President’s view of British empire is too one-sided

Michael D Higgins draws deeply on postmodernist and postcolonialist theories

President Michael D Higgins urges us to engage in 'ethical remembering' as we reflect on contested events in Ireland a century ago. What this must mean, basically, is that we exercise honesty and courage in recalling the whole truth, not just the bits that comfort us. There will always be different ways of construing the facts of history, but some construals will not be worn easily by the facts. So, whatever narrative we own, we have a moral duty to admit data that disturb it. Even if that does not propel us to swap sides, it will help to grow tendrils of sympathy, which might yet blossom into trust.

The President’s own contribution to the process of ‘ethical remembering’ is to correct an imbalance. The Irish nationalist narrative has suffered decades of revision; not so, he thinks, the British imperialist one. He has been struck “by a disinclination in both academic and journalistic accounts to critique empire and imperialism”.

Sitting as I do on the British side of the Irish Sea, where the zeitgeist constantly equates colonialism with slavery and where a panellist at Churchill College, Cambridge, suffered no contradiction last month when he described the British empire as “far worse than the Nazis”, the President’s perception surprises. But maybe the empire has been enjoying a free pass in Ireland.

Postcolonialist theories

In a recent article, the President wrote of the "the project" of empire using "the mask of modernity . . . for cultural suppression, economic exploitation, dispossession and domination". "At its core," he told us, "imperialism involves . . . the assumption of superiority of culture", which forces on those subjugated a sense of the inferiority of their culture "as a dominated Other". And in his Machnamh 100 lecture earlier this month he revealed the fateful sources of his thinking – the postmodernist and postcolonialist theories of Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault and, above all, Edward Said.

The British empire was never anything as simple and coherent as 'a project'. In its early days it was mainly resistance to Catholic Spanish imperialism

I say ‘fateful’, because the President has drunk too deeply at the well of theory, causing him to misread the diverse historical phenomena of the British empire in terms of seamlessly pejorative abstractions – such as ‘domination’, ‘othering’ and ‘violence’. Yet reflection on the facts of political life suggests that every state must be in the business of dominating, if it is to perform its basic function of preserving the good of public order. And sometimes that domination must be violent, if grave threats to that order are to be fended off. The Irish Free State discovered that early in its existence. As for ‘othering’, the human tendency to reduce other people to specimens of a denigrated species is both unnecessary and widespread: not every superior succumbs to it and not every inferior resists it. These theoretical abstractions are naive.

Nor do they do justice to imperial realities. Here are some of the factual flies in the theoretical ointment. First, the British empire was never anything as simple and coherent as ‘a project’. In its early days it was mainly resistance to Catholic Spanish imperialism. Mostly, it was about trade, and therefore about military security and political stability. From the early 1600s to 1807 it was much about slavery; but from 1807 to the 1960s it was consistently about anti-slavery. Sometimes it slaughtered the innocent, infamously at Amritsar in 1919, but its greatest violence was directed at European fascism, against which, from May 1940 to June 1941, it was the only military force in the field – except for Greece.

Cultural repression

Next, Said’s claim that empire invariably involves cultural repression does not readily accommodate the fact that the renaissance of Irish language and literature with Yeats, Synge and Hyde occurred within the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Nor does it square with the Indian experience, where according to Nirad Chaudhuri, in rescuing classical Sanskritic civilisation from oblivion, Warren Hastings, Sir William Jones and other British orientalists “rendered a service to Indian and Asiatic nationalism which no native could ever have given. At one stroke it put the Indian nationalist on a par with his English ruler.” Indeed, it gave him the material out of which to build “the historical myth” of a Hindu civilisation that was superior to Europe’s.

If colonialists can 'other' the natives, essentialising them into contemptible stereotypes, nationalists, too, can 'other' the imperialists

Nor is it true, as the President implies, that those Irish men and women who became the “willing agents” of British empire were therefore “accomplices” to its hubris and violence. Take, for one example, Antony MacDonnell, the Catholic native of Co Mayo who, as a member of the Indian civil service. made himself an outstanding expert on Indian famines. When he was made lieutenant-governor of the northwestern provinces in the 1890s, he gave district officers the discretion to spend money in emergencies without waiting for permission, telling their supervising commissioner to impress on them “their personal responsibility in regard to starvation deaths. The system is ready and they have the funds. They cannot be held free from blame if starvation deaths occur.” MacDonnell was certainly a very willing Irish agent of empire, but he was no accomplice to crime.

If colonialists can ‘other’ the natives, essentialising them into contemptible stereotypes, nationalists, too, can ‘other’ the imperialists. No one would expect the President of the Irish Republic to learn to love the British empire, but he could do it better justice. Overall agreement is too much to ask of ‘ethical remembering’, but common admission of awkward facts could be the mother of growing trust.