Robbie McVeigh and Bill Rolston’s ‘Anois ar teacht an tSamhraidh’: Ireland, Colonialism and the Unfinished Revolution is one of the best works of Irish and anti-imperialist historiography that I am aware of. It fills a long-standing gap in Irish historiographical and political discourse, where the long-term historical, social and economic consequences of capitalism and imperialism have not been treated as fully and seriously as in other jurisdictions, outside of the works of figures such as Kieran Allen, Maurice Coakley, Conor McCabe and Denis O’Hearn. McVeigh and Rolston frame these issues within a longue-durée perspective, reaching as far back into the past as the Caledonian chief Calgach’s criticism of the Roman Imperial project and as far forward as the COVID-19 pandemic. In contrast to much writing conducted within a Marxian rubric today, where the tendency is often to force an enormous amount of historical material into a rigidly centrifugal framework, gussied up with populist appeals to non-existent mass audiences, we confront here an enormous number of examples drawn from world history and a truly impressive scholarly apparatus. Anois ar teacht an tSamhraidh is for all this extremely readable and the model which all this erudition is building towards, which I hope to provide some impression of here, is elegant, pragmatic and maintains a sober perspective on the exigencies of the present moment. Everyone with even a passing interest in any of these issues should read it and McVeigh and Rolston should be applauded for the contribution they have made in bringing this book into the world. In what follows I hope to sketch in broad terms what I understand this book to be doing, provide an overview of the history of imperialism both in Ireland and internationally and offer one or two small criticisms.
From the first page of the preface the authors identify Anois ar teacht an tSamhraidh as emerging from a post-2008 moment, a point at which the global capitalist system was brought to the brink of collapse as the extent of the fictitiousness of global bank balance sheets and property investment portfolios became suddenly clear. Out of this comes the collapse of Ireland’s Celtic Tiger economy, the discrediting of an economic model that sought at every turn to facilitate multinationals and draw down Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), the collapse of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) and the United Kingdom voting in a referendum to leave the European Union. That all this has served to underline the long-standing legacies of imperialism and questions surrounding national self-determination around the one hundred year anniversary of Ireland entering into a protracted period of social convulsion is not just some historic coincidence, but reflective of a more overt positing of the national question in our present moment. This is furthermore underlined by the sudden efflorescence of cultural expression that considers what Irishness and Irish nationhood means today and what it might be made to mean in the future. From music, to post-revisionist history to documentary film-making, we need only register in passing the peculiar silence of most contemporary Irish literature.
Like Fergal Mac Ionrachtaigh’s Language, Resistance and Revival: Republican Prisoners and the Irish Language in the North of Ireland, McVeigh and Rolston seek to demonstrate how resources from Ireland’s past can shape and inform developments currently underway in radical politics such as abolitionism, which has been propelled into prominence with the Black Lives Matter Movement in the United States, the floundering of social democratic and parliamentary projects both in these constituencies and elsewhere, RhodesMustFall in the UK, as well as a general struggle for LGBT rights and recognition. One commonality we might seek to isolate here, is the prominence these movements ascribe to positionality and to identity. In the absence of any real worker or institutional power, on which the left has historically depended in order to enforce its political programme, such concessions as these movements are able to secure tend to be enacted in their most regressive forms. Despite the mass mobilisations and electoral endorsements given to a woman’s right to choose in the Repeal campaign, reproductive rights in Ireland remain in many respects conditional. In answer to demands of police disbandment across the US, additional state funding is provided. Calls for reparations for the victims of the British Empire are merely used as fuel for the ruling class to stoke their culture wars, which are themselves largely veneers for criminalising opposition or privatising universities. Anyone even slightly involved in left-wing politics will recognise the steady NGO-ificiation of many concepts associated with intersectionality and the pall of corporate events training which has been thrown over exercises such as encouraging everyone in a room to stand in a straight line and everyone who is not disabled, working-class or transgender to take a single step forward, so the extent of each person’s relative privilege can be modelled. All too often, and especially when everyone’s activism has moved online during the pandemic, these politics take on a Manichean tendency, as lip service may be paid to the idea that unequal concentrations of privilege are constructed through and by the ways in which society is run and organised, there is a tendency to speak, behave and proselytise though they are ontological, or in more extreme quarters, biological in origin.
