Of all the Irish signatures on the Treaty, Michael Collins was the one His Majesty's Government had prized the most. He became Chair of the Provisional Government - but by the summer he was locked in the Civil War. Gabriel Doherty tells the story of that journey.
The early days of June 1922 found Michael Collins a busy man, occupied with a plethora of tasks each seemingly as important and urgent as the next, the resolution of which were pulling him in several different directions simultaneously. The political and psychological pressures bearing down on him were acute, as the task of discerning the optimum course of action became daily more difficult, not least because of factors outside his control.
Of all the Irish signatures on the Treaty, Collins was the one His Majesty's Government had prized the most, as they were aware of his high-standing among the militant elements within republicanism. His assumption of the office of Chair of the Provisional Government in January 1922, following his commanding performance in Dáil Éireann during the Treaty debates, brought him into regular contact with London over the following months, but for a variety of reasons Lloyd George and his ministers had begun to harbour doubts about the sincerity of his intentions.
The principal cause was Collins’ commitment to his 'stepping stone’ strategy, of using the latitude afforded by dominion status to incrementally, but rapidly, expand the range of freedoms the Irish Free State would enjoy. The two crucial issues in this respect were the drafting of the Free State constitution, and the evacuation of the British army from the twenty six counties.
Regarding the latter, Collins’ perception (widely shared amongst republicans), that British power in Ireland rested upon military strength, meant that such an evacuation would be both symbolically powerful and tangible proof that his strategy was working. For this reason he was keen to avoid any situation that would provide a pretext for the British to suspend their withdrawal – the occupation of the Four Courts by anti-Treaty forces on 14 April was an especially unwelcome development in this regard.
Problems with the British
It was, however, the drafting of the constitution that produced the most problems with the British. Collins gave instructions to the committee that drafted the text that it should seek to produce a constitution as Irish and democratic in nature as possible.
The members took him at his word, and when the first draft of the constitution was presented to the British Cabinet at the end of May, Ministers were appalled at many of its provisions. Particularly alarming was the extent to which the Crown had been marginalised, the existence of Northern Ireland ignored, foreign policy treated as purely an Irish concern, and the Oath specified in the Treaty omitted altogether.
The British, at this point, believed that Arthur Griffith was fully committed to implementing the Treaty, but perceived Collins to be too wedded to the idea that the rift in the republican movement could be healed. They were especially concerned about the proposal for a Sinn Féin ‘Pact’ in the elections scheduled for June, and presented an ultimatum to the Provisional Government that the constitution would have to be redrawn before that election so as to bring it into line with British usage, or face the consequences (which clearly implied the possibility of the military evacuation being slowed, stopped, or reversed).
Collins, and the other members of the Government, conceded the point, revised the text along the lines sought by the British, and in effect repudiated the pact agreed with de Valera on the eve of the election.
In his dealings with the British Collins had made the point that attacks on Catholics in Northern Ireland during the early months of 1922, the fact that the British Government was paying the cost of the Special Constabulary, and the passage of the Special Powers Act, made it difficult for him to make concessions on the constitution, or deal with anti-Treaty elements more forcefully.
Not surprisingly, James Craig, Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, had a different perspective, arguing that the violence had been instigated at Collins’ behest, or at least with his knowledge, and that the collaboration between pro- and anti-Treaty forces in the attack demonstrated the hollowness of Collins’ commitment to fair dealings with northern unionists.
In truth, it is not entirely clear what Collins’ intentions were towards Northern Ireland at this time. Ostensibly he was keen to foster good relations. He had met with Craig, and concluded ‘pacts’ with him in January and March 1922, the provisions of which were designed to address problematic north-south issues, including the return to work of Catholics expelled from Belfast shipyards, the Dáil-sponsored boycott of goods and services from within the six counties, the Council of Ireland and the Boundary Commission.
It is impossible to know if he genuinely believed such a rapprochement would be sufficient to entice Craig’s government to not vote itself out of the Free State, although the discussion of the membership of the Boundary Commission would indicate otherwise. In any event the intentions of the Belfast regime to ‘opt out’ had already been clearly signalled.
What is undeniable is that Collins actively supported the IRA campaign in the north, perhaps in the belief that if the six counties were sufficiently destabilised in the process, Craig and his ministers might succumb to British overtures and change their position. A more cynical reading is that the combined pro-and anti-Treaty attack on what both sides saw as the common enemy was intended to buy Collins time and keep his options south of border open for as long as possible.
The republicans who opposed the Treaty had, of course, been far from passive since their defeat in the Dáil vote on 7 January, and on both the political and military fronts had taken steps to strengthen their position. Conspicuous initiatives included continued training, recruitment, intelligence gathering and weapons purchases, and, most publicly, the occupation of barracks vacated by departing British troops – in certain locales (such as Limerick) coming close to blows with pro-Treaty forces seeking to occupy the same buildings.
The authority of the Dáil had been repudiated as a result of the IRA Convention held on 26 March, and anti-Treaty forces were subsequently engaged in a number of tense situations with pro-Treaty units, none of which had escalated to any great extent.
Collins retained the loyalty of the Army Executive, and a number of units, but the majority of the rank and file were lost to him, with the recruits to the new National Army insufficient in numbers or training to yet be relied upon.
On the political front, de Valera, following his resignation as President of the Dáil, had been relegated from the elevated status he had hitherto held, and was, in effect, leader of the opposition. While still commanding great authority he struggled to define a new role for himself, while Collins and Griffith held the reins of the Provisional and Dáil Governments respectively.
The electoral pact agreed with Collins (but not Griffith) on 20 May, whereby pro- and anti-Treaty Sinn Féin candidates would stand for election in the same ratio as evidenced in the Treaty vote, was a stop-gap measure, and one, as events showed, that was vulnerable to challenges from without (by candidates of other parties), and within (via Collins’ aforementioned repudiation).
While there is no evidence of meaningful personal differences between Collins and Griffith at this time, the latter certainly had little truck with efforts to co-operate with anti-Treaty forces, and his views on this point were echoed by Kevin O’Higgins, now emerging for the first time as a major figure.
That said, the election campaign was conducted in a muted fashion, with little overt dissension between candidates on both sides as to the merits of their respective positions.
The Civil War begins
The results produced a more fractured parliament than heretofore (non-Sinn Féin candidates winning 34 seats, with 58 and 36 TDs returned for the party’s pro- and anti-Treaty wings respectively), but before the Dáil could be convened, events in London took control of the domestic situation out of Collins’ hands entirely.
While forceful actions in June by British troops in villages that straddled the border, such as Pettigo and Belleek, had been resolved without further conflict, the crisis produced by the killing in London on 22 June of Sir Henry Wilson, security advisor to the Northern Ireland government, and bête noir for republicans, was ultimately not resolvable.
Without meaningful evidence, the British Cabinet made a causal connection between the killing and the existence of the Four Courts garrison in Dublin. The view was conveyed to Collins that the Provisional Government, by its tolerance of that garrison, was complicit in its defiance of the Treaty; the accompanying offer of artillery, moreover, was a clear hint that the British military evacuation was under threat.
For a time the London government considered using its own forces to conduct the operation (with bombing from the air one option considered), but Collins took the decision to launch the attack using Irish forces, the artillery bombardment commencing just after 4am on the morning of Wednesday 28 July. The Civil War had begun.
This article is part of the Civil War project coordinated by UCC and based on The Atlas of the Irish Revolution edited by John Crowley, Donal Ó Drisceoil and Mike Murphy and John Borgonovo. Its contents do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.