The Tragedy of Michael Collins

Michael Collins was a great Irish revolutionary and nationalist who more than any one person may be considered to have created modern Ireland. His political tragedy, like other well-meaning nationalists in the age of imperialism was to attempt the impossible; to try to achieve meaningful national independence, in Ireland's case uniting both Catholics and Protestants, without breaking free from the binds of capitalism.

Michael Collins was a great Irish revolutionary and nationalist who more than any one person may be considered to have created modern Ireland. On 22 August 1922, 85 years ago, he was killed in an ambush during the Irish civil war - he was 31 years of age.

When he was fifteen, Collins left his birthplace in west County Cork to work in the Post Office in London. While he was there he joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) an oath-bound revolutionary secret society dedicated to achieving Ireland's independence by physical force. He returned to Dublin in 1916 to participate in the heroic Easter Rising. The Rising was defeated after six days and its leaders, including the great Marxist James Connolly, were summarily executed by the British Army.

Most of the surviving captured rebels were interred in a camp at Froncoch in north Wales. There Collins began to demonstrate his ability. With the help of his IRB colleagues he organised the prisoners. After the prisoners were released at the end of 1916, Collins returned to Ireland to run a relief fund for victims of the Rising. He used his position to advance the cause of Irish republicanism and began to put together a formidable intelligence network

The IRB had the policy of using other less radical nationalist organisations to advance their cause. On the military side the IRB reorganised the leadership of the Irish Volunteers which had participated in the Rising. It also deposed the founder leader of Sinn Fein, a petty-bourgeois nationalist political party founded in 1905, Arthur Griffith. Sinn Fein played no role in the Rising, and Griffith himself wanted independence for Ireland under a joint Monarch with England rather than a republic. In November 1917 Eamon de Valera, was elected President of both the Volunteers and Sinn Fein. De Valera was one of the most senior surviving officer from the Rising and seen by Collins and the IRB as a more hard-line republican than Griffith. Collins was elected as Director of Organisation of the Volunteers and around this time became Secretary of the IRB.

During 1917 and 1918, Collins, in addition to his other activities, helped to organise a number of successful Parliamentary by-election election campaigns for Sinn Fein. The Irish people had enthusiastically supported the British Army at the start of the Great War, but their mood started to change firstly with the brutal executions following the Rising (the Rising itself did not attract much popular support), the threat of conscription in Ireland, and the continuing failure of the British Government to implement Home Rule. In addition, the revolutionary wave that swept across Europe in 1917 and 1918 began to have an effect in Ireland.

The Irish Labour Party, founded by James Connolly, should have been well placed to take advantage of these developments, but its leadership failed to take an independent class position. They allowed the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois nationalists, including Collins, to become the leaders of the struggle for Irish independence. This was contrary to Connolly's views.

Connolly had always emphasised the need to fight for Irish freedom, alongside the best nationalists, while maintaining working class political independence.. When Connolly died there was no leadership of his calibre, armed with a theoretical understanding of Marxism, to replace him. This failure of leadership meant that the Irish Labour Party did not stand any candidates in the December 1918 General Election following the end of the First World War. Instead they abdicated the leading role to Sinn Fein who won 73 of Ireland's 106 seats on the platform of an All-Ireland Republic. Michael Collins was elected in Cork South.

The Sinn Fein MPs refused to take their seats at Westminster and instead organised a parliament or Dail for Ireland. This first met in January 1919 and reaffirmed the declaration of the Irish Republic originally made at the start of the Easter Rising. The only nation to recognise the Irish Republic was Soviet Russia. In April, after Collins had personally arranged for his escape from Lincoln Prison, Eamon de Valera was elected President of the Dail. He appointed a Cabinet which included Michael Collins as Minister of Finance. During this time, the meetings of the Dail and of the Cabinet were opposed by the British authorities who tried to arrest the participants. Despite these conditions, Collins organised a National Loan of £500,000 to finance the Government, principally the operation of the Irish Volunteers who around this time became known as the Irish Republican Army or IRA. Contributions to the Loan came from Irish men and women at home and overseas. The success of the National Loan caught the attention of Lenin who asked that the Soviet Government organise a similar loan.

Collins sought to disrupt the operation of British rule in Ireland by every possible means. He became the IRA's Director of Intelligence in 1919 and also IRB President around the same time. The IRA sought to attack British government property, carry out raids for arms and funds, and killed prominent members of the British administration. The operation of British courts were disrupted and lost quickly legitimacy in the eyes of the Irish population. Income tax went uncollected.

The tactics devised by Michael Collins and others in the IRA, based partly on those used by the Boers in South Africa, are thought to be the first examples proper of guerrilla warfare. These were studied later by Mao Zedong and others in the developing world after the Second World War. Collins was at this time the most wanted man in Ireland. He would travel quite openly, cycling around Dublin travelling from meeting to meeting, working at his various offices throughout the city, and still the British authorities were unable to capture him.

