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East of the Isle of Man?

David Coen

March 2002

The British response to the debacle of intervention in Egypt in 1956 was to retreat "east of Suez". Now, according to Sinn Fein and Labour Friends of Ireland, they intend to retreat east of the Irish Sea.

This acute insight into British Government thinking was made by Labour MP John McDonnell at the recent Bloody Sunday Commem-oration. While denying that he had any special access to Tony Blair, McDonnell was able to assure those present that Britain wanted to leave Ireland, indeed would already have done so, were it not for the Unionists.

The left should abandon its "old fashioned, Leninist" notions about imperialism and help the British to leave. The best way of doing so was to implement the Stormont Agreement.

Gerry OíHara, Sinn Fein leader on Derry City Council agreed. The "two or three hundred people in the leadership of Sinn Fein", with their razor sharp political antennae, had decided that the British wanted out, and so Irish unity was inevitable.

The audience were clearly bowled over by this, especially as it followed an excellent speech by Eamon McCann who pointed out that everyone knew what happened on Bloody Sunday: the questions to be answered were who ordered it and why. So the British ruling class, apparently reeling from the revelations of their foul deeds, and no longer having a "selfish strategic or economic interest in Ireland" were just trying to make their excuses and leave.

Of course there were a few who asked when precisely the British had decided to go. On this point, neither of the new, modern "post imperialists" could put even an approximate date on this decision or say what had led to it.

The date is important because it could give us a clue as to why they had decided it was time to go. McDonnell quoted former Tory NI Minister Peter Brookeís 1990 statement "that Britain had no selfish strategic or economic interest in Ireland".

For him it was simple. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Britain no longer has a major strategic interest and as for economics, the annual subsidy from the British state more than outweighed the return from British investments, therefore they are pulling out.

McDonnell here engages in the crude economism for which he denounces anti-imperialists from Lenin on. For Lenin, metropolitan capital, faced with falling rates of profit at home sought more profitable outlets elsewhere, and this led to them to attempting to militarily and politically subdue the rest of the globe.

Imperialismís specific interests could vary with period and region: it might be markets, raw materials or access to cheap labour. It wasnít simply a matter of a quick calculation of the surplus or deficit for any particular period, still less a comparison of state spending in a particular region compared to the return on investment flowing to domestic capitalists. What mattered was the continuance of the right to exploit.

Applying this to Ireland we see different phases of imperialism. The South of Ireland was independent 60 years after Marxís description of it as "only an agricultural district of England, marked off by a wide channel from the country to which it yields corn, wool, cattle, industrial and military recruits" yet it was still supplying food (predominantly cattle) to Britain and was still a significant customer for British goods. The North, occupied by the British, was still supplying ships and textiles.

What mattered to British capital was not the detail of the political arrangements but whether it could carry on business as usual. While the changing relationship between the nation state and indigenous capital is more complex, British capital basically relied on the British state to sort out the arrangements. And these remained more or less usable until the end of the post-war boom, eventually being destroyed by the mass upsurges for Civil Rights in the late 1960ís and the abolition of Stormont after Bloody Sunday in 1972.

Two things have happened since then. The Southern ruling class has steadily revised its opinion of the British. Like some nationalists in late 19th century Ireland, it now wants to be a junior partner with imperialism, having failed to become economically independent in the 60 years after 1922.

The 90s boom, the so-called "Celtic Tiger", has both boosted their confidence and their faith in partnerships with imperialism. This is anyway the nature of the period: formerly radical and "anti-imperialist" bourgeoisies making their peace with their former colonial masters under US global hegemony. And imperialism will tolerate any number of political arrangements as long as trade (i.e. profits) flow freely.

Secondly, the Unionist ruling class in the north, being less economically important, is now politically less so as well. So the British seek to push them into a coalition with the petit bourgeois nationalists of Sinn Fein, supported by the Dublin ruling class.

This requires minor concessions such as renaming the RUC. Britainís (and Dublinís) hope is that this new coalition formed out of the Stormont Agreement will draw the sting out of militant Republicanism which was (and remains) a threat on the whole island.

Recognising that a military defeat of Republicanism was not possible, they aim for stabilisation in the hope that a better opportunity will arise in the future if it can be neutralised politically. The game plan is to "modernise" the imperial relationship, not to change it.

So Sinn Fein joins the coalition government of "a failed political entity" and possibly does the same in the South. Expect a growth in "cultural" independence Ė the revival of the Irish language and so on. (This also happened in the South in the 1930s and 1940s after the defeat of the radicals in the independence movement there)

Not so political and economic independence: those will be deferred or explained away in the interest of helping the British deal with the Unionists.

To get Britain out means helping them to stay. And thatís why neither John McDonnell nor Gerry OíHara will mention the politics of British occupation. Itís not imperialism, itís the Unionists.

Isnít that what the British keep saying?



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