Going to university in October 1979, the “what if?” questions began with history that was contemporary. “What if Jim Callaghan had gone to the country in October 1978 and, as would have been likely at that point, had won the general election? It was a question that was to be asked many times in the decade that followed.
There were many other “what ifs?” to intrigue any group of history students. What if the Japanese had not attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and the United States had not entered the war? What if Hitler had not invaded the Soviet Union and had not begun a war he could not possibly win? What if Lord Halifax had become British Prime Minister in 1940 instead of Winston Churchill? What if Neville Chamberlain had been prepared to stand up for Czechoslovakia in 1938?
The “what ifs?” could stretch back in an infinite regress. The thought that small adjustments in history could be made to prevent particular undesirable outcomes has been the stuff of popular entertainment; in the television series Doctor Who the first law of the Time Lords bans changing the past.
The impossibility of altering what has been has never discouraged speculation about what might have been. The anniversary of the shooting of Michael Collins has for years been a day on which to wonder what might have been. Had Collins not been ambushed and killed at Béal na Bláth on 22nd August 1922, how much different might Irish history have been?
Conclusions about the past tend to reflect the political loyalties of the present traditional Fine Gael supporters believing Ireland lost one its greatest leaders, while Fianna Fail supporters believing Collins would never have achieved the things claimed as possibilities for him.
Had Collins lived, what difference would it have made? Relations with Britain might have unfolded in a very different way; church-state relations might have gone in a very different direction; isolation, underdevelopment and theocracy might not have become realities. But he didn’t live, he was shot dead.
“What ifs?” are fun for student discussions, but have too often shaped the current political discourse. What other countries shape their politics by the events of 1922? In which countries would the death of a single person on a a day ninety-two years ago still be regarded as a formative moment?
Collins may have been many things and may have achieved many things, but for ninety-two years he has been a “what if?” question. The Civil War in which he died is a “what if?” question. A political system rooted in that war, and the thinking it inspired, a political system rooted in a past that cannot be changed, ill serves the needs of the present time.