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Mary Lou McDonald: Michael Collins is a divisive figure, but history is complex

As the anniversary of Collins’ death approaches this weekend, the Sinn Féin leader examines his legacy.

Mary Lou McDonald

Updated Aug 16th 2022, 1:15 PM

THE DEATH OF Michael Collins understandably incites an emotional response from most Irish people.

Collins was a pivotal figure in the fight for Ireland’s independence during the Tan War, in the negotiations that led to the signing of the Treaty and in the subsequent counter-revolution that began with the outbreak of the Civil War.

There is no doubting the indelible imprint Collins left on the national psyche. His legacy is one that is frequently the topic of fierce and passionate debate, and that opinion is often very divided. It is easy to see why.

For some, Collins is a romantic and charming character; a patriot, a noble soldier and a counter-intelligence mastermind, whose abilities helped galvanise the IRA against the most powerful military force on Earth, and a strategic realist.

For others, Collins represents the great betrayal of the national aspiration of full freedom for Ireland for which so many fought and died to defend, a man, who when led astray by Lloyd George gave into British threats and settled for subjugation to a foreign ruler.

Weight of the past

History is complicated and complex. This is certainly true of this period of Irish revolutionary history when, after years of struggle, our people and leaders stood at the crossroads of nationhood. To wrap this pivotal moment up in the role of one man, for good or bad, has led the discourse on Collins down too many blind alleys.

It is possible to hold two conflicting views about Collins at one time. Collins fought for the republic. He made a massive contribution to the effort to end British Rule in Ireland. Sadly, he turned his back on the ideal of a 32-county Irish republic in favour of a dominion Free-State, and a partitioned country.

The act of partition was an attack on the very essence of Irish nationhood, an attempt to fracture the ties that, in all our difference and diversity, bind us together as a people. It was a tragedy.

Irrespective of the opposing views held at the time as to what direction the liberation movement should take, Collins’ order to shell his former comrades – the republican garrison in the Four Courts – was indefensible.

The Free State, backed by powerful economic interests, decided to forcibly suppress republicans. The decision sparked the Civil War. It was a choice and catastrophic failure in leadership that sowed the seeds of the bitterness that followed. The conflict was a human, political and economic tragedy.

Broken Ireland

The bombardment of the Four Courts, and Free State executions of republicans, were an affront to the solidarity, comradeship and togetherness that had driven the struggle for independence against all the odds. A betrayal of the unifying dream so poetically expressed in the proclamation of the republic.

We must remember that the Civil War, first and foremost, was the outworking of an Empire losing its grip on power in a country it considered its property. Collins and the Free State fought for counter-revolution. It is no surprise that, in the Ireland that took shape following that painful period, power has rarely been wielded in the interests of ordinary people.

Those who struggle to put a roof over their heads, food on the table and clothes on their back, do so despite Ireland being a wealthy country. For decades, power has been on the side of financiers, big landlords and the golden circles.

Even at times of economic progress, too many were left behind and ordinary people were forced to pay for the reckless gambling of those at the top. All these inequalities are symptoms of a colonial hangover cemented by those who abandoned the republic.

The debate about Michael Collins and the history of that time remains an important one, but we need a better debate. We need a balance between gaining a better understanding of the past and focusing our minds on the future.

Shadow of partition

Our journey to full nationhood was traumatically interrupted by partition, and the establishment of two conservative states, north and south. The nationalist people of the six counties were abandoned to oppression and discrimination. Thankfully, today the north is a different place as people from all communities move on together.

Generations up to the present day have been failed by governments led by the Civil War parties. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael of today have for a long time had very little to do with anything that was at issue in that tragic conflict.

Whatever else might be said about Michael Collins, the causes, and the course of the Civil War, this can be said: Most on both sides were motivated by patriotism as they saw it and did not see their goal – whether Free State or Republic – as a means of personal advancement in careerist politics.

Today, we have an opportunity to regain all that was lost from this wounding period. The appetite for progressive change is sweeping across Ireland. Though we face challenges, a new generation is rising to claim its destiny and a better future based on equality, fairness, and real togetherness.

We are closer than ever to realising the reunification of Ireland. We are now challenged to reach out beyond the shadow of the Civil War, to see the light of a new dawn breaking.
The destiny of the Irish nation is on the horizon. A living republic, a home to all.

Mary Lou McDonald is President of Sinn Féin and is a TD for Dublin Central. Michael Collins was shot dead near Béal na Bláth in West Cork on 22 August 1922. A centenary ceremony will take place on Sunday, 21 August.

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