Imagining the End of Empire in Ireland and Algeria



Ireland might not be the first country that comes to mind when thinking about the Algerian Revolution and internationalism. Yet, as Dónal Hassett argues in this text, the Irish Revolution was an inspiration and example for many FLN strategists. In the recent past, it has been the Algerian struggle that has inspired some of those in the North of Ireland who continue to fight towards the end of the empire.

In 1961, the seventh year of the Algerian Revolution, the prominent nationalist Laroussi Khelifa published his Manual for the Algerian Activist. Based on the material used by the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) in its training schools in Morocco, the section dedicated to “revolutionary doctrine” gave pride of place not to Marx nor Fanon, but rather to “the particularly significant example of valiant little Ireland.” Khelifa presented the Algerian struggle as part of a broader international anti-colonial movement that had first swept South America, then Asia, and finally Africa. In this historic process, Ireland stood out for its “unremitting struggle for over a century […] to win its independence from the English colossus.” Khelifa was just the latest in a long line of nationalist activists to evoke Ireland in their analyses of Algeria’s struggle for freedom. For Algerian nationalists, Irish history served, above all, as a means of legitimizing, interrogating, and reimagining their own visions of anti-colonial struggle. Revolutionary Algeria would play a similar, (if more limited) role in the political imaginaries of Irish radicals in the early years of the conflict in the North of Ireland, underlining the extent to which the imagined geographies of revolution transcended the physical and cultural distances between the two countries.

As well as marking the 60th anniversary of Algerian independence, 2022 sits at the tail end of Ireland’s so-called Decade of Centenaries, a period of commemoration, reflection, and ongoing contestation over the legacies of the Irish Revolution.

Thinking comparatively, as the revolutionaries discussed here did, about the praxis, the aspirations, the achievements, and the shortcomings of these two major moments of decolonization, will, I hope, help both to inform the work of dismantling the legacies of colonialism in our countries and to build new links of anti-colonial solidarity in the present.

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Manual for the Algerian Activist, allegedly written by Laroussi Khelifa, edited in 1962 by Nils Andersson for La Cité in Lausanne. It was eventually not published when it came to light that the book had been written collectively and not by Khelifa alone.

The comparison between Ireland and Algeria has long been a rich analytical framework for academic scholars and literary theorists. The history of both countries is marked by similar experiences of dispossession and expropriation, the importation of settlers, integration into the metropolitan polity, cultural and religious repression, complex experiences of economic dependency, and mass emigration. However, the temporalities, intensities, and modalities of colonial rule in both contexts differed significantly.

By the 20th century, the Irish, while still subordinated within the United Kingdom and subject to exceptional forms of state violence, enjoyed significantly more rights—political, social, cultural, and economic—than their Algerian counterparts. This widened the horizon of possibilities for activists seeking to challenge British rule in Ireland and narrowed the range of repressive strategies available to the colonial state. Algerians did have not the same margin for manoeuvre under the racially discriminatory and coercive French colonial administration. Although these differences would impact the reception and limit the reproduction of Irish nationalist tactics in Algeria, as well as the evocation of Algeria in the North of Ireland, the perceived commonality of historical experiences and the desire to replicate the successes (and avoid the pitfalls) of preceding revolutionary movements ensured the endurance of this comparison among radicals in both contexts.

Readers of this issue will by now have a rich understanding of the Algerian Revolution. For its part, the Irish Revolution was marked by a transition from reformist nationalism seeking autonomy through parliamentary protest to radical separatist nationalism combining electoral activism, civil disobedience, and armed struggle. The brutal repression that followed the failed nationalist insurrection of Easter 1916, combined with the effort to impose conscription in Ireland, radicalized the population in favor of independence. The refusal of the British to acknowledge the triumph of the radical nationalists of Sinn Féin at the 1918 elections led to a full-scale insurgency against British rule. After a conflict marked by escalating violence and reprisals, a delegation of nationalists negotiated a Treaty with the British that partitioned the island, maintaining the six counties of the northeast that had significant or majority settler-descendant Protestant populations under British rule, and granted a limited form of sovereignty to the rest as the Irish Free State. This settlement was heavily contested, leading to civil war in the South and extensive violence in the North. The post-independence state in the South upheld an intensely conservative social and economic order while the whole structure of the northern statelet was premised on the exclusion of the Catholic minority. These evident shortcomings in the revolutionary process would temper the enthusiasm of some Algerians for the Irish precedent, but they would not extinguish the admiration for the struggle of the Irish people.

Ireland as a Heroic Precedent ///

The main role Ireland played in Algerian political imaginaries throughout the early 20th century was that of the heroic precedent. Ireland’s primary function was to underline that an oppressed people could win out against their colonial rulers, that resistance could defeat imperialism. This was at the heart of the first extensive account of the Irish Revolution among Algerian nationalists, Ahmad Tawfiq Al-Madani’s 1923 text Niḍāl ‘irlandā (Ireland’s Struggle).

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Title page of Nidal Irlanda (Ireland’s Struggle) by Ahmad Tawfiq Al-Madani (1923).