That McVeigh and Rolston have one eye on these developments is obvious, as they make the effort to touch upon topics that have inflamed enormous amounts of online debate in recent years, such as Irish slavery, which existed in the Caribbean and North Africa, as well as the degree to which the Irish have a case to answer as foot-soldiers of the Empire. An inclination towards the idea that the Irish have not really had a hard time of it historically has developed currency on the one hand among mostly well-intentioned people seeking to challenge cynical fascist usage of white slavery and indentured servitude as well as anti-Republican revisionist historians, who are not well-intentioned and have been receiving far too much space to spread their apologia for genocide in venues such as The Irish Times. One of the many statistics McVeigh and Rolston draw our attention to are mortality rates for indigenous children separated from their parents and installed in residential schools in the Americas, which matched or exceeded those of the Nazi concentration camps. Mass murder and racial extermination has always formed a crucial part of colonialism, which is why calls for them to return, or attempts to gloss them as not that bad, are always undertaken only by the most reactionary blocs of the ruling class. But historical actuality, the ambivalences as well as the very real solidarities that existed between the Irish and other colonised peoples are what are under consideration here, taking us far from the idea that anti-imperialist politics can or should be a matter of moral accounting or the ascription of the correct amount of guilt or agency to each party involved.
McVeigh and Rolston divide the history of imperialism into stages. The first was led by Spain and Portugal who divided the world between themselves, making large territorial acquisitions and vassals of the peoples they encountered. The second begins with the emergence of the Dutch Empire and the establishment of a more recognisably modern series of economic relations, with private commercial concerns, shipping routes and mercantilism. The Dutch East India Company established the first capital market, opening the benefits of imperialism to a broader stratum of society beyond the aristocracy. France and England launched similar ventures and furthermore imposed restrictions to prevent their settlements from trading with any other country and thereby become enormously wealthy. In the nineteenth century the combined powers of Austria-Hungary, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Spain, the UK and the US formed ad hoc divisions of Africa and Asia until ‘by the start of World War I, nearly all the world outside Europe…had been formally colonised at some point by at least one European state’.
As Lenin demonstrates in Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, World War I represented a natural outgrowth of the world the imperial powers had created. With no markets left to expand into, they had no choice but to turn against themselves. The old European colonial system enters into terminal decline from the end of World War II, but not without having shaped the new global order. Large parts of the globe had been systematically underdeveloped, meaning that strict limits were imposed on decolonisation as an economic as well as a political project. The failure or inability of the ANC to transfer land back to its original owners to the extent that it initially pledged is just one of many, many examples. Sections considering all these matters are excellent, dense with information about the concrete operations of colonialism and how the world in which we live in is one in which unequal distribution of wealth, development and exchange continue to reign.
