally I do not recommend it for less than it is. In my opinion it gives us freedom, not the ultimate freedom that all nations desire and develop to, but the freedom to achieve it [applause].”

These were the words repeated by Mr Paterson, a former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, in the House of Commons on Tuesday.

In the book The Treaty, Debating and Establishing the Irish State edited by Liam Weeks and Micheál O'Fathartaigh, historian Dr Mel Farrell says Collins speech was "impactful and forced the anti-Treatyites on the defensive".

The Treaty was eventually passed narrowly in the Dáil by 64 votes to 57 in January 1922. In the June 1922 general election pro-Treaty candidates outpolled anti-Treaty candidates by four to one, but it did not prevent the outbreak of the Civil War that month, a war that would lead to the tragic death of Collins at Béal na Bláth on August 22nd 1922.

In the House of Commons Paterson said he would vote for Mr Johnson’s bill “without any great enthusiasm” if measures to protect the British fishing industry were implemented and if assurances could be given that the measures pertaining to Northern Ireland were temporary pending a free trade agreement between the EU and the UK.

Mr Paterson stated: “If those two issues can be resolved, I will vote for this Bill, albeit without any great enthusiasm, because it sets us on the road. Having mentioned Ireland, it is worth looking at the example of the Republic of Ireland as it emerged from the Irish Free State . . . this Bill begins the process of establishing our full freedom, and I hope that I do not suffer the same fate as Michael Collins in wanting to see that delivered.”

The anti-Treaty Fianna Fáil government that took office in 1932 dismantled many of the most repugnant parts of the Treaty and got the ports back in 1938.

The process of disengagement from the Treaty was completed with the declaration of the Republic of Ireland in April 1949.

Speaking last year at an event to mark the 70th anniversary of the Republic of Ireland, Fine Gael executive council chair Gerry O'Connell said subsequent events after 1921 vindicated Collins's belief that the Treaty gave Ireland "the freedom to achieve freedom".

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times