Tuesday 21 May 2019

Why 'The Big Fellow' has little to teach political parties in modern Ireland

A national debate which tries to put so much weight on the shoulders of a man like Michael Collins is embarrassing, writes John-Paul McCarthy

IN his moving book, The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussell noted the popularity of phonograph records in the twenties which allowed survivors to relive certain battles. As a veteran of the Normandy campaign of the next World War, who watched his friend die beside him in 1945, Fussell was not amused by these toys, and he suggested that they belonged to the "sick nostalgia market".

This term will do nicely as we assess the debate about Brian Lenihan's speech at Beal na mBlath.

Many questions arise when adults begin the mad scramble to stand, as Moses did, between the living and the dead, especially when the dead in question was a provincial, 31-year-old war minister who was consumed by the violence that defined his truncated life.

It should be clear that a Fianna Fail minister is perfectly entitled to tread the boards at Beal na mBlath since at least three Fianna Fail Taoisigh took up a variety of ideological batons from Collins' tight fist.

De Valera's initial strategy on Northern Ireland after 1932 was a mixture of aggressive rhetoric and formal constitutional non-recognition, a kind of Hibernian Hallstein doctrine, later diluted by his decision to allow the gardai to co-operate with the RUC to smash the IRA.

Collins also mixed similar poisons in 1922, mollifying Churchill by day in London, and telling his IRA comrades by night that his pike was still firmly planted in the Free State's thatch.

We can also see shades of the later Lemass approach in Collins' formal public commitment to working with James Craig to alleviate Catholic grievances in the Belfast shipyards, while long-fingering the toxic boundary issue. (The rough conceptual symmetry is appropriate here, given the fact that Lemass probably did escort duty for one of Collins' assassins during Bloody Sunday in 1920.)

And Collins' trademark enthusiasms -- creative accounting, gun-running and Anglophobia -- also outlived him only to resurface and recombine in more pungent form in the Haughey premiership.

Haughey's parting words to the journalist Henry Kelly as regards Ulster Protestants in the 1970s -- "they've never achieved anything" -- might also easily have been uttered by the man who told the Dail in 1920 that they "had to impregnate our Northern countrymen with the national outlook", and who was arming the Northern IRA as late as his last week on earth.

There is something not a little embarrassing about a national debate that tries to put so much weight on the shoulders of someone like Collins who was still very young at the time of his death.

His ghost serves a variety of rather tawdry purposes, though.

The Fine Gael cult of Collins allows their greener factions access to the hard men of Irish history, and provided them with an historical bodyguard during their work on the New Ireland Forum and the Anglo-Irish Agreement in the eighties.

That cult received vital nourishment from Neil Jordan's lachrymose depiction of a good man driven to bad deeds in a drama that tried to hold the viewers' attention with fairly crude lessons about the fate of the premature compromiser, but which lacked the authentic menace which Brendan Gleeson provided in his stunning turn as Collins in the 1992 film, The Treaty.

'Collins' trademark enthusiasms -- creative accounting, gun-running, Anglophobia -- outlived him to resurface in more pungent form in the Haughey era'

Like most of us who sit snugly on the right side of 40, Collins lacked the emotional maturity to recognise that politics demands that its practitioners make choices from a range of irreconcilable values.

He constantly tried to square irreconcilable circles, and trapped himself in a series of ever more excruciating analytical arabesques.

Unlike de Valera, Collins showed little capacity for abstract analysis, and we can see this in the pitiful pirouettes that finally dragged him into oblivion in 1922.

He signed the Treaty with its oath of fidelity, and rather than admitting its obvious inadequacies as the professionally blunt Kevin O'Higgins did, Collins tried to dilute the oath in the 1922 constitution until Churchill intervened.

Collins pledged himself to defend the popular verdict on the Treaty in 1922, though he remained top dog in the fantasy world of the Fenians who still pledged sole allegiance to the mythical Irish Republic, and who were in no hurry at all to see the Dail reconvened after the summer of 1922, much to the chagrin of the Labour Party which feared that Collins was sliding into delusion and megalomania.

Though the Fine Gael cult always presents Collins as a democrat, scholars such as Bill Kissane, John Regan and Peter Hart all emphasised his ambiguous attitude towards mere majoritarianism, as well as the complexities of the 1918 mandate.

Despite what Collins would later claim, very few candidates in 1918 asked for a mandate to assassinate Catholic RIC men or for permission to treat Protestants in Cork and Monaghan as spies worthy of summary execution.

Reading between the lines in fact, one senses in Collins that strong sense of isolation vis-a-vis the general public that is the hallmark of the vanguard revolutionary.

Hart noted that even in the middle of 1920, Collins feared that most Irish people would probably accept Home Rule, rather than suffer the indignities the vanguard required for motivational purposes.

Collins was born the same year as Presidents Eisenhower and de Gaulle, but his immaturity and authoritarian streak reunited him with Alan Bell, DI Swanzy and Sir Henry Wilson earlier than anticipated.

Like most men born under Victoria, he has little if anything to teach modern Ireland, except perhaps the folly of turning a pitiless Mars into a moral sage.

John-Paul McCarthy is researching Gladstone and Ireland at Exeter College, Oxford

Sunday Independent

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