éirigí – New Dawn Fades? Or…non-Sinn Féin Republicanism boldly going where many have gone before…. January 23, 2007Posted by WorldbyStorm in 9/11, Iraq, Ireland, Marxism, Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin, Tony Blair, Ulster, Unionism.
Perhaps I’m one of the few on the island to feel this way, but I was as cheered to see the release of an éirigí policy document on Imperialism as I would welcome the release of new Cadogan Group documents. Both organisations are, I think, manifestations of the solutions to the shared problems we face. éirigí, for those interested in such things, is a split from Sinn Féin, ostensibly a leftward Democratic Socialist campaigning organisation, that as of yet does not appear to be a nascent political party (although it’s interesting that membership is restricted to those not members of other parties).
So I downloaded “Imperialism – Ireland and Britain” and at my leisure had a good read.
Still, have to say, I’m a bit worried about their future political direction. Why so you ask?
Well, let’s take the document which I won’t quote at in full (if only to bounce up the traffic stats to their site) piece by piece.
It’s introduced as…
one of a number [of papers] being produced by éirígí throughout 2007. Each will focus on a topic of significant importance to modern Ireland and its place in the broader world. These papers are the result of internal discussions and reflect the collective views of the membership of éirígí.
This paper is focused on the issue of imperialism, both historic and contemporary, and the profoundly negative effect that imperialism, as a policy, has had on the development of humanity across the globe in general and in Ireland in particular. We in éirígí reject the notion that imperialist policies and strategies are of a bygone era and instead assert that these policies are as real today as at any point in history.
Okay, so the paper identifies aspects of imperialism such as the policy of one country extending control over another, and further characteristics as being:
All imperialism is underpinned by a philosophy that deems the colonised in some way inferior to the coloniser. Racism, discrimination and exploitation are intrinsically linked to a policy which justifies the right of one people to dominate and exploit another. In rejecting imperialism, we in éirígí are also rejecting philosophies that place one human being as superior to another. We hold that all human beings are born equal and entitled to a set of basic human rights which allow them to fulfil their own potential.
Certain imperialisms, such as that of Rome, tended towards the wholesale assimilation of local elites into their civilisation precisely in order to ensure stability of control. Whether internal exploitation through slavery introduces a different dynamic is questionable. In more recent examples of imperialisms it is true that racism, discrimination and exploitation have been features of their processes. But on the other hand since éirigí considers that…well we’ll come to that thought in a moment.
This thesis is extended so that it acquires a modish leftist twist:
Imperialism is not just responsible for the creation of artificial borders and territories. It also creates, and relies upon, an entirely unequal and unjust distribution of the world’s wealth and wealth-generating resources. Our world is regularly divided into those countries which are deemed ‘developed’ and those that are deemed to be ‘developing’. It is both more accurate and more honest to divide the world into those countries whose peoples are materially rich and those whose peoples are materially poor. It is no coincidence that the vast majority of those countries which form the poor world are those same countries which endured, and are enduring, the imperialist policies adopted by many of those same countries which now form the rich world. Indeed it is the systematic robbery of the hugely valuable natural and human resources of the poor world that has made the rich world rich.
While in no sense dismissing the idea, very clear as it is, that colonial interventions did indeed hobble and restrict development outside Europe it’s not entirely clear that contemporary relationships between states can be so easily characterised as imperial in the sense used here. Moreover there are contrary trends with NGOs and elements of the UN working towards good governance, the rule of law and so on which undercuts local elites (acting at their own behest or that of foreign interests be they economic or political) in order to provide a stable political environment within which corruption is diminished and indigenous wealth can be retained or expanded. So we’re not talking about monolithic and seamless interfaces between states. That’s not either to deny that there exists an imbalance in power relationships between different states with the balance loaded towards advanced capitalist states. But I guess for me so many issues are raised that they beg too many questions as regards the definition of imperialism, the analysis that underpins their selection of the term and it’s applicability, and perhaps also in the disarming, but worrying, simplicity of the final statement in the final sentence. And returning to their earlier contention about “Racism, discrimination and exploitation” being inherent to imperialism, does that mean that our political systems, seeing as we’re part of the imperialistic process, is inherently racist, discriminatory and exploitation, or what exactly are the limits of imperialism? If the argument runs that the Condoleeza Rices of the world are merely window dressing that seems to me, boring old Marxist or post-Marxist that I am, to be disingenuous. Could it be that underneath this we’re really talking about class and elites rather than race? And it seems that in fairness, éirigí is talking about class, or as it put’s it “the business classes”. But the piece above reads as, perhaps, naive or perhaps simply calculating.
