Notes by General Michael Collins August, 1922


Unity as a Means to Full Freedom

While the Terror in Ireland was at its height the British Cabinet passed the Government of Ireland Act, 1920, better known as the Partition Act. It is not quite clear what was in the minds of the British Prime Minister and his Cabinet in passing this measure. Nobody representing any Irish constituency voted for it in the British Parliament. Nationalist Ireland took advantage of its election machinery only to repudiate the Act and to secure a fresh mandate from the people. Otherwise the Act was completely ignored by us. In the Six Counties almost one-fourth of the candidates were returned in non-recognition of the Act, while Sir James Craig himself said, they (he and his friends) accepted the parliament conferred upon them by the Act only as `a great sacrifice’. The Act was probably intended for propaganda purposes. It might do to allay world criticism – to draw attention away from British violence for a month or two longer.

At the end of that period Ireland would, it was hoped, have been terrorised into submission. That desired end gained, a chastened nation would accept the crumb of freedom offered by the Act. Britain, with her idea of the principles of self-determination satisfied, would be able to present a bold front again before the world. There was, probably, too, an understanding with the Orange leaders. The act entrenched them (or appeared to) within the Six Counties. No doubt, both the British and Orange leaders had it in mind that if a bigger settlement had ultimately to be made with Ireland, a position was secured from which they could bargain. In any settlement the North-East was to be let down gently by the British Government. Pampered for so long they had learned to dictate to and to bully the nation to which they professed to be loyal. They must be treated with tact in regard to any change of British policy towards Ireland.

They had been very useful. When the Partition Act failed to achieve what was expected of it, and when the Terror failed, a real settlement with Ireland became inevitable. The North-East was now no longer useful to prevent Irish freedom, but she could be useful in another way. She could buttress Britain’s determination that, while agreeing to our freedom, Ireland must remain associated with the British group of nations. Britain’s reason for insisting upon this association is that she believes it necessary for her own national safety. Were Britain to go to that, her maximum, it could be represented to us that the North-East would never acquiesce in more. It could be represented to them that in such a settlement they would be preserving that which they professed to have at heart, the sentimental tie with the Empire to which they were supposed to be attached.

North-East Ulster had been created and maintained not for her own advantage, but to uphold Britain’s policy. Everything was done to divide the Irish people and to keep them apart. If we could be made to believe we were the enemies of each other, the real enemy would be overlooked. In this policy Britain has been completely successful. She petted a minority into becoming her agents with the double advantage of maintaining her policy and keeping us divided. Long ago, setting chief against chief served its purpose in providing the necessary excuse for declaring our lands forfeited. Plantations by Britain’s agents followed. The free men of Ireland became serfs on the lands of their fathers. Ireland, by these means, was converted into a British beef farm, and when by force of change and circumstances these means became outworn the good results were continued by setting religion against religion and then worker against worker.

If we were to be kept in subjection we must be kept apart. One creed, the creed of the minority, was selected to be used for the purpose of division and domination. `A Protestant garrison was in possession of the land, magistracy, and power of the country, holding that property under the tenure of British power and supremacy, and ready at every instant to crush the rising of the conquered’. Manufactures had become discouraged and destroyed throughout the greater part of Ireland.

This was the outcome of British jealousy, and was in accordance with Britain’s settled policy towards Ireland. A revival took place during Grattan’s Parliament, partly owing to the war conditions prevailing, but also due to the protection given to industry by the Parliament. The good effect lived on for a little (only for a little) after the Union. A deep depression took place in agriculture at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and agriculture had become the sole industry of the Catholic population.

This gave the opportunity to point to the supposed superior qualities of the Protestant industrial worker and to prejudice him still further against his Catholic countrymen. But North-East Ulster had not flourished and could not flourish under a policy devised for English purposes. It has resulted only in a general decline in prosperity throughout the whole country, only in an uneconomic distribution of the disappearing wealth, only, by contrast, in an appearance of prosperity in one section of the people as compared with the other.

The population of Ulster has decreased by one-third since the ‘forties. It is true that the population of Belfast has increased in the last two generations, but the two counties of Antrim and Down, in which Belfast is situated, contain to- day fewer people than before the Famine of 1846-8. Emigration has steadily increased. The number of emigrants from Down and Antrim, including Belfast, has in the last ten years more than doubled that of the preceding ten years. If there has been any gain in wealth in North-East Ulster as compared with the rest of Ireland, it is obvious that the wealth has not percolated through to the workers for their weal. They, too, like their poor countrymen in Connemara, have to seek better economic conditions in America and other countries. Capitalism has come, not only to serve Britain’s purpose by keeping the people divided, but, by setting worker against worker, it has profited by exploiting both. It works on religious prejudices. It represents to the Protestant workman any attempt by the Catholic workman to get improved conditions as the cloak for some insidious political game.

Such a policy – the policy of divide and rule, and the opportunity it gives for private economic oppression – could bring nothing but evil and hardship to the whole of Ireland. If Britain had not maintained her interference and carried out her policy the planters would have become absorbed in the old Irish way. Protestant and Catholic would have learned to live side by side in amity and co-operation. Freedom would have come long ago. Prosperity would have come with it. Ireland would have taken her rightful place in the world, the place due to her by her natural advantages, the place due to her by the unique character of her people. Who will not say that from Britain’s policy it is the North-East which has suffered most? She has lost economically and spiritually.

