Kieran Allen


Is southern Ireland a neo-colony?



CONSERVATISM AND BIGOTRY have dominated Irish polities since the establishment of two states in 1922. The carnival of reaction’ that the great Irish socialist James Connolly warned against has confronted Irish workers with a vengeance.

In the south this conservatism fed off the backwardness and underdevelopment of the economy. Up to 1957, 38 per cent of the Irish population worked on the land; 41 per cent were either self-employed or were relatives assisting the self-employed. [1] A mere 5 per cent of married women were in paid employment before the late 1960s. [2] The shortage of industrial jobs and the huge toll of emigration which took away the most discontented ensured the domination of the right-wing Fianna Fail party, which adhered to rural values, Catholicism and vigorous anti-communism.

In the north the existence of an Orange State – with government both centrally, at Stormont, and locally dominated by the Orange Order – was the key to the maintenance of reactionary politics. The high levels of discrimination against Catholics in housing and jobs were used to persuade Protestant workers that they had a stake in supporting both their employers and unity with a decaying British empire. The Catholic population was simply terrorised into a resentful submission – until the beginning of the civil rights movement in 1968.

The revolt of northern Catholics, which has been sustained in one form or another since then, has posed a threat to the conservative political structures on the island. This could be seen most obviously when the movement of northern Catholics was at its height. In 1972 the fall of the hated Stormont regime dealt a huge blow to the ideology of Unionism, part of whose base was the racist notion of the submissive Catholic. In the same year the southern state passed the notorious Offences Against the State (Amendment) Act, which allowed the police to hold suspects for up to seven days; it dismissed the RTE television authority for interviewing the IRA chief of staff and implemented Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act, which has kept the southern airwaves “clean” of subversive forces. Ever since then it has armed itself to the teeth with some of the most repressive measures in Western Europe. The number of police in the south has almost doubled, rising from 6,532 in 1970 with 230 civilian support staff to 10,869 in 1983 with 630 support staff. [3]

The southern state has been singularly successful in holding the line over the past two decades. Repression was merely one element of the equation. Until 1979, southern Ireland was also one of the fastest growing economies in Europe. Real incomes doubled between 1957 and 1980. [4] Employment in industry increased by 28 per cent and emigration was reversed. Moreover, as we shall see, the expansion of the southern economy by opening it to foreign capital did not lead, as many republicans believed, to a situation where southern workers would be confronting British bosses.

But the crucial factor in the growing gap between southern workers and the struggle of northern Catholics has been the politics of the republican movement. Until the late 1970s the Provisional IRA and its political wing Sinn Fein openly held class politics in contempt. The movement began life 20 years ago as a right-wing nationalist organisation m response to the failure of the Stalinist-dominated Official IRA to take up the struggle against the Orange State. In 1971, for example, the movement’s youth wing, the Fianna Éireann, stated its opposition to socialism in the following terms:

The doctrine of Karl Marx is contrary to the Fianna teaching. It is contrary to the Fianna declaration which states: “I ______________ pledge my allegiance to God and to the Irish Republic” ... Marx also stated that the working man has no country. We of Na Fianna for the most part are the sons of the workers but we have a country and we love it dearly. We can in no way be associated with International Socialism. Our allegiance is to God and Ireland ... [5]

Despite such right-wing attitudes, revolutionary socialists in the 1970s took the side of republicans against British imperialism, in the same manner that socialists supported the ANC in South Africa despite the reactionary and monarchist policies of its early days. [6] But the right-wing politics of the early Provisionals cut them off from the only force that could have brought victory: the southern working class. As a result, for much of the 1970s the Provisionals fought primarily as a military organisation. Their organisation in the south was mainly a support network for the struggle against the British “up there”.

The 1980s have brought a major change in the direction of the republican movement, with a shift to the left. Its leadership have made a determined effort to align it with the politics of Third World freedom movements such as the Sandinistas in Nicaragua or the ANC in South Africa. There were, of course, limitations to this left turn – limitations that flow inescapably from republican politics. Thus the Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams claimed that “there were no Marxists in Sinn Fein”. But one positive development was a new view of the south.

