This relatively long conversation with Robbie McVeigh & Bill Rolston only evokes fragments of their comprehensive book “Anois ar theacht an tSamhraidh”: Ireland, Colonialism, and the Unfinished Revolution, which resituates Irish history within the global history of colonialism. We talk about Gorta Mór (the Great Hunger), the Irish Revolution, the Partition, as well as the contemporary forms of struggle and internationalist solidarity in the North of Ireland.
Special thanks to Osloob for his precious help with editing the quality of this episode’s sound.
Robbie McVeigh & Bill Rolston are the authors of “Anois ar theacht an tSamhraidh”: Ireland, Colonialism, and the Unfinished Revolution (Beyond the Pale, 2021). Robbie McVeigh is a researcher based in Edinburgh, who has written extensively on equality and human rights in the context of the North of Ireland. Bill Rolston is a former professor and director of the Transitional Justice Institute at Ulster University in Belfast.
EPISODE TRANSCRIPT ///
Léopold Lambert: Hello, everyone. Today, we’re coming back for a new episode of the Funambulist podcast, and my guests are two people for once, which is Robbie McVeigh and Bill Rolston. Robbie is a researcher based in Edinburgh who has published accent extensively with a focus on human rights and equality in the north of Ireland. And Bill is a former professor and director of the Transitional Justice Institute at Ulster University. And they’re both the author of an incredible book really, whose title comes in both in Irish and English. I’m going to try to pronounce the title in Irish and they will correct me: “Anois ar theacht an tSamhraidh,” which means now the summer is coming, Island Colonialism and the Unfinished Revolution, which was published in 2021. Robbie and Bill, hello!
Robbie McViegh, Bill Rolston: Hello. Hello to you.
LL: Thank you very much for taking the time to speak with me. I mean, after reading 400 pages of yours, written very small, I feel I already know you, but it’s the first time we actually speak. Could you could you please be pronounced the title of the book in Irish
RM: Anois ar theacht an tSamhraidh
LL: Thank you very much, Robbie. And yeah, so I guess the voice that seems to come from a little bit further will be Robbie and a bit louder will be Bill, so you can recognize them this way probably. So I mean, the title of the book is fairly explicit and you dedicate a large portion of it to retracing a nonexhaustive yet holistic global history of colonialism in order to situate Irish history within it. So beyond the academic debate, which you talk a little bit about, on whether British colonialism in Ireland was or is indeed colonialism or not, like sort of like internal academic debate—outside of this internal debate? Why is that such an important question to you to that, that we are we should be able to read the Irish history through this spectrum of colonialism?
BR: Well, firstly, I give an answer. I suspect Robbie has additional answers. First one that comes to mind is that by taking this frame it puts Ireland fairly and squarely in the middle of a whole pile of debates that are going on currently. I mean, since the killing of George Floyd and indeed other events in the last few years, there’s not a day goes by where you can’t pick up a newspaper at least in our part of the world, or listen to some program on of current affairs where colonialism does not enter the debate at some point or other, whether it’s about Black Lives Matter, or the struggles of the Chagos islanders against Britain, or slightly back a few other years there the, the claim by Kenyan survivors of torture by the British and the British courts for reparation, so on so on, so on. It’s an everyday thing now. And it’s like, colonialism was there all along, colonialism was forgotten all along in so many debates and so many countries, but it’s like the top has been popped off the jar, and it’s all poured out now. So it would be a shame if Ireland was not in that debate somewhere on our argument is that Ireland belongs fairly and squarely in that debate, even though for many decades, that was denied by most academics and most politicians. So I take your point about not wanting to go down the sort of narrower academic route, although it is important, because academics do have influence they do have impact on the real world of politics and cultural, cultural affairs. And so it’s important that we, I’m a, my career was as a pet academic, Robbie is an academic, but an independent researcher, that it’s important for us as academics to try to have some impact in that real world. And it has all sorts of consequences. We’ll get to some of them as we go along. Consequences about how you read Irish history, how you how you read Ireland currently, and how you read the question of where does Ireland go from here?
RM: Yeah, I suppose I mean, the only thing I would add to that is that we wanted to situate the Irish history of Mary’s present in the context of that wider history of colonialism, imperialism. And I suppose one way, one way to immediately hang that is the is the fact that 2020 was the start of the fourth decade on the eradication of colonialism at the UN. And there’s two really significant points about that notion of what colonialism involves. The first is that it’s clearly seen as mopping up the last vestiges of colonialism. So it’s dealing with, you know, still what are still torturous, highly politicized situations like Gibraltar or New Caledonia, but it’s nevertheless it is that sense of it’s highly we deal with the last vestige of colonial history. I think that as Bill said, The Black Lives Matter moment, blew that away and said that, you know, colonialism is everywhere, and everybody’s still trying to deal with that history. And that’s precisely what we were trying to say, in a sense of what we do in Ireland, and in terms of dealing with our own history and also, with this question of where does Ireland go from here. So what’s the problem, then you have that is, of course, is then become so huge, that, you know, the history of colonialism has been so defining in terms of the contemporary world that we’re all trying to make sense of, and act in politically, that you don’t know where to begin. And I think the book is an attempt to work its way through the gluons and say, there are certain things that that do help you just to start that journey. And in the Irish context, it’s most of obviously, the reality of partition, I suppose. So obviously, the fact that Ireland clearly had an unfinished revolution in the sense that the moment at which we would have expected to see self determination in the way that had happened in most of the rest of the world, in the throughout the 20th century, it didn’t happen. And we’re still living with the legacy of that particular failed decolonization. So that, if you like, is our starting point.
