Colonialism and Ireland: The choice facing us is between empire and republic

Ireland, North and South, can only be understood in colonial terms, our new book argues

We have recently published Anois ar Theacht an tSamhraidh: Ireland, Colonialism and the Unfinished Revolution. This represents the culmination of four years of discussions, research, writing and critique. We began by putting the concept of colonialism at the centre of our analysis of the issues facing contemporary Ireland. We believed that this would allow us not merely to understand the past but to reveal that the origins of many of the continuing ills of the present derive from that past.

We agreed with Wolfe (1999) that “invasion is a structure, not an event” and its effects range across centuries. Finally, our concern was not just with past and present but also with the future; unless this structure is named and explicated in Ireland, the task of crafting solutions to the effects of the harms of the past is made profoundly difficult.

For the first few years we felt that we were ploughing a lonely furrow. There were few academics – historians, political scientists, sociologists, human rights lawyers – who were doing what we were doing, using colonialism as a concept to explain contemporary Ireland. The most that existed was an acknowledgement that colonialism may once have had explanatory power in relation to Ireland, but not any more.

Then in February 2021, as we finished a final proof reading of the book, President Michael D Higgins published an article in The Irish Times. He wrote:


“I am struck by a disinclination in both academic and journalistic accounts to critique empire and imperialism. Openness to, and engagement in, a critique of nationalism has seemed greater. And while it has been vital to our purposes in Ireland to examine nationalism, doing the same for imperialism is equally important and has a significance far beyond British/Irish relations.”

His attack on the “feigned amnesia” in relation to colonialism resonated immediately with us, as did the BLM (Black Lives Matter) agitation of the last year. As statues were toppled from Bristol to Boston, and indeed calls emerged for the removal of the statue of John Mitchel from Newry on account of his unrepentant support for slavery, we found ourselves no longer alone but in the middle of an intense rediscovery of colonialism. We started our research in a country in which colonialism was being dismissed as having little relevance to post-Good Friday agreement relationships; now it is back on the agenda.

The issue of statues is emblematic of this renewed interest in colonialism. In the Irish context various iterations of Queen Victoria were removed from Irish towns and cities following the establishment of the Free State; yet she remains resolutely in situ in front of the eponymous hospital in the very heart of republican west Belfast.

Some of the removal of statues was post-partition decolonisation by the southern state. But much of the dynamic was less formal and more contentious. Nelson was removed unceremoniously from O’Connell Street by republicans in 1966 on the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising. A similar fate had met King Billy outside Trinity in 1929.

The BLM movement forced the world to re-engage with these legacies of colonialism. In other words, if they had not already gone, the presence of statues like this in Ireland would and should now be under scrutiny. This issue remains even more toxic in the North – where most relics of empire remain firmly in place. In the context of BLM, loyalists mobilised in the centre of Belfast around the “save our statues” banner. So, we do not have to look very hard at Irish history to see why these issues remain live.

The book is in three main parts. The first part is about situating Ireland within wider processes of colonialism and imperialism. We focus on the enduring dialectic between what we characterise as Empire and Republic. At the heart of this binary is an ideological tension between two very different principles about how, and in whose interest, the world is to be organised and run – imperialism versus national self-determination. This tension frames the last 500 years of history around the world.

Our book is an attempt to explore this tension between empire and republic in Ireland, north and south. Even before the British empire emerged in its full colours, or Ireland defined itself as a nation, empire or republic was the choice facing every person in Ireland once conquest began and later became embedded.

A specific British form of colonialism as it developed in Ireland (linked, of course, to the forms that British colonialism took elsewhere) was pitched against an Irish version of republicanism that emerged in its fullest form from the United Irish movement onwards.

Once colonialism is centre stage, some things become much simpler to understand. For example, lots of things that seem like Irish exceptionalism are revealed as all too ordinary when you put them back in the colonial context. Take the issue of political violence in Ireland. From Australia to the US to India, resistance to colonialism was often routinely violent. But the colonial process itself was equally brutal.

