Sharing Collins's legacy of democracy

When a Fianna Fáil Minister, Brian Lenihan, speaks tomorrow at Béal na mBláth on the anniversary of Michael Collins’s death, …

When a Fianna Fáil Minister, Brian Lenihan, speaks tomorrow at Béal na mBláth on the anniversary of Michael Collins's death, his presence will be a vindication of the Big Fellow's democratic political strategy, writes STEPHEN COLLINS,Political Editor

IN RECENT TIMES Michael Collins has become the poster boy of Irish history. He is widely regarded in the popular mind as the lost leader whose assassination, on August 22nd, 1922, left the running of the newly independent State to dull politicians in dark suits who presided over decades of failure.

The romance and tragedy of Collins, a man cut down in his prime, stands in stark contrast to the career of his great rival, Eamon de Valera, who dominated Irish politics for more than half a century but has now fallen completely out of public favour.

The fact that the Fianna Fáil Minister for Finance, Brian Lenihan, was asked, and accepted the invitation, to deliver the annual oration at Béal na mBláth this year says a lot about how Ireland has changed in recent decades.


It is hard to believe that for a considerable portion of the State’s history Collins was widely reviled by Fianna Fáil supporters as the man who betrayed the Republic by signing the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1922. Of course, he was always a hero as far as Fine Gael was concerned, but that party has spent most of its time in opposition rather than in power. For many years Collins was a cult figure for a minority rather than being accepted as one the great men of Irish history.

It is ironic that just as Fine Gael is managing to pull ahead of Fianna Fáil for the first time in its history, the organisers of the Collins commemoration have invited a senior figure from the other side of the Civil War divide to address this year’s gathering at Béal na Bláth.

The invitation has prompted a negative reaction from some in Fine Gael, as articulated by Senator Liam Twomey, and it has raised a few eyebrows in Fianna Fáil. However, most people in the political arena see the invitation as a positive step towards an acknowledgment of the validity of different traditions in Irish politics.

Lenihan was the ideal choice for tomorrow’s event for a variety of reasons. For a start his grandfather, who was elected a Fianna Fáil TD in 1965, was actually a supporter of the treaty. Lenihan himself is personally popular with all sides in Leinster House, regardless of policy differences, for the innate courtesy and lack of bitterness that characterise his approach to politics.

As Minister for Finance at a time of deep crisis for the State, he is also an appropriate person to speak about the legacy of Collins. In all the hero worship of Collins, one of his greatest achievements is often overlooked. As minister for finance in the first Dáil he organised a loan of £380,000 that made it possible to establish the framework of government for a state that did not exist.

It was an incredible achievement that puts the current crisis facing the public finances into perspective. Collins was still finance minister in the early months of 1922, as the State was being established, and the problems he faced in that role also put today’s difficulties in the shade.

Of course, there was a darker side to the Collins legacy, which also casts its shadow over the country to this day. The savage slaughter of policemen, most of them ordinary Irish Catholics and Protestants rather than English Black and Tans, between 1919 and 1921, was authorised by Collins as a means of destabilising the Dublin Castle administration.

That callous bloodletting has had a resonance in Irish life for almost a century. The tactics adopted by Collins provided a template for the long and bloody Provisional IRA campaign – and still resonates as dissident republicans strive to murder PSNI officers.

For all that, the towering achievement of Collins was that in the course of the treaty negotiations, and the bitter Dáil debates that followed, he emerged as a political leader of the first rank. It is difficult to imagine how the democratic Irish state could have been born without him.

When all is said and done Collins chose the path of political compromise and died fighting to protect the right of the Irish people to choose the form of government they wished. He signed the treaty in the hope that it would bring violence to an end and give the Irish people the kind of country they, rather than republican ideologues, wanted.

“‘The treaty was signed by me not because they held up the alternative of immediate war,” he said. “I signed it because I would not be one of those to commit the Irish people to war without the Irish people committing themselves to war . . . I can state for you a principle which everybody will understand, the principle of government by the consent of the governed.”

