Talented Minister of finance

Michael Collins was an extremely talented minister of finance.

If his policies had been followed, maybe we would have enjoyed a boom decades earlier, argues BILL TYSON (2002)

Eighty years ago this summer’s day, in a west Cork vale noted for its profusion of wild flowers, a bullet smashed through the skull of a tall and broad-shouldered young man and changed forever the course of Irish history.

Michael Collins — arguably the greatest leader of his, and maybe any other, Irish generation — was dead.

With him died much of the hope, enthusiasm and positive energy of Europe’s youngest nation as the final and darkest phase of a bitter civil war was unleashed followed by a grim struggle for economic survival.

The ‘Big Fella’ had inspired a downtrodden nation and instilled in it something of his swaggering confidence. He showed what could be done against all the odds through dynamism, organisation, imagination, pragmatism and, above all, unswerving self-belief.

It would be many decades before Ireland started to regain anything like the sort of swagger that came naturally to Collins.

Called a traitor by many of his countrymen, he was ultimately killed for signing a treaty that fell short of achieving a republic and included partition and the necessity of swearing an oath of allegiance to the King of England.

Such concessions were extracted during tense negotiations throughout 1921 with what was possibly Britain’s finest ever diplomatic team, including Lloyd George and a young Winston Churchill

— talks that his then boss and later opponent Eamon de Valera approved but refused to take part in.

The concessions caused Collins enormous distress, but the pragmatist in him argued that it was merely a ‘stepping stone’ to greater things. He also accepted that the North was a ‘special case’, containing as it did around a million Unionists violently opposed to a

united Ireland. Over these issues, de Valera helped to trigger a devastating civil war, in which thousands died. Yet later on, he took the oath on gaining power in 1932 saying that this didn’t count because his hand never touched the Bible. Nor was there much fuss when one of Collins’ successors moved off his stepping stone to declare a republic some years later. In more recent times, the party that de Valera founded finally admitted Collins had also got it right on the ‘special case’ of the North when it signed the Belfast Agreement.

Even Eamon de Valera conceded his ‘greatness’ and is quoted in Tim Pat Coogan’s accialmed biography Michael Collins as saying “now what will become of us all” and “his place would be taken by weaker men”.

While he is seen mainly as a soldier, Collins was perhaps even more adept at finance. Beginning his career as a post-office clerk, then book-keeper, he quickly developed a head for figures and perhaps this was behind his effective pragmatism, which contrasted sharply with the romantic dispositions of failed rebel leaders.

Collins’ financial aptitude led him to the role of Minister for Finance in the underground Dail. Hunted relentlessly through a small city, he was also the main architect and driving force behind a guerrilla war with the British Empire, holding four major positions simultaneously. Yet at the same time, he funded the nationalist cause and effectively floated Ireland on the stock market.

Although he hated the task and said that it ‘broke his heart’, he raised stg £1 million, a massive sum at the time, through a national loan. The loan was illegal and he was a wanted man, yet he also managed to supervise advertising, collection and the issue of receipts. His success, in spite of these odds, contrasts to the present lot’s efforts in floating Eircom and stalled attempts to do the same with the likes of Aer Lingus. A human dynamo, Collins even extended his brief beyond Finance to further, through the underground Dail, constructive projects such as fisheries development. His buccaneering style of management — positive, hands-on and risk-taking yet highly organised and able to crunch through an amazing workload — was way ahead of its time. Although bogged down in an increasingly bitter and futile civil war towards the end of life, Collins’ restless energy ensured that he was bursting even then with all sorts of plans.

Coogan writes that he got through an incredible workload in the last weeks and would have made a huge impact in peacetime. “Certainly, he would not have been solely dependent on Department of Finance economic policies as was every leader of the country who came after him except Sean Lemass.”

Ireland’s economy took off — and then only briefly — under the open-market policies of Lemass. Yet, according to Coogan, even he once admitted to Collins’ nephew Michael that he derived his economic philosophy from a pamphlet outlining Collins’ thoughts. What is also amazing is that he should ever have found time for such things while either on the run or acting as Commander in Chief during a civil war.

At all times, he was literally worklng around and against the clock during a short career that spanned onerous duties in both the political and military spheres. We can only guess what would have happened had these policies been developed and implemented four decades earlier.

Maybe we wouldn’t have had to wait for the ‘Celtic Tiger’ boom that resulted when a similar ‘open market’ approach was taken many years later? These poiicies, which embraced free trade at a time when such a thing was truly radical, embodied classic Collins’ traits .

Brought – up in a big and bustling West Cork family, he had the bluff and open personality that did not bear grudges and could do business with anyone, even the British, after years of bitter struggle. Collins was open and expansive and looked to other nations for inspiration. He studied the Swiss military model of a “citizen army” and looked at the Danish, German and Dutch agricultural systems so as to promote agribusiness. He also saw decentralisationas the way to sustain rural populations long before it was widely adopted.

He recommended that foreign trade was to be developed by “making facilities for the transport and marketing of Irish goods abroad and (an incredible concept in an era of protectionism) foreign goods in Ireland”.

In contrast, the viewpoint of his spiritual alter-ego, De Valera, was introspective. He had a protectionist view of a self-sufficient little nation that could get along without the rest of the world as it eked out a frugal existence. It’s an approach that was in vogue at the time but has since been discredited. It also partly led to De Valera’s disastrous, though arguably justified, economic war with our biggest, and practically only, trading partner, Britain.

Of course, it is pure conjecture to speculate on what Collins might or might not have done so long ago and over such a long and difficult period.

Whatever he did, he could hardly have got the Irish economy into a worse state than it was in for much of the last century. The strong growth in recent years has merely enabled us to cateh up with our EU partners.

The real phenomenon is the dire performance before then, which bled this country of its most important resource — people — and possibly scuppered its chance to permanently secure what Collins ferventiy believed was its rightful place among the great nations of the earth.

A large population is a prerequisite for permanent membership of that particular club and we are unlikely to ever achieve that now despite producing tens of millions of people, directiy and indirectly, to fuel the aspirations of Britain, Canada, Australia and the US.

The events of this day exactly eight decades ago mean we will never know if a thriving Ireland would have persuaded many of those to stay had Collins been given a chance to apply his immense talent and energy in peace instead of war.