Another aim of the work is to demonstrate that Ireland has not in any sense, been decolonised and the long-term legacies of colonialism and imperialism have deeply inflected the structure of the two statelets on the island of Ireland. McVeigh and Rolston argue this has been a massive oversight in the works of the canonical theorists of the state, such as Jürgen Habermas, Michael Foucault, Ralph Miliband and Nicos Poulantzas. These theorists have all, to greater or lesser extents, developed abstract models on the basis of a normative understanding of nation-states based in the imperial core, which are not subject to the same dynamics of underdevelopment, unequal exchange or militarisation of state forces that prevail in former, or current, colonies. That this body of thought has been impoverished as a result is best attested to by Dylan Riley’s introduction to the second edition of The Civic Foundations of Fascism in Europe in which Riley apologises for not considering imperialism at any stage in his analysis. Our understanding of the social dynamics surrounding class, religion, gender and economics in an Irish context would therefore all be very poorly served by adopting these theories uncritically. What is widely understood to be the first moment in the state’s inception, the declaration of the Republic declared in Easter 1916 and ratified by the Irish people in 1918 — the only stage in Irish history in which we have ever seen the will of the Irish people express itself in an election, with the exception of younger women who still had not been afforded the franchise — has not been achieved and the Irish people’s struggle to extricate themselves from Empire; whether British, American or European, remains ongoing. It would not be uncommon for people on the Irish left to ridicule such an invocation in the present moment as theological or legitimist. The Official IRA / Worker’s Party had a long history of writing off Republican struggle as the expression of ‘lumpen’ elements within the working class for example. Against this position, McVeigh and Rolston demonstrate that since the Flight of the Earls the social basis on which a struggle for national self-determination on the part of an indigenous Irish bourgeoisie, has had to fall to the Irish peasantry and working class. These differential class dynamics in terms of what is considered legitimate struggle continue throughout McVeigh and Rolston’s historical account and evidently endure to the present day. Furthermore, ‘a state built on inequality finds the demand for equality metaphysically threatening…the demand often has side effects long before the ultimate point is reached’. A full inquiry into the psychology of the ruling class in the twenty-six county state is too broad a subject to get into here, but the palpable discomfort the establishment parties feel around the decade of centenaries, the eagerness with which they have proposed initiatives such as, a state-sanctioned celebration of the Black and Tans, joining a monarchical trading bloc or guaranteeing cabinet seats to bolster the existence of a minoritarian regime, will serve well enough for our purposes at the moment.
The colonisation of Ireland begins with Poynings’ Law in 1494, which gave the English Crown claims on the Kingdom. This was consolidated with the Plantations in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, in the course of which English planters were granted lands in Laois, Offaly, Tipperary, Wexford, Leitrim and Longford. Many of these ventures collapsed, both due to administrative incompetence as well as native resistance. Discontent reached a climax with the 1641 uprising, which prompted the Lord Protector of the newly-declared English Republic to wage an expedition to Ireland, crushing the nascent Irish Confederate government – whose progressive tendencies do not receive nearly enough attention in the historical discourse in contrast to British propaganda about massacres of Protestants – and awarding more land to settlers. Catholic landowners who could demonstrate they had no part in the rebellion were granted land in infertile and stony parts of the west and many prisoners were sent as settlers or workers to the Americas and the Caribbean.
While the descendants of the original Norman colonists, the Old English, spoke Irish, married Irish people and took on Irish customs, English identity proper begins with these excursions and exercises in subjugation. A clear distinction arises between the conquerors and the conquered, the Irish are idle, lazy and uncivilised Catholics as opposed to the industrious and civilised Protestant English. This idea of England wields immense ideological power within the Union, but was never concretised in any state formation outside of it, rather it is merely not-Wales and not-Scotland. In order for the plantations to remain viable, this genocidal and more militaristic approach takes this new racialised consciousness as fuel carrying out massacres, forced deportations and clearances, as a first step, followed by the rigorous enforcement of a system of apartheid. For example, receiving land grants became conditional on restricting the number of servants and tenants drawn from the native population. By 1662 3/8ths of the population who were Protestant owned 3/4s of the land and 5/6ths of the housing. Vivid descriptions of the human cost and aftermath documented by perpetrators, victims and onlookers abound in this section of the work and it is easy to see anticipations and echoes of Christoper Columbus’ excursions in the Americas. The British response to each rebellion became an opportunity for the imposition of even more draconian legislation. The Penal Laws ensured Catholics could obtain no position in the state bureaucracy, the professions or the judiciary. They could not handle firearms, intermarriages were outlawed and any orphan had be parented by a Protestant. The franchise was limited to Irish men of property who owned or rented property worth more than 40 shillings and on the basis of this dispensation, a caste known as the Protestant Ascendency rose to power.