It is a characteristic of contemporary apologists for imperialism that they insist “it wasn’t all bad”. But it was uniquely brutal: colonialism institutionalised and constitutionalised violence in extreme forms – enslavement, starvation and genocide.

Some of the statistics are staggering: the indigenous population of the Americas fell by some 90 per cent in the 300 years after Columbus’s arrival, from an estimated 70 million people. The population of Hispaniola may have been as high as 8 million when Columbus arrived; less than three decades later is was around 200,000. Ten million Africans died under King Leopold’s rule in the Congo alone. The statistics are endless, and endlessly shocking.

Ireland was no exception to this pattern of terror as a political strategy. Take one example, slight though it may be in comparison to the above instances, that of the architect of the plantation of Ulster, Arthur Chichester. On one occasion he reported back to Queen Elizabeth: “We have burnt and destroyed along [Belfast] Lough … in which journeys we have killed above over one hundred people of all sorts, besides such as were burnt, how many I know not. We spare none of what quality or sex soever, and it hath bred much terror in the people.”

It is striking – particularly in the post-BLM moment – that much of the centre of the city remains named for him (Donegall Square, Chichester Street, etc). The colonial nexus was embedded – and became celebrated – in the DNA of the Irish colonial state. This remained so in the whole of Ireland under the Union and it still obtains in Northern Ireland. The Six Counties never experienced the first stage of the decolonising process – the formal disengagement of the colonial power. Northern Ireland was never decolonised; it remains a colonised space.

Colonialism did not recognise borders on the island of Ireland, least of all a border to be imposed at a future date. There is no more profound evidence than An Gorta Mór. Despite the apparent historical consensus around this unprecedented catastrophe for the Irish people, it wasn’t a famine and it wasn’t Irish; from the constitutional perspective, it was a British starvation – a phenomenon that took place within the British Empire and within the Union.

An Gorta Mór becomes the ultimate colonial crime. First, you make people colonial subjects – against their will, mind. Second, you proceed to kill them or let them die. Remember, this happened less than 50 years after the Acts of Union – and it haunts all subsequent Irish history. Anyone wanting to defend or rehabilitate the British empire or the “precious union” has to begin by justifying the millions of Irish disappeared.

The second section of the book turns to the two states that emerged from Partition; they too were colonial constructs. Moreover, they remain living symbols of the “unfinished revolution”. This revolution was the idea of the republic that constituted what would and should have been an act of national self-determination.

This was given clearest expression in the 1918 Irish general election. In this sense, the election is more significant than 1916 because here was something that was more programmatic than 1916 and it was endorsed by the Irish people democratically.

The Sinn Féin Manifesto to the Irish People in 1918 was helpfully unambiguous: “Ireland is faced with the question whether this generation wills it that she is to march out into the full sunlight of freedom, or is to remain in the shadow of a base imperialism that has brought and ever will bring in its train naught but evil for our race.”

This was the first time the Irish people were offered that choice. It was also the last time – to date. That realisation ought to fashion the debate on reunification. A border poll, such as currently envisaged, would not be the second occasion for gauging the will of the Irish people, but rather two polls taken separately in the two states which were formed by Partition.

The two states that emerged from this unfinished revolution were completely defined by colonialism – they were constructs of empire. Northern Ireland remained locked within union and empire; but the 26 counties remained within empire too. Here we make much of its new status as a “white dominion” – Ireland was not to leave the empire but rather to be elevated to a new racialised position within it.

The subsequent journey of the 26 counties was indelibly marked by this colonial status. For example, although on occasion the Irish State took progressive stands in terms of support for other colonised or decolonising peoples, overall it threw in its lot with its former colonial master and the other “white dominions” of the Commonwealth (Australia, Canada, New Zealand) in terms of its international relations.

Eventually almost all space for an independent relationship with decolonised and decolonising nations was curtailed by incorporation in that other white polity, the European Union. In short, the South began a tortuous journey from the starting point characterised by Michael Collins as “the freedom to achieve freedom”. Just how far it has travelled along the path of decolonisation remains a moot point.

