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Jewish World Review Sept. 4, 2001 / 5 Elul, 5761

Chris Matthews

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'Michael Collins': still fighting words -- BALLYVAUGHAN, IRELAND --- Michael Collins is my personal hero. As the Irish Republican Army leader in the Irish revolution, he beat the British at their own game: intelligence.

When London sent in a ruthless gang of agents known as the Cairo Gang, Collins finished the thugs off in one swift Sunday morning. He ordered every one of them killed in his bed. With one bold act, he convinced the British Empire, on which the sun never set, that it needed to free Ireland to rule itself.

But I love Collins less for his brutal tactics as a warrior than his historic guts as a peacemaker.

Collins is the Irishman who signed the treaty, made final in 1922, that created the Irish Free State. Collins, who became chief of staff of the Free State Army, knew there would be die-hards unhappy with any deal that left six counties of Ulster in British hands. He knew those die-hards would have guns and the republican passions to use them.

But he also knew that most Irish people would see it as the best deal possible, given Britain's power and resolve.

On that important score, Collins was right. The pro-treaty forces won the ensuing Irish Civil War - but at a price. Ambushed on a rural country road in County Cork, Michael Collins became the most famous casualty of the Irish Civil War. And the most embarrassing.

That was especially the case for Fianna Fail, the political party born of those who opposed the treaty and the one that currently leads Ireland's governing coalition.

In the 1930s, a Fianna Fail government opposed building a monument to Collins at Beal na Blath, the roadside spot where he was killed.

In the 1960s, another Fianna Fail-led government refused to include a photograph of Collins in the first edition of an official government handbook, "Facts About Ireland."

Last week, Michael Noonan, leader of the political party loyal to the Collins legacy, pointed to this historic "pettiness" on the part of Fianna Fail.

But Noonan had tougher words for Sinn Fein, the current IRA's political arm. Citing the Collins legacy in creating civil order after the revolution, Noonan insisted that the Gerry Adams-led party accept the Irish Army as the only military force permitted in the country.

Otherwise, he said, Sinn Fein should not be considered a legitimate political party in the Irish Republic.

"The positions on public order taken by Michael Collins over 80 years ago are as relevant today as they were when he articulated them," Noonan said at the very spot where Collins was killed.

"If democracy is to function properly, and political parties are to play their part in the functioning of that democracy, they must do so on a clear and unequivocal commitment to one army.

"Until they recognize that in our democracy there is only one army, their participation in our democratic institutions here will inevitably be a qualified one for those of us whose commitment to democracy is unqualified and unequivocal."

The division over the role of the IRA continues the struggle in Irish politics that goes back to those first days after the treaty of '22.

It separates those who want to see unity achieved step by step from the hard-liners who insist on total victory over loyalists in the North.

The Collins idea was for the Irish to get what they could from the world's most powerful colonial power as a "steppingstone" to (a) sovereignty and (b) union with the North.

Last week, the leader of Fine Gael, the Irish party loyal to the Collins legacy, paid tribute to his historic strategy.

Speaking at the place in Beal na Blath where Collins was killed by anti-treaty die-hards, Noonan pointed to the successive "steppingstones" Ireland has exploited since 1922.

The first was the declaration of the Irish Republic in 1948, which made Ireland a sovereign nation. He pointed to the Sunningdale agreement of 1973 and the Anglo-Irish agreement of 1985 as progress toward full unification of the island.

Both forces - moderate and radical - were at work in Northern Ireland last week. John Hume and Seamus Mallen, leaders of the moderate Social Democratic and Labor parties, agreed to proposed reforms in the Royal Ulster Constabulary. So did the Catholic bishops.

Sinn Fein rejected them.

The debate over the role of the IRA and the disagreement over the latest Royal Ulster Constabulary reform proposal both pivot on the familiar tragic question on the long road to Irish unity: When do you fight? When do you deal?

JWR contributor Chris Matthews is the author of Hardball. and hosts a CNBC show of the same name. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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