Kieran Allen


Is southern Ireland a neo-colony?


7. Conclusion

TWENTY YEARS AGO many republicans and left-wingers were convinced the Northern Ireland crisis would spill over to the south. The south’s rulers were judged to be puppets of Britain and this was deemed sufficient for them to be swept aside by a tide of left nationalism. The left seriously underestimated the ability of the southern ruling class to develop support among the southern population for their own brand of constitutional nationalism.

Today, it has dawned on the republican movement that the south is the key. The fact that Catholics are in a minority in Northern Ireland means that neither the armed struggle nor constitutional agitation can win. In the south there is a strong working-class movement which has no vested interest in the arrangements of partition. Leaders such as GerryAdams have partially recognised this and understand that an appeal to nationalist rhetoric alone is not enough to win southern workers to the struggle.

But republican politics are a straitjacket into which class politics can never be fitted. At a recent Sinn Fein Ard Fheis, Adams urged his members to get involved in social struggles in the south – but they were still to be guided by a republican outlook. “The difference between Ballymurphy in Belfast and Ballymun in Dublin,” he argued, “is that the Brits are more visible in Ballymurphy.” [1] By claiming that Britain still dominates the south, the republicans rely on their neo-colony analysis to try to show workers (and other classes) that they have something to gain from an Éire Nua. This despite the fact that, following Sinn Fein’s strategy, an Éire Nua would fall far short of a workers’ republic.

The neo-colony analysis is the economic underpinning of Sinn Fein’s strategy of looking for class alliances. This is made abundantly clear by a document circulated among republicans entitled The Irish economy: A Republican alternative. This argues that “imperialist domination has had its cultural aspect and most capitalists have looked to their own rather than the nation’s interests.” The idea that it is “imperialist culture” that has made for nasty capitalists is quaint. Presumably when this culture has been removed, these capitalists will function with a real concern for the nation. The document also argues that “industrialists and farmers have an objective interest in re-unification” (emphasis added). By arguing that the problems for Irish workers stem from the British neo-colonial link rather than from the manner in which Ireland is integrated into the world capitalist system, Sinn Fein poses the possibility of class alliances with those industrialists who it claims have an “objective interest” in breaking that link.

We have analysed southern capitalism within its own terms to show two points. First, that the misery that springs from the workings of the capitalist system in the south cannot be put down to a link with Britain. Telling workers who are employed by Packard, a subsidiary of the US multinational General Motors, or by Aer Lingus, Ireland’s state-run airline, that their problems stem from the British connection makes no sense. This simple point explains why Sinn Fein is such a marginal force in the south. Its nationalist politics cannot answer the issues faced by southern workers.

Second, there is no prospect of any fraction of the Irish bourgeoisie supporting a nationalist offensive against imperialism. Their future is bound hand and foot with the multinationals. This is why the appeals to Fianna Fail to return to “its de Valera tradition” are such hogwash. [2] Leaving aside de Valera’s own record of repression, the notion that any section of Irish capitalists have an interest in fighting for an extension of Irish sovereignty is pie in the sky. There is simply no objective basis for the “pan-nationalist alliance” that Sinn Fein proposes.

This is not to say that there are never disagreements between the Irish and British rulers. Precisely because the south is not a neo-colony there may be sharp disagreements. But it is necessary to specify the nature and limitations of these differences. Here it is useful to take account of international considerations.

The world stage is divided between two major imperialist powers, the US and the USSR. Despite its pretensions to neutrality, southern Ireland is a weak member of the Western camp and is subjected to a series of pressures from the stronger powers. Britain is still a major power within this camp, despite its declining economic strength. The Irish ruling class therefore enters the world stage alongside a neighbour that is simultaneously its past colonial ruler, a major power in the Western Alliance and the state whose troops are engaged in Northern Ireland. In other words, in any conflict with Britain it starts out from an immeasurably weaker position.

But any differences between the southern establishment and Britain over the struggle in Northern Ireland are primarily tactical. In the mixture of repression and reform that is on offer to the Catholic population in the north “to wean them away from terrorism”, the south favours a greater leaning towards reform. On occasions such as the cases of the Guildford Four or the Birmingham Six, the southern state will also be dragged into conflict about how Irish people are treated by British courts. Britain, on the other hand, is primarily concerned to bolster the morale of its security forces in their fight with the IRA. As Lord Denning’s “appalling vista” doctrine proclaims, they are simply not prepared to countenance the undermining of their security forces in the courts. Clearly, the southern rulers can find themselves in embarrassing positions as a result, particularly when they have decided to extradite republicans to face these courts.