Northern Ireland on the other hand became a truly reactionary, hyper-imperial offshoot symbolising the antithesis of independence or self-determination. Rather it was to be numbered alongside apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia under UDI in a list of polities that managed to successfully reverse the journey towards decolonisation. Unlike these insalubrious comparators, however, it managed to keep its connection to the UK. It is these two states – both framed by colonialism – which now face the centenary of partition and must grapple with its legacy.

The final section of the book turns to the other side of the colonial story – anti-imperialism and decolonisation. The notion that Ireland remains colonised is, of course, a bold assertion. It is counterintuitive for many people. As we pointed out above, it also runs against the grain in much of the contemporary historiography.

This is true, of course, for those who insist that Ireland was “never colonised”. But it also holds for those who accept that colonisation was part of Irish history at some point but no longer applies. Thus, utilising a contemporary anti-colonial paradigm is equally problematic for those who indicate a specific date – for example, 1800 with the Union, or 1922 with the establishment of the Free State, or 1998 with the Good Friday Agreement – as marking the end of colonialism in Ireland.

However, the circuits of colonialism and imperialism remain embedded in both Irish polities. This organic colonial dynamic is most obviously manifest in the partition Border which has recently become so contentious – and portentous – once again. In other words, anyone interested in understanding the Irish present or constructing the Irish future, must begin with a reading of this reality – not as a colonial history but rather as a colonial present.

Our book then asks: how do we get out of this place? Again, it helps to address this question in comparative context – no colonised country has ever found finishing the anti-colonial revolution easy or completely satisfactory. And while South Africa after democratisation was the first to ever make the full transition from “white dominion”, you have to be particularly sanguine to regard contemporary South Africa as somehow “post-racial” or “post-colonial”.

The Rhodes Must Fall campaign reminds us that the process of decolonisation is ongoing globally. In other words, the multiple legacies of colonialism obtain everywhere and the whole world continues to wrestle with them.

So, this raises the question of what another famous colonist, Spenser, ruminated on as the “present state of Ireland”. If Ireland had really transcended colonialism, it would be the first country in the world to have reached this remarkable objective. In reality Ireland is far from complete spiritual and political independence in 2021 – what the Indian anti-colonial movement characterised as Purna Swaraj.

To begin to even approach this level of independence means seeking out the political threats and opportunities that can help to lay to rest some of the legacies of colonialism. The goal is in essence about self-determination, broadly defined as a process of ending various forms of structural, institutionalised injustice – including sectarianism, racism, sexism, and class inequality which have all assumed particular forms in Ireland, North and South, because of our colonial history.

From this perspective, Ireland is indeed at a conjuncture this year that is both dangerous and fascinating. At the very point of the centenary “birthday” of the two states on the island, Partition is under sustained scrutiny for the first time in 50 years. What are the elements of this moment?

First, we are reaching the climax of a long and slow demographic transition in the North that has taken place over a generation. The key legitimation myth of this state – Protestant majoritarianism – is being remorselessly undermined by a demographic transition that has seen a Protestant majority being replaced by a Catholic and “Other” plurality. This happened in schools a long time ago, it happened in the capital city Belfast a decade ago and all the signs are that it will happen in absolute terms across the North in the census of this year.

In other words, if you aggregate these two categories, you find a Catholic and migrant and BAME people plurality. And the flipside is that Protestants qua Protestants are increasingly minoritised within the state. This means that the old notion of a “Protestant state for a Protestant people” no longer carries any democratic legitimacy, albeit that any democratic legitimacy it once carried was predicated on an initial sectarian land grab.

This transition does not, however, entail a nationalist or republican majority – the political implications are more complex than that. But the shift is evident in politics too – unionists lost their electoral majority for the first time in the last Assembly elections; and the opposition to Brexit vote in the North was the first time that there had been a clear anti-unionist political majority in any election in the six counties.

In this context, we can legitimately ask – in the Yeatsian formula – whether the centre can hold any longer? This is not just a question of whether the DUP or UUP or SDLP or Sinn Féin or Alliance can stay in government with each other but whether the state itself – which was established on the first principle of having a Protestant majority – can survive existentially with a growing Catholic/Other plurality and a declining Protestant minority.

