What Simply Is: Northern Ireland and Colonialism

I’ve been reading a bit of post-colonial literature, in Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, and thinking a bunch about Northern Ireland in light of this and remarks made by public figures. Having already written about the latter in my last blog post—and feeling like I treated the relations between the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI), fascism, and liberalism relatively clearly—I want to write up and try to make something coalesce in my thoughts as to this very Protestant fascism and the history of colonialism in Northern Ireland (NI).

NI has a long history with regard to Christianity; yet it was only in the latter 19th and early 20th centuries that Protestantism was deeply affected by and took upon itself so explicitly and openly the valences of a fascist, Unionist politics—“For God and Ulster!”. The success of movements for and the realisation of Home Rule (1914), and subsequently the declaration and then the creation of the Irish Republic (1919; 1949), would provide the context for Ulster Protestants to actively pledge allegiance to liberal, colonial Britain. With this it manufactured for itself a situation wherein it could reign unchallenged in NI, actively dehumanising and excluding from politics Catholics and Republicans. The rest, as we say, is history.

Now, it is with some hesitation that I have found what I have read of Fanon to be poignant and helpful in naming some problems present in the Northern Irish context. Fanon was quite clearly thinking with Africa in mind when he wrote The Wretched of the Earth. Yet, if, for example, Domenico Losurdo’s claim that, “The colonization of Ireland, with all its horrors, was the model for the subsequent colonization of North America” (Liberalism: A Counter-History, 20) is indicative of anything; then mapping some parallels within the history of colonialism may not be utterly fruitless or tactless.

For example, Fanon notes—with regard to newly formed native middle classes in decolonised states:

“Nationalization quite simply means the transfer into native hands of those unfair advantages which are a legacy of the colonial period… Seen through its eyes, its mission has nothing to do with transforming the nation; it consists, prosaically, of being the transmission line between the nation and a capitalism, rampant though camouflaged, which today puts on the mask of neo-colonialism” (122)

This, in many ways, accurately names the manoeuvers of Ulster Protestants and Unionists in the period discussed above. Britain was able to reinscribe its colonial aspirations in Ireland vis-à-vis NI, with its newly independent status from the Irish Republic. Capitalism was reasserted in an area that was staunchly loyal to its former colonial master, having now achieved full integration into the UK as such. In this, as colonialism is simply redoubled in the recognition of NI as a separate entity within and region of the UK, a native bourgeois class materialised—Protestant Unionists—who could occupy the seat of privilege and command resources.

All of this is interesting to me because the concepts and analysis of colonialism are simply absent—to the best of my knowledge—in politic discourse in Northern Ireland. A certain jaded realpolitik is assumed, wherein Unionists and Republicans—having fashioned a power-sharing agreement—have put to bed thirty years of struggle for liberation and civil war (the period known as ‘The Troubles’—only a colonial power could call liberation a “trouble”), which has seen the Republican movement embrace the superficial benefits of neo-colonialism and become subject to interpolation into the British state.

Yet, to see the true nature of things we must again listen to Fanon:

“It must be clearly explained to the rebel that he must on no account be blindfolded by the enemy’s concessions. These concessions are no more than sops; they have no bearing on the essential question; and from the native’s point of view, we may lay down that a concession has nothing to do with the essentials if it does not affect the real nature of the colonial regime.

For, as a matter of fact, the more brutal manifestations of the presence of the occupying power may perfectly well disappear… But such a disappearance will be paid for at a high price: the price of a much stricter control of the country’s future destiny.” (113)

The realpolitik of Northern Irish politics is this “stricter control of the country’s future destiny.” NI knows now only a trivial politics wherein all decisions of vital importance are treated to a veto that at every moment “does not affect the real nature of the colonial regime.” It is structurally impossible for Ireland to know a proper unity, as NI has capitulated so thoroughly into colonialism, by way of the militant Republican’s willingness to blindfold itself to its enemy’s concessions. This impossibility conditions Northern Irish politics at all times, as every decision is at once meaningless and subject to fatal critical treatment; every second is a performance wherein one ideology reigns in supreme comfort (Unionism) and the other is contrarian for the sake of appearances (Republicanism). In Northern Ireland colonialism simply is.

This is the death of politics, and imagination, and life after 500 years of colonialism. It simply is. Nothing is to be done. There is only the impasse—an impasse that always already favours Unionism. The future is British rule—assuming one assumes the presuppositions of liberal democracy.

What is to be said of Christianity throughout the history of NI? During the years of struggle its most “progressive” elements took up the role of colonial missionaries. As Fanon says,

“We must put the DDT which destroys parasites, the bearers of disease, on the same level as the Christian religion which wages war on embryonic heresies and instincts, and on evil as yet unborn. The recession of yellow fever and the advance of evangelization form part of the same balance sheet.” (32)

These progressive elements are the avant-garde of liberal colonialism, here to naturalise the reigning state of affairs and educate society against violent struggle.

Counter to this is fascist nationalism of other Protestant groups, who, from the seat of native bourgeois privilege, gave voice (“NO, NO, NO!” and “No surrender!”) to the then current political suppression of Catholics in NI. This tendency to exclusion now manifests itself in a whole new manner of forms (which I linked to and described in the previous post); as the “progressive” liberal vision, being now ubiquitous, has rendered the historic anti-Catholic form of punching down now moot and politically dangerous. This fascism takes place within and is advantaged by the liberal order, which it has inherited from the bourgeois native middle classes, of which it is the contemporary heir.

Having attempted to sketch a picture of the current political impasse in Northern Ireland, its nature as regards colonialism, and how these condition the religious fascism I delineated previously; I simply want to end with a quote from Fanon that offers a means for getting beyond the hopeless political deadlock I described. This means is, none other than, violence.

“Violence alone, violence committed by the people, violence organized and educated by its leaders, makes it possible for the masses to understand social truths and gives the key to them.” (118)

This is the violence that Republicanism frittered away, this violence lost sight of its truth: that colonialism is an evil. Only in its reactivation—in the name of difference, anti-capitalism, and socialism—might there be a future for Ireland.