It isn’t getting much press here in the States, but in Britain and Ireland the visit of Queen Elizabeth II to the Republic is very big news indeed. And justifiably so: it is the first visit by a British monarch to southern Ireland since 1911, when it was still a British colony. Within ten years Ireland had become independent, the first colony to do so since the 13 American colonies won their freedom in 1782. The Irish victory in their War of Independence shook imperial self-confidence and presaged further revolts that within a few decades would lead to the sun’s setting on an empire that once spanned the globe.
The man who more than any other was responsible for this outcome was Michael Collins, the IRA’s director of intelligence and its de-facto commanding general. Terrorists have gotten a bad name, and rightly so, but if ever there was a good terrorist it was the fun-loving, hard-living “Mick.” Unlike so many of those who have practiced terrorism in more recent years, Collins avoided indiscriminate attacks on civilians. He vetoed schemes such as the proposed truck-bombing of the House of Commons. Instead he directed most of his energies to targeting British agents and their Irish collaborators.
Like any other civil war—including the American Revolution—the Irish War of Independence had its share of atrocities. IRA operatives killed civilians accused of being informants, and British officers sometimes tortured IRA prisoners to extract information. But on the whole, it was far more humanely conducted on both sides than most civil wars before or since.
This was a tribute to Britain’s institutions—free press, independent judiciary, parliamentary oversight. While there were abuses by the occupying authorities (most notoriously the killing of 12 spectators at Dublin’s Croke Park stadium in 1920), they were far removed from the type of horrors being perpetrated today in, say, Syria. Collins and his comrades, for all their contempt for their colonial overlords, were also raised in the spirit of English “fair play,” and though they could be ruthless on occasion (most notably when Collins’s personal hit-squad assassinated 14 suspected British intelligence operatives in their beds: the event which precipitated the “Bloody Sunday” massacre at Croke Park), they did not succumb to the kind of indiscriminate bloodletting which has become all too common today from the Congo to Iraq.
Michael Collins was an inspiration in another way: he was willing to settle for a negotiated peace that excluded northern Ireland from the new Irish Free State, and he was willing to fight a bloody civil war against his former IRA comrades to enforce that treaty with Britain. It was the latter battle which cost him his life in 1922. But while Collins died young, his legacy has proved enduring.
The state which he helped create has become a durable democracy, and in more recent years a prosperous place too. It is fitting that the Queen is burying historic animosities with a visit that reaffirms Anglo-Irish friendship and could serve as a model for other post-conflict situations.