Collins marches on Cork. Why not Belfast? 

The Windsor Hotel on McCurtain Street, Cork, in early August 1922.

In the space of ten days one hundred years ago, Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins died. The two principal Irish architects of the Free State barely survived nine months after signing the Anglo-Irish Treaty in the early hours of 6 Dec 1921. The southern state should commemorate Collins and Griffith with gusto because both men were central to subverting the Irish Republic. The Free State exists because the Republic perished.  

I recently read an article by Colum Kenny seeking to revise the apparently unjust characterisation of Griffith’s role in the Treaty negotiations. Kenny claims to have discovered a significant problem in that Griffith did not explicitly sign a unilateral undertaking agreeing to the Boundary Commission [12-13 November] which Lloyd George subsequently produced on 5 December to secure Griffith’s personal acceptance. In fact, the nature of the undertaking is secondary to the fact that Lloyd George outmanoeuvred the Sinn Féin delegation by side-lining the Ulster Question in a manner which allowed him to force acceptance of Dominion Status without securing essential unity. There is little doubt that Lloyd George did use Griffith’s personal undertaking [of whatever character] as a key negotiating device on 5 December and that Griffith capitulated thereby precipitating a wider collapse within the Irish delegation [which signed without reference to the Dáil Cabinet]. Kenny’s article is only noteworthy as an honest assessment of Griffith’s position, i.e., he accepted partition and Ireland’s place in the Empire as the best deal possible against the global hegemon. In short, Kenny has regurgitated the Free State argument of a century ago. This typically comes with the proviso that anti-Treatyites rejected the democratic wishes of the Irish people, who favoured acceptance. On this point, however, there appears greater grounds to question Free State common sense.  

I have written extensively about Griffith and Collins on this blog and in academic pieces. Yet, on the centenary of their deaths it might be useful to examine the basis of their acceptance of the Treaty. Firstly, Griffith was not a republican. His most famous constitutional proposal was for a dual monarchy. His instinctive position on Empire versus Republic was in many respects closer to Lloyd George’s than to that of many of his Sinn Féin colleagues. Secondly, Griffith was always a petty bourgeois xenophobic nationalist who backed Irish capital throughout his political career. It is true that the Free Staters did not adopt his economic programme for self-sufficiency, but it was highly unlikely that Griffith himself would have had he lived, given the nature of the political coalition he briefly led. A functioning alcoholic, Griffith was politically manipulated by Lloyd George who built a spurious personal connection with the Dubliner in individual discussions after the Welsh Wizard shrewdly abandoned the plenary sessions of the early Treaty negotiations. Just imagine Gerry Fitt and Ted Heath but with even higher stakes. The Sinn Féin delegation failed miserably to achieve its objectives. The area that received a parliament remained in the empire; most subsequent pro-Treaty parliamentarians took an oath to the king that broke their previous oath to the Republic; the British maintained naval bases across the island; and, ultimately, partition was not revised at all. Indeed, the British conceived of the North a base for potential reinvasion if a Republic was declared. Those who support[ed] the Treaty might counter that the British Army withdrew, and that the new state had its own army. Yes, but, with massive British support, that army was deployed to kill and imprison republicans and it was then drastically reduced when its proxy war against the Republic was brought to a successful conclusion.  

Collins, as readers of this blog know, represents a far more complex personality. Two days before Griffith’s death, the Free State Army took Cork City unopposed. On the wall of the Windsor Hotel on McCurtain Street, graffiti artists poised a telling question: ‘Collins marches on Cork. Why not Belfast?’ Many people still hold to the wrongheaded view that above any other southern politician Collins tried hardest to overturn partition. This is an extremely stupid position. Collins effectively destroyed the Sinn Féin coalition that rejected the British Empire and twice gained a democratic majority for an Irish Republic in 1918 and 1920. He used his influence in the IRA and more pertinently, IRB, to promote the spurious stepping-stone thesis, while he disingenuously intrigued with republicans against Craig’s reactionary sectarian regime before abandoning such plans and directing the full force of his British-sponsored army against the Republic in late June 1922. Collins engaged in the joint-IRA offensive against the North to buy time, but he never broke on the Treaty and he eventually chose to kill republicans rather than take on Craig and London. By the summer of 1922, it was illegal to be a republican across the whole island of Ireland.

I have alluded elsewhere to the anti-working-class character of the War Council of Three that Collins effectively provided with dictatorial powers in the summer of 1922. On the day Griffith died, Eoin O’Duffy wrote to Collins that when the Free State ‘Army have entered this conflict with such vigour, Labour realises that they would be much more vigorous to crush any Red Flag or Bolshevik troubles’. A week later, Collins apparently told Horace Plunkett at supper on 19 August: “After we get over the present trouble [,] we shall have to fight Bolshevism.’ The issue was that the Labour Party were threatening to pull out of the Dáil and thereby make the parliament inoperable unless a ceasefire were declared. The Free State then deployed mass internment, carried out extra-judicial murder and imposed a reactionary, clerically backed authoritarianism, which espoused a national Catholicism, conservatism, anti-communism, and even anti-liberalism. Little wonder many subsequently became fervent admirers of Mussolini and Franco.  

