When Michael Collins Met Fianna Fáil

When Michael Collins Met Fianna Fáil: Memory, Legacy, and Oratory in the Houses of the Oireachtas 1927 – 1932

When Michael Collins’ life was cut short at just the age of 31 Ireland lost one of its most recognisable and senior political figures. Though Collins was at the head of one side of a divisive civil war, he remained a popular figure who seemed to hold the respect of both his followers and his opposition. As a result, in the years that followed, and some would argue even to this day, his legacy has often been used in the Houses of the Oireachtas as a way to further legitimise arguments. This was particularly true for the early days of Fianna Fáil’s opposition in the Dáil after they ended their policy of abstention and entered Dáil Eireann in 1927. Over the next five years the name of Michael Collins would be resurrected repeatedly by all parties in an attempt to support or detract from government motions.

On 28 July 1927 Cosgrave’s first Cumann na nGaedheal government moved to prevent Fianna Fáil from running candidates on an abstentionist ticket. Although they had only been in existence for a little over twelve months Fianna Fáil had won 49 seats in an election in June and had almost matched Cumann na nGaedheal’s share of the first preference vote. The new party were a very recent off-shoot of Sinn Féin however, and the nature of their associations with militant republicans were somewhat ambiguous. Thus, when Minister Kevin O’Higgins lost his life to militant republicans on 10 July, suspicion began to fall on many different republicans, some of whom were Fianna Fáil members.[1] Senator John McLoughlin cast veiled aspersions of guilt in de Valera’s direction while suggesting that the latter’s vision was ‘stained by the blood of Michael Collins, Kevin O’Higgins, and many a good Irishman,’ just a few days after the assassination.[2] Cumann na nGaedheal decided that the time had come for Fianna Fáil to end their policy of abstention and commit to parliamentary democracy. To that end they drafted a bill which prohibited candidates running on an abstentionist platform, thereby forcing Fianna Fáil to either take the oath, or lose their seats and their ability to contest elections for five years. Curiously, the name of Michael Collins was mentioned by two deputies during the debate that followed.

Richard Corish of the Labour Party opposed the bill reminding the Dáil that Collins had considered the treaty and the oath a ‘stepping stone’ and not an end in itself. He feared that this bill would perpetuate the oath and therefore remove the legislatures ability to remove it. But it was the controversial Patrick Belton that elicited a more significant reaction when he reminded deputies that Collins had never been in favour of the oath and accused the Cosgrave administration of presiding over a State where ‘the policy of Birkenhead succeeded, and the policy of Collins was turned down.’ Belton had been elected as a member of Fianna Fáil but had later split with them upon deciding to take his seat. But the rest of his former colleagues in Fianna Fáil were about to join him in the Dáil and the Collins spectre continued to periodically haunt the chamber.

Throughout the debate Cumann na nGhaedheal reminded their parliamentary colleagues that, in seeking out greater parliamentary opposition, they were doing something that governments wouldn’t normally do as it wouldn’t be beneficial to them. When Fianna Fáil entered the Dáil in August, their words proved prophetic. That same month a Labour Party ‘No Confidence’ motion received Fianna Fáil backing and could only be seen off with the assistance of the Ceann Comhairle. Cosgrave had little option but to call another General Election. That election took place in September and TDs returned to the chamber in October. Cumann na nGaedheal had increased their representation, and although Fianna Fáil had also made gains, the former remained the largest party. Thus, Cosgrave was proposed as President. Collins’s name was once again used to support a contemporary political strategy when the Labour Party’s JJ O’Connell claimed that one of the reasons he would vote against Cosgrave’s Presidency was Cumann na nGaedheal’s passing of a Public Safety Act which included provisions for internment without trial. This, he claimed, ‘swept away the constitutional rights won for us by the late Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins.’[3] When Cosgrave named his cabinet the following day, Gearóid Ó Suillabháin launched a stinging attack on Fianna Fáil reminding them of their recent conversion to parliamentary politics and expressing his opposition to their invoking ‘gods of Irish Ireland’ like ‘Tone, Davis, Emmet, and Patrick Pearse.’ He supposed ‘Michael Collins, had he died before the treaty, would also have been claimed.’ In a way this ironically laid claim to Michael Collins for his own party, Cumann na nGaedheal[4]

A month later Collins name arose again after opposition TDs had criticised the Government’s record on unemployment, Timothy Sheehy, a well-known merchant and sitting Cumann na nGaedheal TD for Cork West, asked Fianna Fáil ‘why did they not come into the Dáil five years ago and give a helping hand to the Government.’ He then went on to remind them that the Government had had few enough resources when they came to power after ‘the treaty, that charter of liberty won by Michael Collins.’ For this rather unnecessary provocation, An Leas Chean Comhairle Patrick Hogan (of the Labour party) rebuked Sheehy asking him to ‘confine himself to the motion and not give us history.’[5]

In March 1928 Fianna Fáil’s Frank Aiken was forced to defend his party’s policy of giving pensions to retired RIC officers, by claiming that Michael Collins had promised them that they ‘would not be let down’ on their resignation from the police during the War of Independence. He undertook to provide pensions for those RIC men who had refused to carry out ‘war on our people.’[6] This issue was later raised by Collins’s sister Margaret who had been a TD since 1923, and it continued to be raised into 1929.[7] It was later in the same session though that the embers of the Civil War were thoroughly raked over and an unexpected spark appeared in the shape of Jock McPeake.

