Ireland in the New Left Review

For the sixty-odd years the New Left Review has been in existence, the country in which the overwhelming majority of its editorial staff and stable of regular contributors were born, grew up and lived has maintained an occupation of six counties on the island of Ireland against the wishes of the Irish people. Irish resistance to partition, which reached an historic high point over a thirty-year period in the lifetime of the journal, became and has remained a rallying point for independence and national liberation movements from South Africa to Palestine. These struggles are not merely historical however. Since 1998, many Republicans have written on the Belfast Agreement as the latest stage in British imperial strategy, the copper-fastening of colonialism via the creation of a new garrison class among the nationalist population.

The NLR has to date, published 369 issues. Three of the twelve articles it has published on Irish politics were written by three luminaries of the British & Irish Communist Organisation, a London-based cadre of Moscow-style socialists who argued that unionists in the six counties constituted a nation separate from the Irish people and possessed their own right to national self-determination. They also published an interview with the commanding officer of the Official IRA Cathal Goulding, who shared BICO’s analysis. Beyond the titans of two-nations thought, the NLR published Conor Cruise O’Brien on the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising, Evelyn Mahon on the position of Irish women in the Catholic Free State, Brendan O’Leary on the Belfast Agreement (an extremely legalistic and apolitical account), three discursive analyses of Irish nationalism by Terry Eagleton and Ronan Bennett on New Labour’s vacillations and opportunism with regard to the six counties. Daniel Finn, now an editor at NLR, wrote twice on the political re-alignments in the twenty-six county state in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, firstly in general and secondly with regard to the water charges campaign. Finn also wrote an account of the life and critique of the work of Fintan O’Toole, a review of a book written on Easter 1916 by historian Diarmaid Ferriter and another on the history of the Provisional IRA by Tommy McKearney. Agnès Maillot reviewed Finn’s overview of the IRA in 2020.

With regard to book reviews Alasdair McIntyre wrote up Desmond Greaves’ biography of James Connolly, John Saville’s reviewed Ronald Read and Eric Glasgow’s book about the Irish Chartist Feargus O’Connor and Declan Kiberd reviewed a collection of Francis Mulhern’s essays in the year 2000. In full then, twelve articles, seven book reviews and one interview, with Finn responsible for 30% of it.

Typing the word ‘Ireland’ into the searchbar on the NLR website of course returns significantly more results, but the majority of these mention Ireland as an aside, reeled off as part of a list of other straightforwardly western or European nations / tax havens. In any conclusive discussion of how NLR has framed Ireland, these references must form part of the picture as one does not have to pick very many examples at random to find significant howlers. In his 2015 review of Douglas Newton’s Verso book The Darkest Days: The Truth Behind Britain’s Rush to War, 1914, NLR editor Alexander Zevin writes that shortly before the outbreak of World War I, ‘most of the British political class from the King downwards had nearly given up hope of heading off a civil war in Ireland over the introduction of Home Rule, and were either straining instead to see what shape it might take, or retreating to their seats in the countryside’. We would seek to inform Zevin, who may of course be parroting Newton, that while the British ruling class may not have seen Gavrilo Princip as having a significant influence on world politics, they were not bystanders when it came to the brewing civil war over Home Rule. They were after all continuing to occupy the place, had stated their intention to liquidate all-Ireland democracy by allowing particular counties to ‘opt out’ of Home Rule were it to be introduced and were also training and arming loyalist militias.

There is furthermore the broader oeuvre of the NLR’s stable of contributors to consider. The writings of Tariq Ali, Robin Blackburn and E.P. Thompson all form a totality I do not have the time or resources to map though isolated moments do come to mind. Though Perry Anderson has never written a full-length work on Ireland, there is little that is objectionable in the few cursory pages he writes on the democratic deficits explicit in the twice-presented Nice referendum in The New Old World, a 2009 study of the centre-periphery dynamics of the European Union. Anderson’s famous hypotheses, developed in collaboration with Tom Nairn have very little to say about British imperialism. Nairn later wrote about the necessity for ‘Ulster’ to develop its own national identity, described the Union’s forecasted break-up in terms I’ve always found weirdly abstract and, as David Edgerton has points out, with an unjustified emphasis on British ‘decline’. Zevin, in his history of The Economist magazine’s editorials, does not stint on the extent of the slaughter the British brought about in Ireland during An Gorta Mór, though we might wish that he used less words suggesting that this was a tragedy or a case of poor administration on the part of the British. Dylan Riley’s 2010 history of fascism contains three uses of the word ‘imperialism’, all of them cursory, all of them in his chapter on Italy, thereby missing the rather obvious case study offered by the Orange State. The introduction to a subsequent edition apologises for this omission, but makes no significant redress.

