Even today, ninety years on from the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, when I hear discussions that criticise the terms of the Treaty, I get angry at the lack of understanding of the circumstances that prevailed at that time. What we should remember about the Treaty is NOT just the actual terms but the fact that a Treaty was achieved at all! I think about a group of Irish men of mixed backgrounds, skills and education that faced the might of the British Empire, manifested by experienced politicians and highly skilled British officials and how they were able to achieve an agreement that, as Collins said, gave the citizens of Ireland the freedom to achieve independence. In modern media terms, this achievement might now be heralded as ‘an overnight success after 800 years!’
Collins, Griffith and the other signatories, I believe, recognised a moment of historic significance and acted accordingly to bring an end to the struggle for freedom which had led to so many deaths. This sense of duty was voiced in the Dáil on 19 December 1921 (volume 3 of the Dáil Debates) by Michael Collins when he said:
‘If we came back with the recognition of the Irish Republic we would need to start somewhere. Are we simply going to go on keeping ourselves in slavery and subjection, for ever keeping on an impossible fight? Are we never going to stand on our feet?’
You can feel his frustration in these words.
What the Irish people had wanted for so long was to be found in the Treaty concluded in December 1921 by those men sent to negotiate it, namely full self-government, the end of centuries-long rule by Dublin Castle, the withdrawal of the British army and police and democratic power in our own country. The Treaty gave independence in virtually all matters of practical government, complete control of most of the territory and its resources and an independent parliament with an executive responsible to it: in short, it gave us the opportunity to take our place among the nations of the earth, of which Robert Emmet and so many before and after him had dreamed.
The 1921 Treaty with all its limitations allowed WT Cosgrave to establish the institutions of a functioning state and many of these still exist today and have served us well down the years. The values and principles underpinning a true republic, chiefly the right of self-determination, free speech, rule by law, majority rule, respect for minorities, separation of powers between the executive and courts and a written constitution to name but a few, are as crucial today as they ever were. Words like courage and patriotism need to be re-instigated in our dialogue. The kind of leadership shown by Michael Collins and others is as essential today as it was in the 1920s, if the disenchantment at best, or the deep mistrust and disrespect at worst, of our politicians and our political system are to be tackled and changed.
As a grandniece of Collins, I was proud to be appointed by Dr Garret Fitzgerald to the New Ireland Forum in 1983 and I was aware that in walking into Dublin Castle, we were stepping onto one of Collins’ ‘stepping stones’. Here was an opportunity for nationalists on the whole island to reflect on our similarities and differences.
Again as Minister for Justice (1994–1997), I was part of the team that participated in Anglo-Irish meetings with politicians in the North and the UK. In 1996, as I was being driven into Downing Street to a meeting with Prime Minister John Major, I was daunted and excited by the realisation that I was only the second member, on official business, of the Collins clan to be literally following in the footsteps of Michael Collins 75 years later. And I couldn’t help but remember the very different circumstances Collins encountered: an overnight boat and train to Euston Station arriving at 5.00am, a rented room, no cameras or media attention and no one to meet him at the door as Lloyd George agreed to greet the delegates at the Cabinet Room door inside. Our delegation came by government jet and was greeted as representatives of a sovereign government at the front door by the British Prime Minister and a phalanx of cameras and media. Such a welcome was made possible only because of the existence of that Treaty signed in 1921!
And so Collins’ depiction of the Treaty as a ‘stepping stone’ was a very appropriate one. Successive Irish governments have continued on these stepping stones with greater or lesser success over the years since then. For me, the ones I feel are significant are the Constitutions of 1922 and 1937, the Republic of Ireland Act of 1948, the Sunningdale Agreement of 1973, the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, the Downing Street Declaration of 1993, the IRA ceasefire of 1994, the Framework Documents of 1995 and the All-Party talks chaired by George Mitchell in 1996 which ultimately led to the signing of the Belfast Agreement aka the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
In 2002, the Collins 22 Society was founded to perpetuate the name of Michael Collins, to honour his ultimate sacrifice and to promote his work, his writings and his ethos, particularly among the young people of Ireland. As its patron, I have spoken to gatherings both in Ireland and the UK and several branches have been established. As a direct descendent, I am very conscious of the strength of respect, love and admiration that so many people of all political backgrounds and none have towards Collins and we as a family are humbled and honoured when people pass this on to us time and time again.
In any generation, there is only a handful of people who, as time passes, will be remembered for their significant contribution to the benefit of mankind. Most of us will not be in that handful but I truly believe that Michael Collins will be and deserves to be in that handful for all future Irish men and Irish women.
About the author
Nora Owen is a grandniece of Michael Collins and patron of the Collins 22 Society. She is also a former deputy leader of the Fine Gael party and Minister for Justice (1994–1997) and is currently the chairperson of the Justice Group of the Irish Institute of International and European Affairs.