The Path to Freedom: Articles and speeches, by Michael Collins (Mercier Press, £6.99)

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 4 (Winter 1995), Reviews, Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 3

The contemporary Irish interest in the reprinting of Michael Collins’ notes of August 1922 was not lost on Mercier Press. On the back of their book are Collins’ remarks about the vain efforts to bring about a truce with the British in December 1920:

The actions taken indicated an over-keen desire for peace, and although terms of truce were virtually agreed upon, they were abandoned because the British leaders thought these actions indicated weakness, and they consequently decided to insist upon surrender of our arms. The result was the continuance of the struggle.

It’s not difficult to imagine Gerry Adams quoting this little gem to Sir Patrick Mayhew as the mortal remains of the Big Fella revolve in Glasnevin. But it would be a shame to read these unspoken and often remarkably eloquent essays ‘intended for public utterance’ merely with an eye to the present—or at least the Irish present. For a start, they convey a powerful image of Ireland on the very cusp of both freedom and civil war, an extraordinary combination of Gaelic revivalism (only slightly removed from de Valera’s ‘comely maidens’), of lost possibilities—Collins envisages the opening up of river traffic across a united Ireland—as well as a thriving industry in peat and fisheries. Ireland, he writes, ‘should…become a great exchange mart between Europe and America’. How’s that for predicting the Shannon duty free zone?
Much more devastating are his observations on the real danger that lay behind the civil war. If the anti-Treaty forces, he says, ‘had succeeded in destroying the National Government, and reducing the country to anarchy, the greatest evil would have been, not that the English would have come back, that would indeed have been terrible enough, but that they would have been welcomed back, that they would have come not as enemies, but as the only protectors who could bring order and peace’.
Which—since I read this slim book on a train between Alexandria and Cairo—brought to mind some rather powerful contemporary parallels. For in the Arab world, Yassir Arafat is now playing Collins’ role, accepting an imperfect peace in return for a truncated, semi-independent ‘entity’, repeatedly told by the Israelis that their military withdrawal might be halted if anarchy continues unchecked by the new Palestinian authority—just as Collins knew that Britain’s military withdrawal would be halted if he did not crush the anti-Treaty forces in the Four Courts. I could have been listening to any of Arafat’s recent speeches on the Oslo agreement when I read Collins insisting that ‘the essence of our struggle was to secure freedom to order our own life without attaching undue importance to the formulas’. When Arafat arrests his Islamist enemies in Gaza, is his government not, to quote Collins, refusing ‘to allow authority to be wrested from it by an armed minority’?
Last year, I heard Arafat telling a crowd of Palestinians that the agreement the PLO had signed with Israel ‘was not all to my liking but the opportunity to create what we want, our state of Palestine’. Now here is Collins in 1922: ‘When I supported the approval of the Treaty at the meeting of Dáil Éireann I said it gave us freedom—not the ultimate freedom which all nations hope for…but freedom to achieve that end’.
Arafat has spent much time dismissing the significance of Yitzhak Rabin’s claim that Jerusalem is the eternal and unified capital of Israel (Arafat himself wanting half of it). Again, here is Collins: ‘Any names, any formulas, any figureheads, representing England’s wish to conceal the extent of her departure…will be but names, formulas, figureheads…’. Predictably, Rabin and Arafat are condemned by their own radicals (Jewish settlers and Islamic Jihad respectively) for selling out on their aspirations and surrendering their security. So here’s Collins defending the Treaty: ‘The English die-hards said to Mr Lloyd George and his Cabinet: “You have surrendered”. Our own die-hards said to us: “You have surrendered”. There is a simple test. Those who are left in possession of the battlefield have won’.
Of course, the parallels can be facile. If historians one day conclude that Britain’s response to the IRA cease-fire last year was the beginning of the end of British rule in Northern Ireland, then the dream of a united Ireland is probably closer to fruition now than it has been since Collins’ day. Arafat’s dream of a united Palestine has never been further away. Indeed, the PLO-Israeli agreement represents his acknowledgement of the permanent partition of what was Palestine. I told Arafat once of Collins and the Treaty, the border and the oath of allegiance; and when I recalled the events at Beal na mBlath, he was silent for a long time. It would be cruelty indeed to give him this little book.

Robert Fisk

Note: This review was submitted before the recent assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.

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