Our big parties use small historical difference in their quest for power

EVERY so often a new movie sparks great interest in the period of the War of Independence. Growing up in the 1950s, I often heard stories about the Black and Tans but never from anyone who was actually involved.

There were many such people around at the time, but those who were most involved tended to talk least.

This was especially true in Kerry where the War of Independence and subsequent Civil War were fought with a particular ferocity.

Men who fought shoulder to shoulder against the Black and Tans turned on each other in the Civil War, and did even worse things to one another.

The Black and Tans and Auxiliaries were supposed to be policemen, but most were hardened veterans of World War I.

Many had their minds messed up by the brutality of war, and they behaved outrageously. Irish people were appalled by their conduct. People are similarly appalled by depictions of that conduct on the screen. By the outbreak of the Civil War many of our people had become just as messed up by war and they committed even worse atrocities.

Some old stories were revived during the week on Joe Duffy’s Liveline programme. Harry Boland was on denouncing Michael Collins. He claimed that, over the years, people were not prepared either to criticise or entertain criticism of Collins.

He certainly made mistakes, but Boland seemed to be talking in the other extreme and appeared unwilling to accept that Collins also got many things right.

Boland was not claiming to have studied the period, but was relying on the views of his late brother, Kevin, who was obviously influenced by his own family prejudices.

Boland argued Michael Collins signed the Treaty because he was blackmailed by Hazel Lavery, who supposedly threatened to divulge that the Big Fellow was allegedly the father of Moya Llewelyn Davies’ son, Richard, who was born in December 1912.

As Collins was in London at the time he could have been the father, but there is no more evidence for this than for Peter Hart’s lurid speculation that he might also have consorted with prostitutes in London.

The supposed blackmail was the only explanation Boland could find for Collins’s supposed monumental surrender in the final hours before signing the Treaty. Kevin Boland told him the story, and it has been repeated in two books since then.

Mícheál Ó Cuinneagáin’s On the Arm of Time (1993) and Vincent McDowell’s Michael Collins and The Brotherhood (1997) both mentioned this, but neither produced a shred of evidence to support the story.

The 1988 video, The Shadow of Béal na Bláth, contended that Hazel Lavery played a vital role in getting Winston Churchill and Collins together. Boland put great stress on this relationship between Churchill and Collins on Liveline. But Churchill was only a bit player in the Treaty negotiations.

After seven plenary sessions, the London conference broke up into 24 sub-conference meetings at which Arthur Griffith and Collins did the bulk of the negotiating for the Irish side. Churchill only attended three of those 24 meetings. The first was at his own home more than two weeks before Collins ever met Hazel Lavery, and the other two were in the final hours just before the Treaty was signed.

If Hazel Lavery actually blackmailed him, would he have then been likely to form a friendship with her? Their relationship only bloomed later. If she had blackmailed him, he would more likely have had her shot.

Fr Brian Murphy — the author of a biography on John Chartres, one of the secretaries to the Irish delegation — refuted Boland’s story on the grounds Collins signed the Treaty because he essentially got what he was looking for.

It was absurd to suggest that Collins had made some kind of surrender at the 11th hour in the negotiations.

During the private sessions of the Dáil debate — the transcripts of which were only published in the late 1960s — Eamon de Valera admitted that between Collins and himself there was only “a small difference” over “that little sentimental thing”.

In fact, he said the difference was so small that the British would not fight over it. After spending eight weeks negotiating with the British, Collins argued that the British would fight, even though it was not worth fighting over.

As Fr Murphy pointed out, the British accepted a version of the oath submitted by Collins on the final morning of the negotiations. It had been approved by the IRB. Instead of asking why Collins signed the Treaty, Boland should ask himself why would Collins not have signed it? He essentially got what he went to get.

As Boland was speaking on the programme one sensed that the ghost of his uncle, also Harry, had poisoned the views of the Boland family. He was killed by Free State forces in the Civil War. Collins was not personally involved in the killing, as listeners might have mistakenly concluded.

IN 1921 de Valera had initially planned to send Harry Boland to London as a secretary to the Irish delegation. But then he changed his mind and sent him to the US instead to prepare people there for a settlement in which Ireland would be less than a full (isolated) republic.

When the Treaty was signed, Harry Boland promptly issued a statement welcoming it. He later explained that he did this before he saw the actual terms. He assumed the Treaty was the acceptable compromise de Valera was seeking.

When the terms were published, John Devoy and Daniel Cohalan, the Clan na Gael leaders in the US, denounced the Treaty. By then Harry Boland had plenty of time to read the agreement, but his response was to denounce Devoy and Cohalan and to reaffirm his support of the Treaty.

It was only when word reached America that de Valera had denounced the Treaty that Harry Boland criticised it.

Devoy and Cohalan then changed their minds and supported it. The whole thing was not about the Treaty at all; it was about supporting or opposing de Valera.

It is extraordinary that the movie The Wind that Shakes the Barley could spark such an ill-informed debate some 85 years after the events.

Most of those aged over 50 would not have covered this period of our history in school, while so many of our students today do not take history because it is considered too time consuming in the points race. This is an indictment of our educational system.

The Liveline controversy goes back not just to the dispute that caused the Civil War but now, more importantly, to the dispute that split Sinn Féin and led to the formation of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.

The small difference then was inflated by personality conflicts and subsequently by the tremendous emotions generated by Civil War bitterness.

This week Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair were lecturing the North’s parties on their responsibility to sit down together and try to resolve their differences. We have some nerve to lecture anyone when one looks at what we have been doing in this country.

The North’s troubles are still fresh in the minds of the parties up there, but we maintain the artificial divisions between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael because it suits politicians.

There never was a real difference between them, but the two parties persist with the division because it suits both in the quest for power.

As an American politician might say, “It’s all about power, stupid!”

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