But these differences are minimal. For one thing the rulers of the south understand the need for “strong security policies”: they have their own parallel to the Guildford Four case in the framing of the republican Nicky Kelly. More fundamentally, the ruling classes of both southern Ireland and Britain have a direct interest in the maintenance of partition – and that means the maintenance of political stability. If the struggle against partition were to have any chance of success, its depth and intensity would have to be such that a victory could lead to an assault on the southern state. In the abstract there may be no reason why capitalism could not operate as easily on an all-Ireland basis as on the basis of partition. In practice, however, a struggle that led to the defeat of the British army would cause such political instability that the southern state would be deeply affected.

There is also the matter of the international obligations of the southern ruling class. Its support and increasing involvement in the structures of the Western Alliance make it unthinkable that any section of the south’s capitalist class would provoke a conflict on a scale necessary to drive the British army out of Ireland. No section of the Irish capitalist class would raise its “nationalist aspiration” (insofar as they have any left) above the basic trend of southern capitalism – which is towards integration into the world economy and membership of the Western Club.

All these reasons explain why the southern state has become an active defender of partition. It spends proportionately more than the British on “border security”. At times it has given Britain a lead in taking repressive measures. The British banned Sinn Fein from the airwaves a full 16 years after it had been done in the south. When Gerry Collins, the Irish minister for foreign affairs, justifies the level of repression by warning that the alternative might be “to wake up some morning to find a few hundred people have taken over the GPO”, he might be wrong about the method of insurrection but he senses the threat.

The strategy that Sinn Fein has pursued since 1981, of looking to sections of Fianna Fail for support, has therefore been absurd. An appalling confusion about Fianna Fail exists among not just republicans but sections of the Irish left. The Communist Party of Ireland, for example, has called for second-preference votes for Fianna Fail in Irish general elections. Sinn Fein members justify their own strategy by claiming that Fianna Fail cannot be equated with the Tory Party in Britain. This is hardly the point. Different traditions in the political history of Ireland and Britain make such an exact equation nonsense – but these differences cannot negate the fact that Fianna Fail has been the major party of the Irish ruling class since the 1930s.

The rank and file of Fianna Fail therefore behave like those of any ruling-class party. They can be loud in their nationalist aspirations on occasion (although this normally arises when southern Irish citizens are mistreated by British courts rather than when working-class members of the IRA are denied justice in the Diplock courts of the north). They may proclaim national unification and the revival of the Irish language as their aims. But these aspirations sit beside the fact that they are the party that has done most to solidify the unity between native and foreign capital. Their rank and file members are the auctioneers, the small business people, the publicans and others who all depend on the success of the industrialisation programme – of which the motor is multinational investment.

A certain amount of anti-British rhetoric does no harm. Indeed it can be helpful to the political system of the south. But any serious measures that pushed the struggle forward to the point where it endangered the structures of partition would be too much for the famous rank and file of Fianna Fail. This is why their “worries” about extradition agreements with Britain are easily removed by extra privileges handed down by the leadership of the party. In 1988, the Fianna Fail rank and file in Wexford held several meetings to express “their disquiet” over the direction their party was taking. In 1989, when Charles Haughey awarded them an extra seat in the Senate, their disquiet vanished.

It comes down therefore to the simple point made by Leon Trotsky in his theory of permanent revolution. In a period when capitalism has developed and integrated on a world scale, all prospects of the bourgeoisie or any of its sections taking revolutionary measures vanish. There was no reason why in theory the Russian bourgeoisie could not have attempted to destroy Tsarism in Russia in the early part of the century. But in a period when capitalism had developed a working class that was growing stronger by the day, the bourgeoisie found there was more to unite them with the Tsarist autocracy than with the Russian working class. They therefore ceased to fight for aims that their forefathers had fought for elsewhere as part of the bourgeois revolution.

Similarly, the only class capable of fighting to remove partition in Ireland is the working class. It is not a matter of this task falling to them by default. There are a number of good reasons why it is in the direct interests of southern Irish workers to take up this question.

