What on earth was going on here last month? To all appearances a supposedly sovereign independent republic immersed itself in sympathy and affection for the British monarchy.
Within hours of the announcement of Elizabeth’s death, RTE had a crew broadcasting solemnly from London. The Government fell over backwards in its determination to offer heartfelt condolences. Micheál Martin, leader of the so-called republican party, ordered every council building in the 26 Counties to fly the Tricolour at half mast on the day of the funeral.
Perceptions are often deceptive, though, and the reality is that many Irish people were not only unmoved by England’s royalist pageant but were deeply uncomfortable at the craven response to it. Ireland has a centuries-long history of a republicanism based not simply on sentiment but on lived experience. For too long the British Crown presided over so much misery and repression that its transgressions cannot easily be forgotten or forgiven.
While it is understandable that socialists and republicans would deplore the unprincipled forelock-tugging from the Irish establishment, it is important to reflect more deeply on the underlying significance of these events. Was it merely an embarrassing display of nostalgia for the old empire, or was there a more hard-headed calculation at work?
There may well be an amount of grovelling involved. With so many Irish people having served in Britain’s armed forces (including the Taoiseach’s uncles), it would be a surprise if it were otherwise. Nevertheless it is becoming increasingly obvious that, in a rapidly changing world order, an influential section of the Irish ruling class believe it is necessary to reset the connection with Britain. Promoting tolerance and even affection for the “Royal Family” is just one step along the way.
The monarchy is more than pomp and ceremony. As an institution, it serves to reinforce the permanence of existing power structures. What better way to legitimise a rigid, class-based capitalist society than having the office of head of state as a hereditary entitlement, an office that may be passed, tax-free, from the richest woman in the world to her academically challenged 73-year old son.
As for a funeral cortege consisting of 6,000 uniformed members of the armed forces—well, it hardly indicates a significant change of thinking from the nineteenth-century era of gunboat diplomacy.
And that’s exactly the point of it all: to preserve power and privilege for the few. Without doubt, maintaining the status quo is also a matter of real concern for Ireland’s ruling class.
The Irish establishment is now faced with a number of threats to its power base. From an establishment point of view, two issues in particular are deemed threatening. One is the age-old matter of the Six-County state, with its potential for creating destabilisation. Results from the latest census have done little to assuage the fears of the Southern bourgeoisie as the continued existence of that dysfunctional political entity is put further in question.
The second issue is a growing challenge to the Irish establishment’s dependence for its wealth and privilege on the promotion and practice of neoliberalism.
That neoliberalism is failing its authors, suggesting a period of instability for capitalism, was shown in the August issue of Socialist Voice, in an article by Greg Godels, writing for Marxism-Leninism Today.¹ Significantly, a remarkably similar assessment has appeared in an opinion piece published recently on its editorial page by that gospel of the markets, the Financial Times.
Prof. Larry Kramer, president of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, pulled no punches in his Financial Timesarticle when describing neoliberalism’s failings.² In his words, it has “fostered grotesque inequality, fuelled the rise of populist demagogues, exacerbated racial disparities and hamstrung our ability to deal with crisis like climate change.”
There was much in his critique that socialists would agree with. However, and in spite of that, the professor’s recommendations for dealing with capitalism’s crisis remain fixed within private-sector parameters. Fearing that China’s economic model may prove an attractive alternative, he stated that if capitalism is to survive it will need to adapt, as it has done in the past.
Therein lies the problem for capitalism; because, while we know that the system has proved itself capable of adapting, it has rarely done so with a seamless or painless transition. Conflict arises when economic change is being enforced or resisted, and always with traumatic disruption and pain for working people. On some occasions such adjustments have even led to war or revolution.
It would appear that Britain at present is experiencing the working out of this process of change. Having spearheaded the neoliberal onslaught during the Thatcher years, Britain is now struggling with all the consequences identified by Prof. Kramer. While other developed capitalist economies, such as the United States under Joe Biden, France, and Germany, have been moving in favour of greater state intervention (in the short term at least), Britain has bucked the trend.
In keeping with a ruling class steeped in the myth of empire, its new prime minister has decided not to change but to reinforce policies from the past. The September mini-budget introduced by the chancellor of the exchequer, Kwasi Kwarteng, was just such an attempt to serve the gods of Thatcherite neoliberalism, a package designed to provide more for the already rich coupled with a promise to further restrict trade unions’ right to withdraw labour. That this initiative has caused the English pound to slump appears not to have dented Tories’ confidence in its strategy.
That Britain’s governing party is so determined to adhere to the most extreme form of neoliberalism is a source of comfort for Ireland’s comprador ruling class. Unsure of how to deal with a developing economic challenge, emphasised by thousands marching to protest against the cost-of-living crisis, England can become a point of reference for the Irish establishment. Hence their need to construct a new affinity with British institutions, starting with obeisance to the Crown.
Socialist republicans can take some comfort from the fact that our history alone shows that they face an uphill task. Nevertheless, we must take every opportunity to ensure that the 26 Counties does not revert to abject colonial status.
A century has passed since Liam Lynch said, “We have declared for an Irish Republic, and will not live under any other law.” Surely we can at least agree with him on that.
- Greg Godels, “Towards a New Political Order,” Marxism-Leninism Today, 17 July 2022 (tinyurl.com/2p9ear6b).
- Larry Kramer, “The market must not become an end in itself,” Financial Times, 17/18 September 2022.