Martin McGuinness, Northern Ireland, & Michael Collins: the unfinished business of Irish independence

photo of Martin McGuinness

It was through the lessons of Collins’ life & death, that Former Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, with his colleagues & community, survived to achieve so much: in a lifetime struggle to repair what happened to northern* Ireland, following Collins’ death.

 

photo of Michael Collins at a rally in Armagh 1921

Michael Collins in Armagh 1921

In 1922, Dublin’s fledgling independent government was headed by the representative for Armagh in northern Ireland: Michael Collins, TD.

What links Collins with Martin McGuinness’ generation of Irish statesmen? These excerpts from The Assassination of Michael Collins: What Happened at Beal na mBlath? explore their connections:

“The 26-county Republic of Ireland, and the 6-county Northern Ireland statelet, directly owe their existence, their institutional structures, and much of their history, to Michael Collins’ life and times; to the controversies which culminated in his death; and to the travesties which his death enabled.

… Before the ink on the Treaty was dry, even among smiles, handshakes, and agreements, Winston Churchill was funding, directing and protecting military aggression in Ulster (both on and off the record.) Michael Collins, not to be outdone, cooperated without hesitation in republican units’ response there…

On 1st and 2nd August 1922, Commander-in-Chief Collins met with northern [IRA] officers at Portobello Barracks in Dublin. He told them, “The civil war will be over in a few weeks and then we can resume in the north. You men will get intensive training.” Collins explained that, until the Civil War was resolved, IRA in the north would have to remain defensive and avoid engagements. A small, specially paid “Belfast Guard” would be created to protect Catholic areas from sectarian attacks. The Dublin government in the meantime would apply political pressure. Said Collins, “If that fails, the Treaty can go to hell, and we will start again.”

… Following British soldiers’ killing of two adolescent girls near the northern border, an outraged Collins wrote to WT Cosgrave:

I am forced to the conclusion that we have yet to fight the British in the northeast. We must by forceful action make them understand that we will not tolerate this carelessness with the lives of our people.

In other correspondence:

[The north] must be redeemed for Ireland, and we must keep striving in every way until that objective is achieved. The northeast must not be allowed to settle down in the feeling that it is a thing apart from the Irish nation.

Six counties implies coercion. South and east Down, south Armagh, Fermanagh and Tyrone will not come into Northern Ireland.

… Coogan … agrees that Collins’ policy on the North was “unwelcome to his Cabinet colleagues and of course to the British.” [That is,] Collins was serving on a Cabinet with men whose agenda for the future of Ireland was closer to the British, than to his own.

… [Then, in August 1922,] Arthur Griffith and Collins suddenly died within two weeks of each other. And with them, all hope of an amicable settlement with honor to the Civil War. All hope of merging anti-Treaty heroes from the War of Independence into the leadership of the Free State Army. All hope of continuing armed resistance against unionist pogroms in the north.

It was then that the Troubles for Northern Ireland began.

The spreading [Civil War], marked by the cessation of IRA operations in the north, was correctly interpreted by the unionist government and armed loyalism as effectively removing the threat of concerted assault on the northern state.” **

… That threat was more real and present than most people, (including many historians,) realize … A shooting war between Irish troops and their British / loyalist counterparts in the northeast flared up continually throughout 1922. It included both IRA guerrilla actions and Free State regulars, British troops and loyalist paramilitaries combined. It moved Churchill to call for defense preparations against a Dublin-sponsored invasion of Ulster. https://ansionnachfionn.com/2015/06/08/the-battle-of-pettigo-and-belleek-may-to-june-1922/

With Collins removed, subsequent Dublin governments were content, or reduced, to leave northern nationalists twisting in the wind.”

Dublin governments all too willing to “tolerate this carelessness with the lives of our people” and to allow the northeast “to settle down in the feeling that it is a thing apart from the Irish nation.” Until the north’s simmering apartheid regime exploded into thirty years of bloody conflict.

Would the north have been different, had Collins lived? Could Martin McGuinness have been born in a united 32-county Ireland? Could decades of mayhem and murder been avoided, had the appropriate governments and armies come to grips, in 1922?  photo of Martin McGuinness 1971

Could Collins, with his War of Independence army intact, have extended their victory throughout the north? With the aid of officers who, over Collins’ dead body, were later executed by the Dublin government of W T Cosgrave (founder of Finn Gael)?

Could the Troubles have been prevented, by Collins and company’s combination of political pressure from Dublin, plus sustained military response to British/loyalist violence in the north?

Ultimately, the story of Ulster is inseparable from the story of Michael Collins: who clearly saw, almost a hundred years ago, that peace might be won only at the cost of eventual armed conflict in the north; who perhaps died striving to make it possible for republican comrades to lay down their arms; and who died … as elected representative for the people of northern Ireland.

 

** Eamonn Phoenix Michael Collins – The Northern Question 1916-22

* “northern Ireland” is here used to refer to that region of the country, before partition; “Northern Ireland” (capitalized) refers to the statelet created by Partition.

Read more

“The Assassination of Michael Collins:
What Happened At Béal na mBláth?”

by S M Sigerson

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