First, as long as the northern conflict continues, the poison of repression seeps over the border to the south. Southern Ireland has a battery of repressive legislation that is highly dangerous from a working-class point of view. Non-jury Special Courts have been established for political offences for almost two decades. Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act gives the state wide powers to remove “subversives” from the airwaves. The building up of the police means that the south now has one of the highest ratios of police per head of population in Europe. From an initially unarmed force, the number of armed police has risen to one in five.

Second, the destruction of the northern state is the key to working-class unity. The type of unity built by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions has depended on ignoring the reality of discrimination. In all its campaigns for “Peace, Jobs and Progress”, it has never targeted the British army and the RUC as the source of the violence. As a result, this unity of the working class’ amounts to nothing when sectarian tensions rise. If the southern working class showed in practice, however, that it was interested in removing the source of discrimination – the northern state – as part of a fight for a workers’ republic, it could begin to break sizeable sections of Protestant workers from loyalism and unite itself as a class.

Third, the policy of the Irish Labour Party and the Workers Party – which asks southern workers to make the fight against terrorism their main priority – leads to political subordination to the southern state. Ever since the 1920s the Labour Party has argued for loyalty to the southern nation-state. In 1925 its leader Tom Johnson argued that the labour movement “must preach the gospel of faithful service – for the uplifting of the nation – materially and spiritually.” [3] This was his alternative to the militant class-struggle policies advocated by Connolly. The southern state was then under much stronger attack from the republicans and Johnson felt that “faithful service” was required from the labour movement to uphold it. Today the same message comes from the Labour Party and the Workers Party, which want the state to crush the “fascist” IRA. This leads only to an alliance with the capitalist state and a block on independent class politics.

Fourth, and most important, the working class of any country has to take up the battle against oppression if it is to transform itself into a revolutionary class capable of winning its own freedom from oppression and exploitation. This point was hammered home by Lenin, who called on socialists not just to be trade-union secretaries but “tribunes of the people”. The need to take up the issue of the oppression of northern Catholics does not mean that workers have to take up nationalist politics. The key to getting rid of the British army lies with the southern working class.

Yet the anti-imperialist movement has not tried to base itself on working-class interests. Instead it has looked to Fianna Fail nationalists, cultural activists and others – no matter where they have stood on class issues. Unity with such people has meant ignoring the issues which are uppermost in working-class people’s minds.

Today those who are fighting to remove the British army have a stark choice. Either we continue to look to all nationalists, or we look to the strength of the working class. This means recognising that the reason Fianna Fail and Fine Gael collaborate with the British authorities is that they represent the Irish capitalist class – which wants political stability and is tied into world capitalism along with the British ruling class.

For this same reason – that they represent the Irish capitalist class – Fianna Fail and Fine Gael will do their utmost to push down the living standards of southern Irish workers. A connection must therefore be made between the fight of southern workers on economic and political issues and the fight being waged against oppression in the north. That connection cannot be made on a nationalist basis.

The calls for “national economic development” and “economic sovereignty” offer nothing for southern workers. The experience of the 1950s, when low wages drove thousands to emigrate, shows what a reactionary dream these ideas are. More widely, the failure of state capitalism in Eastern Europe shows that the idea that economic progress can be gained by developing a brand of nationalist capitalism, freed from “imperialist culture”, in a small, underdeveloped country is a dead end.

The interests of Irish workers lie in internationalism: in the struggle for a fight against capitalism across the globe. Contrary to nationalist myths, this does not mean sitting back and waiting for simultaneous world revolution. It means that those fighting the Irish capitalist class and its multinational allies recognise that there is no escape from capitalism until the struggle is extended to a world scale. The events in Eastern Europe, where Stalinist state-capitalist regimes have faced crisis after crisis at the hands of the workers, have testified to the international strength of the working class. The fight is for a workers’ republic and international socialism, not an Éire Nua. For that we will need the red flag, not the green.



1. Presidential speech at Sinn Fein Ard Fheis, 1989.

2. Resolution of National Anti-Extradition Campaign at its conference, 1988.

3. Letter from Tom Johnson to Irish Trades Union Congress, in Tom Johnson Collection, National Library of Ireland, Ms17230.


Last updated on 6.3.2002