Sunday, March 05, 2006

A road not taken

Sunday's New York Times Book Review carried a review of a Michael Collins biography authored by Peter Hart. The review is by Denis Donoghue, literature professor at NYU. Donoghue likes the book and is particularly well-disposed towards its account of the peace talks in 1921, and he poses one of the many "what if?" questions about those events:

but I wish he [Hart] had explained more thoroughly why Griffith and Collins and the rest allowed themselves to be intimidated by Lloyd George and accepted his deadline, Dec. 6, 1921, for the end of the talks. The threat of sending in thousands of soldiers and destroying the Irish insurgents seems to me to have been a bluff.

Of course such questions offer the luxury of indefinite argument but our own view is that Lloyd George's threat could not be dismissed. The Empire was not above highly costly actions if it felt it needed to prove a point; consider for instance the supression of rebellion in Iraq during this same period, indirect consequences of which are still being felt today. Collins presumably felt that Irish Partition was already a done deal (as Donoghue notes earlier in the review) and that what was on the table truly was the stepping stone in his famous phrase.

Also deserving of consideration is the possibility that Collins was being more cynical in his calculations, lacking only the time to see his plan through -- namely a continued IRA campaign in the Six Counties to force later negotiations on their final status. We were reminded of this in an incidental way by one of those stories that should have gotten more attention: the discovery that UK Education Secretary Ruth Kelly's maternal grandfather, Philip Murphy, was a veteran of Collins' post-agreement Border War:

Mr Murphy, a railway porter, was one of 700 suspects arrested in May 1922 during an IRA bombing and shooting campaign orchestrated by Michael Collins along the newly defined border separating Northern Ireland from the Irish Free State. An Internment Order signed by Richard Dawson Bates, the hardline Northern Ireland Home Affairs Minister, states that Mr Murphy was arrested “on the recommendation of the Inspector-General RUC.”

The document continues: “It is expedient that Phil (sic) Murphy of Castlecoole, Enniskillen, in the County Fermanagh, who is suspected of being about to act in a manner prejudicial to the preservation of the peace and the maintenance of order in Northern Ireland, should be interned.”

In his role as quartermaster, Mr Murphy would have been responsible for the distribution and safe-keeping of all IRA weapons in his brigade area.

He was taken to Londonderry and from there to the workhouse in Larne, Co Antrim, before being transferred to the notorious prison ship SS Argenta, a leaky barge moored at the mouth of Belfast Lough where untried prisoners were kept in horrendous conditions below decks in cages.

He was released unconditionally in June 1924 after a fellow prisoner, Cahir Healy, was elected to the House of Commons as MP for Fermanagh and Tyrone.

Collins was of course dead by this point, but the use of both IRA insurgency and ballot box politics is a recurring recipe of Irish nationalism. Maybe Collins thought it would work relatively quickly in Northern Ireland.

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