The British ruling class responded by imposing martial law using brutal repression. In 1920, faced with the imminent collapse of their demoralised police force in Ireland, they recruited British Army soldiers demobilised from the First World War into new para-military forces called the Auxiliaries and the Black and Tans. These forces committed the worst atrocities during the Irish War of Independence. They routinely pillaged and burned towns and villages. The British, fearing social revolution, also sought to play its Orange card and partitioned Ireland with the Government of Ireland Act of 1920 thus ceding control of the north-east of Ireland, "Ulster", a reactionary sectarian statelet, to the Orangemen.

Vicious pogroms against Catholics took place in Ulster over the next two years and afterwards as discrimination was institutionalised. The War intensified and on 21 November 1920, "Bloody Sunday", Collins ordered the assassination of 18 British intelligence agents. The Auxiliaries responded that same day by driving armed vehicles into Croke Park in Dublin where an Irish football match was taking place. The Auxiliaries fired into the crowd and at the players, killing 14 and wounding hundreds.

A truce was declared on 11 July 1921 and a team from the Irish Republic, led by Griffith and Collins, went to London to negotiate with the British Government. The result in December 1921 was the Anglo-Irish Treaty. The Treaty gave a form of independence to Ireland, but the new state was to be a dominion remaining in the British Empire; hence Ministers and elected officials would swear allegiance to the British Crown. The Treaty also accepted the partition of Ireland and gave a number of other concessions to Britain.

Collins, ever taking the "practical" approach, sought to persuade his colleagues to accept the Treaty. He saw it as a "stepping-stone" to a united Irish republic, not as a final settlement. He did not believe that the IRA could restart the War against the British if the Treaty was rejected. But if the Treaty was accepted, once the British forces and authorities withdrew, the Irish Government could then take stock and reassess the situation. However, Collins had no real answer to the de facto partition that already existed. During the last year of his life, he sought to use the IRA in Ulster to defend Catholics against the pogroms and to undermine the sectarian government of Northern Ireland but with little success.

At the time of his death, his "Northern" policy was being criticised by other members of the Cabinet and IRA activity in the North ended shortly afterwards. Despite Collins's best efforts, he could not solve this problem. He was a petty-bourgeois nationalist, not even a socialist let alone a Marxist. The national question in Ireland could not be solved simply on the basis of the Irish bourgeoisie taking power, which is what had happened during 1919-1922.

Only Connolly's policy of the working class taking power to form an Irish Workers Republic, uniting both Catholic and Protestant, could do this. That was true in 1922 and it remains true today. Connolly's brilliant conception in essence prefigured Trotsky's theory of the Permanent Revolution. However, the path taken by the nationalists together with the failure of the Irish Labour Party leadership in the years after the Rising, despite the heroism of the Irish people, precluded this solution. In reality the Treaty was a betrayal of their heroism.

The Treaty split the republican movement. The majority of the IRB, influenced by Collins, supported the Treaty and this was just enough to ensure that the Dail narrowly voted on 7 January 1922 to support the Treaty. The rank and file of the IRA were estimated to be against the Treaty by a proportion of 2:1, the most active workers and small farmers had been fighting in the IRA for a better society but it was clear to all that the Treaty would not bring this new society about. De Valera opposed the Treaty, seemingly on opportunist grounds, and withdrew from the Cabinet which left Collins in effective control of the Government, given the illness of Griffith. Collins tried to reach agreement between the pro and anti-Treaty forces to prevent a civil war but failed.

The British administration and troops withdrew and the Irish General Election of 18 June 1922 resulted in a majority for the pro-Treaty parties. Anti-Treaty forces, keeping the name of the IRA, had occupied the Four Courts Government buildings in Dublin two months earlier. Collins had been under pressure from the rest of his Cabinet and the British, who regarded the occupation as a breach of the Treaty, to suppress the IRA.  Once the election was over, Collins, now Commander-in-Chief of the National Army (formed from the pro-Treaty IRA forces) moved against them and using guns and ammunition supplied by the British, he razed the Four Courts to the ground. Civil War broke out, with the fiercest fighting in the south and west of the country, however the National Army soon captured the major towns. In August Michael Collins was on a military tour of his native County Cork when he was killed by an IRA ambush.

After Collins's death the Civil War grew ever more bloody. The Irish Government, representing the Irish bourgeoisie, brutally repressed their opponents in the IRA especially those who advocated a socialist solution to Ireland's problems. The Civil War ended on 24 May 1923 when the IRA surrendered, although there continued to be an element which did not recognise the surrender.

Michael Collins was a dedicated young man with a talent for organisation and a great deal of energy. He was renowned for his attention to details and what would now be called a "hands on" approach. His political tragedy, like other well-meaning, even heroic, bourgeois and petty-bourgeois nationalists in the age of imperialism was to attempt the impossible; to try to achieve meaningful national independence, in Ireland's case uniting both Catholics and Protestants, without breaking free from the binds of capitalism. We should salute his struggle against the British empire's imperialist occupation - but also try to learn from his mistakes.