Chapter 8. – COLLINS’ PLAN OF TERRORISING TERRORISTS
COLLINS’ PLAN OF TERRORISING TERRORISTS
” CONSIDERATION of the events in Ireland in 1918, in order to be comprehensive, must embrace two entirely distinct and different developments one entirely political, the other wholely militant. But before I begin this part of my story I want to take .this opportunity of correcting a misapprehension that exists widely regarding the part Lloyd George was playing in Irish affairs at that time. It is generally supposed that the English Premier was responsible for instituting the Black and Tan reign of terror, as well as the provocative acts of terrorisation which preceded the coming of the Black and Tans. This is untrue.
” In those days Lloyd George did not have time for Ireland his whole attention being absorbed by the world war. The British Government’s Irish policy, so far as military operations were concerned, was conceived and executed by Cabinet Ministers to whom Lloyd George had given a free hand.
” Unhappily, during the years that followed the Armistice he could not take the time to attempt to find a solution of the Irish question, counting it of less importance to England than a settlement of the European problem. For what happened then, in ‘the period 1918 to 1921, Lloyd George had only nominal responsibility. I emphasise this fact because it seems to me high time that we who know the truth should disseminate it, and by so doing help to remove the causes of hatred and bitterness which are largely based on ignorance.”
Collins made this statement to me at the outset of one of our last meetings in Dublin again evidencing what had come to be his greatest driving ambition ending fratricidal strife by ending venomous and deliberate distortion of the truth.
” Taking the political events of 1918,” Collins continued, ” the most important incident was the South Armagh election. In this election we were at the outset confident of success, and we put up as our candidate Dr. MacCarton, who was the representative of the Irish Republic in Washington. For the second time we were defeated. Unquestionably the result of that election was a serious setback for our policy.
” Secondly, at this time, February and March, there was much talk of applying the British Conscription Act to Ireland, and arrangements were being made by us to resist it in every possible way. The Volunteers came to the decision at their Executive Council that conscription was to be resisted to the fullest extent of our military strength.
” Thirdly, the arrest of the chief leaders of Sinn Fein. There were just some half-dozen in Dublin and some few dozen throughout the country marked down for arrest who escaped the net. This, however, must not be taken as meaning that the backbone of the movement was gone. Political organisation was continued always without interference. The enemy activity up to this period had really not been very serious, and enemy activity after what are now called ‘ the German plot arrests ‘ was mainly directed towards preventing public meetings, tracking down and arresting public suspects, and stopping parades, drills, training, etc., of Volunteers.
” Fourthly, towards the end of the year came the Armistice in the world war, and with it a General Election. Sinn Fein selected candidates to fight in almost every constituency in the whole of Ireland and won a decided victory at the polls. Our political machinery was altogether too efficient for the Irish Parliamentary party organisation, and the election started by our having 25 unopposed returns. Many of the Sinn Fein candidates were men who were in gaol or interned, and it must be admitted that the names of these candidates made an appeal in addition to the political appeal. It will be remembered that Sinn Fein immediately after the election sent representatives to London at the time of President Wilson’s visit to lay a memorial of the Irish case before him.
” Paralleling our political victories were the ever increasing acts of repression practised by the British Government, although at first neither England’s aggression nor oppression were more than suggestions of what was to come. During the year England had pronounced Dail Eireann, the Irish Republican Party, Sinn Fein, Cumman na mBan, the Gaelic League and the Gaelic Athletic Association illegal bodies. The Civil Courts were for the most part dispensed with and replaced by Courts Martial. For trivial offences severe sentences were inflicted. Possession of a card of membership in Sinn Fein earned a penalty of from six months’ to two years’ imprisonment. Raids by armed bands of police and soldiers began to become frequent. Gradually it was becoming apparent that England had given up trying to rule Ireland with anything less than force.
‘ ‘ The inevitable result of this policy as indeed must have been anticipated by the British Government was to drive the Irish people to meet desperate methods by desperate reprisals. The more extreme the British methods became, the more united our people grew.
” From time immemorial England had always maintained in Ireland one of the greatest and most efficient Secret Services in the world a Secret Service which had for its cornerstone a historical and unhappy fact about the Irish people, the presence in every generation of a small minority ready to sell their country for English gold. Without the aid of these traitors, who were almost entirely corner boys, ne’er-do-wells and rogues ragged, penniless and mentally dwarfed England’s Secret Service in Ireland would have been a far less potent factor.
“As it was, there were spies in every street bent on obtaining information that would damn their brother Irishmen.