Under the section 21st Imperalism: New Form – Old Result we are told that:
éirígí recognises that imperialism in its twenty-first century form rarely necessitates the physical occupation of a given territory, although this option is always retained. Modern imperialist policies tend to be more subtle than previous forms although the end result is the same: the rich world harvests the wealth of the poor world. In the age of modern communications and a globalised economy it is often more profitable to exploit a country through political, cultural and economic means rather than military.
Where such allies cannot be found other means are deployed. One has to look no further than organisations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to see how effectively countries can be coerced into adopting economic and social polices that serve the interests of the rich world far more than the interests of their own people. éirígí stands in opposition to imperialism in all its forms.
Which also begs a number of questions. In a society like ours, and most advanced capitalist societies clearly we are all, or almost all, implicated which it notes in the following:
Our country has for eight centuries been the subject of British aggression and interference. Much of our history has been marked by oppression, famine, poverty and forced emigration. In this we have a shared history with the bulk of the world’s countries. However unlike the vast majority of these countries we are part of the European continent and as such now find ourselves to be part of the rich world.
Therefore we are simultaneously the victim of imperialism, through the British occupation, and the direct beneficiaries of imperialism, by our location within the rich world.
I’d strongly query that we are, as some would see it the ‘first colony’ – if such an honour or dishonour exists surely it belongs to Wales or Scotland, or perhaps the North of England. Nor is it clear that a simple equation of the Irish experience as a direct geographical neighbour of Britain or (let’s be more explicit) England renders us as a ‘victim’ of imperialism in the sense for example that parts of Africa or Asia were victims of British Imperialism. An alternative reading would see two islands where centralising power developed faster in England, but which was, perhaps due to the lack of centralised power in Ireland saw Britain unable for centuries to exercise full control. Or, as Stephen Howe has noted in Ireland and Empire the distinction between state-building and imperialism is more distinct in the Irish case. The incorporation of local elites, as occurred in Scotland, parts of England and Wales was perhaps something of a failure in Ireland. But not entirely so, and that such efforts were made somewhat undercuts ideas that this was simply a case of ‘racial superiority’. I don’t particularly want to get into other debates about the nature of nationhood and whether Ireland can be seen as a single political or cultural entity throughout the period (a highly arguable contention), whether the nature of the social structures on both islands was such that nationality was a much more amorphous concept in the past (as it appears to have been during the high point of the monarchies where for example England had territorial possessions on continental Europe) or indeed the impact of successive waves of peoples to these shores of which the Plantations can be seen as merely (!) one of the more pointed episodes. Our tragedy in that respect has arguably been our island nature, but then, compare and contrast our history with that of much of continental Europe and one wonders if that too was of a certain benefit to us, in that we were less likely to entertain aristocratic rule and that we were able to divest ourselves of our aristocracy with greater ease than elsewhere simply because they were not wholly ‘Irish’, although of course some were. But if we are a victim today of such imperialism, and one presumes in this context we’re talking about the North, then this is a Manichean proscription from éirigí and one which seems to ignore just how complex the outworkings of history can be. Indeed, reflect upon the idea that had a certain currency in the 19th century that Dublin was the Second city of the Empire. This was a Dublin where Catholic Emancipation had spurred on a developing mercantalist middle class.
From here it is but a short step to:
The joint system of twenty-first century imperialism and capitalism relies upon a passive acceptance of a racially-based exploitation. Much of the material wealth that the people of Ireland enjoy comes at a cost of human suffering that we would be unwilling to pay if the victims were Irish, or indeed white. Hard-fought for rights that we in Ireland take for granted are unknown to billions of our fellow human beings.