Left-wing republicans today have come to recognise that the south is the key to releasing the log jam of their 20-year struggle. To a large extent this has brought a recognition that they need to raise a version of radical politics. Thus An Phoblacht/Republican News, the weekly paper of the republican movement, now devotes considerable space to the social and economic struggles of the south.

But what is the nature of the argument that left republicans put to southern workers? How does it differ from that advanced by Marxists? These have become crucial questions for all those who seek to overthrow the two reactionary states in Ireland.

The republican analysis of the south rests on the assumption that it remains a neo-colony of Britain. Thus in Gerry Adams’ book A Pathway to Peace we are simply informed that “Ireland is a colony of Britain”. The north is a direct colony, and the south,

while maintaining the symbols of political independence, is in reality a neo-colony. The British government by its direct control of a part of Ireland exerts a political influence over all of Ireland, ensuring through partition that Irish politics are neutralised and distorted with British political influence maintained. [7]

The notion that the British are still in control of the south, albeit from behind the scenes, is important for republicans. It allows the organisation to present a vague populist programme that avoids the realities of class politics. The fight for “economic independence” is simply added to the fight for political independence. With Britain in effective control of the south, nationalist politics, it is claimed, have an immediate and direct relevance to southern workers.

Adams also uses the analysis of the south as a neo-colony to argue for an all-class nationalist alliance. Because the political structures of the southern state are dominated by Britain, he says, sections of the Irish capitalist class have an objective interest in opposing British control. Thus A Pathway to Peace argues that the neo-colonial structures “curb and contest Irish economic interests and prevent them developing into a threat to British economic interests”. [8]

In line with this view Adams and Sinn Fein have argued for a broad mass movement to “unite workers, including small farmers and small business people.” [9] Many of the latter are to be found in the ranks of the Fianna Fail party at local level. Not surprisingly therefore, much of Sinn Fein’s political agitation has consisted in looking to the “rank and file” of Fianna Fail in order to draw them into the fight against extradition and other campaigns.

The notion that the “Brits” control Irish industry, banking and parliament has a popularity far beyond republican circles. The Irish rich have been singularly successful in disguising themselves as part of the “plain people of Ireland”. Thus spokespersons for Fianna Fail constantly revel in the claim that Ireland is not as “class-ridden as Britain” – this despite the fact that a mere 4 per cent of the children of unskilled manual workers go to Third Level colleges in southern Ireland. In a survey of the indices of inequality of gross income, southern Ireland ranked third out of eleven OECD countries. [10] The survey showed greater inequality of wealth than Britain, the United States and Japan. The nationalist ideology of the south has sought to disguise class differences and to displace the resentment of the population on to the machinations of the British.

British imperialism has played and continues to play a crucial role in Irish politics. But none of this alters the fact that there exists an indigenous capitalist class in southern Ireland, which has a state machine that acts in its interest. Masking this reality with claims that sections of Irish capitalism are still oppressed by the allegedly neo-colonial structures of the southern state represents a major block to the emergence of class politics in the south.

This pamphlet is written from the perspective of one who believes that class politics is the key to the fight against the Orange State in Ireland. It presents a basic Marxist analysis of the nature of the southern state and its economy.




1. D. Rottman and P. O Connell, The Changing Social Structure, in F. Litton (editor) Unequal Achievement: The Irish Experience 1957-82 (IPA: Dublin 1982). p.70.

2. J. Blackwell, Government, Economy and Society, in Litton, p.47.

3. D. Rottman, The Criminal Justice System: Policy and Performance (National Economic and Social Council: Dublin 1984), p.127.

4. Blackwell, in Litton, p.43.

5. Quoted in K. Kelley, The Longest War: Northern Ireland and the IRA (Brandon: Dingle 1982), p.129.

6. A. Callinicos and J. Rogers, Southern Africa after Soweto (Pluto Press: London 1978), p.42.

7. G. Adams, A Pathway to Peace (Mercier: Cork 1988), p.32.

8. Adams, p.33.

9. Adams, p.77.

10. D. Rottman, D. Hannon, N. Hardiman and M. Wiley, The Distribution of Income in the Republic of Ireland: A Study in Social Class and Family Cycle Inequalities (Economic and Social Research Institute: Dublin 1982), pp.3 and 14.


Last updated on 6.3.2002