In those days there were few public-houses in Dublin that did not shelter after nightfall a British Secret Service operative in the midst of a group of corner boys, for whom he was buying quantities of strong liquor. By the payment of a few shillings in cash and liberally plying them with drink, the operative never failed to obtain from these miserable outcasts the information desired.
” In this way the total number of English operatives represented, probably, one-tenth of the actual total of the spy organisation. Every street in every city was an open book to the English agents.
” The efforts of Dublin Castle to make the spy organisation as complete as possible did not end with these under- world ragamuffins : Irishmen in high positions were reached. Instances of this, however, were rare. But, after all, human nature is human nature, and 1,000 is 1,000 and 1,000 is very much more to an Irishman than to an Englishman or an American. A man in this country who possesses such a sum is relatively well-to-do.”
Collins did not have to stress the point. I knew that hardly one member of the Provisional Government had ever been worth 1,000 at any stage of his life. The temptation that a 1,000 bribe would exert on an average Irishman and this is true only because of the difference in his financial status is equal to the effect of a bribe ten times as big on an Englishman or an American.
” The English Secret Service in Ireland,” Collins continued, ” with its unlimited supplies of money, had been unquestionably able to reach men of influence and position within our organisation. Most of these traitors met their just deserts down through all the years.
” When the Fenian leader who betrayed his comrades the men who committed the Phoenix Park assassinations had thought himself for all time safe from Irish vengeance, he suddenly found that the long arm of the Irish Republican Brotherhood could reach out to the farthest ends of the earth and, in the name of Ireland, mete out justice. It was only when the English ship that had carried him away with 10,000 of English money, his reward for delivering up his colleagues, was steaming into a South African port that he was shot dead by an emissary of the Brotherhood travelling on the same ship.
” Thus every Irish youth for many generations had known in a general way of the English spy system, and how it had been always tremendously strengthened by the help of renegade Irishmen. But up to the end of 1918 we had done little to combat it. Griffith had won a vast majority of the best elements in all parts of Ireland to his way of thinking and to the Sinn Fein policy of moderation urged by him for thirteen years with little success until then. But gradually he had led public opinion to believe that his was the best course for Ireland to pursue.
” The words ‘ Sinn Fein ‘ have been generally misunderstood to mean ‘ ourselves alone ‘ a mistake which even Griffith never took occasion to correct. While that is the literal translation of the Gaelic, it is not the real meaning of the phrase. To one conversant with the ancient Irish language, Sinn Fein means ‘ self-reliance ‘ obviously a very different thing. Unhappily the Irish people even yet have learned little of self-reliance. Today they depend too much on a few leaders. What else, can be expected after 700 years of subjection ? But the Irish people must acquire self-reliance and put an end for all time to their present custom of waiting for a superman to lead them into possession of full freedom.
” Other nations must understand the state of mind of the average Irishman which makes this a land where public opinion is privately expressed. For many hundreds of years this was the only way opinion could be expressed. It was still the case in 1918 with the important difference that people were beginning at last to awaken to the truth.
” The triumph of the Sinn Fein candidates was proof positive that the people were prepared to accept the responsibility involved in self-reliance. We so interpreted the overwhelming support the people gave Griffith’s policy but, unfortunately, we did not fully appreciate their inability to know how to translate their willingness into practical terms. We firmly believed that we had at the most only to point the way in order to range a united people on our side. This mistake must be borne in mind as the events of the succeeding years are recorded.
” We leaders committed the Irish people to a definite course of action. As little by little some of us began to realise that we had to depend upon ourselves in winning through to the final success of our new policy, we found it necessary to adopt more extreme measures than would have been the case had we had the active, united support of the whole people. I am making no apology for what we did in these succeeding years I hope merely to explain the necessity which drove us
” What we accomplished is the Treaty a hundred fold greater result than many of us at the end of 1918 would have dared to prophesy our new policy would win for us.
” That policy was based on a recognition of the two most urgent problems with which we were faced at that time beating the English Secret Service until it was powerless, and cleaning our own house until the last traitor Irishman had been identified and fittingly dealt with. It was a job of Herculean proportions, and until and unless it was done thoroughly, freedom could never come to Ireland. Within the inner circle of the Irish Republican Army there was no unanimity of opinion that the new policy was wise men like Brugha and Stack, who cherished the delusion that we could by the use of force alone drive the English army out of Ireland, having faith in Irishmen’s ability to outwit English brains. Perhaps, because I, more than anyone else, disputed this admission of inferiority, it was upon my shoulders that the heavy task of solving this twofold problem was laid.”
The following afternoon, in a private dining-room in the Shelbourne Hotel, where I was his luncheon guest, Collins told me the inside story of his striking terror into the hearts of the Black and Tans.