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Two-faced tradition proudly upheld by Irish republicans


To Russia with love: Collins, played by Liam Neeson, was happy to develop relations with Lenin while taking US money

To Russia with love: Collins, played by Liam Neeson, was happy to develop relations with Lenin while taking US money

To Russia with love: Collins, played by Liam Neeson, was happy to develop relations with Lenin while taking US money

Enda Kenny has taken a battering for his suggestion, at the annual Michael Collins commemoration, that the Russian revolutionary leader Lenin had a meeting with the Big Fellow to take counsel over matters of finance and economic development.

The idea will have seemed ludicrous to a number of categories of people - those who have ever read a book on either the Irish War of Independence or the Bolshevik revolution, for example.

Kenny later managed to deepen the malodorous stuff into which he was sinking by suggesting that the blunder had resulted from a failure of some flunky to pick up on the mistake during an "editing process".

The relevant point that's being missed, however, is that, in political and ideological terms, the idea of a meeting between the two men is not as ludicrous as it might seem.

The fact that no such meeting took place, that there's no evidence Lenin had ever heard of Collins, throws light on the extent of the ignorance of some political leaders in the south, but is, in this context, irrelevant.

Collins would have run an Irish mile from association with Leninism. But, regarding himself as a representative of 'the nation', he would have seen no contradiction in doing business with representatives of governments of very different colourations.

This has been the basis of the ability of Irish republicanism simultaneously to hold two contradictory positions in mind.

Kenny suggested that Lenin had wanted to discuss the operation of the National Loan - the sale of bond certificates at home and abroad to be redeemed after the achievement of the Republic - to fund the war and the administration of the state. Sinn Fein had won a big majority of seats across the island in the general election of December 1918 on a platform of refusing to attend Westminster and using its mandate to establish an independent republican government.

The IRA, as the military wing of the government, claimed, with some democratic justification, to be the only legitimate army in the land and saw British forces and their adjuncts as an occupation force.

The republic not having been achieved, this conception has been the basis of the claimed mandate for war of the IRA in its various manifestations ever since.

It is the justification for continuing the armed struggle offered by 'dissident' groups. It is the basis on which imprisoned volunteers have claimed prisoner-of-war status. The purpose of the 1981 hunger strike was to vindicate this entitlement.

Suggestions by Sinn Fein leaders today that their war was fought in pursuit of 'equality' are as wide of the historical mark as Kenny's blather at Beal na mBlath.

The National Loan was among items on the agenda of a meeting of the Dail - that is, of the Sinn Fein majority of elected TDs, most of them on the run - in a house in north Dublin on June 29, 1920.

Finance minister Collins declared that the local effort had exceeded its target of £250,000 and could soon be wound up: it closed in September on £370,163.

But the dollars were still pouring in across the Atlantic, where president de Valera was campaigning for recognition of the republic. The US loan was eventually to raise $5,123,640. Back in Dublin, TDs authorised de Valera to spend a million dollars lobbying law-makers in Washington.

The other significant decision of the meeting was to despatch a mission to the Bolshevik government in Russia with a view to establishing diplomatic relations.

America was in the grip of a 'red scare' at the time. The vaguest association with Bolshevism was anathema.

The Sinn Fein government, reasonably enough, saw no problem engaging with both parties. This is the origin of a tradition and practice followed today even by republican organisations which have discarded (if they have discarded) the idea of themselves as a legitimate authority with a right to wage war to achieve the republic.

The same elements have no problem embracing (literally) US politicians who believe that remote-control killing of swarthy people by drones is the finest play under the sun, who are implacably opposed to the closure of Guantanamo and would privatise fresh air if they thought they'd get away with it.

Neither do they have a problem marching against war back home, swearing allegiance to due process and announcing themselves doughty defenders of the public sector. In their own perspective, there's nothing two-faced about this. Those who fancy themselves as the embodiment of a nation which has not yet achieved full independence are as entitled as Collins, or de Valera, in their time to take the bifurcated approach. And they do.