Dev proved Collins right on Treaty

Ryle Dwyer analyses the events following Collins’ death

AFTER the death of Michael Collins, many of his supporters lost the plot and betrayed his legacy.

They committed the most heinous crimes, including mass murder, staging a mutiny, trying to organise a coup d'etat, and ultimately persuading the British to wage an Economic War on this country. It was done in the name of Michael Collins and the Treaty. Ironically, he was eventually proved right, not by his supporters, but by the man they reviled, Eamon de Valera.

The colleagues who were with Collins at the time of his death were distraught. One of them tried to shoot a priest whom he mistakenly thought was refusing the last rights to Collins, but Emmet Dalton knocked the rifle into the air and the shot discharged harmlessly. It was symptomatic of the way some of those close to Collins went out of control after his death.

Richard Mulcahy, who took over as commander-in-chief from Collins, persuaded the Government to introduce capital punishment for the possession of arms, otherwise Free State soldiers would take the law into their own hands by summarily killing suspected Republicans found with weapons.

The ensuing executions did not prevent this happening anyway.

On March 6, 1923, five Free State troops were killed after they were lured into a booby trap bomb near Knocknagoshel, Co Kerry. Two of the men Captains Michael Dunne and Joseph Stapleton had been members of the Big Fellow's famous Squad in which they had served with Paddy O'Daly, then general in charge of the Free State forces in Kerry.

O'Daly ordered that, henceforth, IRA prisoners were to remove any barriers in Kerry. He also ordered Captains Ed Flood and Jim Clarke to have a mine constructed. It was placed in a pile of stones near Ballyseedy Cross, a few miles from Tralee. Nine IRA prisoners were taken from Tralee to Ballyseedy, where they were tied together around the stones with the mine and blown up, but one of them was thrown clear and survived to tell the tale.

There was a comparatively similar incident the same night near Killarney, where four men were killed, but again one man escaped. Five days later, Free State troops made sure nobody escaped by shooting five men in each leg before blowing them up near Cahirciveen.

"Nobody asked me to take my kid gloves to Kerry and I didn't take them," General O'Daly explained.

Minister for Justice Kevin O'Higgins demanded an inquiry into the Ballyseedy incident, but Mulcahy condoned the murderous conduct by selecting O'Daly to preside at the Army inquiry, which became a monumental charade. Those who wished to implement the policies of Collins could be divided into two elements within the army.

There were those at headquarters like Mulcahy, O'Sullivan, and Quartermaster General Seán O Muirthile, who wished to operate within the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). The other group, which included members of the Big Fellow's Intelligence staff and the Squad, people like Liam Tobin, Charlie Dalton and Paddy O'Daly, formed a rival organisation of members of the old IRA, which was known as the IRA Organisation (IRAO).

There was also a third element in Dublin, politicians who professed their determination to implement the aims of Collins, including Kevin O'Higgins, Fionán Lynch, and Ernest Blythe. Those politicians were very disillusioned with the behaviour of the army in Kerry, and this came to a head shortly after the end of the Civil War, when O'Daly, Flood and Clarke of Ballyseedy infamy were accused of assaulting two daughters of a Kenmare doctor who happened to be a Free State supporter. The assault was of a sexual nature, but nobody dared say that openly at the time. Mulcahy decided against prosecuting the officers, much to the chagrin of the politicians. Mulcahy had saved O'Daly, but the latter and his IRAO colleagues were still bitterly disillusioned with the Government and the IRB element within the army. Even though the Civil War was over, they felt their work was only partly complete, because Collins had said the Treaty was merely a steppingstone to their desired end. They wished to press ahead, but the army, which had grown to 55,000 men and 3,300 officers by the end of the Civil War, was being reduced by over three-quarters within 12 months.

"I say to the Commander-in-Chief that this is a dishonest and corrupt effort to destroy any genuine [attempt] to carry a successful conclusion to Mick's ideals," Tobin warned Mulcahy and President W.T. Cosgrave on June 25, 1923. "Unless satisfactory arrangements are come to, we will expose this treachery and take what steps we consider necessary to bring about an honest, clear and genuine effort to secure the Republic."

