Labour’s Irish Blind Spot

Reading Time: 10 minutes

Eddie Molloy and Maev McDaid provide an overview of the British left’s historical failures on the the question of Ireland, and point the way forward to a pro-Irish unity stance.

Under Jeremy Corbyn, an exciting and growing broad left movement emerged in England, exposing a desire of many, mainly young, activists wanting to engage with issues of internationalism and solidarity. The rebirth of the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020 and the huge swell of support for Palestine in mid 2021, with tens of thousands of people taking to the streets, indicates the desire to tackle issues of race, colonialism and imperialism that the British state is built on. And yet, the left in England continue to at best ignore the Irish situation or at worst continue to treat it as a colony – a mere extension of British life, just one that is overseas. Here, we tackle why this position is not tenable, and why the left in England must look closer to home to learn the lessons of international solidarity before it claims to have an internationalist outlook.  

One of the greatest cultural cleavages between the Irish and English left has been the role of Cromwell in historical discourse. This is evident in the shock of Irish militants when they discover the near universal esteem in which the butcher of Drogheda is held in England. It soon becomes clear however that the only thing that Cromwell is known for in Ireland is entirely forgotten in England. This forgetting of one side of what has been recently and euphemistically termed ‘shared history’ is emblematic not simply of how historical memory (and, by extension, historiography) operates but of how the occlusion of non-and anti-imperialist narratives is central to the reproduction of colonial mentalities in the imperial centre.  

The case of Cromwell is key here. For not only was Cromwell the expression of the growth of the English bourgeoisie but also of the inseparable process of overseas expansion, expropriation and enslavement that characterised the British Empire. The long seventeenth century was for Ireland one of annihilation through absolute incorporation into the regime of racial capitalism. This was ensured through the near-total destruction of the indigenous regime and culture through the Nine Years War (1593-1603), the plantation of Ulster (through the same means and finance as the Virginia Plantation), the Cromwellian invasion and settlement, and the Williamite Wars and resultant Penal Laws that persisted until at least 1829.  

The nineteenth century saw huge levels of migration from Ireland, not least to England. The processes of racialisation that had been imposed in Ireland and elsewhere in the British Empire reappeared in the metropole as a central element of the class struggles that emerged from the development of industrial capitalism. In spite of attempts to divide the working class along ethnic and racial lines, many Irish migrants and their children took up central roles in the campaign for workers’ rights and opposition to imperialism. It is noteworthy in this regard that leaders of the Chartist movement were also Irish and a strong tradition of Irish involvement in radical and trade union politics in England persisted well into the twentieth century. 

While working class solidarity with the Irish struggle has certainly ebbed and flowed, it probably reached its apogee during the revolutionary period (1916-23), with publications like the Workers’ Dreadnought foregrounding the issue of Irish liberation as intrinsic to the global workers’ and anti-imperialist movement. However, there persisted deep strains of a reformist labourism that resisted universal calls for emancipation and increasingly identified with the imperialism of the ruling classes. The partition of Ireland in the early 1920s led to an apparent settling of the so-called ‘Irish Question’ for the next fifty years. Throughout that period, the British Labour Party was able to develop a form of social democratic nationalism that could both manage British imperial interests and partially satisfy the demands of (often racialised) sections of the working class.  

This abandonment of, or the failure to cultivate, a thoroughgoing critique of imperialism along with a certain complicity of the labour movement with the demands of racial capitalism severely limited the prospect of the emergence of an anti-imperialist left. The radical fringes (often with large numbers of first-generation Irish migrants) did attempt to do this with various levels of success, but it was only when the conflict in the north of Ireland broke out in 1969 that the issue of Ireland and its relationship with Britain could no longer be ignored.  

The continued existence of a colonial statelet within the ‘United kingdom’ as the formal empire was crumbling, posed deep questions about the very nature of the state, its imperial past and present and what emancipation might actually look like. The eruption at the Battle of the Bogside in 1969 and the constitution of an insurgent population coupled with exoduses and pogroms belied the myth of British providential progress. The armed insurrection that followed too raised a myriad of questions for the British left that most would rather not face. There were of course exceptions, but the silence of the New Left Review on the ongoing conflict from 1970 to 1995 marks a hiatus more typical than aberrant on the English left.  