This is of course true. But overstated. Other analyses above and beyond the prism of ‘imperialism’ such as those proffered by the Greens seem to me to be more acute and economically better thought out with regard to development and the appalling imbalances between different parts of the globe.
We in Ireland have a humanitarian duty to reject the capitalist/imperialist system and the exploitative philosophy underpinning it. Furthermore, we must endeavour to pursue a form of governance and international relations based upon justice and co-operation, and use our position within Europe to encourage others to do likewise.
Here one has to stop. Are capitalism and imperialism truly synonymous as the anonymous author suggests? Isn’t it more feasible to argue that the nature of societies, states and economic power has altered quite radically across the 20th century. The rise of MNCs and TNCs is in itself a major change, but as importantly, I’d consider is a difference within advanced capitalist societies which does not consider exploitative philosophies to be acceptable in the main. Again, that’s not to disagree that such philosophies exist and are put into practice, but there are now pressures on corporations and governments that persist in maintaining them from their domestic or formerly domestic populations. Indeed in today’s Guardian George Monbiot argues that corporations are becoming conscious of their responsibilities to a degree unthinkable five years ago. Add to this Bush being lobbied by major corporations to act on climate change and again, the monolithic idea of corporate power is as poor old Nick Cohen (who gets a bad rap around here, I know) argued, back in the days when he woz really really good, a bit of an overstatement in a world where international organisations such as the EU and the UN and even states still have remarkable autonomy and authority when working in concert.
In any case there are counter arguments made about the efficacy of capitalism as a means of expediting development. Personally I’m rather dubious about such arguments, since it seems to me that capitalism works best within advanced states, particularly those with strong social democratic structures, but I’m open to such arguments.
And so to Ireland.
The most recent of such treaties, namely the Belfast and St Andrews Agreements, of 1998 and 2006 respectively, contain many of the features that have defined British treaties in Ireland for centuries. Three such features stand out most clearly.
* Firstly, central to both of these agreements is an absolute acceptance of the legitimacy of British rule in Ireland. The constitutional status of Britain’s occupation will not change until a majority of those within the occupied six counties so decide– in effect one sixth of the Irish people will hold a veto over the other five-sixths.
* Secondly Britain’s long history of nurturing false divisions in Ireland continues with power being allocated on the basis of a crude sectarian head-count designed to deepen and prolong false divisions along religious lines.
* Finally, as with all British treaties, there is the apparent potential for those who support Irish freedom to achieve a long-term victory if they are willing to support the status quo in the short-term. In this the British government is at its most devious. Britain has conceded enough to convince some who oppose British rule in Ireland that these latest treaties are substantially different to all previous treaties and therefore worthy of support. In this the British draw upon their not insubstantial experience in negotiations and hope to neutralise the demand for British withdrawal and Irish Freedom. Failing this the British hope to lay the seeds of division among those who would nominally desire Irish freedom but disagree upon how it may be achieved.
We in éirígí are convinced that these two most recent treaties are considerably more likely to solidify British rule in Ireland than they are to end it.
This is interesting. They choose to address the Good Friday Agreement (interestingly using the name adopted by Unionism for that Agreement) head on. However, in points 1 through 3 they ignore a key aspect of the GFA, that of the establishment of the Assembly which has executive authority to generate cross-border (or all-island) bodies with the Republic of Ireland. Since the Assembly and Dáil Éireann are exclusively Irish political entities it seems churlish not to recognise that fact. Moreover to concentrate on the ‘legitimacy of British rule’ is to ignore the actual withdrawal of considerable elements of that ‘rule’ and devolution of British Ministerial powers to the Executive of the Assembly – including most notably in our current context that of policing. Now, I’m not arguing that this devolution is ideal. But to then argue as in 2 and 3 that this in fact is really a ‘deepening and prolonging’ of ‘false divisions’, or that this is ‘devious’ is to reify British agency to a ludicrous degree. It’s also to deny any autonomous agency to perhaps the most important actors in this dynamic, Unionists. And again, who benefits. This very day the Irish government has announced it’s goals through the NDP, a broad programme of initiatives on an all-island basis. Arguably at least a de facto extension of sovereignty. Don’t just read the Executive Summary, the full text is eye-opening.
