Collins is pictured (center) reading over the terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty with his fellow Irish delegates.
There has been debate regarding the political beliefs of Michael Collins as well as disagreement over how politically savvy he was. In a further effort to dispel the belief that Collins was politically ignorant, naive, and/or imprudent, I would like to discuss the role of Michael as a politician in this section.
Collins was not a country bumpkin.
As I mention in the Anglo-Irish Treaty segment of this site, Collins was not a raw hayseed who lacked political insight. Unfortunately, some of Collins' admirers as well as his detractors have perpetuated this rumor either to kindle sympathy for Michael or to undermine his abilities. To coincide with the U.S. theatrical release of Michael Collins, Time magazine published a short, but fascinating article on the historical accuracy of the film. This notion of Michael as politically imprudent is discussed:
"As Jordan would have it—and some academic historians definitely would not—De Valera forced Collins to join the peace negotiations knowing they were bound to produce an agreement that would be unacceptable to many of his countrymen, hoping thereby to destroy a dangerous rival. But, says Charles Townshend, a professor at Keele University in England and a specialist on the British rule of Ireland, Collins was anything but the 'simple rebel.' He was, in fact, this shadow government’s minister of finance and perhaps the ablest politician in the cabinet. He was not gulled by his President into negotiating with the Brits or fooled by them into taking less than he could have got." (October 14, 1996, page 85)
I don't want to wander off the point by delving too deeply into the issue of the relationship between Michael and Eamon. If you desire to know more about this topic, please see Ireland's Two Fellows on this site. Anyhow, I do think that Townshend's comment about Collins not being tricked is highly relevant. Not only does the implication that DeValera tricked Michael make Eamon look more conniving and underhanded, it makes Collins look like a simpleton, a hat he certainly never wore. In "The Challenge of a Collins Biography," (found in the anthology Michael Collins and the Making of the Irish State) J.J. Lee also tackles the misconception that Collins and his fellow Irish delegates were out of their depth politically:
"There is a view that the Irish negotiators were out-maneuvered, out-witted, out-psyched, by more formidable and more experienced negotiators on the British side. The British were certainly more experienced. But what would more experience have achieved? The Irish delegates did, after all, achieve more than previous Irish representatives, including the vastly more experienced John Redmond between 1912 and 1918. If Sinn Féin were out-witted on the north, it had proved powerless to prevent the imposition of the Government of Ireland Act. And that wasn’t as much a question of being out-witted as of being out-gunned. The bottom line that is so easily forgotten in the welter of discussion about the diplomacy of the Treaty negotiations is that Britain carried far the bigger gun. Until 5 December it was kept more or less discreetly hidden. Then Lloyd George pulled it out, laid it on the table, and threatened to use it."
Other authors choose to fuel the notion that Collins was a rough-and-tumble character concerned only with playing shoot 'em up and not with making legislative changes. I would point to a passage from Edward Norman's A History of Modern Ireland as a good example of this:
"Michael Collins, on the contrary, was certainly not an intellectual. He was born in 1890 at Clonakilty, Co. Cork, and after a national school education emigrated to England to become a postal clerk. In 1916 he returned to Dublin and was in the GPO during the Rising. He was imprisoned for six months at Frongoch and then returned once more to Ireland where his revolutionary interests left no time for any sort of work. He was a member of the Supreme Council of the IRB. … He had no political ideas, seeking only the independence of Ireland. When asked about the future of his country he once replied that he looked to ‘the sort of life I was brought up in.’ He was a simple man of common sense, ruthless in the achievement of his ends. His emotional instability did not deter the loyalty of others, and from 1918 he was accompanied everywhere by Joe O’Reilly, a lad whom Frank O’Connot described as ‘slim, delicate, sensitive, had the stuff of the medieval page in him.’ He was also ‘courier, clerk, messenger-boy, nurse, slave’ to Collins." (emphasis mine)
Proposing that Michael was a man of common sense is fair enough, but "simple" tends to unfairly connote that he was daft rather than suggesting that he was unpretentious. Margery Forester's appraisal in Michael Collins: The Lost Leader is less harsh but still of the same outlook:
"Collins protested strongly (against DeValera's suggestion that he go as an Irish delegate to hammer out the terms of the Treaty with the British). This, he felt, was a job for politicians, and he was none. He pleaded that his whole reputation as an extremist would make him far more effective kept menacingly in the background as a counter to unacceptable British proposals. De Valera, however, argued that Collins would elicit better terms by his supposedly intransigent presence at the conference table—a reasoning that makes his own proposal that, as a reputed extremist, he himself should stay at home, look a trifle odd." (emphasis mine)
While it is entirely plausible, in fact I would say highly accurate, that Collins would have served an excellent purpose being kept in the background as a constant threat to the British if they failed to comply with the Irish negotiators, it is important to remember that Collins may have lacked the experience that other politicians had, but he did not lack the brain power. Perhaps what Forester is trying to say in that passage is that Collins did not have the kind of career politician goal that DeValera did.