Instead, the complicity of the mainstream left with imperialism was compacted by blood with the deployment of the British army by a Labour government to ‘restore order’ in 1969. The vehemence with which the Labour Party in power pursued the policy of criminalisation of young revolutionaries from the ghettos and impoverished small-holdings across British-controlled Ireland led directly to the ‘No Wash’ protests and Hunger Strikes from 1976-81. But crucially, criminalisation meant ‘Ulsterisation’. A policy inspired by Nixon’s Vietnamisation that would make the conflict a purely domestic matter for the statelet created from the Northernmost six counties of Ireland. The brutality of colonialism had to be hidden under the guise of being an idiosyncratic ‘provincial’ matter; one of law and order, in which the intrinsically violent and irrational nature of the natives would take centre stage.  

Despite the origins of the euphemistically named ‘Troubles’, and role of the British State in both partitioning the island and in the suppression of the native Irish population in the North after partition, the Peace Process of the 1990s positioned the British state as a neutral broker between two ‘warring tribes’ – the Irish Catholic population and the loyalist Protestant population. The ‘Peace Process’ effectively enshrined the sectarianism that we are familiar with today, but that sectarianism was fostered by colonialism and imperialism. Tony Blair left office with accolades of bringing peace to the war torn six counties and few mentioned the war was waged by the British State against the Irish Catholic population. The narrative of the Peace Process, still uncritically championed by Corbyn (who has consistently used his platform to tie the Irish fight to present day liberation struggles, but whose parliamentary position has restricted his ability to critique the Good Friday Agreement) and the labour left today, is the product of the whitewashing of the Labour Party’s historical role. In 1969 it was a British Labour government who sent the army in and it is a British Labour Party in opposition who are attacking the Tories from the right on amnesties for soldiers who committed war crimes in Ireland. Remnants of anti-imperialist radicalism persisted on some of the fringes with several MPs supporting the Troops Out Movement in 1973, a tradition carried on by people like Corbyn, John McDonnell and Ken Livingstone in the 1980s with the launch of the Sinn Fein backed ‘Time to Go’ Campaign in 1989 marking the 20th anniversary of the re-deployment of British Troops to Ireland. 

There were pockets of sympathy for the Civil Rights Movement and opposition to internment within the Trade Union movement – in no small part due to the large numbers of Irish people who made up the Trade Union movement in England at the time. The Troops Out Movement formed in London was established in 1973 by Trade Unionists, housewives, students and ex-soldiers in what Aly Renwick, one of the founders, called the Leveller tradition of rejecting British Imperialism in Ireland (rather than go with Cromwell to Ireland, some Leveller soldiers mutinied resulting in arrest and, in three cases, execution). The Anti-Internment League mobilised 30,000 to the streets of London after Bloody Sunday but this did not reflect a deep engagement with the colonial conditions of Ireland. This is evident as sympathy soon waned after the IRA ramped up its guerilla campaign, with the 1974 Birmingham Bombing and Guildford Bombing in 1976. These bombings saw the introduction of the Prevention of Terrorism Act which isolated and demobilised the Irish community in Britain. Anti-Irish sentiment materialised with harassment on the streets, in work places and across everyday life, a direct response of Labour policy to treat all Irish migrants as criminals.  The extra-parliamentary left did have some sporadic successes in foregrounding the issue of Ireland, but this was not sustained. 

Fundamentally, the British labour movement has absconded from supporting those at the receiving end of British state violence in Ireland – it has been complicit in the conditions there or it has chosen to simply ignore its own role through the violent occlusion of the experience of the oppressed. The promised uplands that were offered by the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), have not been delivered. Rather, the GFA has institutionalised sectarianism, it sold a lie to the Irish people and crucially it gave the Labour party and successive British Governments impunity in their role in the destruction of countless lives. The promised peace dividends appear as a bad joke while parts of Derry and Belfast are still the worst hit on Multiple Deprivation Indexes. The conditions that gave rise to the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s: no housing, no jobs, no equal rights to the rest of Britain (there is still no consistent access to abortion in the six counties) are symptoms of a still poor and divided society where people are continually treated as second class citizens. The supposedly democratic mechanisms of consociationalism that govern the Northern Ireland Assembly operate as little more than a far-right veto over progressive legislation and serve to ensure that the Stormont Executive has little option than to rubber-stamp conservative budgets drafted in Whitehall.  