Collins’ assassination saved him from such retrospective judgement and allowed for enough ahistorical speculation. Yet, by the time Collins met with Plunkett, who thought him ‘too fat, but virile’, the ‘forcible, direct, simple & yet cunning’ thirty-two-year-old had already ascended several levels of the imperial elite. Indeed, he had been invited to supper by Hazel Lavery, and although he may not have had sex with her [we know his successor as Free State star ascendant, Kevin O’Higgins, did], Collins was beginning to show signs of the high life that he had got used to in London. Wined, dined and well-oiled on nights out with Birkenhead and Chamberlain, where he apparently drank with royalty, Collins was going through what Gramsci called transformismo. Indeed, many wrongly argue that de Valera essentially validated Collins’ stepping-stone argument in the 1930s. This is a very strange argument given the vicious opposition Collins’ political heirs showed the project. Indeed, apart from perhaps sharing the same mistress with Mick, O’Higgins had his innocent best man [Rory O’Connor] executed, repressed the Army Mutiny in 1924 after the promises about invading the North turned out to be bladder, sold northern nationalist down the river over the Boundary Commission in 1925 and proposed a dual monarchy to Leo Amery at the 1926 Imperial Conference.  

In short, the imperial elite groomed Collins to decapitate and destroy the anti-imperialist movement, which his successors duly did. These included Mulcahy and O’Duffy. There are no real grounds to suggest that Collins would have charted a different course. From a British perspective, Collins served his purpose magnificently [I will not indulge in speculation as to Collins’ assassination at the hands of Emmet Dalton here due to his residual recalcitrance] for it was clear during the Treaty negotiations that, despite what he told his brothers in the IRB, Collins had moved considerably from the Republic. During the negotiations, Collins wrote a memorandum on dominion status and its potentiality 

The Colonies as full-grown children are restive under the appearance of parental restraint, though willing to co-operate with the parent on an equal footing in all family affairs. Ireland, as a separate nation, would also be restive under control from the neighbouring nation, but equally willing to co-operate in free association on all matters … of common concern… The problem on both sides can only be solved by recognising without limitation the complete independence of the several countries, and only on that basis can they all be associated by ties of co-operation and friendship. The only association which it will be for Ireland to enter will be based, not on the present technical legal status of the Dominions, but on the real position they claim, and have in fact secured. It is essential that the de facto position should be recognised de jure, and that all its implications as regards sovereignty, allegiance and constitutional independence should be acknowledged. An association on the foregoing conditions would be a novelty in the world. But the world is looking for such a development.

(Collins’ Memorandum, cited in Tim Pat Coogan, Michael Collins, Arrow, 1991, pp 263-4).

Collins and Griffith it is argued realised that they could not secure better terms without provoking a war with Britain they could not win. What few among those supporting Collins and Griffith in their abandonment of the Republic then go on to observe is that the majority in favour of the Treaty operated within the context of threatened massive British coercion and that their Empire was an exploitative and racist colonial system that subjugated a quarter of the world. Collins had abandoned the republican universalism and anti-imperialism of 1916 for a conception of Empire based on his reading of Jans Smuts, former Boer insurgent, then South African prime minister, future global statesman and the primary intellectual force behind twentieth-century imperial white supremacism.

Smuts was no stranger to Ireland and had already trodden the well-worn path from rebel insurgent to imperial supplicant – a path down which the far less talented Collins and Griffith now staggered, by the time he essentially drafted the King’s speech at the opening of the Belfast parliament in 1921. Smuts then helped broker the resulting Truce. His intervention was key to drawing Sinn Féin into the negotiations. Indeed, his meetings with de Valera in early July laid the foundation for Lloyd George’s successful negotiation of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. Smuts told de Valera that the British would never agree to a Republic, concluding that ‘as a friend I cannot advise you too strongly against a republic. Ask what you want, but not a republic’. He then advised Sinn Féin publicly to leave the Ulster Unionists alone Indeed, Lloyd George thanked the Boer prime minister profusely for his role in the wake of the negotiations:

You knew the difficulty as well as any of us and we look back with gratitude upon your counsel and cooperation at a difficult moment. None could render help so effectively as you and we shall always associate your name with our success  

Smuts material in Ciarán Reilly, ‘The Magna Hibernia,’ South African Historical Journal, 67, 3, 2015, pp 255-70