More recently, we have seen two further epoch-defining events thrown into this mix. First, we are still in the middle of a Brexit process that has profoundly reframed the Border in Ireland. Brexit is also seeing a wider fracturing of the UK which cannot but have an impact in Ireland.

Second, we are in the middle of a pandemic that has upended lives around the world but also worked its way out in complex political dynamics in Ireland. At some points is seems to have exposed the ludicrous nature of the Border; at other times it has reinforced partitionism across the island.

In this mix, the voice of the Other in the North – the “not Protestant” people who the state was “not for”, all those people who were not mobilised in support of Protestant majoritarianism and unionism – becomes crucial. Most of these people do not want a Border at all – but with the demographic transition this reality assumes a quite different status than it did historically.

Most remain the heirs of people who were trapped against their will in a new state that both denied and pathologised their very existence. It is still possible to hear reportage as if the Border marked a cultural precipice between Protestants and Catholics and unionists and nationalists. Yet for most of its 500km length it is – in reality – a border between Catholics and other Catholics and nationalists and other nationalists, between Irish towns and other Irish towns. Thus, it is now primarily a border between Irish people rather a border between Irish people and British people.

Quite remarkably, this sectarian and profoundly reactionary state formation has bucked the trend of decolonisation for 100 years. But this cannot be sustained. This is primarily why reunification is a live political issue. Whatever the rights and wrongs of this situation, Northern Ireland, and ipso facto Ireland as a whole, cannot continue in the form it was once imagined.

In this context, it is sometimes unbelievable for those of us who have shared that experience to hear the widening agonising about sensitivity to unionist fears. We lived with this reactionary colonial formation for 100 years without too much wider concern for our lived experience of institutional sectarianism and racism.

What needs much more focus is the scenario of widening opportunities for everyone – unionists included – in moving beyond the prison of the colonial legacy.

So, it is from and to this alternative perspective that our analysis speaks most personally. This other, Irish voice – effectively silenced for a hundred years – must now be listened to. Our book speaks specifically to those who have been racialised and sectarianised and minoritised for 100 years – and makes it clear that any renegotiation must address the rights of the growing non-unionist majority in the North as well as the unionist minority. Not only because this is the right thing to do but increasingly because there can be no prospect of a peaceful or democratic Ireland without it.

In this context, we suggest that an engagement with a wider colonial history than simply that of Ireland offers profound insights for us in Ireland. In particular it offers creative and positive solutions to old binaries.

Take the notion of “mestizaje”, a word which is commonly used throughout Latin America. At its simplest it means “mixedness” and refers to the origins of the people from three sources: criollos (descendants of Spanish colonisers), indigenous people and descendants of African slaves.

As a descriptive label the word indicates that the population in many Latin American countries derives from the sexual and cultural mixing of all three groups; as a result, there is no such thing as ethnic “purity”. In this sense it is the polar opposite of the racist concept of miscegenation.

For us, the lack of “purity” allows a path to be found toward an inclusive future. On the island of Ireland, and especially in the North, any contemporary reference to “settlers” and “natives” is nonsensical: we are all descended from the mixing of settler and native and many of the newest arrivals to our shores from Africa, Asia and elsewhere are creating even further mestizaje.

And therein is the progressive potential of the concept. If we are all mestizos and mestizas, all mixed, then we are not determined by our origins but have political choices to make – to follow the “settler” roots of our identity and side with empire or to follow the “native” roots of our identity and side with the republic. As it has been for centuries, the choice facing us is between empire and republic.

In this as in other ways we believe that the book frames Irishness in a new and fresh manner and brings the prospect of “finishing the revolution” in a peaceful, democratic and just way that might genuinely “cherish all the children of nation equally”.

Certainly, whatever futures are possible on the island of Ireland, they cannot be realised without reference to the long shadow cast by colonial history. Making sense of this reality – alongside engaging with the question of what needs to be done to change it – is the core task of this book.

Anois ar Theacht an tSamhraidh: Ireland, Colonialism and the Unfinished Revolution, by Robbie McVeigh and Bill Rolston, is published by Beyond the Pale Books