Collins Juggled Four Major Jobs With Amazing Efficacy.
Collins held the four jobs of Adjutant-General, Director of Intelligence and Director of Organization for the Irish Volunteers and the Minister for Finance in the Dáil. Andrew McCarthy speaks in great detail on Collins' post as Minister for Finance in his veritable tour-de-force "Michael Collins: Minister for Finance 1919-22" (again found in the anthology Michael Collins and the Making of the Irish State):
"That any man has greatness thrust upon him is a myth; in truth fate merely presents the opportunity while ambition and ability determine the performance. So it was with Michael Collins, the unlikely Finance Minister who proved himself an administrator par excellence."
"When the First Dáil appointed Collins to Finance, in succession to Eoin MacNeill, a more appropriate appointee could hardly have been visualized. For despite his relative anonymity and comparatively young age—at twenty-nine he was the youngest in a cabinet whose average age was forty-four years—he discharged his duties with considerable ease, incomparable efficiency and definitive purpose during the Anglo-Irish and Civil Wars."
"His greatest achievement in finance was undoubtedly the successful organization of the first National Loan. Yet, amongst his cabinet colleagues, Collins was facile princeps, demonstrating an administrative flair that was both meticulous and perspicacious."
"Apart from Finance, Collins also held three other important military positions: Adjutant-General, Director of Intelligence and Director of Organisation. He conducted his military duties from offices in Bachelors Walk and Cullenswood House, Ranelagh, while his covert Brotherhood operations were directed through verbal instructions, from secret locations, usually ‘Joint no. 3’ (Vaughan’s Hotel). Because Collins was extremely well organized and efficient, he was unwilling to allow social activities [to] impinge on his work. In January 1920, for example, as the head of the London office, Art O’Brien, was visiting Dublin, Collins advised him that ‘I am so busy at present that a few hours away from my work on an ordinary day means a serious upset to me.’"
"In overall terms, Collins’ performance in Finance was outstanding by any criteria. … Collins’ personal organization skills were exceptional, allowing him to hold four major positions simultaneously, prompting him to impose order and clarity on a world of disorder and confusion. If his unexpected death robbed the state of its most capable administrator, it also denies the historian the opportunity to compare him with his successors in Finance."
Collins' position as Director of Organization is discussed in the same anthology by Eunan O'Halpin in "Collins and Intelligence: 1919-1923 From Brotherhood to Bureaucracy":
"The characteristics which mark Collins out as a remarkably successful Director of Intelligence during the War of Independence include his evident appreciation of the importance of the collection and assessment of information as primary elements of intelligence operations which should precede action; his partial penetration of his adversary’s own intelligence system; the efficiency and ruthlessness with which action based on good intelligence was taken; and his success in preserving the security and efficiency of his own organization both in Dublin and in Britain despite the pressures it operated under because of the constant threat of raids, arrests and the capture of documents."
Tom Barry recounts Collins' pivotal role in the independence movement:
"But the outstanding figure in all G.H.Q. was Michael Collins, Director of Intelligence. This man was without a shadow of doubt, the effective driving force and the backbone at G.H.Q. of the armed action of the nation against the enemy. A tireless, ruthless, dominating man of great capacities to defeat the enemy. Versatile to an amazing degree Collins who had fought through 1916, had after his release from prison become one of the chief organisers of the volunteers. At the same time he was one of the Secretaries of Sinn Féin, the political wing, and was largely instrumental in the victories of Sinn Féin in the 1918 elections. While maintaining his hold on the political machine and becoming Minister of Finance in the first Dáil Cabinet of the Irish Republic, he was Adjutant General of the I.R.A., feverishly pushing the organisation of the armed resistance movement. Quickly realising the importance of the Army Intelligence Department, he took over that responsibility and built a splendid organisation from the ground upwards. 1920 saw Michael Collins Acting President of the Republic, while Mr. de Valera was in America and Mr. Griffith was in jail. Yet with all these Ministerial, political and administrative responsibilities his Army activities increased. There was no branch of the Army Headquarters into which he did not enter. Policy, training, organisation, arms, supplies, propaganda, all felt the impact of his personality and efforts."
Clearly, a man with no political knowledge could not handle these posts, much less handle them as competently as Collins did. What makes these achievements all the more astonishing is that Michael had not been formally trained in political science or law. He was, for the most part, an autodidact.
"The most important of the new leaders was Michael Collins, who played a minor role in the Rising, was interned, and on release looked after ex-prisoners, thus drawing into his own hands the loose strands of what, for want of a better term, could be called ‘Irish-Ireland.’ In 1917, Michael Collins was twenty-seven years of age. He reorganized the IRB, then dominated its ruling inner circle. He had no formal education beyond primary school, had worked in the Post Office in London, was of small-farm background—a Ribbonman1 operating at national level. The Rising was a shock—too romantic, he told a friend" (Sean Cronin, Irish Nationalism: A History of its Roots and Ideology).