McPeake was the gunner in the famous Slievenamon armoured car in Collins’s convoy at Béal na Bláth. Shortly after that engagement he had deserted the Free State army, stolen the armoured car, and defected to the Anti Treaty IRA. In June 1923 he was smuggled out of Cork and back to his native Glasgow. Shortly thereafter he was controversially returned to Ireland and prosecuted for the theft of the armoured car. By 1928 he had served almost five years of his six-year sentence. Now, Seán Lemass argued that cases like his were worthy of review and Fianna Fáil proposed that a committee be formed to review the sentences of prisoners who claimed that there was a political dimension to their imprisonment. The Cumann na nGaedheal Minister for Agriculture, Patrick Hogan, disagreed with the proposal and didn’t mince his words when it came to McPeake. ‘He was in the armoured car when Michael Collins was shot’ Hogan reminded the chamber. ‘He is a traitor. He is lucky that he did not suffer the extreme penalty.’[8] A few days later, when the adjourned debate continued, Desmond Fitzgerald went much further, alleging that McPeake’s gun had ‘mysteriously’ refused to fire at Béal na Bláth and at another incident a few days later, but had miraculously remedied itself when used in actions by the Anti Treaty IRA against the Free State National Army. Fitzgerald’s allegations were so strong that Patrick Little had to remind him that McPeake had not been charged with purposely jamming the machine gun and it was likely that such charges would have been made had the government been able to substantiate them. Although the Fianna Fáil motion was lost, McPeake was released from prison four months later and Fitzgeralds comments would be the beginning of yet another conspiracy theory associated with the death of Michael Collins.[9]

Collins also managed to enter posthumously into debate on international relations when his name was invoked during a debate on the Kellogg Briand Pact, an international non-aggression pact signed in 1929. The Fianna Fáil Senator Michael Comyn quoted Collins’s views on the League of Nations as a ‘great diplomatic tug of war between Lloyd George and the French Tiger on the one hand, and President Wilson and the democratic forces of the World on the other hand.’ Comyn conceded that Wilson had won the day but asked whether peace could be preserved without Freedom of the Seas, and whether Britain was honouring such principles of freedom while occupying the Treaty Ports. He asked that Ireland seek guarantees about securing their seaborne supply lines before signing the pact.[10] Comyn’s point was certainly an interesting one and Ireland’s seaborne supply lines would become an issue in the next decade. But his invocation of Collins’s name is more mystifying. He could not, and did not claim that Collins had any position regarding a pact concluded six years after his death, and Collins’s views on the League of Nations were not very relevant to Ireland’s position on the Kellogg-Briand Pact. Nonetheless the episode serves as a good example of somebody quoting Collins to advance an argument, where the main purpose of the quotation seems to be the mere mention of the name.

The late General Collins occasionally cropped up in relation to mundane matters like fishing rights in Enniscorthy, but it was always during debates about law and order that his name carried most authority. In May 1929 Desmond Fitzgerald drew a peculiar comparison between Collins and the IRA as they existed at that time. During a debate on estimates, Fitzgerald sought to secure his department’s vote, by arguing that such funding was necessary for the preservation of order by the police. He argued that, if one conceded that the British authorities had ever had any right to be in Ireland (and of course Fitzgerald did not) one had to concede that their police had the right and the duty to deal with Fitzgerald himself, Collins, and de Valera. Equally then, if one conceded (as all of the Dáil did) that the Dáil was the only legitimate authority, one had to concede that its duly appointed police had the right and the duty to deal with IRA activity.[11] It was an unusual argument which may have been easily misinterpreted to conflate the activities of Collins in the early 1920s, with the activities of Moss Twomey (IRA Chief of Staff) in the late 1920s. But it seems that Fitzgerald’s main purpose in mentioning Collins was to point out that all sides of the house had participated equally in the War of Independence.

If the establishment of Northern Ireland had been a thorn in the side of the living Michael Collins, it continued to periodically disrupt the slumber of the deceased General long after his death. In October 1929, Fianna Fáil’s Frank Aiken proposed that compensation be granted to specific Irish citizens north of the border who had seen their property destroyed during the War of Independence. Though Aiken was politically opposed to Collins views of the Treaty, he was a close friend of Collins and held his him high regard despite their opposing views. In stating his case, he made use of several quotations from both Collins and Griffith where they had pledged a defence of the interests of nationalists in Northern Ireland. It was quite a skilful piece of oratory where Aiken appeared to skewer Cosgrave on the words of the Free State’s first Commander in Chief. But Cosgrave side-stepped any alleged moral obligation by reminding Aiken of the complex legal framework in which compensation for property damage was to be awarded. In so doing, he also asked why Aiken (and his formerly abstentionist party) hadn’t acknowledged the legal framework that existed in 1922 and could have delivered compensation to those whose property was injured during the War of Independence.[12] Aiken seemed to have found a useful angle of attack though, and it wasn’t long before he deployed it again.