This article is in many respects a follow-up to Sam Porter and Denis O’Hearn’s ‘New Left Podsnappery: The British Left and Ireland’ which appeared in the NLR in 1995. While Porter and O’Hearn address themselves primarily to two articles published in the NLR the previous year, Ellen Hazelkorn & Henry Patterson’s ‘The New Politics of the Irish Republic’ and Eric Hobsbawm’s ‘Barbarism: A User’s Guide’, they also make reference to a number of other publications in the NLR archive on Ireland; Peter Gibbon’s ‘The Dialectic of Religion and Class in Ireland’ (1969) and ‘Ireland — Split in Sinn Féin’ (1970).

Before moving onto Porter and O’Hearn’s critique I will consider some of the relevant pieces Porter and O’Hearn do not offer touch upon. Cruise O’Brien’s ‘The Embers of Easter 1916 – 66′ (1966) amounts to an alternative history of the 1916 Rising, wherein the leaders kept the powder dry until a rallying point for a mass campaign to overthrow British imperialism emerged, as when the British introduced conscription. Doing so might have allowed for mutinies of Irish soldiers on the Western front and the staging of a socialist revolution in Ireland. Cruise O’Brien does not do so in order to represent the Rising as a failure, but more in order to identify the tragic distance between the bilingual Workers’ Republic envisioned by Pearse and Connolly and the twenty-six county state in 1966, when partition is meekly accepted by the population. Cruise O’Brien is of course writing this article about three years before the war began as well as his pivot from anti-imperialism to unionism, but credit where credit is due, it is Cruise O’Brien who has the distinction of defining Connollyite politics as an alliance with the Vietnamese peasantry in the pages of the NLR.

MacIntyre’s short review of Greaves’ biography of Connolly from the magazine’s eighth issue, features a full-throated endorsement of Connolly’s politics and strategic orientation, from his involvement in syndicalist politics to the Rising and identifies Noël Browne and Jack McQuillan’s recently formed National Progressive Democrats as taking up Connolly’s mantle. The first paragraph of Saville’s review of Ronald Read and Eric Glasgow’s book on Francis O’Connor dismisses the book’s emphasis on O’Connor’s Irish background, but without knowledge of the book, we’ll have to give it the benefit of the doubt.

Porter and O’Hearn are generous in their treatment of Gibbon’s articles because of how well it holds up relative to Hazelkorn and Patterson, written as it was at a time when denying the repressive nature of the Orange state would have been too much even for a British audience. Reading Gibbon now we see much of the ideological groundwork of the BICO position on partition being laid, described as a natural outgrowth of Ireland’s failure to conform to the proper stages of industrial development or class formation; references are made to  authentically bourgeois ‘Ulster’ Protestants, politically backwards ‘southern’ peasants and the notion that the ‘Ulster’ working class was more British than Irish. 

Porter and O’Hearn take aim at Hazelkorn and Patterson’s attempts at legitimating British Rule by arguing that the Free State and the irredentist peasantry’s dispossession of British landlords was cruel, that Irish Republicanism does not express authentic class politics but rather criminality and that the support it historically obtained among the working class, both rural and urban, is due to nationality or shared confessional affiliations. Hazelkorn and Patterson eulogise what the BICO-ist analysis of the Workers’ Party once contributed to Irish politics – by this time split into the Workers’ Party / Democratic Left – without touching upon the violence, criminality or intellectual bankruptcy on the Official IRA’s side of the Sinn Féin split. The stageist analysis put forward by figures such as Eoghan Harris is maintained here too, as well as the necessity of ‘modernising’ the economy of the twenty-six state along neoliberal lines.

Porter and O’Hearn argue that BICO’s central failure in their political and economic diagnosis was located in their treatment of the economy of the twenty-six counties as separate from broader developments in global capitalism and the underdevelopment inherent to imperialism. Within a few paragraphs Porter and O’Hearn provide a far richer account than any BICO member has ever managed by outlining the dependence of the twenty-six counties’ ruling class on Foreign Direct Investment, its incorporation within the EU and acceptance of deflationary orthodoxy as well as the synthetic wartime economy in the six-county state in which the unionist working class had a significant economic stake as it was an important source of employment.