Meanwhile the British government is making ostentatious noises about it’s inability to pay for the North. Now perhaps this is simply more ‘deviousness’ on their part. And perhaps in a brilliant trick redolent of Keyser Soze they’ve managed to convince us that they don’t exist and this is yet another manifestation of their imperial guile by persuading the Irish government to foot the bill for the ‘occupation’. But perhaps not.
Others have argued that Britain no longer has ambitions of empire and is in fact preparing to withdraw from Ireland, using the establishment of the Stormont assembly and increased levels of cross-border co-operation to support this hypothesis.
We in éirígí reject this analysis. We believe that the evidence indicates the opposite to be true. Britain is simply re-shaping and modernising the occupation and in doing so is attempting to portray her role in Ireland as neutral while simultaneously co-opting an ever larger section of the population into supporting the occupation. The current British government have over the last number of years implemented a policy of regionalised parliaments and assemblies with the objective of securing the long-term integrity of the so called “United Kingdom”. The British establishment has moved to neutralise the demands for complete independence for Scotland, Wales and Ireland by conceding limited powers to locally elected representatives. This tactic, and variations of it, has been successfully used on many occasions throughout history. This is the context within which the Stormont Assembly was established.
I don’t wish to be harsh, but surely this is utterly contradictory stuff, contradicted indeed by events. The establishment of devolved representative institutions by definition decreases central authority (and arguably, in the case of the GFA where authority is exercised across a range of areas by the institutions on the island, sovereignty itself). The Scottish Parliament has limited tax raising powers and economic powers. Their very existence raises issues of localisation, accountability and such like. Tom Nairn, in his seminal “The Breakup of Britain” argued that devolution would only be a step along the way to independence. Indeed, an interesting article in Prospect Magazine from December 2006 by Scottish Conservative Michael Fry actually argues that devolution has impelled him towards support for Independence for Scotland. Where he goes, no doubt others will follow (interestingly he also argues that ‘more recently Labour has seen no desire to hang on to Northern ireland and would probably view the exit of the six counties from the Union with the same feelings of relief as Lloyd George saw the 26 counties go’). More to the point, it’s important to note the SNP is trying to entice the Liberal Democrats into coalition in the next Scottish Parliament if they win enough seats, the sticking point is whether there should be a referendum on independence (although it’s also worth noting this may not be within the gift of the Parliament). So éirigí, to my mind willfully, ignore the dynamic that devolved institutions generate. They also ignore their/our own history. Note the way that Stormont accrued powers as time went on from it’s foundation. That’s the way such things work, particularly when jurisdictions are spread across islands. And for other examples of same note the gradual but inexorable dissolution of Serbia.
Increased co-operation between the Dublin and London governments and increased co-operation between the business classes on both sides of the border is in reality simply part of a broader pattern of globalisation and European Union-wide integration and not evidence of a gradual British withdrawal.
Well, no. And even on it’s own terms it’s not really logical. European integration also involves a sharing and pooling of sovereignty. Something their erstwhile colleagues in SF found particularly objectionable in previous years.
If further evidence of Britain’s contemporary imperial ambitions is required one need only look to Britain’s role in the invasion and occupation of both Afghanistan and Iraq. For those who have claimed that Britain is now a force for good in both an Irish and a global context, the lie has been well and truly exposed.
We’ve seen at best, and defined by the actions of one T. Blair a willingness to play Greece to Bush’s Rome. And those actions, whatever else they are are not empire. More over it ignores the amazing complexity of relationships between Britain and it’s former colonies. Take, for example the recent exchanges between India and the UK over Big Brother. Laughable one might say, risible even. But of key importance to Gordon Brown on his visit there to make sure that trade links to the UK from India (consider the relationship too between large scale Indian industrial enterprise and the British Labour Party, remember what I was saying about class being the key determinant, although my fear has shifted to one focussed on the plutocracy of which George Bush is a rather excellent example) remained strong and stable. Who is the dominant partner in that relationship? And here it’s necessary to shift the terrain of this debate slightly, because éirigí appear to forget that imperialism is but one stage of capitalism, and capitalism is the base. Capitalism, being infinitely adaptable is liable to appear in the strangest places and the strangest forms, one thinks of the Peoples Republic of China.