In April 1930, Fianna Fáil succeeded in passing a private members bill on Old Age Pensions. This led to the resignation of the Executive Council (Cabinet) and the Parliament had to again, re-affirm its faith in Cosgrave. It could not do this however, until Fianna Fáil first went through the motions of proposing de Valera, and the Labour Party repeated that process with Tomás O Chonnaill. During their speeches in support of de Valera and opposition to Cosgrave and O’Connaill, Fianna Fáil returned to familiar territory in attacking the treaty. This time though, both Seán MacEntee and Seán T O’Ceallaigh quoted Collins well-known thoughts on the treaty being the freedom to win freedom and not and end in itself. They then selectively quoted a number of Cumann na nGaedheal politicians who had said they were not then aiming for a Republic, in the context of relations that they sought to maintain with the British Commonwealth. Fianna Fáil adopted a position of objection to participation in Commonwealth Conferences, and in particular the passing of resolutions related to such conferences. They claimed that such participation and co-operation compromised the independence of the Irish legislature which was in direct contravention of Collins’s pro-treaty stepping-stone argument. The assertion was plain. Fianna Fáil were quoting Collins in trying to argue that they now upheld the principles that he had adhered to, they still actively sought a republic while Cumann na nGaedheal actively embraced dominion status.[13]

It was May 1930 when Aiken again quoted Collins’s views on the economic life of a nation and the dangers of economic subjugation by the infiltration of foreign companies. Aiken praised Collins’s views and rebuked WT Cosgrave who a few days previously had asked Aiken to have more respect for Collins by addressing him as ‘General Collins.’ Aiken told the house that he had ‘more respect and more love for Michael Collins’ good qualities than a great number of men who mouth his name now.’

Old estimates provided by Collins for policing costs, and numbers of police were raised by Lemass and Patrick during a debates on the Central Fund Bill and the Estimates process in March 1931.[14] Later that year the Commander in Chief’s memory was again resurrected during acrimonious debates on a bill to supress the IRA and grant special powers to the police. As bitter as that debate became, with various Fianna Fáil TDs trading hostile gibes with Richard Mulcahy, Collins was only mentioned in the context of what he had done or was alleged to have done.[15]

Interestingly, throughout the lifetimes of the 5th and 6th Dáils nobody spoke ill of Collins. Whether this was out of a genuine respect for Michael Collins or a more traditional viewpoint of a general respect for the dead, remains to be seen. Nonetheless, Collins held the unique distinction of being a cited example of what was generally right, by both sides of the house. Both sides still disagreed on the value of the treaty. Fianna Fáil still vehemently opposed it, even while sitting in an assembly which others would argue was constituted by its provisions. Saying this, they did not oppose Michael Collins but now, ironically, supported Collins ‘stepping stone’ argument as a way towards a full republic. The man had become a memory, and for now at least, the memory was beyond opposition and a path to a status of legendary proportions was laid.

[1] Irish Examiner, 10 July 2017.

[2] Seanad Éireann Debate, Vol. 9, No. 2, 12 July 1927.

[3] Dáil Éireann Debate, Vol. 21, No. 1, 11 October 1927.

[4] Dáil Éireann Debate, Vol. 21, No. 1, 12 October 1927.

[5] Dáil Éireann Debate, Vol. 21, No. 1, 4 November 1927.

[6] Dáil Éireann Debate, Vol. 22, No. 16, 23 March 1928.

[7] Dáil Éireann Debates, Vol. 27, No. 5, 22 November 1928, Vol 29, No 5, 18 April 1929.

[8] Dáil Éireann Debate, Vol. 22, No. 16, 23 March 1928.

[9] Edward O Mahony, Michael Collins: His Life and Times @ http://www.generalmichaelcollins.com/on-line-books/michael-collins-his-life-times/

[10] Seanad Éireann Debate, Vol 11 No. 6, 21 February 1929.

[11] Dáil Éireann Debate, Vol 29, No 13, 8 May 1929 (Oral PQs)

[12] Dáil Éireann Debate, Vol 32, No 2, 23 & 24 October 1929.

[13] Dáil Éireann Debate, Vol 34, No 4, 2 April 1930. Seanad Éireann Debate, Vol14, No 30, 23 July 1931.

[14] Dáil Éireann Debate, Vol 37, No 15, 19 March 1931 & Vol 38, No 4, 29 April 1931.

[15] Dáil Éireann Debate, Vol 40, No 3, 16 October 193

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