LL: Thank you very much. And I’d like to insist also, how generous your book is in the way it absolutely fits to also readership that would not be that familiar with the history of Ireland, but also because precisely the way you start by painting a history of global colonialism, and then very humbly situate Ireland within it. So I really, I really, yeah, I really want to insist on that and really invite people to read to read it. And so if we, if we now really focus on Ireland, specifically and its history, not going too fast. I mean, well, I mean, there’s technically 900 years of British colonialism to cover but if we, if we start with one particular event that you go back to, I mean, you finish writing the book in 2020, at the peak of the COVID 19 pandemic, which for you woke up the ghost of Gorta Mór, the great hunger or which killed half of the Irish people between 1845 to 1852. Can you tell us how these traumatic events, which is usually analyzed as something akin to a natural disaster or something that, you know, nothing could be done against, how this traumatic event is actually a highly political phenomenon?
RM: Yeah, I mean, there, we should start by saying there’s always a grisly calculus around estimating deaths and conflicts like this, but it probably was less than half of the Irish population. But certainly, during An Gorta Mór and afterwards, half the population is removed either through death or emigration. So it’s a really profound catastrophe. I think that, you know, the key point, I think, for us is that on the one hand, that those who reject understanding Ireland and the context of colonial history, usually then have to employ some sort of exceptionalism to explain what went on in Ireland, about religion or something else. So that, you know, we were obviously keen to reject that and reintegrate Ireland within the colonial paradigm. But once you do that, you’re then presented with something which is quite exceptional. And that’s the fact that not only was Ireland part of the British Empire, and a lot of our history is explained by that, by that process, it also was in 1800 immigrated into the Union and what is still the United Kingdom. And that was a unique place for a colonized space to be, you know, you could only me, I guess, Scotland is comparable in that sense, so that when you’re working through the continuing legacy of colonialism, you have to you have to both understand the generalities and the commonalities with other places that suffered from Empire, and more specifically from the British Empire, but also in the Irish case, you have to then make sense of what did it mean, to be integrated into the union in a way that other colonized peoples weren’t? And I think if you do want to do again, to unpack what that’s about, and of course, Gorta Mór is a definitive experience, because, you know, as I was saying, 1800, there is people were, against their will, and recruited into this new political formation, the union, you know, there was no, there was obviously no democratic vote, if there had been Catholics were excluded from both the vote and sending in the Irish parliament. So they had no part in that process. So the union is something which is constructed against the will of the Irish people and yet within a generation, as we said, a third to a half of them die or are forced to emigrate. Tonight, the profundity of that catastrophe, you know, sometimes disappears. But you can remember that both as an Irish event, in the sense that we’re just talking about what it did to Irish people, we also have to remember that as a British event as a, something that happened within the union, it involved an actual decimation of the British population was quite shocking when you put it in those terms. This is this is an event which kills off or forces out of the public 10% of the population of the United Kingdom. So a profound event not just for the Irish, but also for this holiday that we still understand as the United Kingdom. So in that sense, you know, it’s the most obvious way of unpacking this particular and specific location of Ireland, both within the union and within the Empire and the way that those conjoined political entities define our experience, right up to the present, then in terms of the second point that you were alluding to, it’s this, I think there’s, there’s something really important about the fact that this happens inside the two most powerful political entities in the world and in the middle of the 19th century. So the British Empire and the Union are incredibly sophisticated, advanced industrial economies, that incredibly rich and incredibly politically powerful. So it’s not just that it wasn’t it’s not the case that there was an absence of food in Ireland, there wasn’t. These people were allowed to starve to death. So that sense it’s clearly a political choice made by those two entities: empire and union. And that then begins to define the way that we should make sense of what those political entities were about, both Union and empire.