As for being a force for good? Britain is a large and relatively powerful state with some ability to project itself internationally. It acts, as do all states at all times including our own, in it’s own self-interest mediated by other factors. I don’t see it as uniquely good or uniquely evil. Some actions have been good, other clearly not. But to point to Iraq, which is a clear aberration in terms of British conduct on the international stage since the mid 1980s, is to underestimate or ignore the nature of the issue of Iraq itself, the international dynamic that emerged post September 11 and the personality and charisma of Tony Blair (anyone seriously think Brown would have been able to carry Parliament in 2002/2003?). If anything we’ve seen a disengagement from foreign adventures – as evidenced by the conduct of Britain and other European nations during the Yugoslav Seccessionist wars of the 1990s.
Then there is the slightly disturbing note in the paragraph:
Irish freedom will only be achieved when the demand for British withdrawal is once again placed centre stage of the Irish, British and International arenas and when the cost to Britain of holding Ireland outweighs the benefits of withdrawal. We believe the time is approaching when that demand will once again be loudly voiced.
What exactly does that mean beyond rhetoric? Is éirigí going to be the vehicle for placing withdrawal at the centre stage? Hardly, to judge from their current activities and outlook.
In the building of such a movement inspiration can be sought, and lessons learned, from our own history. In the period prior to the 1916 Rising Ireland witnessed a cultural revival encompassing the Irish language, music and sports. The same period saw the growth of both a separatist movement advocating Irish freedom and a revolutionary form of socialism and trade unionism. It was by drawing support from all three of these trends that that the most successful Irish Rebellion to date, and the following five year revolutionary period, occurred.
That’s fine, but it ignores so many aspects of that period that it makes comparisons with the present completely inappropriate. Firstly in the 1900s there was a defined ‘other’, the British presence on an all-island level, which provided something to strive against. That has gone from 26 counties and even in the six counties the nature of society has altered to the extent that confrontation with the ‘other’ is muted. Secondly this was a period when the state was almost unbelievably laissez-faire, but extravagantly brutal in it’s treatment of dissent, where democratic structures were relatively weak and limited. We live in a broad if shallow social-democratic state in the RoI (and let’s be honest within the six counties as well) so the strong class and revolutionary activism of the 1900s on can hardly be replicated. Those who advocate same are largely as relevant as performance artists (and to some degree there is a similar ‘gestural’ aspect to this sort of political activity). Thirdly the diffusion of media, the ‘service’ state and the delivery of a plurality of viewpoints has, counterintuitively given new life to cultural elements (such as the Irish language – already dealt with here in an earlier post) but also to some extent ‘flattened’ them into just another part of the cultural mix. The idea that a cultural revival could link with revolutionary socialism and territorial Republicanism is a chimera. It’s simply not going to happen and wishing it were so isn’t going to make it so. But worse is the use of the phrase ‘most successful’ and ‘five year revolutionary’ period. Any reading of the period will demonstrate that firstly it failed if the object was the establishment of a 32 county Republic – so ‘most successful’ is hardly relevant – as well say ‘least unsuccessful’, they dismiss the 26 county RoI as a colonial or submissive and conservative entity in any case so the result was hardly beneficial by their own lights, and realistically there was little serious revolutionary activity in the sense I presume they mean of leftist revolution. A small scattering of leftists does not a socialist revolution make, and the very fact we know the names of them is indicative of their relative marginalisation within the national struggle. Nor was any revolution betrayed in so far as an overwhelmingly conservative society remained overwhelmingly conservative after Independence (and for more on this I can only recommend The Irish Counter Revolution 1921-1936 by John Regan which demonstrates that socialism had very little sway on either side during the Civil War and that projection about that is simply projection). But worst of all, they ignore the fact that the revolution failed in the North because of inherent differences in that part of the island to the rest of island. The reasons for those differences may have been wrong, the product of a British proto-imperialism. But they remain extant. And if a risen people in 1916 to 1921 couldn’t change the equation what are the chances of a vastly more supine people doing better in 2007 to 2016?
