Michael Collins military dictator

Published in Featured-Archive-Post, Uncategorized

By John M. Regan

This article first appeared in: THE SPLIT-Treaty to Civil War 1921–23 published by Wordwell as a supplement to History Ireland in 2021 priced €12. Copies are still available.

IN THE SMALL HOURS of 23 August 1922, news arrived at Government Buildings in Dublin’s Merrion Street that Michael Collins had been killed the day before in west Cork. As the report of Collins’s death was read out, some young soldiers present broke down weeping. William T. Cosgrave, the pro-Treaty Provisional Government’s acting chairman, harshly reprimanded them, demanding that they should carry themselves with dignity and respect. Collins’s death transformed the political situation inside the pro-Treaty regime, but there was no sign of panic or crisis, only a new sense of direction.

On the morning of 12 July 1922, Collins announced to the Treatyite governments, Dáil and Provisional, meeting in joint session, that he had become the commander-in-chief of the pro-Treaty army. It was only then that he began to wear the uniform made famous by this Leo Whelan painting and numerous iconic photographs. (OPW)

Dáil prorogued
Patrick Hogan, the Provisional Gov-ernment’s young agriculture minister, was still working at his desk when news of the tragedy arrived. Since the start of the Civil War in late June, members of the Provisional Government had been holed up in Government Buildings, sleeping in vacant offices. Among Hogan’s papers was a hastily typed draft reply to the Irish Labour Party. Belatedly, the previous evening Hogan had responded to a resolution passed on 12 August by the Irish Trade Union Congress, informing the Provisional Government that unless the Dáil was summoned by 26 August the seventeen Labour Party candidates returned at the June general election would resign their seats. The Dáil had been prorogued fortnightly since the beginning of the Civil War, leaving the pro-Treaty government unaccountable to any legislative body. To those outside government it was unclear why the prorogation continued. Armed and resourced by the British, with the fall of Cork city on 10 August the pro-Treaty army held a commanding position over the anti-Treaty IRA. If Labour’s deputies acted on their threat and resigned their seats it would further undermine the legitimacy of an unelected government supposedly fighting the Civil War in defence of government by the people. Indeed, there was a strong consensus among the Pro-visional Government ministers that the Dáil should meet immediately. There was a problem, however: Michael Collins, the Provisional Government’s chairman and the pro-Treaty army’s commander-in-chief, objected to convoking the new Dáil, and in policy matters Collins exercised a veto. With marked understatement, Collins wrote from Cork on 21 August that ‘it is wise to postpone the Dáil meeting as already suggested’. Next day, Hogan wrote to the Labour Party: ‘I am again to remind you that the issue at stake is not whether Parliament should meet this month … but whether Parliament is to exist in this country’. Hogan was not far wrong.

Seeds of civil war sown as early as 1916
To begin to understand why Collins refused to have the Dáil meet we must cast our minds back to the aftermath of the 1916 Rising, when from the ashes of Easter Week two rival republican legitimacies emerged. For 1916 survivors like Eamon de Valera and his closest lieutenants, the broad nationalist front that emerged after the Rising would be shaped into a constitutional movement. In 1917 Sinn Féin was transformed into a republican party, and it established a republican assembly, Dáil Éireann, after its landslide victory in the 1918 general election. Dáil Éireann laid the foundations of a counter-state which began to supplant the British administration.

Commitment to constitutional republicanism involved a very conscious rejection of the methods of the secret oath-bound society the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), which effected the Rising in 1916. During that rebellion, the IRB’s secretive methods had led to confusion within the Irish Volunteers and, ultimately, to military disaster, where-by the Volunteers’ chain of command was usurped by the IRB. The right hand, so to speak, never quite knew what the left hand was doing. Michael Collins took another view. For Collins, the IRB remained the true custodian of the Irish Republic and the engine driving his considerable ambition. On his return from internment in Wales to Dublin, Collins applied his energies to rebuilding the IRB, while at the same time advancing his position inside the emerging revolutionary movement. In the divisions drawn between constitutional and non-constitutional Irish republicanism, the poisonous seeds of civil war were sown as early as 1916.

The IRB’s constitution claimed that its elected Supreme Council was the government of the Irish Republic. After Dáil Éireann met in January 1919, therefore, two republican governments briefly existed in parallel: the IRB’s Supreme Council and Dáil Éireann’s Sinn Féin ministry. Later that year, the IRB recognised that Dáil Éireann represented their republic, in much the same way as had the Provisional Government named in the 1916 Proclamation during the Easter Rising. And much as the IRB recovered their republic after the rebels’ defeat in 1916, a similar reclamation followed the signing of the December 1921 Anglo-Irish ‘Articles of Agreement’ or, as Sinn Féin preferred to call them, the ‘Treaty’.