Hobsbawm’s article is an attempt to prove that human society has become more, rather than less, barbarous since the onset of capitalist modernity. One of Hobsbawm’s key examples is that in the early modern period and even into the nineteenth century, prisoners of war would not be executed and military violence would be restricted to combatants. The rise in barbarism is in large part attributed to tactics of armed struggle adopted by national liberation movemenets, such as the Fenians as well as the IRA, to whose provocations, Hobsbawm argues: ‘even the British in Northern Ireland did not keep their cool in the early years’ [My emphasis]. Hobsbawm goes so far as to argue that the Irish were in many ways fortunate to have lived under British occupation: ‘If the British state had abdicated in Ulster [sic] as the Yugoslav state did, we would have had a lot more than some three thousand dead in a quarter of a century’ and that the campaign of internment and torture was far milder than in other jurisdictions as it did not include, for example, the application of genital electrodes, which, of course, it did. 

Porter and O’Hearn gut Hobsbawm’s argument with only a handful of examples from the history of Irish Republican struggle, noting that a brutal campaign of violence and repression against non-combatants was waged by England after the 1798 uprising. Officers and civilians alike were attacked, decapitated, set on fire in their homes and hospitals; the ravaged corpses of children were publicly displayed in town centres. Even Lord Cornwallis, the British viceroy in Ireland, described how the British army ‘butchered without discrimination’. The involvement of the highest levels of British intelligence with Loyalist paramilitaries, its responsibility for the worst atrocities of the war against civilians, as in the Dublin-Monaghan bombings, all go unmentioned by Hobsbawm.

The content of NLR editor Robin Blackburn’s response to Porter and O’Hearn, in the sniffy ’Ireland and the NLR’ (1995) frequently strays beyond belief. Blackburn argues that the armed campaign of the IRA undermined any mass movement that would have developed in Britain for withdrawal, putting forward that familiar canard that if only the tactics adequate to national liberation were rejected, support from the metropole could be freely given.

Blackburn concedes that the NLR has not published enough on Irish politics, but maintains that what it has published is not lacking in substance. Blackburn argues that in an article published in 1972 he predicted the consequences that the British state’s involvement in the six counties would have for the Heath government. In this article he writes: ‘a violent clash is now underway between two forces neither of which can offer any long-run solutions’. Blackburn also argues that the IRA may bring about the destruction of the Stormont regime but rebukes them for failing to appeal to Protestants and reproduces the BICO-ist line that proper Marxism rejects national liberation struggle, neither orange nor green but Nairn’s ‘red Marxism’. 

Blackburn argues that the NLR is a journal of debate that holds no position on Northern Ireland [sic] and cites Ken Livingstone, Eric Heffer and Tony Benn as figures who have called for the re-unification of Ireland and de-militarisation in the 80s and 90s in the pages of the NLR. Everything Benn, Heffer and Livingstone call for is more or less correct, but their cases for ending partition are never framed in terms of the rights of peoples to self-determination. Rather, they consistently seek to advance the electoral success of the Labour Party or the hand of the British working class. Reducing spending on the occupation will allow for increased investment in social welfare and arrest the growth of reactionary attitudes among soldiers in the British Army so they can be won to class struggle; this attitude also plagues Bennett’s piece, mentioned above. It is Benn who is most succinct in expressing his chauvinism: ’The victims of all this activity [the war of counter-insurgency in the six counties], in addition to Harold Wilson, were many other Labour ministers, MPs and individuals, and even Edward Heath, who may well have lost his leadership of the Conservative Party’.

Blackburn rallies to the defence of Porter and O’Hearn’s primary targets, arguing Patterson and Hazelkorn were commissioned on the subject of ‘the Irish Republic [sic] [emphasis Blackburn’s]’, validates their argument that Irish Republicans should ally themselves with the EU, in order to convert Loyalists from their British to a new European identity and further maintains the baffling hypothesis, a constant refrain from the NLR since its founding, that Britain has no strategic interest in its colonies, British capitalism is retrograde, on the brink of collapse, etc. Blackburn also maintains Hobsbawm is correct, but does not challenge any of Porter or O’Hearn’s points.

Blackburn saves the best for his footnotes, arguing that he has spoken in favour of a federal arrangement for ‘the Islands of the North Atlantic’ and furthermore published Slavoj Žižek’s analysis of the representation of the IRA in Neil Jordan’s film The Crying Game (1992).