Ireland’s containment within the Act of Union, which afforded some expansion of the vote not granted to peoples in England’s other colonies, led to figures within the Catholic middle-class beginning to identify with this Union and seeing a place for a reformed Ireland obtaining some share in the dividends of Empire within it. It is within this tradition that figures such as Daniel O’Connell, Isaac Butt, Arthur Griffith (and perhaps even John Bruton) are best understood. This remains, for the most part, a road not taken, both due to its unpopularity — merchants in Belfast and Galway seeking to establish slave-trading companies are documented as having had their meeting interrupted by the future United Irishman Thomas McCabe who declared ‘May God eternally damn the soul of the man who subscribes the first guinea’ — as well as the British seeking to maintain their own interests. To the extent that the Irish were admitted into Empire, they were definitively junior partners; British manufacturers succeeded in economically blockading what nascent Irish industry there was, ending the woollen trade and ensuring the Irish peasantry could not diversify their agriculture, leaving them uniquely vulnerable to the catastrophe of An Gorta Mór, during which food was continually exported in order to feed the British working class. There are of course a surfeit of examples of individual Irish people who entered into service of the Empire’s forces and were involved in subduing native peoples in Africa, Asia and the Americas, even if we might feel as though they are to a certain extent over-represented by The Irish Times as though they represented some sort of norm. It is important to recall as well that Irish Catholics were foot-soldiers and that their officers were drawn from the ranks of the English and Anglo-Irish.
McVeigh and Rolston square this circle through the idea of dominion, the ways in which the limitations of post-colonial statehood have been radically proscribed by imperialist powers. One of the most striking examples is the inability these supposedly post-colonial states have in restoring their former borders, which were drawn up due to imperial self-interest or on the basis of arbitrary distinctions between racial, ethnic or religious groups. Democracy therefore is something the imperial state gifts to their subjects, retrospectively casting all rebellions or resistance as illegitimate. In this way the twenty-six county and six county state, a synthetic construction which did not align with the historic province of Ulster, remained within the Empire. Many people reading this will be familiar with the hypothesis of Noel Ignatiev’s How the Irish Became White wherein Irish labourers sought to assimilate themselves with the interests of the white and Anglo-Saxon Protestant establishment in the US rather than making common cause with freed slaves and their descendants. From McVeigh and Rolston’s perspective, Ireland did not become the anti-imperialist and revolutionary state on which the Republic was declared or the Republican movement had historically sought. Rather it had whiteness thrust upon it by the Anglo-Irish Treaty as an imperial formation within the Empire. This can seen by the power the British continued to wield over the twenty-six counties; the British considered the twenty-six county state a member of the British commonwealth until 1949 and representatives even attended imperial conferences in London. The Irish currency was linked with sterling until 1978 and the Free State would continue to compensate British landlords who had acquired their lands through colonisation. When Republicans opposed to the Treaty established a garrison in the Four Courts Lloyd George ordered Michael Collins to engage them and Winston Churchill even planned to do so himself. The Republicans were unable to secure a foothold in the cities and therefore retreated into the countryside to wage guerrilla warfare. W.T. Cosgrave passed a public safety bill which empowered military tribunals to imprison or execute Republicans and in this way the Free State comes into existence, as Karl Marx has it with capitalism, ‘dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt’. The reactionary character of the statelet is further attested to by the social policies its administration pursued under the guise of fiscal rectitude. Ernest Blythe cut the old-age pension and Patrick McGilligan, Cumann na nGaedheal’s Minister for Industry and Commerce, famously pronounced that ‘People may have to die in this country and may have to die of starvation’.
Fianna Fáil, elements of the Republican movement which both accommodated themselves to the Free State and sought to shape it in their image with the 1937 constitution, became its natural party of government and only symbolically committed themselves to re-unification. TK Whitaker, Secretary of the Department of Finance authored a report in 1958 which proposed the Free State seek to open the economy up to international trade and pursue entry to the European Economic Community (EEC). Charles De Gaulle vetoed the twenty-six county state’s entry, regarding Ireland as a vassal of the UK and likely to pursue its interests within it. Sure enough Patrick Hillery in his 1970 white paper Membership of the European Communities – Implications for Ireland stressed that there was no space to join the EU independent of the UK. In this way accession to the EEC further solidified the twenty-six county state’s neo-colonial status.