Two governments
Eventually leading to the foundation of the Irish Free State in 1922, the drawn-out Treaty negotiations in London demonstrated the perennial problem of an extra-constitutional government operating inside constitutional government. As the talks neared their conclusion, de Valera’s cabinet met with its plenipotentiaries on 3 December 1921 in Dublin. With the IRB Supreme Council convened in the Gresham Hotel, de Valera’s was not the only government meeting that day. During a recess in de Valera’s meeting, Collins sent a secret copy of the draft Treaty to the Sup-reme Council. This breach of trust could be interpreted as an act of bad faith on Collins’s part; a constitutionalist might have said treason. De Valera’s cabinet divided over the draft Treaty, with senior ministers Austin Stack and Cathal Brugha objecting to, among other things, the oath to the British Crown that it included. De Valera’s high-risk policy was to bring the British to the brink of war, and beyond that if necessary, to force the British to concede a settlement capable of preserving the unity of the republican movement, notably the IRA. To achieve this outcome, de Valera arrived at an ingenious compromise—‘external association’, a republic inside the British Empire. Contained in ‘a treaty of association’, de Valera’s compromise demanded sovereignty over domestic Irish affairs. In external matters, foreign relations etc., the new Free State would operate in unison with the Empire, and the king would be recognised in Ireland as the head of this imperial association.

Collins explained to de Valera’s cabinet, as he had countless times before, that the British remained obdurate that there could be no external association under any circumstances and that there would be either an unambiguous oath to the king or a resumption of war. In contrast to de Valera’s cabinet, later that day it was reported to Collins that the Supreme Council was favourable towards the draft Treaty, but again not the draft oath. Collins returned to London and negotiated a new oath, which gave faith and allegiance first to the as-yet-unwritten constitution of the Irish Free State and only then promised to be ‘faithful to His Majesty King George V, his Heirs and Successors’. Under the threat of ‘immediate and terrible war’, Collins and the other plenipotentiaries signed the revised draft Treaty on 6 December without first referring it to de Valera’s cabinet as they had undertaken to do. The decision to sign without either consulting the cabinet in Dublin or pushing the British into a war they did not want to fight undercut de Valera’s strategy of settling matters at the eleventh hour, not at half past ten. Collins served two masters—but he kept faith with only one.

Two parliaments
The parliament of Southern Ireland, like its counterpart in Northern Ireland, was established by the British under the 1920 Government of Ireland Act, and it met in Dublin in January 1922 to elect the Provis-ional Government led by Collins. The British government did not recognise Dáil Éireann, so the Treaty enabled the Provisional Government as the instrument for the transfer of the British administration into Irish hands. Dáil Éireann continued to exist under the presidency of veteran Sinn Féiner Arthur Griffith, who replaced de Valera, but as the British handed the reins over to the Pro-visional Government real power moved towards Collins and the pro-Treaty IRA. Under this dispensation Dáil Éireann became obsolete, as its ministries were quietly absorbed by the Provisional Government. While this was happening, the IRB removed their republic’s legitimacy from Dáil Éireann and reinvested it in the Sup-reme Council, leaving Griffith’s government, as far as the senior Brothers were concerned, an empty husk.

As is well known, Collins saw the Treaty as a metaphorical ‘stepping-stone’ on the way to achieving sovereignty. His plan was to consolidate the advances that the Treaty granted to the new Free State, while secretly strengthening the IRB’s position inside the state in preparation for advancing again when the moment was opportune. Collins, however, miscalculated the IRA’s response to the Treaty, more particularly the oath of faithfulness to the king and continued participation in the Empire, now restyled ‘Common-wealth’. Central to his miscalculation was a misplaced belief in the IRB’s ability to contain the IRA’s anti-imperialism. His message of short-term compromise for long-term gains permeated through the IRA and IRB. That much was clear. The idea that the republic was secretly preserved inside the Supreme Council, just as after 1916, was not. Most IRA Volunteers, and many Brothers among them, saw Dáil Éireann as embodying their republic, and the metaphysics of the IRB Supreme Council’s claim of a monopoly on the one true republic were not understood, because this was a secret known only to an élite cabal.

Northern offensive
Collins’s dual approach was exposed for all to see during the IRB’s northern offensive, which in spring 1922 saw the pro-Treaty army handing over their British-supplied weapons to the anti-Treaty IRA for use against Northern Ireland. When this arrange-ment became public knowledge, not for the last time the British turned a blind eye because Collins was the one person who could deliver their settlement in Southern Ireland. Should Collins falter or fail to do their bidding, the British could, as a last resort, send another army to reconquer Ireland. Meanwhile, Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill wrote to Collins in April, reminding him of their shared responsibility to the Treaty. Churchill’s letter also contained veiled death threats should British weapons again fall into ‘bad hands’: ‘You never know whom a bomb will kill; very likely a woman, probably a widow’. After Churchill’s intervention, the joint northern offensive lost some of its momentum, but it did demonstrate the ability of the IRB’s constitution to bridge the division over the Treaty. Meanwhile, the Dáil and Provisional Govern-ment ministers read about the northern offensive in the newspapers, much the same way as they would learn of the IRB’s assassination in London of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, the former chief of the imperial staff, in June. Wilson’s murder must have given Churchill pause for reflection about his own personal safety and the safety of those close to him.

