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Chapter Six

The British: A model for decolonisation

Insofar as the words imperialism and colonialism figure in political discourse in Ireland today they are seen as referencing the distant past. We have moved on to a place where only culture and identity are important, the ancient enemy is now our best friend and Sinn Fein leaders offer paeans of praise to the British Royal family.

Even among critics who accept the terms the words are loosely used simply to register opposition. Colonialism and imperialism are part of a long historical process and crises arose for both rulers and ruled. The new rulers are always a minority and normally they create native administrators and supporters to divide the members of the subject nation.

In its earlier phases colonialism is simply piracy and robbery.  The next step is to steal the land and create a landlord class alongside a landless class to work the land. Alternatively, the colonial power carries out genocide and imports a slave class. Cheap agricultural and mineral wealth are exported and native industry suppressed in order to facilitate industrial growth in the colonial power. The colony becomes a market for the surplus production of the metropolitan power.

Eventually the impoverished workers become themselves a resource and the imperialist country exports capital to the colony to extract hyper profits from the native population.

The colonial setup becomes subject to diminishing returns. The cost of administration and control of an increasingly restless colony is not justified by the low levels of productivity resulting from previous economic suppression. On the other hand, the imperial power seeks to retain overall control of the resources of the colony in the interests of geopolitical strategy.

This shift to export of capital into the colony marks a new stage, the stage of imperialism.

Imperialism incorporates colonialism, but marks a new phase of capitalism. It becomes the overwhelming global system. Banking and industrial capital combine to form finance capital. Monopoly becomes the dominant form of organisation. The imperialist powers at the end of the 19th century were battling to seize control of global resources only to subsequently launch a decolonisation drive that would continue to preserve their rule.

Ireland was Britain's first colony. Where Wales and Scotland were eventually incorporated onto the developing capitalist society, developed a somewhat subordinate bourgeoisie and saw those bourgeois join with the English in the plunder of a colonial empire, Ireland was drained of resources and left in relative penury. The state was in used to suppress local industry with the exception of areas of the North East.

Ireland saw the decay of a landed gentry and the rise of a local gombeen bourgeois starved of capital and the freedom to expand. The Unionist bourgeois in the North were tightly bound to the British imperial market and were able to form an alliance with the aristocratic layer, with the middle classes and with the upper layers of a workforce that was defined on caste and sectarian grounds.

The British response to changes in Ireland was wrapped up with a broader issue.  The old colonial market across the globe was bound up with the straightforward expropriation of wealth, the suppression and distortion of local manufacturing in the interests of the colonial power and the dumping of produce to a captive market. Economic systems were shifting towards imperialism, defined by the export of capital, dominance of finance capital and the growth of monopoly.  The British were debating a shift in their relationship with Ireland based on these changes.  That does not mean a kindly or progressive attitude to Ireland. All sides in the British ruling class were anxious to preserve their dominance.

This is the mechanism that led to a series of limited home rule bills put forward by British capital which were then delayed or postponed for fear of the consequences of any relaxation of control in Ireland. It is how they were able to join a global war, ostensibly for the freedom of small nations, while obliterating the centre of Dublin through naval bombardment to prevent Irish freedom.

So, in Ireland colonial suppression morphed into a post-colonial settlement through a series of experiments and adaptations. A loyalist army is set up and supported by the military establishment.  Pogroms in the North suppress nationalist and socialist groups. An all-class alliance, based on sectarian division, is ruled by capitalists and the aristocracy. After an initial application of military terror, divisions in the nationalists between constitutional and revolutionary wings are exploited by the British.

An Irish state is born, but the new state is crippled by economic underdevelopment, the retention of the industrial base in the partitioned North and the victory of reaction in the new Dáil. The shift is from colony to neo colony.  There are many crises, but the generally democratic content of capitalist revolution is fading. Successful republicanism in the form of a Fiánna Fail government immediately morphs into constitutional nationalism. A confessional state grows in the south. When the experiment to build a native industry is undertaken it largely fails. In the North, sectarianism fuels suppression of the minority.

The Irish experiment is repeated across the empire. The British forces leave, but they leave genocide, partition and division behind, weakening the future development of the former colonies.

In the aftermath of war, the new American century begins. Britain is diminished but remains a major imperial power, to the fore in military adventures alongside the US and with a growing appetite for national chauvinism and racism at home. The interests of unionism are disregarded in the push for Brexit, but withdrawal from Ireland is not even an issue in discussion.

<<<Chapter Five: The nationalist forces and their discontents

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