Michael Collins Was a Political Realist.
With the hindsight of several decades, Collins has been labeled by many historians as a realist. This can be viewed in two basic ways. On one hand, it can be taken literally: Collins had a realistic, pragmatic outlook regarding politics. Collins was a go-getter and a doer, not someone who sat around with his head in the clouds all day. He was a man of action, of military maneuvers, not of theories, and not of idle speculation. On the other hand, it can be taken to mean that Collins subscribed to political realism as a philosophy. If this is the case, Collins would see as the root goal of politics gaining and keeping power. He would also hold it paramount that Ireland pursue its own self-interests first and foremost2. For someone who had not been trained formally in political science, Collins had quite the well-defined viewpoint. In Irish Nationalism: A History of its Roots and Ideology, Sean Cronin discusses Collins the realist:
"Realists appealed to Collins. There would be no more glorious protests in arms, he decided. He built a cadre of realists around him, first in the IRB, then at Volunteer headquarters, where he took over Pearse’s old post as Director of Organization before becoming Director of Intelligence, finally in Dáil Eireann, as the underground government’s very effective Minister for Finance. Collins was a doer. Essentially a well-informed opportunist with very few scruples, his entire ideology could be stated in five words: ‘The Irish should govern themselves.’"
In Michael Collins, Rex Taylor makes similar observations:
"The one thing which he could not and would not tolerate was failure, even though sound reason was given for such failure. Harry Boland, aware of this peculiar insistence of Collins’, argued that circumstances often ruled the success or failure of a particular job. ‘Not at all,’ replied Collins; ‘More often than not it is the slipshod handling of the job which brings about the failure.’ … He never dealt in theory; he had no time for it; and he refused to listen to anything which dealt only in the theoretical. He took the standpoint of a practical man whenever plans were submitted to him for approval. No one was quicker to realize that great gulf which yawned between the possible success of a theoretical plan and the more probable success of a practical plan. He was a realist, as distinct from the idealists who have numerously abounded in Ireland. It may be thought that his judgment on Padraic Pearse and the Easter Rising in general was a harsh judgment (Collins thought the Easter Rising a most inappropriate occasion for ‘memoranda couched in poetic phrases’). … Collins was a realist to the point of bluntness. It was not that he lacked the finer points of etiquette—he himself was sprung from an ancient clan; but because of the conditions in which he spent the most fruitful of his years, he exorcised everything which might hinder quick, concise thinking."
"There was a touch of the Napoleonic in Collins’ military brilliance. He used thorough, unorthodox methods to beat his enemy, giving tactical lessons which have not been lost since his time on other guerilla fighters in many parts of the world. Being, by natural instinct, acutely aware of the possibilities attached to situations, this instinct or flair allowed of a thorough, but quick and accurate, assessment; and by this means ‘on the spot’ decisions were a matter of second nature to him. ‘I have seen him,’ remarked one of his former lieutenants, ‘do no more than push his hand through his hair; yet in that quick action the decision was made.’ A general observation that ‘Collins was forever wanting to get things done’ fits well with the restless temperament of a man who had the idea that sleep was a waste of valuable time. The driving force of the energy within him was the reason for this while stong will-power kept his nerves under full control. Mr. Moylett (an Irish businessman, and a friend of both Collins’ and Griffith’s), speaking to [Rex Taylor], recalled that Collins appeared to be quite fresh, in contrast to most others, after a debate which had lasted for eighteen hours. The tag of ‘gunman’ which became attached to his name was a title for which he had a personal loathing. Collins never killed a man in his life, except perhaps during the actual fighting operations in 1916. It was given to him, principally, by the press chiefs of Britain, who sought to glamorize a ‘wanted’ man. The events of ‘Bloody Sunday’ provided a field-day for them, and they piled on the horror. Further attempts have made in recent times to restore that old and untrue legend of ‘Collins the gunman.’"
Author Ronan Fanning commented that Collins held vital and valuable "the reality of independence, not the rhetoric of republicanism" ("Michael Collins: An Overview" Michael Collins and the Making of the Irish State). In the end, this sentiment is worth remembering. To Collins, it was more important to see real freedom from British rule than to get caught up in semantics. If nothing else is thought of Collins' role as a politician, let it be that he did indeed attain the "freedom to achieve freedom."
1- A Ribbonman was a member of a 19th century Irish group, The Ribbon Society. The Ribbon Society was originally conceived to stand as opposition to the Orangemen, but later it became a group of tenant farmers who joined together to prevent eviction by their landlords. They are called Ribbonmen because they wore a green ribbon to identify themselves.
2- The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a good selection regarding political realism. To read it, click here. The international relations program at Mount Holyoke College also has a helpful article posted on political realism. To read it, click here.