The recent exhaustive celebrations of Michael Collins’s life were selective and tendentious. There was very little mention of his campaign against Dublin Castle’s G men and British intelligence but heavy emphasis on his role in negotiating the Treaty and founding the Free State.
In reality, the centenary events were an attempt by the Southern establishment to cement the present neoliberal status quo. It was almost as if the fallen general was reaching out posthumously to endorse a hundred years of fight-wing governance by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.
All the while, a century of so-called Irish independence was being heralded by the Dublin government as if British interference in Irish affairs had ended with the establishment of the Free State. Nowhere was there any reference to when Collins had lamented that too few in Irish political circles understood how the British state really operated in Ireland. While the same critique might well have eventually applied to the Big Fella himself, his observation was and remains accurate and relevant.
This is an important factor when analysing the present situation, and not only in the Six Counties but throughout the country. Because no matter how much talk there is of independence or, nowadays, of a new relationship between the two countries, English imperialism still exerts a huge influence on this side of the Irish Sea—a fact that still makes breaking the connection essential if we are to build a fair and progressive society in this country.
Regardless of what structures happen to be in place here, the British ruling class continues to look upon Ireland as somewhere to be kept within its immediate region of influence, if not as an actual colony. This was the underlying rationale behind the imposed Treaty. This too was the thinking underpinning Britain’s response to the most recent Northern conflict, when it employed bloody counter-insurgency measures to deal with what at first had been identified as a democratic deficit.
And so it remains, as evidenced by the recent Tory leadership debate, both candidates eager to override an international treaty in relation to the Six Counties and casually dismiss investigation of British state criminality in Ireland.
Britain’s exercise of sovereignty over the Six Counties gives it a direct say in affairs in the northern part of Ireland. By extension, this also affords an opportunity to have an influence on matters south of the border. On the one hand this occurs through official channels, such as the North–South ministerial arrangement and the British–Irish Intergovernmental Conference, both established under the Belfast Agreement.
There is nevertheless a less visible but equally strong element at work. That is, the Southern establishment’s deeply rooted fear of the type of transformational change that might emerge in a post-partition environment. This means in practice that Britain has disguised leverage over political decision-making in Dublin. All that is required is to merely intimate that London may consider making constitutional change north of the border.
Indeed, desperation to maintain partition has accelerated a de facto merger between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, a pact that has been further sealed by the Varadkar-Martin double act at the Bealnablagh centenary commemoration. Ironically, this consolidation of ultra-conservative forces has been responsible for the rapid expansion of anti-partitionist Sinn Féin.
Undoubtedly, official Britain is keeping a watchful eye on these developments. London always has a keen interest in what is happening in a country a few miles off its western shores—not that Ireland is any military or financial threat to British interests. Moreover, the old Empire’s decline as a global superpower has actually reduced the risk of Ireland being used as a springboard for invasion.
London’s strategic priorities vis-à-vis this country have therefore changed over recent decades. No longer required as a vital military “asset,” or indeed as important a source of cheap agricultural produce as before, the emphasis is now on ensuring that Ireland does not set a “bad example” for the English working class, that a new Irish Republic would not, in the words of James Connolly, become “a word to conjure with—a rallying point for the disaffected, a haven for the oppressed, a point of departure for the socialist, enthusiastic in the cause of human freedom.”¹
Over the past four decades Britain’s welfare state has been subjected to a relentless neoliberal assault. The once-proud National Health Service is faltering in all sectors.² Council housing is a thing of the past. Less-well-off third-level students are having to take out government loans that often require a lifetime to repay. An astonishing 13 per cent of the population are living in absolute poverty, according to a report by the House of Commons library.³ More recently, the threat of inflation is exacerbating the hardship experienced by working-class communities in Britain.
The blame for this grave situation lies primarily with the Thatcherite Conservative Party and its wealthy backers. At the moment Liz Truss, the favourite to become leader of the Conservative Party and therefore prime minister, is proposing to cut taxes on the rich and smash the unions. Her merciless political code is shared by Rishi Sunak, her challenger for 10 Downing Street.
Unfortunately, the leader of Britain’s Labour Party, Keir Starmer, is offering little alternative to the free-marketeers as he remains wedded to right-of-centre Blairite economic policies.
Significantly, though, opposition to this cosy neoliberal consensus is now emerging from within Britain’s organised labour movement. Indeed the most prominent spokesperson from within the trade union movement is Mick Lynch of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, son of Irish parents and, incidentally, an avowed admirer of James Connolly.
In the light of the present “condition of the working class in England” it is hardly surprising that Britain’s privileged ruling caste would view a move towards socialism in Ireland as inimical to its self-interest. Unlike China or Cuba, we are a close neighbour, with a substantial and regular exchange of tourists and visitors, not to mention the historically large Irish diaspora living in Britain (one of whom is the aforementioned Mick Lynch).
Imagine how difficult it would be for Britain’s neoliberal establishment to justify or even explain why a newly socialist Ireland could provide a comprehensive health service, public housing and an end to poverty while they preside over a deprived society. Better from their point of view to use all available leverage to reinforce the position of their right-wing bedfellows in the Republic.
A presence in the Six Counties affords many opportunities, direct and indirect, to do so. The Orange card was played before to foil the “freedom to achieve freedom” by providing “stepping-stones” to the Republic. A modern version would be used again but this time to prevent socialism.
Challenging the carnival of reaction, north and south, must now mean leaving the Big Fella to rest in peace. Focus instead on working to achieve Connolly’s vision of a workers’ republic, with the working class in control of everything from the Plough to the stars.
- James Connolly, Socialism and Nationalism (1897).
- See “Britain is ‘sleepwalking’ into the death of the NHS,” Morning Star, 19 August 2022.
- House of Commons Library, “Poverty in the UK: Statistics,” 13 April 2022 (https://bit.ly/3pAFFUo).