Kieran Allen


Is southern Ireland a neo-colony?


5. Does partition make the south a neo-colony?

THE ATTEMPT to characterise the south as a neo-colony on the basis of its economic structure has been a clear failure. It has, however, been argued that the issues go far beyond a matter of “crude” economics. If the wider political relationship between Britain and Ireland is taken into account, it is claimed, the case can be sustained.

Up to this point, I have concentrated on an analysis of the southern economy because it was Gerry Adams himself who argued that “economic dependence translates into political dependence”. Moreover, one reason why republicans stress the economic nature of the neo-colonial links is that they wish to claim that the achievement of an “Éire Nua” – “A New Ireland”, the title of Sinn Fein’s political programme – will mean real changes in the lives of workers, although no wider transformation of the relations of production is envisaged. The proponents of the theory have been singularly vague about the exact economic mechanisms that give rise to economic dependence on Britain. Their case has rested on a vague nationalism rather than any real theory about how the southern economy works.

Not surprisingly, therefore, they wish to return to looking at the “wider” political relationships. But what does their case now look like? The structures of the southern state and the existence of partition are supposed to prove that the south is a neo-colony. The southern state – the specific nature of its parliamentary and legal system – was a historic bequest by Britain. Southern law, for example, is by and large based on British law. The settlement of 1922 produced a state that mirrored the British model. In some fashion, it is claimed, this provides a mechanism for continued British domination. It is also argued that the British can use their hold on the north to dominate the southern ruling class. British rule of the north means that the south’s politicians are in their pocket. The obvious support given by all southern governments to the maintenance of partition is taken as evidence for this.

This argument shows as little understanding of the political dynamic of the south as it does of its economy. It is a totally mistaken analysis for a number of reasons.

First, it starts out from an ideal view of what type of state a national bourgeoisie requires to guarantee its rule. The model is usually derived from the French Revolution. On the basis of this model the “tasks of the bourgeois revolution” become a rather demanding list. Unification of the national territory, the full separation of church and state, the abolition of all forms of monarchy, the establishment of an independent legal code, the separation of powers between the legal and political systems and a fully sovereign parliament – these are deemed to be the basic requirements for independent bourgeois rule. When a local bourgeoisie does not have these ideal requirements, it is claimed, their problems in running their patch of capitalism in their own interests are vastly increased.

In fact, the essence of the “bourgeois revolution” is limited to guaranteeing the conditions for independent capital accumulation. No particular political form is prescribed. The French Revolution was in fact the exception. The German bourgeois revolution was carried through from above by a feudal aristocracy. In Japan, the Meiji dynasty established the conditions for capitalism while still maintaining the structures of religious and feudal privilege. In the twentieth century, a ruler such as Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe has carried through a bourgeois revolution while hemmed in by a constitutional settlement that was at least as stringent as that imposed on Ireland in 1922.

The bourgeoisie can rule through many different types of state structure. It might ideally prefer a functioning parliamentary democracy that rules over the full national territory, but it can live with variations on this without becoming the pawns of another set of rulers. The historical mission of the bourgeoisie, after all, is to make profit, and this can be achieved under a variety of political arrangements. The fact that its national territory has been partitioned may cause it problems in legitimating its rule but, again, these can be overcome – or even turned to its advantage.

A simple example will show this. Korea was partitioned as a result of the settlement reached between the superpowers Russia and the US in the early 1950s. North Korea is part of the Russian sphere of influence. Yet nobody has argued that South Korea is a neo-colony of Russia. In fact the South Korean ruling class have been spectacularly successful in expanding their stock of capital with only the merest trappings of the political forms normally associated with bourgeois democracy.

The second problem with the left-nationalist analysis is that it cannot explain how, if the state is run by “agents of British imperialism”, the southern ruling class managed to establish a bourgeois democratic regime. The countries which do come closest to a neo-colonial model are precisely those which fail to do this. The reason is relatively simple. In the neo-colonial relationship between Guatemala and the US, for example, the US dominates Guatemala’s political structures by linking up with the landed oligarchies who supply it with agricultural goods or the merchants who organise the distribution of US goods in Guatemala. A variety of classes or sections of classes are excluded from this relationship, and the state is ruled either by a military dictatorship or by means of corrupt elections.

The south of Ireland, however, has been able to establish a stable bourgeois democracy because its rulers are not agents of Britain. The political framework of bourgeois rule in the south was set by the struggle of de Valera and Fianna Fail in the 1930s. Their campaign against the oath of allegiance, their fight against land annuities, their removal of British naval bases from the south established the integrity of the southern state. By the elections of 1943 even Fine Gael, the most pro-British of parties, was forced to adapt to Fianna Fail’s catch-all consensus, defending Irish neutrality as a symbol of the independence of the southern state. Since then the southern bourgeoisie has ruled, like all others, through a mixture of repression and consent. But their state has achieved legitimacy precisely because the native bourgeoisie, not British “puppets”, are seen as in charge, and exercise their own ideological hold over society.