She has suffered in reputation by allowing herself to be used for anti-national purposes. She might have gained real wealth as a sturdy and independent section of the population. She exchanged it for a false ascendancy over her countrymen, which has brought her nothing but dishonour. A large portion of her fair province has lost all its native distinctiveness. It has become merely an inferior Lancashire. Who would visit Belfast or Lisburn or Lurgan to see the Irish people at home? That is the unhappy fate of the North-East. It is neither English nor Irish. But what of the future? The North-East is about to get back into the pages of Irish history. Being no longer useful to prevent Irish freedom, forces of persuasion and pressure are embodied in the Treaty of Peace, which has been signed by the Irish and British Plenipotentiaries, to induce North-East Ulster to join in a united Ireland. If they join in, the Six Counties will certainly have a generous measure of local autonomy. If they stay out, the decision of the Boundary Commission, arranged for in Clause 12, would be certain to deprive Ulster of Fermanagh and Tyrone.

Shorn of those counties, she would shrink into insignificance. The burdens and financial restrictions of the Partition Act will remain on North-East Ulster if she decides to stay out. No lightening of these burdens or restrictions can be effected by the English Parliament without the consent of Ireland. Thus, union is certain. The only question for North-East Ulster is – How soon? And that how soon may depend largely upon us, upon ourselves of Nationalist Ireland.

What if the Orangemen were to get new allies in place of the departing British? The opposition of Mr. de Valera and his followers to the Treaty is already prejudicing the chances of unity. As the division in our own ranks has become more apparent, the attitude of Sir James Craig has hardened. The organised ruffianism of the North-East has broken out afresh. British troops have been hurried to Ulster. The evacuation has been suspended. So long as there are British troops in Ireland so long will the Orangemen hold out. While they can look to Britain they will not turn towards the South. They are not giving up their ascendancy without a struggle.

Any Irishman who creates and supports division amongst us is standing in the way of a united Ireland. While the Treaty is threatened the British will remain. While the British remain the North-East will keep apart. Just as the evil British policy of divide and rule is about to end for ever, we are threatened with a new division, jeopardising the hopes of Irish rule. No geographical barrier could have succeeded in dividing Ireland. The four or six counties are not counties of Great Britain; they are counties of Ireland. While Britain governed Ireland the North-East could remain apart, she giving allegiance where we gave revolt. Once England surrenders her right to govern us (as she has done under the Treaty) she surrenders her power to divide us. With the British gone the incentive to division is gone. The fact of union is too strong to be interfered with without the presence of the foreigner bent on dividing us. With the British gone the Orangeman loses that support which alone made him strong enough to keep his position of domination and isolation. Without British support he becomes what he is, one of a minority in the Irish Nation. His rights are the same as those of every Irishman, but he has no rights other than those. But Britain leaves behind a formidable legacy in the partition of Ireland.

That is there and it has to be dealt with. It is for us, to whom union is an article of our national faith, to deal with it. Once the British are gone, I believe we can win our countrymen to allegiance to our common country. Let us convince them of our good will towards them. The first way of doing this is unity among ourselves. We have the task before us to impregnate our northern countrymen with the national outlook. We have a million Protestant Irishmen to convert out of our small population of four-and-a-half millions. Is not that incentive enough to cause us to join together to win a far greater victory than ever we got against the British? If we could have won that victory, there would have been no enemy to vanquish. The tendency of the sentiment in the North-East, when not interfered with, was national, and in favour of freedom and unity. In that lies our hope. It is this serious internal problem which argues for the attainment of the final steps of freedom by evolution rather than by force – to give time to the North-East to learn to revolve in the Irish orbit and to get out of the orbit of Great Britain – in fact, internal association with Ireland, external association with Great Britain. In acquiescing in a peace which involved some postponement of the fulfilment of our national sentiment, by agreeing to some association of our Irish nation with the British nations, we went a long way towards meeting the sentiment of the North-East in its supposed attachment to Great Britain. With such association Britain will have no ground (nor power) for interference, and the North-East no genuine cause for complaint.

Had we been able to establish a Republic at once (we are all now agreed that that was not possible), we would have had to use our resources to coerce North-East Ulster into submission. Will anyone contend that such coercion, if it had succeeded, would have had the lasting effects which conversion on our side and acquiescence on theirs will produce? The North-East has to be nationalised. Union must come first, unity first as a means to full freedom. Our freedom then will be built on the unshakable foundation of a united people, united in every way, in economic co-operation, and in national outlook.

I have emphasised our desire for national unity above all things. I have stated our desire to win the North-East for Ireland. We mean to do our best in a peaceful way, and if we fail the fault will not be ours. The freedom we have secured may unquestionably be incomplete. But it is the nearest approach to an absolutely independent and unified Ireland which we can achieve amongst ourselves at the present moment. It certainly gives us the best foothold for final progress. Let us not waste our energies brooding over the more we might have got. Let us look upon what we have got.

It is a measure of freedom with which we can make an actual, living Ireland when left to our selves. Let us realise that the free Ireland obtained by the Treaty is the greatest common measure of freedom obtainable now, and the most pregnant for future development. The freedom we have got gives us scope for all that we can achieve by the most strenuous united effort of the present generation to rebuild Ireland.

Can we not all join together to save the Irish ideal – freedom and unity – and to make it a reality?