Al-Madani was born into a family of the old Algerian elite that had fled to Tunis following the defeat of the 1871 Mokrani Revolt against French rule. Imprisoned at a young age for his political activities, he was a key force in both the nascent Tunisian and Algerian nationalist movements.

Al-Madani’s account of Irish history began with a bold statement: “freedom is the fruit of jihad.” This did not mean that his study of Irish history had led him to embrace violent struggle per se but, rather, that it reinforced his belief that freedom could only be secured through hard fought spiritual, cultural, and political struggle.

A keen student of history and geopolitics, Al-Madani mentioned past revolutions in France, the United States, and Turkey, as well as contemporaneous struggles in India and Egypt, but prioritized Ireland, a small nation that had “taken control of its own future,” and that should act as “a wonderful example from which” North Africans should “draw much wisdom.”

His narrative of Irish history, focusing on the expropriation of land, cultural and religious repression, famine, state violence, and the duplicitousness of the colonial authorities, set up an implicit parallel with French rule in North Africa.

The lesson Al-Madani suggested his compatriots should learn from the Irish case is that they would have to “rely on themselves.” For the Irish, this meant waging a “final war against England” to secure freedom. What it meant for the North Africans was less clear.

The text was ambiguous in its attitude towards the combination of armed struggle and political action that defined the Irish Revolution, focusing instead on highlighting the extent to which British repression and violence served to “spark a fire of patriotism […] that is impossible to quell.” For Al-Madani, what mattered was less how the Irish won their freedom (or at least a truncated form of freedom), and more that it was possible for them to triumph over the might of the British Empire.

The vision of Ireland’s struggle as a heroic triumph against the odds over the biggest imperial power in the world would endure within the nationalist movement throughout the early 20th century. Ireland was evoked in these terms by Messali Hadj and the nascent nationalist movement among Algerian migrants in France, alongside references to other struggles in the French Empire, the Arab and Islamic worlds, and in Africa. It was in this form that Ireland was primarily integrated into Algerian nationalist discourse.

Ireland as a Playbook ///

While Algerian nationalists admired the Irish Revolution as an abstract triumph over imperialism, the differences between the two contexts militated against efforts to replicate and/or adapt revolutionary practices from Ireland in North Africa. It was only in the immediate aftermath of World War II and the colonial massacres of May 1945 in eastern Algeria that a combination of electoral reform and brutal repression made the strategies of Irish nationalism appear particularly relevant to Algerian nationalists. The election of five Algerian nationalists to the French National Assembly in 1946 meant that the movement was now faced with the challenge of combining parliamentary opposition to colonialism with a sustained campaign against French rule in the repressive context of the coercive colonial state. Ireland offered a potential model.

On February 15, 1947, Algerian nationalists gathered for a clandestine congress in a warehouse in central Algiers.

Hocine Aït Ahmed, a rising star in the movement and a subsequent founder of the FLN, summed up the mood of the meeting, declaring: “we may as well have been in a pub in Dublin, such was the spirit of patriotic conspiracy.”

For Aït Ahmed and his comrades, Ireland’s fight for freedom was not simply another tale of heroic resistance to colonialism. It was a precedent whose successes the Algerians could emulate and whose failures they could avoid. Drawing on his reading of Irish history, which folded the tactics of different and often opposing factions of the broad Irish nationalist movement together, Aït Ahmed suggested that the nationalist deputies could fulfill their “revolutionary roles” in Parliament by “filibustering, propagandizing, and agitating […] as the Irish deputies had done.”

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Hocine Aït Ahmed under arrest along with other figures of the FLN leadership (future President Ahmed Ben Bella, Mohammed Boudiaf, Mustapha Lacheraf, and Mohamed Khider) after the illegal forced landing of their plane by the French air force on October 22, 1956.

The perceived military tactics of Irish nationalists held less attraction for the strategists of the Algerian movement. Aït Ahmed was involved in the preparation of a secret report on the armed struggle in 1948. The reports’ authors studied a range of texts, including Carl von Clausewitz’s On War, extracts from Marx and Engels, reports on guerrilla warfare in Latin America and Indochina, and an unidentified “old history book on the Easter Rising.” The resulting report argued that the Algerians should look to their own history of violent resistance, instead of modelling their armed struggle on foreign examples, including “the debacle of Easter 1916 and the terrorism that followed it.”

The “revolutionary warfare” grounded in “guerrilla tactics” and rallied behind a political mass movement advocated in the report was, in fact, much closer to the reality of the Irish republican campaign during the War of Independence than Aït Ahmed suggested. It seems likely that the prominence of the military failure that was the Easter Rising in the sources available to the report’s authors, coupled with their nationalist commitment to elevating Algerian experiences of resistance, led them to disregard the Irish military experience. It was the political action, not the armed struggle, of Irish republicans that Algerian activists sought to emulate.

However, Algerian nationalists soon came to realize that the political tactics pursued by the Irish could not easily or effectively be reproduced. The French were more than willing to subvert the limited democratic rights extended to their Algerian subjects by stuffing ballot boxes and violently repressing nationalist political movements. The electoral strategy pursued by Irish republicans was simply not possible in the intensely coercive and racist colonial context of Algeria.

