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Conor Gearty: Michael Collins was civil warrior cast in the mould of George Washington


Michael Collins

Michael Collins

Michael Collins

THE Irish War of Independence was, I would say, a civil war and Michael Collins led the Irish side. Does it therefore follow that he cannot have been a terrorist? The first answer is a confident 'yes'; Collins was a civil warrior, a freedom fighter, more a George Washington than an Osama bin Laden.

But it is not this simple. Consider the Black and Tans and their sacking of Granard: surely a classic example of terrorism. Here was violence as a communicative act, a reprisal as old as warfare.

The Germans did it in World War Two and the British did it as they fought a largely losing battle to keep their Empire in the decades after 1945.

And if we cannot call Collins a terrorist simply because he was engaged in a civil war, then it must equally follow that the British forces cannot have been terrorists whatever they did, simply because they were British forces.

Take the sacking of Granard and the burning of my grandfather's hotel for one example.

Take another atrocity 52 years later. On 28 December 1972 a car bomb killed two innocent teenagers in Belturbet, Co Cavan, and by cruel irony wrecked the hotel owned and run by my uncle Kevin, son of Larry Kiernan.

At the end of last year, on the 40th anniversary of this terrible event, there was a commemoration Mass for the victims and renewed calls for an inquiry into who was responsible.

We don't know of course, but could it be any the less an atrocity if it had been perpetrated by the forces of the British state rather than an independent subversive group?

Terrorism is not something people are; it is something that any group can do. It is a method of violence, not a category of person.

Now the first effect that seeing terrorism in this way has is the following.

Terrorism – the use of violence as communication; the killing of persons or damage to property not for its direct military value but for the effect it has on the other side – can be used by the powerful as well as by the weak, by a state as well as by a sub-state actor, by any faction in a violent struggle.

The modern assumption that all terrorism is wrong and that it can only be done by subversives rather than by states is a trick of the mind, achieved by the interest various states have had (and Israel have been the drivers and most brilliant diplomatic exponents of this) in successfully linking their political opponents not to any issues connected to justice and dispossession but to some large-scale virus or contagion of violence.

So we can leave the issue of whether Collins was or was not a terrorist with a shrug of the shoulders and the reply that it is not a very interesting question, that what matters is not this absurd label but whether the violence to which he resorted (which may indeed have extended to 'acts of terrorism' among other mayhem) was right or wrong.

Was he then 'a human rights worker'? Of course, the question is deliberately obtuse: there was no NGO, membership of which can settle the issue, nor any Strasbourg court to which we can check whether or not he took his case.

The category was not a familiar one in Granard or West Cork: the Kiernan girls had no Amnesty to join or Human Rights Watch lads to flirt with.

The question is a useful one, though, for its bearing on the issue we have just left hanging: the legitimacy of politically-motivated violence. For human rights is no pacifist creed. Its legal shape is formed by an acknowledgement that violence may in some situations be permitted. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights sets out in its preamble various reasons why the protection of human rights is so important.

The International Bill of Rights, agreed in 1966, is composed of two documents, but one article which they share and attach such importance to is right at the start: 'All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development'.

FAMOUSLY, Nelson Mandela was a terrorist and one who, because of his acceptance of the necessity of violence, was rejected by Amnesty International as a 'prisoner of conscience'. It is hard to see how this fits with the broader set of values that underpin the human rights movement.

Was Michael Collins 'compelled' to have recourse, as a last resort, to violence as a 'rebellion against tyranny and oppression' and in pursuit of his people's 'right of self-determination'? If we believe that there is more to truth than the simple question of who wins, then I think this is not a bad entry point into a discussion of what really matters.

Conor Gearty, Professor of Human Rights Law at the London School of Economics – and grandnephew of Kitty Kiernan – delivers the Hugh M Fitzpatrick Lecture on Michael Collins at 6pm tonight in the National Library, Kildare Street, Dublin.

Irish Independent