Who was ‘the Government’ in June 1922?
Presided over by Collins, eleven of the IRB’s Supreme Council supported the Treaty, with four dissenting. Out-side the Supreme Council the next tiers in the IRB’s organisation, the county and provincial representatives, like the IRA, were overwhelmingly anti-Treaty. Somehow, and we will likely never know how, Collins fashioned a Supreme Council very much in his own image. When the crisis over the Treaty came to a head on 28 June 1922, an order to surrender and evacuate was issued by ‘the Government’ to the anti-Treaty IRA garrison occupying Dublin’s Four Courts. ‘The Government’ referred to in the order was not Dáil Éireann, nor could it be the Provisional Government, neither of which had legal authority over any faction of the IRA. Nor could it refer to the IRB’s Supreme Council, which was not sitting. Rather, ‘the Govern-ment’ referred to the Executive of the IRB’s Supreme Council, consisting of Collins, Eoin O’Duffy and Seán Ó Murthuile. When the Supreme Coun-cil was not in session, the Executive assumed most of its powers. This had to be understood by the IRA leadership inside the Four Courts, who counted among their number mem-bers of the Supreme Council. Refusing the Executive’s order to evacuate, these Brothers rebelled against the ‘government of the republic’, which they were oath-bound to obey. In the event, the pro-Treaty army shelled the Four Courts with hastily borrowed British guns until the IRA garrison surrendered. Since the Executive had no powers to declare war, Collins seemingly tore up the IRB’s constitution to achieve his strategic objective. The Four Courts attack might have remained an isolated incident but, seeing pro-Treaty aggression as an attack on ‘their’ republic, the rest of the anti-Treaty IRA realigned with the Four Courts garrison, escalating a local event into full-scale civil war.

In Collins’s view, he defended the IRB’s republic. His stepping-stone policy could only work if he put down the anti-Treaty rebellion and so he moved to consolidate his position. On the morning of 12 July, Collins announced to the Treatyite governments, Dáil and Provisional, meeting in joint session, that he had become the commander-in-chief of the pro-Treaty army. That evening he returned and informed government ministers about the formation of a ‘War Council of Three’, consisting of himself, Eoin O’Duffy and Richard Mulcahy. Collins appointed the third member of the IRB’s Executive, Ó Murthuile, as commissioner of the new Civic Guard on 18 August. (Following Collins’s death on 22 August, Ó Murthuile’s appoint-ment was cancelled.)

Collins in control
By 22 August 1922 Collins controlled constitutional power through the Provisional Government, where he continued to use the titles of ‘Chair-man’ and ‘Minister of Finance’. Extra-constitutional power was administered through the Executive of the IRB’s Supreme Council, which also controlled the ‘War Council’ (Collins and O’Duffy) and was set to control the Civic Guard (Ó Murthuile). It should be noted—and many historians do not—that the pro-Treaty army, in all but name the pro-Treaty IRA, had no legal relationship to, and remained throughout the Civil War independent of, the Provisional Government, which was established under British statute by royal assent.

Tying up loose ends, a public decree issued to the press over Collins’s and Cosgrave’s names on 4 August disestablished Dáil Éireann. Eight days later Arthur Griffith, who was not consulted about the dis-establishment, died of a cerebral haemorrhage. Collins now asserted effective control of the Treatyite regime through the civilian government, army and police, all of which were overseen by the IRB Executive. Without ever publicly declaring it, the pro-Treaty army enforced martial law from July onwards. All the while, Collins continued to deny the right of any parliament to meet. This describes the structure and agency of military dictatorship.

Many historians have signed up to another narrative supporting the Irish state’s ahistorical public history. In that story, Collins is repeatedly overruled by the Provisional Govern-ment’s ministers, who dominate policy and control the army in what is a grossly simplified ‘constitutional narrative’ of Irish state formation. This interpretation is not supported in the archives, but for some historians such inconveniences are never an insurmountable problem. It could be argued that Collins’s brief ascent to military dictatorship does not matter greatly because his successors steered a more constitutional path. Immediately after Collins’s death the Provisional Government convoked the ‘Provisional parliament’ of Southern Ireland (in which constitu-encies inside Northern Ireland were not represented) and called this partitionist assembly the ‘Third Dáil’. Nevertheless, Collins’s accumulation of power does matter where historians tell us that the Irish Civil War was fought between ‘democrats’ supporting the Treaty against ‘dictators’ opposing it. If no crisis followed from Collins’s death, it has been said before, it is because by 22 August 1922 Collins was the crisis.

Love of Ireland by John Lavery. (Hugh Lane Gallery)

John M. Regan lectures in the School of Humanities at the University of Dundee.

Further reading
T. Garvin, 1922: the birth of Irish democracy (Dublin, 1997).
P. Hart, Mick—the real Michael Collins (London, 2005).
J.M. Regan, ‘Michael Collins, General Commanding-in-Chief, as a historiographical problem’, History 92 (307) (2007).
J.M. Regan, Myth and the Irish state (Sallins, 2013).


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