In the face of all the pressure and the anxiety of trying to avert a civil war in the months after the treaty debate, Collins stuck to this democratic statement for the rest of his short life. He took his stand on the principle of democracy, while his opponents stood by the Republic.

Collins showed huge political skill in outmanoeuvring de Valera during the treaty debate, winning the crucial vote and proceeding to establish the institutions of the State. His stand was endorsed by the people in the June election of 1922, in which 80 per cent of voters backed candidates who supported the treaty.

A civil war of some sort was inevitable, no matter what form of settlement with the British government emerged. The united nationalist front that developed after 1916 contained a range of opinion, from out-and-out militarists who despised democratic politicians to former members of the Irish Party who knew very well that a political compromise was inevitable.

The surprising aspect of the Civil War was that Collins, the most prominent member of the military faction, ended up leading the forces of democracy while de Valera, the supreme politician, ended up siding with the militarists and giving them political cover for their war to strangle Irish democracy at birth.

Subsequent events proved that Collins was right in his belief that the treaty would provide a stepping stone to whatever form of full freedom the Irish people wanted. There is a huge irony in the fact that it was de Valera who pushed out the treaty to its limits, finding the room for manoeuvre Collins forecast would be there.

There is another irony in the fact that the death at Béal na mBláth of the most charismatic figure in the independence movement ultimately left the stage open to de Valera himself when he finally saw the political light.

The dominance of de Valera and Fianna Fáil after 1932 saw Collins’s reputation fall into the shadows. While devoted Fine Gaelers kept the flame going, it was only after the publication of Tim Pat Coogan’s biography on the centenary of Collins’s birth, in 1990, and the Neil Jordan film a few years later that he began to assume his current mythical status.

In the entry on Collins in the magnificent Dictionary of Irish BiographyMichael Hopkinson offers a corrective to the romanticisation of the Big Fellow by quoting a leading Dublin Castle official, Mark Sturgis, who described Collins as resembling a prosperous cattle dealer, fond of bad jokes.

Hopkinson’s conclusion, though, is that through all the speculation, hero worshipping and revisionism, “Collins can still be regarded as the essential man in the winning of a large measure of Irish independence”. It is entirely appropriate therefore that tomorrow a Fianna Fáil minister will make a little bit of history by delivering the speech at Béal na mBláth.

Who shot Collins?

This question has prompted conspiracy theories for almost 90 years, even though the truth is both obvious and acknowledged.

From the beginning, some of Collins’s supporters believed that Eamon de Valera had a direct hand in the assassination, and the credibility of this theory was given a boost by Neil Jordan’s biopic. But while it is true that de Valera was not very far away on the day, there is no evidence to suggest that he had any part in either planning or encouraging the ambush.

An even more far-fetched republican conspiracy theory has it that Collins was shot deliberately by his own side at the behest of senior figures in the pro-treaty government who feared he might become a dictator. All the evidence contradicts this theory. Cabinet minutes for the summer of 1922 show that the provisional government took no major decision without consulting Collins, and leading figures such as Cosgrave and Mulcahy were devastated by his death.

Another theory is that Collins was killed by one of his own soldiers, a Scot, John “Jock” McPeake, who defected to the republican side with an armoured car three months after the ambush. There is no evidence to support this theory either. McPeake was later jailed by the Free State for his theft of the armoured car – if there was any suspicion that he had killed Collins, he would have been dealt with much more harshly.

The most obvious and plausible explanation is that Collins was killed by a bullet fired by one of the six members of the republican ambush unit at Béal na mBláth. One of them, Sonny O’Neill, a former British army marksman, believed that he had hit a tall Free State officer. The evidence suggests that he had indeed shot Michael Collins. O’Neill was using dumdum bullets, which disintegrate on impact, and this would explain the gaping wound in Collins’s skull. Liam Deasy, who was in command of the ambush party, reportedly said: “We all knew it was Sonny O’Neill’s bullet.” O’Neill died in 1950.