Ireland as a Cautionary Tale ///

For Larbi Ben M’Hidi, one of the iconic martyrs of the Algerian Revolution, while the Irish Revolution itself was to be admired, its outcome was a cautionary tale. Like many of the founding generation of the FLN, Ben M’Hidi had studied (a version of) Irish history through French texts while imprisoned. His comrade-in-arms, El Hachemi Trodi, has recounted how Ben M’Hidi annotated a text on Irish history, comparing the condition of the Irish to the Algerians and equating the British authorities to the settlers and the French. The most striking feature of Ben M’hidi’s commentary is his denunciation of Irish supporters of the Anglo-Irish Treaty that led to the partition of the island and meant the independent South was not a republic as “traitors.”

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Larbi Ben M’Hidi under arrest on February 23, 1957 during the so-called “battle of Algiers.” He was executed without trial two weeks later.

Here, the Irish precedent underlined how Algerian nationalists would have to be vigilant against those who might sell out the Revolution.

The trope of Ireland as a cautionary tale gained new currency in the dying days of French rule in Algeria. As the French floated various plans to partition Algerian territory, securing the Sahara and its natural resources and/or creating settler enclaves on the coast, nationalists rejected the threat to Algeria’s territorial integrity by evoking the lasting effects of partition in Ireland. Algerian delegates at the negotiations of the Evian Accords argued that, in line with the Irish experience, partition would make a post-independence civil war more likely and would mean that the national question would continue to “fuel the frustration of a whole people” even after the conflict formally ended. Ultimately, the FLN successfully resisted partition and, in doing so, achieved what Irish nationalists never did, a united and sovereign republic.

Algeria in the North of Ireland ///

It was this very success of the Algerian Revolution that made it so appealing to Irish Republican activists in the six counties of the North of Ireland that had remained under British rule as a result of the partition of the island. The FLN’s promotion of their cause in the international media, coupled with the wide reach of Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 film The Battle of Algiers, meant that the Algerian Revolution was at the forefront of global radical imaginaries at the very moment violence erupted in the North of Ireland. A screening of Pontecorvo’s film by radical students at Queen’s University Belfast attracted a crowd of young men from republican West Belfast, undoubtedly interested in the depiction of a heroic urban guerrilla campaign. While Algeria featured occasionally in republican propaganda, the most detailed and interesting evocation of Algeria came in a 1973 pamphlet entitled The Battle for Algeria, published by the radical lawyer Michael Farrell.

Farrell’s Battle for Algeria includes an extensive, if approximative, account of the Algerian Revolution followed by an analysis of its implications for the situation in the North. While acknowledging the significant distinction between the relatively recently arrived settlers of Algeria and the Protestant population of the North, who had lived in the region for generations and were not so radically different from Catholics, Farrell argued that they must choose between supporting imperialism or embracing the anti-imperialist cause. Here, Algeria was mobilized to express skepticism about the class solidarity line adopted by the Official Irish Republican Army (IRA). Farrell then cited the post-independence FLN’s institutional conservatism, bureaucratization, and embrace of religious values as both obstacles to Algeria’s revolutionary transformation and troubling features of the dominant Provisional IRA in the North. If radicals in the North wanted to replicate the success and avoid the pitfalls of the Algerian Revolution, they would, Farrell argued, have to rally behind the movement of which he was a leader, People’s Democracy.

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“Ireland: England’s Algeria.” Front cover of the French socialist journal Unité after the Bloody Sunday massacre by the British army in Derry in 1972.

Few answered Farrell’s call and People’s Democracy, far from reproducing a version of the Algerian Revolution in North-Eastern Ireland, remained a relatively marginal political movement. His comparison came under sustained critique from political opponents who defended British rule. Irish republicanism’s commitment, at least rhetorically, to an imagined national community of Catholic and Protestants united made Algeria, from which those of settler origin had departed en masse, an uncomfortable point of reference. Although Irish republicans in the North would continue to admire the Algerian Revolution and engage with both the cultural production and political theory that emerged from it, it never really occupied the equivalent space in their revolutionary imaginary that Ireland had occupied in that of the Algerian revolutionary generation.

Conclusion ///

The story of the anti-imperialist comparisons between Ireland and Algeria detailed here underlines the alternative imagined geographies that emerged in so-called “colonial peripheries” in the 20th century.

Algerian nationalists and Irish radicals sought out, imbibed, and reimagined the histories of struggle in each other’s countries so as to reinforce and legitimize their own visions of an end to Empire.

While the significant differences between the two contexts meant that the practical applications of tactics from one to the other were very limited, the endurance of these comparative analyses underlines their utility to radicals. Yes, they could serve to flag up potential pitfalls and highlight possible strategies for revolutionary success. Above all, however, these comparative references were designed to instill hope, to underline that it is possible to overcome the structures of Empire, that sacrifices would eventually be rewarded, that national liberation would, one day, be achieved. This message continues to resonate today in an Ireland where the prospect of building a new and united polity on the island looks more possible than ever and in an Algeria where popular demands for a renewal of the Revolution are ever louder. ■