This was tantamount to an ultimatum, but Cosgrave was reluctant to act against the IRAO at the time. The whole thing came to a head on March 6, 1924, when the IRAO issued an ultimatum to the Government, demanding the suspension of the Army cuts, calling for the re-organisation of headquarters staff, and challenging the government's interpretation of the Treaty.

Cosgrave took sick, while O'Higgins stood firm against what became known as the army Mutiny. He carried the day with the help of Mulcahy and his IRB colleagues, as well as the support of Garda Commissioner General Eoin O'Duffy. But O'Higgins so distrusted Mulcahy over his previous behaviour that he insisted on the dismissal of Mulcahy and those closest to him, as well as Tobin and company. O'Higgins thereby established political supremacy over the army, though a great deal of the credit should go to Mulcahy for meekly accepting his humiliation in the interest of democracy.

After the general election of 1932 when Fianna Fáil was about to come to power, Johnny Collins, Michael's oldest brother, was particularly anxious over the change in governments. His first wife had died in 1921 and he married again and started a second family. In 1932, his wife was desperate as he had a young family and had only a temporary civil service job within the Land Commission. He made frantic efforts to have his appointment made permanent before the change of governments, but he was unsuccessful. In desperation his wife explained their plight to the wife of Seán T. O'Kelly, the deputy leader of Fianna Fáil. A few days later de Valera sent word that Johnny's appointment was being extended for six years and, as far as the Fianna Fáil government was concerned, he could keep the job as long as he was able to do it.

In the following months Cumann na nGaedheal evoked the memory of Michael Collins to get people to stand by the Treaty as if it was an immutable settlement. "Those who supported the Treaty in 1922, and those of us who fought to maintain it," Fionán Lynch wrote to the press, "will consider ourselves traitors traitors to the memory of Collins and O'Higgins and of the scores of National Army men who gave their lives that the Treaty might be secured for the people of this State when we desert the cause for which they died for and go over to those who were responsible for their deaths."

Collins had insisted, however, that the Treaty did not confer "the ultimate freedom that all nations desire and develop to, but the freedom to achieve it." In short, it was a means to an end, not an end in itself.

De Valera approached the British about revising the Treaty, but Dominions Secretary J.H. Thomas was unwilling to make any concessions. "In our own interests and also in loyalty to others, namely, those who, like Mr Kevin O'Higgins, have given their lives for the Treaty, and those who, like Mr Cosgrave, have risked, and are still risking, their lives and political fortunes for it, we should stand absolutely by the sanctity of the Treaty," Thomas wrote in February 1932. "On this there can be no compromise: our attitude should be clear and definite."

No Cumann na nGaedheal politician dared to support the Treaty-oath openly. When de Valera moved to get rid of it, members of the opposition resorted to underhand tactics. Senator John McLoughlin, Senate leader, went to Thomas with a secret message from W.T. Cosgrave encouraging the British to adopt an intransigent attitude. Days later Donal O'Sullivan, the clerk of the Senate, secretly told the British that Cosgrave was anxious for them to outline the actions they would take, if the oath was abolished by the Dáil.

The statement sought by Cosgrave was drafted by Chancellor of the Exchequer Neville Chamberlain and read to parliament by Thomas on May 11, 1932. He warned that Britain would not negotiate any further agreements with the Dublin government, if the oath were scrapped.

When the Dáil abolished the oath and the Government withheld land annuity payments, the British retaliated by waging the Economic War. It lasted until 1938, when the British accepted the Treaty revisions, returned the Treaty ports, and settled the land annuities issue for a tenth of what they had been demanding. Collins had essentially been proved right. The Treaty had provided the means to achieve the desired freedom. Ironically, it was not his supporters who proved this, but Eamon de Valera, the man they reviled.

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