The legacy of the state’s membership of the EU include enormous financial supports, democratic deficits, evident in the imposition of referenda until the Irish electorate is regarded as having provided the correct answer and increasing demands to participate in its tendency towards militarisation and so-called peacekeeping activities overseas. While McVeigh and Rolston emphasise that whatever dividends can be ascribed to the twenty-six county state’s tax haven status amount to state propaganda — it does not drive economic growth and Ireland’s well-educated workforce is an unintended consequence of the control the Catholic church exerts over schools — these initiatives often run counter to EU membership. Without it, the twenty-six county state would probably look more like the Isle of Man or the Virgin Islands. Once Ireland became a state to which large numbers of migrants were attracted, it began to regulate its labour market for the first time, introducing stricter controls over the entry of non-EU migrants and taking part in a broader EU-wide securitisation, with Michael McDowell and others leading the emergence of a new blood-and-soil rhetoric around twenty-six county nationality. McVeigh and Rolston identify this as a turning point, indicating that what conditions formerly existed for the extension of Irish identity to people of colour, as in the Caribbean two centuries ago as well as many other examples, no longer exist and are unlikely to re-emerge as Ireland remains within the EU / UK dominion. Marriage equality and Repeal offer encouraging signs of a more progressive future and we might add to this the broadening of support for Sinn Féin as a younger population seek to identify a party-political vehicle likely to offer some approximation of social democracy. This surge in support means that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are likely to maintain a commitment to unionist positions due to the electoral calculus likely to arise in a United Ireland.
The IRA in the northern parts of the country during the war of independence faced a very different prospect than in the south, the arms of the state waged far more determined armed resistance and conducted pogroms, assassinations against Catholic civilians. Sectarianism was encoded into the very structure of the statelet that arose out of partition which McVeigh and Rolston convincingly define as a proto-fascist Herrenvolk democracy. The native capitalists would only hire Protestant workers and were also often Stormont ministers. All-Ireland campaigns for the liberation of the north were largely desultory. The Republican Congress attempted to formulate a broad front strategy which successfully recruited northern Protestants, although these elements left after a confrontation with IRA members at a commemoration in Bodenstown. This state proved non-viable in the long-term as native industry failed to recover after the global slump of the thirties. These industries were bought out by foreign capital and Protestant heads of industry became mere intermediaries. Almost no attention is afforded to the Official / Provisional IRA split, the Hunger Strikes or the various nucleated Republican and socialist organisations that emerged in the period. McVeigh and Rolston’s account of the rise of the civil rights campaign and the Troubles compliment other accounts produced by Brian Hanley, Eamon McCann and Thomas McKearney, in that the social actors foregrounded in these works recede in favour of a focus on economic relations, capital ownership and differences in employment figures across the Catholic and Protestant population. Despite occasional rhetoric from more populist political leaders, the twenty-six county state never defended the Catholic population from British forces, was always eager to shed Irish claims on territory and never sought to hold the British state responsible for the murder of its own citizens in the Dublin and Monaghan bombings, the worst atrocity committed in the whole of the Troubles.
