MICHAEL COLLINSAs published in the Arena magazineDATE: 16 January 1997 The sound of British artillery fire crashing through the Dublin GPO in the opening scene of the Neil Jordan film, 'Michael Collins', had my eyes welling with tears long before the ultimate tragedy of the Treaty which sealed the fate of nationalists in the north of Ireland. If the treaty which cunningly and undemocratically partitioned Ireland is one of the great tragedies of modern political history then the ignorance and dishonesty which characterises commentary on Ireland runs a close second.
Wandering through Ireland, as I did in October 1996 studying the rebel monuments and hearing the stories of a guerrilla war which rivalled that of the Vietnamese in the 1960s, was a moving experience. For beyond the Dublin of Michael Collins, flying columns of ploughboys and rural labourers aided and abetted by wives, mothers, sisters and girlfriends fought the greatest military machine in the world to a standstill. In Dublin the Cleary family from the rebel Galtee Mountains of Limerick opened their doors to Michael Collins and other IRA men on the run and in so doing exposed themselves to the possibility of fearful retribution from the Black and Tans. That the true nature of the political struggle in which the present conflict in the north has its genesis has been withheld from public scrutiny for so long is something about which the Left should not be proud.
When Alexander Downer rose to welcome the then Prime Minister of Ireland, Albert Reynolds, in the Great Hall in 1994 I knew it wouldn't be long before a Pythonesque line would drop from his mouth. The Leader of the Opposition didn't waste time, foolishly describing the war in the north as 'an ancient feud', the term 'feud' blithely neutralising Britain's role in the saga. British invasion and suppression of Irish language and culture, callous disregard for Irish life during the Great Starvation of 1846-47, and contempt for the people's decision to give Sinn Fein a two-third majority in the 1918 and 1921 elections didn't rate a mention in the speech. Predictably P. J. Keating, whose ancestors had fled County Galway after the Famine, and the ALP were no more courageous.
When I argued that Gerry Adams should be invited to Australia, Comrade Barry Jones was quick to advise me in writing that there could be no comparisons between South Africa and Ireland or Nelson Mandela who 'has popular support of more than 75% of South Africa's inhabitants' and Gerry Adams. The fact that Ireland was partitioned in the interests of an armed minority in the north at a time when Sinn Fein had the support of more than 75% of Ireland seems to have escaped the humanitarians in the ALP. It's interesting watching the apologists of British colonialism scramble for a position on the so-called Irish question in the wake of the film 'Michael Collins'. If nothing else the film has forced them to concede that the British did actually invade Ireland and did get up to no good. However, ultimately the old myths of Irish pig-headedness and stupidity and republican intransigence in the north become the regular standbys when history and fact don't serve the commentators' purposes.
'It has been self-styled Irish nationalists who've done most to stop the dream [a peaceful Ireland, united ....] from coming true', wrote the Herald Sun's Paul Gray (15/1/97). It added just one more chapter to the stream of historically inaccurate and politically driven commentary which has appeared in the media over the past month. The resistance of the Irish to British hegemony is something from which we can learn. Many commentators express surprise that something 'so minuscule' as an Oath of Allegiance to the Crown should have split the republican movement in Ireland in 1922. What's lost on the critics is that the whole continuum of oppression, from the penal laws of the 18th century to the partition of 1921, was subsumed within this one act of sublime deference.
I admire the Irish men and women who marched behind Collins' hero, the socialist James Connolly, and 'struck for freedom', as limited as it was in 1916. At a time when the Left is showing renewed interest in indigenous culture and when the revival of oral story-telling and locally based traditions appears to hold out some hope in the face of American global hegemony, the Irish experience leaves us with something to think about.
Postscript - With Gerry Adams, as an Independent Member of the Australian Parliament, on the Falls Road in 1994.