Michael Collins: Irish patriot or sell-out?

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Michael Collins: Irish patriot or sell-out?

By Sean Healy

There's no doubt about it — Michael Collins portrays one of the most heroic and tragic periods in the very long, heroic and tragic history of Ireland, and does it very engagingly. The Easter Rising of 1916, the Irish War of Independence of 1919-21 and the ensuing civil war between pro- and anti-treaty forces in 1922-23 collectively have been decisive in the whole history of Ireland since then, both north and south.

Likewise, there is no doubt that Michael Collins the film manages (largely successfully) to capture some of the mystique surrounding the most enigmatic figure in 20th century Irish history, and some of the inspiration of Ireland's all-out war against its colonial and subjugated status.

But the central paradox of Collins' life isn't explored: how one of Irish republicanism's greatest heroes became one of its greatest traitors.

Michael Collins (played in the film by Liam Neeson) was the founder of the modern Irish Republican Army (IRA), the chief tactician of the war against Britain and an international pioneer of guerilla warfare. Largely under his influence, the Irish movement for self-determination was able to rise above the glorious, hopeless and easily crushed "risings" of the previous two centuries and bring Britain to its knees.

Yet Collins was also the chief signatory to a treaty which has inflicted untold sorrows on the people of Ireland. By agreeing to the partition of Ireland into a Catholic south and a Protestant north, Collins not only betrayed the Catholic population of the north to unrelenting oppression in the decades since but set back Irish national aspirations for decades.

Michael Collins is a testament to the fact that you can't turn to Hollywood if you want to know what actually went on in history.

On the strength simply of the film, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the whole war revolved around Collins himself, that the war against Britain unfolded almost entirely in Dublin, that Britain ended its seven-centuries-long occupation of Ireland because some of its spies were shot (why had no-one thought of that earlier?), that the dispute over the treaty and the civil war that followed it were the result of personal jealousies between Collins and Eamon de Valera (Alan Rickman).

The reality was very different. From December 1918, when popular outrage at Britain's executions of the leaders of the Easter Rising led to Sinn Féin sweeping 73 of the 105 seats on offer in elections to Westminster, the Irish War of Independence involved the large-scale radicalisation of large sections of the population.

Flying columns of IRA guerillas carried out numerous attacks on police and army barracks. Land was seized from absentee landlords in Clare. The port of Cork was seized by its workers, the unions carried out strikes against rail and road transport, the Arigna coal mine in Leitrim was taken over.

In Tipperary and Limerick and other smaller towns, "soviets" of popularly elected councils took control of local government. This was the biggest insurgent in Irish history.

In response, the British put together special auxiliary forces, known by the Irish as the "Black and Tans", and terrorised the population. Only some of this is covered in the film: the massacre at Croke Park is shown (though it didn't involve armoured cars), but the burning of Cork as well as the countless more small-scale atrocities aren't. The killings and burnings carried out against the Catholic population in the north likewise aren't in the film.

In addition, what the War of Independence started to do was expose the widely divergent political programs of different sections of the republican movement and of Sinn Féin in particular.

Before World War I, these differences were clear. On the one hand, John Redmond's Nationalists made no secret of the fact that all they aimed for was "home rule" and a degree of limited autonomy. They remained loyal to the crown, even calling on their supporters to enrol to fight for Britain on the fields of France and Belgium.

On the other hand, there were the more radical-minded and socialist republican forces, led in particular by James Connolly. Connolly, executed by the British after the Easter Rising, advocated not simply a republic but a "workers' republic", which would not simply replace one set of rulers with another, but would restructure power in Irish society.

Initially Sinn Féin, formed by Arthur Griffith in 1905, was a lot closer to Redmond than to Connolly. Arthur Griffith himself espoused a conservative economic and social philosophy which emphasised "buy Irish" and advocated that Irish trade unions remain loyal to their new, Irish, masters once Britain left.

It was only after the repressions began and Sinn Féin became the subject of British anti-republican propaganda that its popularity rose and it became the party of the anti-colonial struggle.

But the differences between the moderate, bourgeois nationalists and those who wanted a more radical transformation exploded after 1920.

For one thing, the attitudes of IRA divisions to the land confiscations and factory occupations that were going on around them varied from region to region. The more radical actively supported these measures; others opposed them by force of arms.

More fundamental were the differing reactions to the Government of Ireland Act, 1920, in which Britain provided for the partition of Ireland and for limited autonomy for an Irish "Free State" under the British crown. This act was the basis for the treaty ratified by the southern Dail in 1922.

Michael Collins, along with the rest of the moderate, bourgeois nationalist wing of the movement such as Arthur Griffith and the eventual Prime Minister William Cosgrave, supported the treaty with its limited aims and goals. Collins rationalised it by calling it a "stepping stone", even though there was no basis for forward motion once the treaty had been agreed to.

The more radical wing, led by Eamon de Valera, Liam Mellowes, Tom Barry and others, saw in this treaty both the betrayal of the ideal of a unitary republic and the ending of any hopes for a social and economic transformation.

The treaty ensured that Britain continued to dominate Ireland. In the north, of course, it could do so openly, and does to this day: anti-Catholic discrimination and murderous pogroms became the rule. In the south, Britain's domination was no less secure through robbing it of the industrial north, condemning it to economic dependence and subservience and handing over power to a conservative and pro-capitalist elite.

Similarly, Collins and the pro-treaty forces similarly made no bones about using their new power to repress the very people they'd been fighting alongside of. When Britain made it clear that it would no longer tolerate anti-treaty rebels organising in Dublin, Collins, backed up by British artillery, bombed the rebels' headquarters in the Four Courts.

After Collins' assassination, the repression got even worse. The government that Collins had happily been a member of succeeded in executing more republicans (77 in total) than the British had in both the aftermath of the Easter Rising and during the War of Independence itself.

This is not the picture you get in the film. Instead, we're presented with a treaty which doesn't seem that bad, which was "the best we could have got". We're presented with a Michael Collins who can't understand why people are rejecting the treaty and not just helping to "rebuild the country". We're presented with a rebel IRA made up of kids with no conception of why they're doing what they're doing, other than enjoying the mayhem.

Nor is it the case that a rejection of the treaty would have meant full-scale war with Britain, or that "we couldn't last a week", as Collins asserts in the film. The case for bowing to British threats of war was weak even at the time. By 1922, Britain was in the eighth year of war, the domestic situation in Britain was unstable, and an appeal to the British population could have had an enormous effect.

In the end, the picture you get of the IRA is little different from that of director Neil Jordan's previous foray into Irish politics, The Crying Game. In that film, as in this, we're presented with an IRA ultimately made up of murderers, which turns on its own, an IRA exactly as presented in the pro-British media.

So go and see the film. Some of the scenes, especially those concentrating on the War of Independence itself, make for inspirational viewing.

But don't expect anything like an accurate account of this period of Irish history. And certainly don't expect to see a film which presents the heroism and tragedy of those who weren't willing to compromise with Britain, who weren't prepared to accept an Ireland which is independent in name only, who fought for a socialist transformation as well as a nationalist one. That film is yet to be made.

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