We in éirígí also wish to see an end to the false divisions that Britain has so carefully fostered in Ireland and believe that a new political and social movement may offer a mechanism to do just that. We challenge those who may historically have believed that their interests were best served by supporting the British presence in Ireland to re-examine their position in the context of the twenty-first century. We appeal to members of this community to join us in a political movement for the creation of a new all-Ireland Republic where all the people of Ireland will be entitled to an equal share of the nation’s wealth and equal access to power regardless of class, religion, gender, ethnicity, or other false division.
By discarding the GFA éirigí explicitly discard the one mechanism by which it is plausible that those who ‘historically’ believe their interests are best served by supporting the British position are likely to work together with Republicans and see that their identity is not threatened by increasing and deepening cooperation on the island. But here they fall into the trap of simply considering Unionism (interestingly they never once in the document refer to Unionism by name – a telling omission) simply a ‘false consciousness’. If there’s one message I want to use this blog to hammer home it’s that Unionism isn’t going to go away, that Unionists aren’t going to relinquish their Unionism although they may well adapt and modify it to different political circumstance as many Republicans have, and that Republicans must come to terms with this and learn to engage with them on a new set of terms. But conceptually I have to say that I find the very idea that the divisions raised above are ‘false’ is depressing. Because the problem is they’re not. They remain potent fault lines that run through all human societies to a greater or lesser extent and if the analysis is that they are somehow imposed or the result of external pressures then éirigí have more work to do on dealing with them (and by way of example let me point to the noxious racism that has entered the Irish political debate. Who are those who are rightly most strongly in favour of immigration, why it’s those political polar opposites Sinn Féin and the… Progressive Democrats. And who are those using seemingly leftwing arguments of ‘solidarity’ and such like to argue against immigration? If this doesn’t demonstrate that pieties about imperialism and the British have no traction in these debates I’m not sure what does).
In fact perhaps the crucial flaw in the document is the shift away from pragmatism on almost every level towards a sort of starry eyed idealism and ideology. Problem with Unionism? Why just invite Unionists to be Republicans. Problem with Partition? Dismiss the GFA and return to the tired old saws of ‘British occupation’, which – while correct in one respect – elide the complexities of the situation. What independence exists is in éirigí’s eyes insufficient because it doesn’t measure up to a platonic absolute of an ill-defined ‘Democratic Socialism’. Isn’t this, in most respects the tired old mantra’s that we’ve heard from RSF, 32CSM and to a lesser extent the IRSP (lesser if only because their Marxism is a little better defined)?
I genuinely don’t want this to be regarded as an attack on éirigí, but more an appeal for greater clarity in thinking. If we’re going to have clarity on these issues, and we certainly need it, I’d ask for greater analysis and at least some effort to avoid presenting beliefs as self-evident truth. I applaud them for their energy and commitment. It’s genuine and it’s sincere. They’re thinking about these issues and their dedication can’t be faulted. But rather like a point I made previously about the Cadogan Group and it’s thinking arriving at the same old same old destination of traditional Unionism here we have non-Sinn Féin Republicans generating a left Republican variant of the Socialist Workers’ Party. And truly this island doesn’t need that.
A part of me wonders also just when is a non-SF Left Republican group going to start from scratch with an honest, as distinct from rhetorical, analysis of the situation, one that acknowledges that at best perhaps 20% of the Irish people are self-described Republicans. That they are largely subsumed within a somewhat larger but still small left wing. That SF, for now, has the franchise on Republicanism in the North and the South. That the idea that 1916 is going to return, or that the energy harnessed during the 1916-1921 period is still untapped, is delusional. That Unionism can’t just be wished away and a return to armed struggle is both wrong in tactical, strategic and ethical terms. That the problems that face Republicanism are huge and that realistically it will only gain any measure of power by serious engagement with others. That’s the start, barely the bare bones, of a genuine programme for a post-SF future on the left…
And that’s why in it’s most basic outlook this document, welcome – despite the criticisms above – that it is as evidence that at least they’re beginning to think through the situation, but lacking such an analysis is a very conservative document indeed.