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Fintan O’Toole: Brexiteers’ absurd admiration for Michael Collins

Brexiteers ignore the most obvious effects of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921

That the ghost of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 still haunts Irish politics is all too obvious. But it has a much stranger afterlife on the other side of the Irish Sea.

Brexiteers are not known for their deep interest in Ireland. Yet the Treaty has an outsized presence in their political imagination. Thinking about it allows them to cosplay oppression and frame their own project as a plucky rebellion against an evil empire. It also serves, weirdly, as a justification for bad faith in international negotiations.

Bizarre as it is, this appropriation of the Treaty by contemporary Conservatives provides a lens through which we can view the successes and failures of Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith a century ago.

Any analogy between the situation of Ireland before 1921 and that of the UK within the EU is patently ludicrous. It is also dizzying, since it implies that right-wing Tories, whose political ancestors bitterly opposed even moderate Home Rule for Ireland, now see themselves as the heirs of one side of the old IRA.

But with all things Brexit the preposterous is the factory setting. To grasp the warped logic at work, we have to embrace absurdity.

During the House of Commons debate on the UK's withdrawal agreement with the EU in October 2019, the fervent Brexiteer and former Northern Ireland secretary Owen Patterson summoned a ghost from Irish history: "Michael Collins said something in Dáil Éireann on December 19th, 1921 that pretty much reflects my views this evening."

He then quoted Collins’s famous summation of what had been achieved in the Treaty: “In my opinion it gives us freedom, not the ultimate freedom that all nations desire and develop to, but the freedom to achieve it.”

Patterson was echoing a line of thought first articulated by one of the intellectual architects of Brexit, the Tory former MEP Daniel Hannan.

It positions Britain as an oppressed nation struggling for independence against EU imperialism

A year earlier, Hannan suggested that the Brexiteers should simply accept Theresa May’s deal with the EU and follow the example of the pro-Treaty members of Sinn Féin and the IRA: “When the Irish Free State left the UK, in 1921, there were all sorts of conditions about Treaty ports and oaths of supremacy and residual fiscal payments. And what very quickly became apparent was not just that those things were unenforceable once the split had been realised; it was that everyone in Britain kind of lost interest in enforcing them.

“And although there were some difficulties along the way in the 1920s, it turned out to have been better to have grabbed what looked like an imperfect independence and then built on it rather than risking the entire process.”

The point of this analogy is twofold. It positions Britain as an oppressed nation struggling for independence against EU imperialism. And it suggests that Britain could sign the withdrawal treaty with its fingers crossed behind its back. It could ratify that treaty now, while fully intending unilaterally to change its terms as time went on and the EU “lost interest in enforcing them”.

The first part of this comparison may be risible, but the second does indeed have some basis in history. Leave aside the fact that the “difficulties along the way in the 1920s” in Ireland included sectarian pogroms and a civil war, and a certain truth remains: the Anglo-Irish Treaty did, as Collins predicted, give a 26-county Ireland enough freedom to allow it to achieve a genuinely independent statehood.

Once a recognised and democratic government was established in Dublin, it was able, in a remarkably short time, to get rid of the impediments with which the Treaty had burdened it: the naval ports retained by the British, the oath of fidelity to the British monarch as head of the Commonwealth, the British-appointed governor general.

However perverse the parallels they claim, the admiration of the Brexiteers for Collins and Griffith does draw attention to the ways in which one of the crucial judgments made by the Irish delegates in London in December 1921 was vindicated by later events.

What Collins and Griffith accepted was not just a legal document, but an idea of history itself. Purists see revolutions as once-and-for-all moments in time. Change for them must be total and immediate.

The signatories of the Treaty, on the other hand, understood change as a process. They realised that history doesn’t really do once-and-for-all. Even seismic events do not create static conditions.

This was true of the relationship between Ireland and Britain established in 1921 – and it will be true of the relationship between Britain and the EU that was redefined in treaty negotiations almost a century later.

But if the Brexiteers are, to that extent, right about the Anglo-Irish Treaty, they are hopelessly wrong about it in so many other ways. They miss three big things: the balance of power, the danger of partition and the folly of ignoring the complexity of the Border.

The most obvious reality of the 1921 treaty negotiations is that Britain had raw power on its side. It was still the centre of a vast global empire. Sinn Féin and the IRA had political leverage, but no comparable might.

If the Brexiteers really want to role play as Michael Collins, they would have to accept what they cannot bring themselves to acknowledge: that the balance of power is now against them. They are, in negotiations with the EU, the weaker party. Weaker parties, as Collins could have told them, end up having to accept a lot of stuff they don’t like.

Secondly, the achievement of the version of Irish freedom made possible by the Treaty came at a fearful price: acceptance of the partition of Ireland. The Brexiteers do not fancy that part of the analogy. It implies that England’s “freedom” could well come at the ultimate expense of the partition of the island of Britain through Scottish (and conceivably even Welsh) independence.

If the Brexiteers had really paid attention to the Treaty, they might have drawn an important lesson: if you don't think clearly about the Border question, it will come back to haunt you

Thirdly, there is that damned Border. The great failure of Collins and Griffith in the Treaty negotiations was their acceptance of vague assurances about where and how it would be drawn.

The available compromise was a county-by-county plebiscite on whether to remain in Northern Ireland or join the new Free State. This would most probably have resulted in Fermanagh and Tyrone taking the second option, putting a very different shape on partition.

But the Irish side allowed themselves to be sucked into the rather nebulous idea of a Boundary Commission, which in the end achieved nothing at all. They bought into “alternative arrangements” that looked good on paper but did not work in practice.

If the Brexiteers had really paid attention to the Treaty, they might have drawn an important lesson: if you don’t think clearly about the Border question, it will come back to haunt you.

Those dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone – a phrase minted by Winston Churchill for the House of Commons debate on the Treaty – still cast a long shadow over both Ireland and the whole Brexit project.