Thursday, September 6, 2001 at 1:00am

Michael Collins is my personal hero.

As the IRA leader in the Irish Revolution, he beat the Brits 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 their beds. With one bold act, he convinced the British Empire, on which the sun never set, that he needed to free Ireland to rule itself. But I love Mick Collins less for his brutal tactics as a warrior than his historic guts as a peacemaker.

Collins is the Irishman who signed the Treaty, finalized in 1922, that created the Irish Free State. Collins, who became chief of staff of the Free State Army, knew there would be diehards unhappy with any deal that left six counties of Ulster in British hands. He knew those diehards 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

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