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Kevin Myers: Michael Collins was a wretched failure. So he killed a few British agents -- then what?

There are two kinds of national myth. One is a eunuch, which, no matter how martial it seems, has no further application outside its own time. The other is priapic, and usually ends in rape and tears.

The myth of Churchill and the Battle of Britain is a eunuch. Hitler had neither the intent nor the means to invade Britain in 1940. He could not project a fleet of towed river-barges across the English Channel past an intact Royal Navy, and then successfully land on an island where there was not merely a largely intact British army, but also two Canadian Divisions and a New Zealand Brigade. But no matter: the legend that the RAF forestalled a German invasion is harmless: no one can use it for modern purposes. It is a eunuch of a myth, though with a nicely padded jockstrap.

The Irish celebration of the men of violence of 1916-1922 is different. No one else on the entire planet rejoices at anything from this terrible time in world history (save, maybe, a couple of barking Bolshevik loonies in a cellar). But we still do. Thus Simon Coveney TD recently acclaimed Michael Collins as a "modernist", whatever that may mean. On Sunday, the Taoiseach converted Collins into being a supporter of the Government's restructuring programme. This is shaman-politics, in which dead men's endorsements of current policies are publicly acquired in a voodoo-seance: what next: Wolfe Tone on gay marriage, and James Connolly on the Luas timetable?

Let's deal with reality here. Just three weeks before Collins was killed -- not "assassinated", as per the Taoiseach -- he met Northern IRA leaders in Portobello Barracks in Dublin. "The civil war will be over in a few weeks," he assured them, "and then we can resume in the North." "Resume" means violence against their unionist fellow Irishmen. In the meantime, he promised, the new Free State Army would train Northern IRA-men, arming them with guns supplied by the British, but with their identifying numbers carefully filed off.

History has shown us how doomed was Collins's policy of armed aggression against the new Northern state: it gave the Unionist government the pretext to abolish proportional representation and to withdraw behind its Orange ramparts for six decades. Moreover, whenever Collins ordered the Northern IRA into action, ordinary Catholics were burnt out of their homes, expelled from work and murdered by loyalists. (All this is outlined in grim and sobering detail in T Ryle Dwyer's quite excellent "Michael Collins and the Civil War", recently published by Mercier).

Now you can call Michael Collins a concert pianist or a Medical Missionary of Mary, just as you can call Winston Churchill a peacemaker. The fact is that both men were actually addicted to violence. To be sure, Churchill was a far greater butcher, and moreover, a military blunderer of the purest genius. However, there is no constituency in modern Britain that is actuated into doing harm by a celebration of his largely fictional virtues. Indeed, and quite paradoxically, the Battle of Britain is almost the foundation myth of modern post-imperial multiracial Britain, even though one of the reasons why Churchill rejected peace talks in 1940 was that Hitler wanted a return of Germany's African colonies (Uganda, Tanganyika Namibia). The continuation of the war was thus in part an imperialistic enterprise: however, that forgotten truth is largely irrelevant to the myth of Churchill today.

We are not so blessed in Ireland. Since the first shots were fired into the blameless bodies of unarmed policemen in Dublin on Easter Monday 1916, academics and politicians have repeatedly returned with trembling reverence to history's shrine, as if by such pilgrimages we can learn something morally uplifting for today.

Actually, what we can learn is that Collins was a wretched failure. Using violence to get a united Irish Republic is like trying to ward off AIDS by joining the queue for unprotected sex in a Zimbabwean whorehouse. So he killed a few British agents (and even more innocents): grand -- and then what? Talks in London, in which he was effortlessly routed by adversaries who had just added Iraq to their unofficial imperial portfolio (and at the cost of 2,000 British casualties).

And anyway, how could Ireland possibly impose its will on Lloyd George's government, when over 99.02pc of the Free State's exports of £205m went to Britain? Or consider it this way: had the two sides in 1919 drawn up their wish-lists for the coming Anglo-Irish conflict, which ones -- Britain's imperialists or Ireland's republicans -- by 1923 would have felt that they'd got most of what they wanted? So who actually won the Anglo-Irish war?

People indignantly ask, why do I keep writing these columns? Simple: because our politicians constantly revisit the violent men of history -- Tone, Connolly, Collins -- to justify present policies, but they never cite the opponents of paramilitary violence -- O'Connell, Redmond, Burke. And in that selective past lies the licence to kill, which is regularly claimed by other travellers that make that same journey.

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We must, for once and for all, end these diseased and childish celebrations of ancient wars. It's high time our body politic grew up.


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