Working towards Irish Unity




Decolonisation and unification

Every day the horror of the relentless onslaught waged on Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank are on our screens. What we are witnessing is colonialism in action, and in real time. It is both barbaric and ugly. Genocide, apartheid, ethnic cleansing and theft are central motifs of colonialism. Only now do we get any real appreciation of what that would have looked like historically. Scorched earth, forced starvation and the erasure of a people and their culture, corralled into ever-decreasing strips of land. While methods have modernised the aims are the same. ‘To hell or Connaught’, as the threat went.  

Justification for colonialism is based on the perceived superiority of the oppressor, blessed by the divine in some cases, and the inferiority of the oppressed through their de-humanization. While investors in the colonial project in Ireland were enticed by the promise of a profitable return, settlers were attracted by the lure of a sporting adventure. ‘Art thou a Gentleman that takest pleasure in hunt? the Fox, the Woolfe, and the Wood-Kerne doe expect thy coming’ (Hunter 2018:20). The Wood-Kerne, of course, were human beings, the name given to the native Irish by the English colonialists. Eradication was preferred to assimilation. De-humanizing attitudes from the colonial era endured into modern times were Catholics in the north of Ireland were stereotyped to ‘breed like rabbits and multiply like vermin’. Any observer of the on-going Palestinian genocide will be familiar with such language.

Colonialism is the genesis of what is commonly referenced as sectarian division in Ireland. As Professor Brendan O’Leary points out;

Northern Ireland would not exist as a distinct entity, in which a majority of its population descends from or identifies with the colonial settlers, and a large minority descends from or identifies with precolonial inhabitants (O’Leary 2020:154).

The fissure created by colonialism was, and is, not only a matter of religious difference but a function of power, keeping two peoples in perpetual conflict. It helps explain why Irish people stand in solidarity with the Palestinians and why elements within the Unionist community support the Israeli occupation. Indeed, according to former British governor of Jerusalem, Ronald Storrs, the purpose of supporting Zionist colonization was the ‘forming for England ‘a little loyal Jewish Ulster’ in a sea of potentially hostile Arabism”, providing western imperial interests a foothold in the Middle East. 

The shadow cast by colonialism is not only a problem for the north but continues to affect the south of Ireland to the present day also. While partition created a defensive line for Ulster Protestants to handle the Irish Catholics behind the imperial border in any way they saw fit, the Free State and subsequent governments of the Republic looked the other way. For Margaret O’Callaghan the normalisation of partition ‘re-inscribed aspects of earlier British attitudes to Ireland as a whole into the republic’s attitudes to ‘the North’’ more generally (O’Callaghan 2006:622). Indeed, when violent conflict broke out in the late sixties the response by the Republic’s government was to introduce censorship legislation, Section 31. The ‘othering’ of the north was to become embedded in the psyche of the Southern establishment as an inverted colonial sentiment (note that the Republic’s conduit for the north is the Minster for Foreign Affairs).

O’Leary’s suggests that the Good Friday Agreement represents the ‘final decolonization of Ireland’ (O’Leary 2020:131), a point that is disagreed with here. Why? Because people in the north of Ireland are not masters of their own destiny. The north fits the definition of what Kwame Nkrumah (1974) called ‘neo-colonialism’. With all the ‘outward trappings of sovereignty’ the ‘reality’ is that the ‘economic system and thus its political policy is directed from outside’ (Nkrumah 1974:ix). This can be demonstrated, among other things, through reliance on the subvention from Westminster, the discretion of the Secretary of State to call a border poll or not, or the fact that the wishes of the electorate to remain in the EU was determined by English votes. By Nkrumah’s definition the north of Ireland remains neo rather than post-colonial.

Unification provides an opportunity to begin to realise a truly post-colonial future for Ireland as a whole. That is not to say that unification should wait for that process to commence or vice versa. Indeed, that process has already begun at a societal level were ordinary men and women look toward a more progressive politics that reject a sectarian, partitionist paradigm. Going post-colonial does not simply mean the re-attachment of territory but, more importantly, the de-colonization of minds, north and south. If creating a new Ireland is to mean anything then surely it is this?

Ireland continues to live with the legacy of colonialism as do many former colonies across the world. Perhaps it is time this history enters a more public discourse in Ireland, as slavery did in Britain through the Black Lives Matter movement, in order to re-programme a new national consciousness that unites rather than divides? If colonial history teaches anything it is that the patronage of the paternal power is a malign influence that accentuates rather than mitigates division, to detrimental effect.

Sponsored by former colonial powers and the US empire, the unhinged horrors of settler colonialism, have been laid bare. Intoxicated by their perceived exceptionalism the Israeli occupation acts with impunity as their society becomes de-sensitized to the atrocities inflicted on their behalf. A society that advocates and supports the killing of babies is a dangerous and sick society that inflicts profound damage not only on the Palestinian people but to themselves.  In the face of this hyper-aggression the Palestinian people remain inspirationally resilient as the ordinary men and women of the world stand with them in solidarity. Let us hope, like Ireland, that Palestine’s post-colonial future is within reach also. Ceasefire now!