McVeigh and Rolston are unstinting in their criticism of the six-county statelet that has emerged in the wake of the GFA, seeing it as yet another example of a failed venture to fully escape imperialist dominion by enlisting the support of the SDLP, Sinn Féin, the twenty-six county state, the US and the EU in an attempt to secure a broader hegemony. The GFA was not, as John Hume sought to argue, an instance of self-determination by the Irish people as a whole. The votes were not aggregated and it therefore remained firmly within the two nations paradigm. The essential basis of the agreement was that Republicans would agree to stop using violence against the statelet so that sectarianism and clientelism would be dismantled. This winding up of the excesses of the wartime security regime, which employed 10% of Protestant men as well as de-industrialisation and low tax service economy has left the economy in the six counties in poor shape. The twenty-six county state’s economy is four times larger with only 2.5 times the workforce. Sectarianism has not been broken with, but rather encoded into the ‘reformed state’ the increasing migrant population have limited space for political representation, despite representing 10% more of the working population than Protestants. Community funding schemes continue to be apportioned within areas in which particular political parties have a larger vote share and the latent genocidal tendencies in the unionist community are pandered to. Post-2008 these issues have only come into sharper focus; the six counties cannot offer Protestant supremacy, but nor can it provide parity to the Catholic population, who remain more likely to be long-term unemployed. In this way McVeigh and Rolston refines similar arguments Liam O’Ruairc puts forward in Peace or Pacification?: Northern Ireland After The Defeat of the IRA. Political killings have also continued, 158 since the agreement was passed, as well as a number of egregious instances in which state forces were shown to be complicit in killings of Catholics.
The final sections of the book consider the position of the anti-imperialist movement globally, outlining how the UK, the US and Israel have successfully put the breaks on decolonisation by exercising their vetoes in international bodies such as the United Nations, as well as imposed sanctions, blockades, arming right-wing proxies and conducting assassinations of prominent figures in the anti-imperialist movement. The footnote in which this death toll which we can lay at the feet of the CIA, Mossad, French and British intelligence agencies; Ben Barka, Chris Hani and Patrice Lumumba is long, non-exhaustive and very depressing.
Despite the many impulses towards Irish collaboration and accommodation both since the Treaty was imposed and after, there are moments in which the twenty-six county state, under pressure from the consistent popular sympathy with the world’s oppressed, expressed support for Algerian, Chinese and Palestinian independence struggles and it is here that McVeigh and Rolston demonstrate the ways in which Irish history has always been a site of struggle between nationalism and Republicanism. John Mitchel may have been an apologist for slavery, but in 1879 at a mass meeting in Navan 30,000 Irish people chanted the name of the Zulu king Cetshwayo, at that point waging a war of resistance against the British. The IRB attempted to send 20,000 dollars and a number of military strategists to assist them on the basis that these resources could be put to better use in a terrain with which the British were unfamiliar. Among the many colonised peoples who sought direct inspiration from the Irish independence struggle include Indian nationalists, freed slaves in the US, Marcus Garvey who named the headquarters of the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in New York Liberty Hall in reference to James Connolly and assisted in the organising of boycotts of British goods while Terence MacSwiney was on hunger strike.
In assigning a central position to the history of struggle for self-determination in Ireland, Rolston and McVeigh do not aim to discard more novel trends in left-wing politics, but rather demonstrate how intersectionality may be bolstered within an Irish context by having its demands relate themselves more directly to the calls for social equality which have historically been demanded by the Republican movement in Ireland and take these intersectional potentialities in more positive and pluralistic directions. This is to be undergirded by the concept of mestizaje, which acknowledges the always-already hybrid nature of the colonial state and transcend categorisations which might otherwise function in anti-solidaritistic or sectarian ways.Though the progressive tendencies of, for example, the Republic declared in 1867 should not be forgotten, 1798 is of course the key example here, the first modern anti-colonial uprising anywhere (led by Wolfe Tone, well-integrated into the Republican movement of the continent, had met Thomas Paine, correctly disliked the Americans, finding them pompous and aristocratic) inspired by the universalising impulses of the French Revolution but moving beyond the narrow conception of self-determination for colonists to a radical vision of postcolonial self-determination rooted in the unity of Protestants, Catholics and dissenters.
These are not two schools of political thought that have for many reasons, had much to say to one other, especially in an Irish context and that Rolston and McVeigh’s proposals are even half-way persuasive speaks to the depth of their scholarship and achievement. To all those who would not find much of what I have said here convincing I would first insist that a crucial part of our central tasks in shaping the society of the future will involve too some shaping of the past and secondly, urge them to read this book.
