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Diarmaid Ferriter: Commemorating Michael Collins has been tricky for all political parties

Approaching his legacy without bias is a noble aim but beyond Martin and Varadkar sharing a platform, the habits of a century will hardly be broken

Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar will share speaking honours this weekend at Beál na Blá as they commemorate Michael Collins on the centenary of his death. Photograph: National Library of Ireland

Is Michael Collins finally to be shared equally between the Civil War parties 100 years after his death? At the time of the 50th anniversary, this newspaper suggested “there has always been a strong element of envy in Fianna Fáil’s attitude to Collins, as if to pay tribute to Collins was to take the halo from some of their own heroes”.

It has been a long road to reconciliation at Beál na Blá as both Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar prepare to share speaking honours this weekend. Varadkar promises “it will be a powerful statement about how far our politics has come, the wounds which have been healed”. Last year, Martin suggested “we should commemorate the centenary in the manner we would commemorate the loss of a statesman... let’s not approach history with the perspectives of today or with our own prejudices.”

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Approaching the legacy without bias is a noble aim, but beyond FF and FG sharing a platform, the habits of a century will hardly be broken. Commemorating Collins, maintains historian Anne Dolan, has always been a “bewildering thing” due to current-affairs considerations and the captivating air of the lost leader’s lament. There remained a belief that Collins “could have made things different... his unlived future a rod to beat mediocrity’s back”.

That faith allowed his champions to indulge in fanciful assertions implying he inhabited a different ideological planet to his peers. He was more talented than most of them, but no one person controlled the War of Independence. Collins was determined to work harder than everybody else, and de Valera had to remind him: “The Almighty did not give everybody the ordered mind he gave you.” This was in response to Collins, the focused and effective administrator and strategist, berating the inefficiencies of colleagues as he fired off letters from his desk, his pen his preferred personal weapon in the war while he simultaneously sanctioned brutal killings.


The conclusion reached by historian Michael Hopkinson is appropriately generous: “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.” He was a formidable politician; decisiveness was his hallmark once he reached a conclusion and that took courage, but he was hardly an effective solider given the foolish mistakes made in Cork 100 years ago. It was also a myth that he had an iron grip on the IRA, and the lines between politics and the military remained troublingly tangled.

Instead of focusing on what he might have done had he lived, it is worth considering that the politics that evolved in this State after his death reflected his own conservatism and limitations. Fianna Fáil’s David Andrews argued in 2001 that because Collins had written of the need to avoid “destitution or poverty at one end and at the other an excess of riches”, he would have disapproved of Cumann na nGaedheal’s conservatism and its “repressive law and order agenda” in the 1920s.

But Collins was no radical; he wanted, he said, to restore a time when “the whole nation was united not by material forces but by spiritual ones”, and to “safely avoid state socialism” which was “a lower form of politics and beyond centrist sentiment”.

That “centrist sentiment”, ultimately shared by FF and FG, is seen by many as a positive given that it saved the state from the political extremism experienced elsewhere. Now that centrism allows Sinn Féin to present itself as a radical alternative, a Sinn Féin with little interest in commemorating Collins, conveniently preferring to avoid the SF complications and compromises of the early 1920s and instead drink from the well of more recent republican history.

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A 1990s elevation

In truth, commemorating Collins has been tricky for all the parties. His pro-Treaty colleagues had to tread carefully as there were those in the Irish army who threatened mutiny by insisting they, unlike their political masters, would keep the Collins flame burning, while his name being invoked by the Blueshirts in the 1930s was also something to be later buried. He was given a 1990s elevation with Tim Pat Coogan’s biography and Neil Jordan’s film which was, suggested Jordan “a study of violence as a substitute for politics and the failure of that”, highlighting the selectivity required to find the Collins to chime with the peace process.

The contention that Collins had a greater empathy for Northern nationalists than his colleagues lay alongside the reality that he had no credible plan to alleviate their suffering and instead talked of reconciliation publicly while privately authorising violence.

Seeing the Irish revolution through the prism of “great heroic men” falls flat a century on. Another biographer, Peter Hart, concluded he was “the most successful politician of modern Irish History”, a declaration that elevates Collins by belittling the men and women who built a stable state from the ashes of civil war.