02/04/23

Tom Nairn was wrong on Ireland

by Chris Beausang
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In the opening paragraphs of ‘Northern Ireland: Portent or Relic’, a chapter written on Ireland in The Break-up of Britain (1977), Tom Nairn outlines his understanding of the Troubles. From his point of view, it is a conflict taking place between two communities. It is separate from the British government, which has no interest in the region, whether strategic, political or ideological.

This is not an analysis that coincides with the facts. Successive British governments, whether Labour and Conservative, directed their army, their intelligence services and loyal subjects to enthusiastically support those in the Six Counties who wished to remain within the Union. This support took the form of arms, training for loyalist paramilitaries, a uniquely brutal police force, targeted assassinations of prominent members in the nationalist community, conspiring against figures in Leinster House they regarded as sympathetic to the cause of unification, as well as bombing Dublin and Monaghan.

In Nairn’s account of Ireland’s underdevelopment there is a surfeit of pub talk, about how it gave up the Crown for the Holy Ghost. There is a deficit of material on how this might have something to do with the Saorstát (Irish Free State) remaining an imperial formation after Cogadh na Saoirse (the Irish War of Independence), remaining bound by the terms of the so-called Anglo-Irish Treaty. It had a bourgeoisie with a material interest in maintaining social and economic continuity — or more latterly integration into a world market dominated by the United States. In contrast with the underdeveloped Saorstát, which Nairn encapsulates as ’the priest and the potato’, the Six Counties are highly industrialised. The unionist working class are riding the rise of an advanced capitalist order and their demands are de facto progressive and modern.

In this way Nairn dismisses the idea that the situation in the Six Counties is a colonial one. The 1920 Government of Ireland Act merely legislated for what was an accomplished fact of distinct developmental regimes. Marxists who argue that this was an attempt to stymie Irish independence are putting forward a simplistic, conspiratorial and ‘pseudo-Marxist’ account. Cutting this anti-imperialist analysis at its root is crucial for Nairn’s model because it would represent his authentically progressive actors, ’the largest proletariat in (geographical) Ireland’, as lackeys of British imperialism. The likes of Eamonn McCann, the Official IRA and People’s Democracy whose programmes advocate, with varying degrees of ingenuousness, the coming together of unionists and nationalists on the basis of a shared class interest, are beholden to a cult of martyrdom surrounding James Connolly, citing Conor Cruise O’Brien and the British and Irish Communist Organisation to this effect.

Nairn of course is incorrect here. His ‘Ulster’ does not align with the historical nine-county province. The garrison state would be unsustainable were it to include the significant nationalist populations of Cavan, Donegal and Monaghan. That this was a pragmatic decision is further evinced by unionist leaders speculating during the long war that restive parts of South Armagh could be traded with the Saorstát for more scenic parts of Donegal. For Nairn the only form of imperialism that exists today are capital investments from metropolitan or core countries, which have, we are told, an interest in abolishing borders, eliminating racial dominance and ethnic feuds. Nairn of course never tells us what countries these multi-nationals are based in because this would require him to admit that they are not nationless entities falling out of the sky, but rather arise out of nations with a history of grinding others beneath their yoke.

However, there are points at which Nairn is at pains to square this rubric with the evidence. Nairn wants to celebrate the 1974 Ulster Worker’s Council Strike, ‘without doubt the most successful political action carried out by any European working class since the World War’. But this requires him to pass over the fact that this strike was a reaction at the idea that the nationalist population should have even a modicum of involvement in the running of the statelet in which they found themselves. Nairn is also frustrated at the many ways in which his world-historical progressive force is wholly regressive. This makes it necessary for Nairn to frame their seventeenth-century anti-Catholicism, or the cross-class nature of unionism, which even he concedes has a lot in common with white Rhodesians and the French-Algerian pieds-noirs, as a bizarre aberration. It has nothing to do with the ideological core of this group, a rejection of the native Irish against which they define themselves, a clear-cut case of settler colonial ideology.

What he offers by way of an alternative explanation is a useless series of riffs about how unionists feel and behave, without bringing into the picture their particular class composition, their specific relationship with multinational capital, and what kinds of industry are present in the Six Counties. How Catholics relate to these, whether or not being chased out of shipyards might have something to do with Catholics being under-represented in the largest proletariat on the island, is not addressed. When it comes to Ireland, Nairn was strictly vibes only, preferring to throw around references to bowler hats and Finn MacCool as if this was acceptable.

Not only is granting unionists their own nation the only way to break them from their religiously-inspired racism, but socialists who do not agree with Nairn are moralising philistines. They follow in a long-tradition of moralising philistinism all the way back to Marx and Engels. They granted the right of self-determination in some contexts, but withdrew it in others. As Marx and Engels knew, the national question could not be viewed separately from the confrontation with imperialism. Self-determination is about wounding the vampire squid in as many places as you can, to strengthen leverage against it at all points.

If socialist organisations demand self-determination in some contexts whilst denying it in others we could look at the reasons why — interested groups demanding extra-territorial claims, maybe; a history of expropriation and/or genocide; paramilitary violence; crimes against humanity. Or perhaps the Marxists are wrong and once Lenin got into power he should have allowed Germany to annex as much territory as they wanted.

That Nairn can refer to a ’long British tradition of reluctant, last-minute intervention in Irish affairs’ in a sentence about the activity of the British government in Ireland in 1972 about sums it up. Nairn set out to write a book about Britain. In his section on England’s first colony, the key to understanding everything that has happened since, he has revealed not only his lack the most basic command over the materials, but has split his model apart in trying to fit the evidence. He then spends forty pages moping over the pieces. Anyone who presents this book as a guide for the Union over the next number of decades is proudly announcing their intention to charge down a blind alley.

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Chris Beausang was born, and continues to live, in Dublin. He has had fiction and criticism published in Liberated Texts, Rupture and The Belfield Literary Review. His first novel Tunnel of Toads is forthcoming from Marrowbone Books.

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