By way of conclusion I want to focus on Kiberd’s 2000 review of Mulhern’s essay collection, which, though I have not read it, seems very much of its time, in the sense that much of the scholarship written within the field of Irish studies in the late nineties and early oughts did not manage to attain a sufficiently critical distance from the society from which it arose. Anyone who studied Irish literature in college will know what I mean here; undue optimism over for example post-nationalism, Mary Robinson, the Belfast Agreement and so forth. Kiberd lays into Mulhern’s lack of interest in contemporary imperialism, his claims that all nationalisms are alike and scores a great blow in going after the willingness of the international Marxism that Mulhern represents ‘to proof the new consumerist order against attack from those revolutionary national traditions which it was quietly liquidating. 1991 [the year Mulhern launched his attack], as it happened, was also the year in which the Dublin government failed to invite the five surviving veternans of the Easter Rising to its furtive, apologetic and by then utterly perfunctory commemoration’.

There is much that is symptomatic in Mulhern’s throwing his lot in with the Free State intelligentsia without knowing what he was talking about and this points to the problems of a publication over-emphasising the virutes of debate for its own sake, or having two people who identify as ‘Anglo-Irish’ as fixtures of an editorial board. This is probably around the point in the essay that I argue that the NLR could and should do better but ultimately, no publication that has mentioned Field Day once in its entire history cannot hope to claim to have ever done justice to the Irish conjuncture at any stage. This is also, incidentally, a major oversight in Finn’s critique of O’Toole, which otherwise deserves its place in some of the best critical writing to have come out of Ireland in recent times; it is a tragedy that I cannot think of a single Irish-based publication that would be likely to carry it.

Indeed, I can think of perhaps two analyses of the Irish left which have appeared in a British or American-based publication over the past decade that did anything other than provide a cosmetic history of Sinn Féin and its supposed socialist credentials. We can speculate on a few reasons why SF holds out a certain amount of appeal to a British left audience. Corbyn’s involvement with and support for re-unification is one, Gerry Adams’ memeability another but on a more serious note SF can slot quite well into a narrative of continuity Corbynism, i.e. the parliamentary road to socialism. That the intended audience for this bilge have not taken sufficient interest in the facts of SF’s record as compliant administrators of British imperialism should not surprise us. 

In order to know what is happening on the Irish left it is pretty well mandatory to be involved in an organisation or have a DM group with a few centrally-located heads who like to gossip. It is for this reason that we need more politically engaged Irish publications. Rupture, both the podcast and magazine, represent a progressive step in this direction. Its being published by the RISE network in Ireland’s largest socialist party, People Before Profit, ensures its orientation towards political and strategic questions, rather than the requirements of branding or clout alone. It may even in time develop into a vehicle sufficient for the debate over tatics and strategy that the Irish left is desperately in need of in order to achieve the 32 county socialist republic.

Note: The NLR’s use of the phrase ‘Northern Ireland’ and even worse, ‘Ulster’ to refer to the six counties is endemic. I have made the attempt to denote each faulty instance with ‘[sic]’ which may be annoying to read.

However insisting in specificity in the use of these terms is more than mere legitimism. The Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 imposed a border on the island of Ireland, separating six counties in the island’s north-eastern corner — Antrim, Armagh, Derry, Down, Fermanagh and Tyrone — from the other twenty-six counties. This was undertaken in order to secure British imperialism on the island as well as to bolster the unionist dispensation within this synthetic construction. As this border violates the terms of the Irish Republic, declared as an all-Ireland state in 1916, the titles one uses in order to refer to either of these entities ascribe legitimacy, either to the Republic locating itself in a broader history of anti-imperialist struggle, or the border imposed on the island which overturned the will of the Irish people, as expressed in the election of 1918.

A Fine Gael-Labour coalition government declared the twenty-six county state to be the Republic of Ireland in 1949, but for many Republicans this ratifies the idea that two separate states exist on the island and that the Republic possesses no territorial claims on the six counties. For those who accept the legitimacy of partition, the six-county state in the north is referred to as ‘Northern Ireland’, while Republicans opt for ‘the six counties’, ‘the northern statelet’ or ‘the occupied territories’. While those who accept the legitimacy of the twenty-six county state would refer to it as ‘The Republic of Ireland’ or ‘the Republic’, Republicans would refer to it as ‘the twenty-six counties’, ‘the south’ or ‘The Free State’. I myself use either ‘the twenty-six counties’ or ‘the six counties’.

The six-county statelet is not in any sense ‘the North of Ireland’ as it does not contain a number of Ireland’s most northerly counties. The twenty-six county statelet is not ‘Southern Ireland’ or ‘The South’; the twenty-six counties are 85% of the area of the island. It is Ireland’s North, East, South and West. The six counties were and remain a synthetic invention, carved out of the Irish nation in order to construct a herrenvolk proto-fascist democracy; euphemisms depending on invented geography can only erase this fact.

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