Was the death of Commander-in-Chief Michael Collins an assassination?
Can military actions by Collins and the Irish Volunteers during the Anglo-Irish War (1919-1921) be termed “assassinations” themselves?
Did British authorities commit political assassinations in their domains?
These questions are part of a sometimes-heated debate; by no means merely historical, but with high political stakes, in Ireland and elsewhere, now.
He’s a Catholic, a Hindu, an atheist, a Jain,
a Bhuddist, and a Baptist, and a Jew.
And he knows he shouldn’t kill,
And he knows he always will… – Buffy Ste Marie “Universal Soldier”
All societies have their rules of operation; usually including express sanctions intended to inhibit killing unjustly, excessively, or indiscriminately. When first set forth, even “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,” represented a major moral leap forward.
In modern times, international debate rages as to which wars are just or unjust. Following World War II, the concept of war crimes focused unprecedented scrutiny on the actions of both leaders and combatants in military conflicts. It meant that such actions could be judged and sanctioned according to global standards of martial conduct.
Ireland’s Revolutionary Era, which gave birth to its democratic Republic, was part of the same ideological maelstrom. During World War I, Irish thinkers pointed up the irony of Britain’s claim to be defending “small nations”; while it still held Ireland by force.
Controversies of this kind continue around the world today. The press and other public platforms often disagree as to which side to call white-hat “good guys” “freedom fighters” “security forces” etc and which to label black hat “bad guys” “terrorists” “warlords”, in hostilities which dot the globe as we speak.
The word “assassination” in English particularly denotes killing which is secretive, and targets a politically prominent person. That is to say, for political reasons.
The word originally came to English from French, where it simply means “murder” and has no other context. The same word & definition occur in Spanish and other Romance languages. The Irish equivalent “feallmharu” means secretive but not expressly political violence. Many languages have no word which means political murder per se.
“Even he who commands thousands of swords must fear one who commands dozens of daggers.” – Voltaire
We owe the word “guerilla” to popular resistance which opposed Napoleon in northern Spain: literally “little war” in Spanish. They entered the dictionary by giving pause to an emperor whose forces vastly outnumbered and outgunned them. The word and the techniques have proved decisive in numerous theatres since, wherever poorly-armed locals defended their homes against overwhelming odds.
The right of individuals and nations to self-defense is one of the cornerstones of law everywhere. Although unconventional in methods, the Irish Volunteers (aka Irish Republican Army) during the Anglo-Irish War aimed with remarkable fidelity and success at enemy combattants and spies, as acts of war against a violent foreign occupation force.
Together, Collins, Arthur Griffith, and colleagues in the Dail’s shadow government-in-hiding understood that such a war could be carried on successfully in Ireland, only with great care to maintain an orderly campaign; which struck effective blows against British rule, while minimizing negative effects on the general population.
They realized also that the underdogs in that war hadn’t a chance, without the decisive weight of public opinion, at home and abroad, on their side. A tall order, while powerful British voices flooded the media with denials that this was a fight for national independence at all, dubbing the movement a mere “murder gang”.
“Our Government and our Army were not going to allow any man to be shot without the fullest possible proof.”
– Frank Thornton, IRA GHQ 1919-1921
In the link above, Frank Thornton of Collins’ GHQ Intelligence command, details the painstaking care which went into these actions. There’s little question but that it was this kind of discipline which won the field for the embattled Irish.
I am a war man in the day of war. But I am a peace man in the day of peace.
– Michael Collins 1922
While he continued after the Truce to cooperate with local IRA in the northeast, in their defense against unionist violence, there is no evidence that Collins participated in the killing of any public or private individual, unless military targets, in wartime.
On the other side, the British establishment of the time viewed those they called subjects as meriting imprisonment or death, for any resistance to or questioning of the Crown’s right to rule in and out of season. Its routine executions of non-combattants and strictly political figures are legion, across the Empire, throughout history.
For decades, historians were non-committal regarding the violent death of newly-independent Ireland’s Commander-of-Chief in 1922. Since the appearance of the book “The Assassination of Michael Collins: What Happened at Beal na mBlath?” http://www.amazon.com/dp/1493784714 commentators have come more and more generally to look on it as an assassination.
“The Assassination of Michael Collins:
What Happened At Béal na mBláth?”
by S M Sigerson
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