There is hope, however. In Ireland the social movements that have emerged in the last decade have been all-Ireland 32 county island protests – including on abortion access, workers’ rights, LGBT rights, climate change and women’s rights. This is what Eamon McCann called a demonstration “of a United Ireland” rather than ‘for’ a United Ireland. While both states on the Island continue to act in the interests of capital and not the people, the people across the Island are coming together to demand an equal, fairer society – beyond the treaties drawn up 100 years ago that served the interest of British imperialism. 

So what is the role of the English left in this? To be internationalist, the left in England obviously must support the popular all-island movements in Ireland from an internationalist position. The rise of the left in England organising on a ‘UK’ basis which undermines the unique conditions and experiences of the six counties in the North of Ireland. We are not, and should not be seen as simply a region of the ‘United Kingdom’. As one of Britain’s first and (hopefully) last colonies, it is essential to aim to get the language of organising and solidarity right. The UK is not a synonym or less offensive term for Britain or England and it matters. For example, people in England often talk about UK policing – which is meaningless because the north of Ireland maintains a fundamentally and historically different style of policing to England, Scotland and Wales that includes regular deployment of water cannon and internment for political prisoners. Another example is hearing that abortion rights are homogenous in the ‘UK’ – with no such services still in the North of Ireland. Moreover, we are often asked by left groups in climate and Palestine solidarity movements in England to participate in ‘UK’ initiatives that would mean continuing to partition the solidarity we have in progressive movements across Ireland just to fit a British framework. 

As well as removing solidarity from a ‘UK’ framework for the reasons noted above, the left in England should also challenge the prevailing notion that the Troubles were simply between ‘Catholics’ and ‘Protestants’. This lazy stereotype operates on precisely the same colonial register that has led to the abject failure of the English left to adopt a practice and a discourse that is open and built on solidarity rather than the reproduction of racial hierarchies and ahistorical platitudes. The Troubles were a result of, and worsened by, British colonialism, not  some sort of inherent violence among ‘warring tribes.’ This summer a popular left wing English pundit published a podcast called ‘Is peace about to break in Northern Ireland’ because there were riots happening in urban areas – which has been a regular feature of society there during and since the ‘Troubles’. It seems clear that such headlines are motivated for clout and not a desire to understand why things are the way they are. 

To talk about Irish people in this way is superficial and provocative but it is also extremely naive and paternalistic to continue to whitewash the British state and Labour party’s role in the conditions there. Take for example Stella Creasy MP as she proudly took credit for the hard work of Irish feminist activists in legalising abortion rights – and yet in the last two years there are still no provisions and she has been nowhere to be seen; Charlotte Nichols MP attacks the government from the right on amnesty for soldiers; popular left magazines produce glowing reviews of labour figures such as Barbara Castle without any mention of her role in the cabinet during the conflict and her support of sending in the troops. The Labour party is an imperialist party and even its so-called left of centre ambassadors are consistently ignorant of the politics of Ireland. Under the leadership of Keir Starmer, who recently announced he would campaign to keep Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom in order to shore up the reactionary credentials of his position, with little to no opposition from the ‘left’ within the party – the Irish people have no reason to expect Labour support for self-determination. These are all examples of where the English Labour left fails to hold principled positions on calling out their colleagues, comrades and leaders. Many people in the English left are afraid or unable to recognise that they continue to play a role in imperialist narratives around Ireland. They should at least know that the national boundaries and indeed the very legitimacy of the UK as a political entity are deeply (and often violently) contested, not least in the Irish context. We see that progressive movements in England do not show the same sensitivity and radical anti-imperialist approach in the structures and language of their organising that characterised the best traditions there.*

We suggest that  reproducing  imperialistic formations/discourses should be questioned and argue that the breakup of Britain is in the interests of the whole working class. Britain is a state that is built on racism, imperialism, and exploitation – the British left should no longer see the six counties as a partner in the union and get behind the movement for Irish unity.

*Below are a selection of examples of the British left’s ignorance on the position of Ireland within a colonial context

This book is even called ‘Prison Island’ and  despite having no reference or relevance to the six counties in Ireland, on a different island, it is included in the cover.

The interchanging of the ‘UK’ and Britain – despite having no reference or relevance to the six counties in Ireland, it is included in the cover.

Often well intentioned left groups use the partitioned map of Ireland sometimes, ironically, in a decolonial context.

Eddie Molloy is an IRC funded postdoctoral fellow at UCC and Maev McDaid is a researcher and activist based in London.

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