Michael D Higgins’ remarks appeared in a transcript of a speech prepared for an annual event on Sunday honouring rebel figure Michael Collins.
It was circulated to the press before his appearance at the Beal na mBláth annual commemoration in Co Cork.
Collins was a veteran of the Easter Rising, and Mr Higgins praised his “organisational genius”, noting that in 1916 – when the British forces were deeply engaged in World War One – he had “become quite convinced of the necessity of seizing the weak moment of the British Empire as an opportunity for a physical force movement to strike for freedom”.
He went on to speak of Collins contribution as a leader of the Irish forces during the War of Independence from 1919 until 1921, when the island was partitioned – leading to further conflict and violence during the years of the Irish Civil War.
Among the violence of the era were a series of attacks around the towns of Bandon, Clonakilty and Dunmanway in Co Cork in April 1922, when the IRA killed 13 Protestants.
The bloodshed had been the subject of an RTE documentary in 2009, when the broadcaster said that hundreds if not thousands of Protestants fled in terror as a result of the apparently sectarian onslaught.
Mr Higgins said that whilst it was important to recognise that “the independence we have today was achieved through a War of Independence”, it was “also important to acknowledge that the recognition that had been given to those unionists seeking a separate status in the north-east corner of the island”.
He said Collins had accepted partition, and added: “Few today would challenge the wisdom of his conscious decision ‘not to coerce the north-east’.”
The president said Irish people “need to display courage and honesty as we seek to speak the truth of the period”.
This includes an appreciation of the “bewilderment” and “dismay” of RIC officers who were targeted by fellow Irishmen during the War for Independence, for example.
He added: “We will be required to face, too, the ruthlessness of many executions performed by the IRA, the mistakes that inevitably happened in killings of purported informers, the executions of Republican prisoners during the Civil War, and the outrages perpetrated during both wars against Protestant people, some of whom were attacked regardless of their actual attitude towards the struggles under way.”