Many Irish nationalist knew Smuts as Kruger’s right-hand man in the Second Boer War (1899-1902), where his reputation as guerrilla mastermind arguably eclipsed even the Big Fellow’s. Smuts came to terms with the British prior to the First World War and recognised such compromise as ‘a matter of protecting national sovereignty through the collective white interests of the imperial whole’. Smuts’ ‘imperial internationalism’ reflected a racially ordered view. He was joined in this enterprise by the Boers’ former nemesis, Alfred Lord Milner, who quickly demonstrated his willingness ‘to sacrifice the nigger’ absolutely.’ Milner’s Kindergarten [a group of Oxford educated imperialist administrators including Lionel Curtis, who would play a crucial role in the Treaty] ‘laid the foundation for capitalist development in South Africa, the wholesale exploitation of Black labour in the white-owned mines, and the rise of the apartheid regime that, decades later, would come to power on the racist coattails of Milner’s Oxford coterie and Smuts’s white nationalist constituency.’ (Elkins, Legacy of Violence, pp 91-3). 
LLoyd George owed his premiership to Milner and to another Kindergarten bigot Leopold “Leo” Amery [who essentially operated as Craig’s man on the British Treaty delegation and would later hatch monarchical schemes with Kevin O’Higgins], as well as Smuts, who all sat [with Craig and Carson] in Lloyd George’s imperial war cabinet. The dominions [New Zealand, Australia and South Africa] were ‘ensconced in racial privilege and hierarchy’ [ibid. P. 111]. Smuts and Milner left their atrocious racist fingerprints all over the post-war settlements. The latter as colonial secretary modelled the League of Nations’ Mandates on social Darwinism, while the former who had designed the ‘imperialist internationalist’ concept would pollute the United Nations’ Charter after the Second World War. As W. E. B. Du Bois lamented: ‘We have conquered Germany … but not their ideas. We still believe in white supremacy, keeping Negroes in their place and lying about democracy when we mean imperial control of 750 millions of human beings in colonies.’ (Ibid, p. 345)  

This is the dominion status that Collins and Griffith accepted. This presented little problem to Griffith who had a history of racism, but Collins’ image as romantic rebel hero ignores the tension at the core of Irish nationalism between a universalist radical humanism [the Fenian tradition] and an assimilationist utilitarianism [constitutionalism]. Like any dialectic, individual agents can vacillate between these polls, but the fundamental dichotomy prevails. So, John Mitchel, Young Irelander and the hero of Jail Journals was also a personal correspondent of the father of English racism, Thomas Caryle, and a future Confederate slave-owner. The IRA can move from facing down allegations of communism in the 1930s to some of its internees cheering on the Nazis during Operation Barbarossa in 1941. Collins’ trajectory is based on the shift from what Gramsci called an active or Jacobin revolution, the potential for which existed after the declaration of the anti-sectarian, anti-imperialist, egalitarian 1916 Revolution to a passive revolution, of which transformismo constitutes: ‘the gradual but continuous absorption . . . of the active elements produced by allied groups – and even of those which came from antagonistic groups’. Collins as Thermidor reasserted the pre-war Redmondite hegemony of the Catholic propertied class in southern Ireland and Big House and Business Orangeism in the North. Despite the potential for a much more expansive, democratic and egalitarian shift, the imposition of the Free State re-established the hegemony of the dominant class.  

Ultimately, Collins marched on Cork rather than Belfast because it fitted the interests of southern Capital and Smuts’ imperialist internationalism no matter what the Big Fellow said about steppingstones or someday invading the North with his shiny new army. From the perspective of Free State common sense, this represented a fait accompli – it also helped them sleep at night on feathered beds and swallow their hypocrisy with the communion wafer at mass on Sunday. It held little consolation, however, for the two million driven from the ‘independent’ part of the island by economic distress or the northern Catholics subject to a half-century of systemic Orange discrimination. Similarly, those who today advocate for Free State common sense have little issue with imperialism, unless it’s in removing Russia’s splinter while they ignore Washington’s plank – conscientious anti-imperialists abhor both. Neither do many of them think that poverty or homelessness are systemic problems based on an exploitative social system whose insatiable drive for profit accumulation threatens our species’ very existence.

Collins should have marched on Belfast, but that would not have suited the class-interests of the southern elite or his imperial masters. A challenge to the structural violence on which partition was based would be left to the men and women of no property in the North who did not benefit from the local system of ethnic preference which Smuts would readily have recognised. Lionel Curtis called Collins ‘a corner boy in excelsis’, who could ‘never quite see the picture through his own reflection in the glass’. Elsewhere, he described negotiating with Collins like ‘writing on water’, to which Lloyd George dismissively replied, ‘shallow and agitated water’. Collins wasn’t a hero. From a republican perspective, he was a disaster! You cannot build a Republic by taking oaths to kings and abandoning the Republic [no matter how strategically]. You cannot champion human freedom and equality by submitting to a racist empire of exploitation and you cannot create an anti-sectarian, democratic future by accepting partition and acknowledging the right of supremacist loyalism to subvert democracy. Those who seek to build the Republic today might reflect on these lessons from a century ago. At the very least, they should leave Michael Collins to the Blue Shirts – they deserve each other.

One thought on “Collins marches on Cork. Why not Belfast? 

  1. In my opinion when you fraternize with the enemy you are inviting treachery, Collins had three ex-British military personnel at his back it is most likely that one of those fired the Fatal shot, Collins assassination was a direct order from the British Secret service of the Day, Collins signed his own death warrant when he ordered the murder of Republican activists, sad but that’s the nature of the Beast.


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