I am writing this section in isolation from the rest of the review for two reasons. The first is that my primary aim in writing this piece was to encourage as many people to read this book as possible and I do not wish to detract from the value of the work in registering my criticisms in the main body of the review. The second is that I wanted to put together my thoughts on the book in their entirety, reflect for a day and then put my criticisms in order.
The first I would mount is that there are, by my count, about four pages in the work that could be identified as conjunctural analysis, that is, an articulation of the present moment, laying out of its contradictions and identifying which of these must take primacy in allowing progressive forces to gain leverage. These are bolder than one might expect from what is in many other respects a very scholarly work; McVeigh and Rolston state definitively that we are living in a revolutionary moment. The Union, the British state and the six counties are in a state of collapse. I happen to not necessarily disagree, where I would register some clarifiers is that this state of affairs offers a clear and as McVeigh and Rolston put it, ”reformist’ route to liberation’.
The model that is identified, is that of the ‘Parnellite popular front’. When Charles Stewart Parnell led the Irish Parliamentary Party, this was a point in time in which ‘insurrectionary movements, mass mobilisations and representative parliamentary intervention…worked in synergy’. What exactly is meant by ‘insurrectionary movements’ is ultimately hedged here. McVeigh and Rolston posit that the ‘the republican movement ditched insurrection as a core principle’. Such a claim would obviously preclude ‘dissident’ Republican groups from being considered, although I would note that McVeigh and Rolston also put the word in quotation marks. On balance, this is probably the most pragmatic line to take, there is no sense in being proscriptive over what the thing will actually look like.
Where I would depart significantly though, is in the idea that this moment opens up ‘a whole new continuum of broader Republican thinking from Fintan O’Toole to the politics of the ‘dissidents”. I think McVeigh and Rolston are being hugely intellectually generous here, given O’Toole has had a lifetime in which he has had the opportunity to do more than pay lip service to ‘civic Republicanism’ (a term which Diarmaid Ferriter uses and I can only interpret as anything other than actually-existing Republicanism) and has failed. Dan Finn’s survey of O’Toole’s career in the New Left Review is very much worth reading in this context as it underlines that O’Toole is a model of a vacillating intellectual, whose default position is to cosy up to the Labour Party, and more latterly, the Social Democrats, whose historic function is and will be to betray the working class and to hand the most reactionary party in the history of the state sit at the cabinet table. O’Toole may on one or two occasions have made sympathetic noises with regard to more explicitly socialist entities such as People Before Profit or the Socialist Party, but these very quickly stopped when, for example the water charges campaign began to take off. Though the line about Field Day being ‘the cultural wing of the IRA’ was not O’Toole’s, he was certainly given to joining in on that chorus and this is all without getting into his post-Brexit output, which I can only describe as embarrassing.
If there has been a serious deficit of socialist writing which has considered capitalism and imperialism in Ireland, the amount of serious writing which has weighed up the prospects for change with regard to the left we currently have, is totally non-existent. The biggest criticism I, and one or two others who I have spoken to about it, would have of this book that it is not three times as long. The historical account could be longer and enriched because its so good and we want to see more of it, but it might also have provided chapter or section-length considerations of the question of where we are now and where we have to get to? Why a party who has sold out on every principle they ever held has managed to monopolise post-2008 discontent on which the working class and more explicitly left organisations took a leading role? Which organisations have become largely vestigial entities over the intervening period and how did that happen? What are the prospects for organising worker power within the unions? In what way do we need to adjust the classic model of industrial worker organising in the context of a low-wage service economy?
To put it in very clear terms, I do not think that a revolution in Ireland backed by the EU is likely to be democratic, nor do I think the counter-revolutionary tendencies of a decaying Union should be understated. I definitely do not think that O’Toole will be happy on the day it all changes.
Correction: Had someone point out to me that the Haitian Revolution should be credited as the first modern, anti-colonial revolution, and quite right too.