Recognising this simple fact does not mean that revolutionary socialists draw the same conclusion as Danny Morrisson, vice-president of Sinn Fein. He has argued that Sinn Fein must enter the mainstream of political life in the south. Despite all their talk of the south as a neo-colony, republicans have often shown an unwitting respect for the southern state. Revolutionary socialists may recognise as a fact the ideological support granted to the southern state – but we aim to break this through the emergence of class politics, not by accusing our rulers of being insufficiently nationalist.

The third problem is that the view of the south as a neo-colony does not explain the actual behaviour of the southern ruling class. Republicans have always had a strong ambiguity towards the south’s rulers, particularly their representatives in Fianna Fail. During the H-Block crisis in the north, when ten hunger strikers died in their fight to maintain political status for IRA prisoners, the central slogan of the republicans was “Haughey, stand up to Thatcher”. After the death of Bobby Sands, Gerry Adams argued at the National H-Block Conference that the way forward lay in winning sections of Fianna Fail and the SDLP to a United Nationalist Front. During the more recent extradition struggle, as the southern state began to hand republicans back to the RUC and the British army, the republican leadership again looked to Fianna Fail. This time, however, the focus was directed to the “rank and file” so that they in turn could pressurise their leadership.

The basic assumption behind this strategy is clear: that it is British influence which makes the southern rulers betray the national ideal. What the republican leadership have never clearly grasped is that the southern ruling class support partition precisely because it is in their own class interest to do so. They do not need British prompting or influence-they will lock up, intern, torture, criminalise and extradite republicans because they are a threat to their own class rule.

The history of southern Irish politics has seen heavy repression against republicans combined with large doses of “green nationalism”. In fact, Fianna Fail in particular needs to isolate and repress republicans so that it can more easily monopolise the ground of nationalism. Fianna Fail’s aim has been to defend the integrity of the southern state both against incursion by Britain and against threats from home-grown “subversives”. This perspective is shared by other parties – which is why all parties in the Irish parliament could unite with one voice against the supposed slur by Margaret Thatcher on the Irish legal system during the Father Ryan affair, yet still give wholehearted approval to extradition in the vast majority of cases.

The southern ruling class have exhibited this common pattern – of withstanding British demands on their sovereignty on the one hand while repressing republican threats to the institutions of the southern state on the other – precisely because they are not an agent class. During the Second World War, the British empire was at its greatest moment of peril. Winston Churchill, the most militant defender of the empire, demanded support from the south for his war effort. De Valera refused any open involvement with the former empire. But he also had interned and executed those republicans who, by their involvement with the IRA, questioned the authority of the southern state.

Forty years later, during the Falklands War between Britain and Argentina, Irish prime minister Charles Haughey broke with the common EEC stance when he refused to back Britain’s war effort. He demanded the right to a foreign policy that was fully independent of Britain. But the fact that he was fighting hard for the southern state’s independence on this issue did not mean that there was any let-up in the fight against the republicans. According to the then RUC chief constable, John Hermon, there was unprecedented co-operation on the border between the southern Gardai and the RUC at that time. There was no contradiction in “standing up to Britain” and repressing republicans.

The final version of the neo-colony argument is that Britain is involved in looking after the south for the multinationals. Thus despite the economic changes that have occurred in the direct relationship between the south and Britain, it is claimed that Britain’s role as a policeman for world imperialism ensures that the old neo-colonial links remain.

This presumes that world imperialism is united in handing over the protection of its interests to Britain. Far more important, it ignores the role of the southern state and its army and police, who have shown themselves more than willing to take on this security role. The task of any capitalist state is to make sure that the conditions are right for the realisation of surplus value and to intervene when “normal channels” do not seem to work. The southern state has called out the army against striking workers in Waterford; it has jailed workers who defied anti-picketing laws; it hands out court injunctions against pickets like confetti. In brief, it has shown itself more than willing to take on the tasks required of it by the multinationals – and the Irish rich.

To argue that Britain operates as the policeman for the multinationals is to let the southern state off the hook. Worse, it leads to an underestimation of the power and strength of the local security apparatus. An equivalent mistake was made by some of the best socialist militants in Poland in 1981. They constantly warned about the threat of the great Russian bear, yet it was their own Polish army that launched a coup against them. The Polish rulers’ ability to use Polish nationalism to justify the coup gave them far more breathing space than if the Russian army had intervened. In the same fashion, the green-coated soldiers of the Irish army are far better defenders of the multinationals than any protection that relies on the historic imperialist enemy.


Last updated on 17.7.2001