BR: The only thing I’d certified is thinking of another place where it’s not an issue of famine, but a place of catastrophe. If you take the Arabic word Nakba, in relation to Palestine, the creation of the State of Israel and the destruction of almost 500 villages and towns where Palestinians lived and their displacement and they have a great saying in Palestine that every day is Nakba. You know, that notion that history is not something that just happened then, but history is something that reverberates to the present day. Could you say, for example, in the current Irish context that every day is Gorta Mór, well it’s not, you know, we’re over it in that sense. And in that sense, it is way back then. But I would point out that it is absolutely emblematic of an attitude of empire towards colony, the way in which the Irish situation of a potato failure or potato blight was handled, or mishandled, or deliberately mishandled is emblematic of so many things that go on to the present day. So whether it’s a famine, whether, whether it’s the partition of Ireland against the will of the majority of the people of Ireland, or whether it’s the dragging of Northern Ireland, out of the European Union, even though the majority of people in Northern Ireland voted to stay in that union, it’s the same mentality. So in a sense, every day is that attitude of An Gorta Mór, why decolonization is incomplete,
RM: And I mean, just also to put it in the wider context that, you know, if you’re looking to apologist of Empire, particularly apologist for the British Empire, the usual tactic is, is now to regard the final victory of the Empire against Nazism has been the high point of empire, you know, the fight the point at which it finally came good and do the right thing if you’d like. But I mean, simultaneous to the World War and the outcome of the World War, perhaps 5 million people were starved to death in Bengal while it was still part of the British Empire, so you can see exactly the same decisions been made about that and people die in the context of vampire right at the end of Empire, so it’s that there’s a there’s a continuity there that sweeps right across that history. But I mean, the really significant point about it is that it’s not a, that it’s a choice that is made that they have the you have the capacity and the resources to make sure that not one person dies, and yet you know, huge numbers of people are allowed to die. And that if you’re really looking to get a sense of what the essence of Empire is there, and that cruel statistic.
LL: Thank you. Well, Bill was mentioning incompleteness. And of course, that brings us back to this unfinished revolution that gives a title to the book, which designates the 1916 to 1921 Irish revolutions that led to the partition of the countries that you were just talking about, as well as the civil war in the so called free state between those who wanted to finish the revolution. And those who wanted to end it if I may, worked on that neurons. Can you can you maybe take us back to this crucial moment, and its consequences up until today, because in that case, it is every day is that the revolution is unfinished and has consequences on life in Ireland. And, and perhaps in particular addressing part of our listeners who might not be as familiar with Irish history as some others will be.
BR: Well, I’m trying very hard to resist giving a 27 minute lecture of that few years period, cause it wouldn’t do anybody any good.
LL: You can give a 12 minutes lecture!
BR: But nope, let’s not get bogged down in the details. Suffice to say that, at a certain point in the middle of the First World War, Republicans, some socialists and others seized the opportunity, which had been done in Irish history previously to say, look, that England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity, so let’s have a rebellion. Let’s have a revolution. Now, there are all sorts of debates as to whether they were doing this just as some sort of gesture, doing some sort of political gesture, or whether they seriously believed that they had a chance and I fall on the side of believing that they seriously believed they had a chance—a remote chance mind you, but a chance to make a blow for liberation in the midst of Britain’s other difficulties with the World War. Now that rebellion was quickly put down for all sorts of reasons. It didn’t it didn’t take off in the way it should have, the leaders were executed. There then began both a political and a popular opposition to British rule in Ireland over a number of things, including over the execution of these leaders, some of whom were very popular people, poets, trade unionists, others. And the political organization that spearheaded that was Sinn Féin, a political party formed in 1905, not originally a full fledged Liberation Party, not originally a Republican Party, but by now a Republican Party. And they basically, along with other people in a wider movement, did two things, firstly set up political institutions separate from the British and started doing it themselves, including a parliament, an illegal parliament. And secondly, an armed rebellion against British military in Ireland. There was a general election in 1918 that could have, if it had been acknowledged, could have made all the difference to history. And which, what was it Robbie, almost 70% of the votes throughout the island were gained by Sinn Féin, was it?
RM: Yeah, I mean, there was a clear majority for Sinn Féin starting on a republican platform. I think that that’s the that’s the first point. The second point is that this is also the first and last time that the whole people of Ireland were offered the Democratic vote on anything. And that, you know, this is the this is the key moment for us, because for the first time, you know, there’s this notion that somehow something happens, some weird phenomenon happens after 1916, whereby the hilarious people suddenly are suddenly radicalized and realize the Republicans, you know, of course, that’s plausible, but the reality is much more likely to be that, that if democracy had ever been offered to the people that would have voted precisely in this way. And it’s only at this one moment that, that we’re offered that choice, we take the choice, and then the choice is denied by the British response to it, where they refuse to recognize the institutions that emerge from that election.
BR: So just to finish the story, then the culmination of this, it’s collapsed in an awful lot of detail into a few short sentences. But the culmination is that ultimately, there is a war of independence. There are there’s a ceasefire, their peace talks is a treaty, there’s finally, a decision brought about mainly through British pressure on the Irish delegation, and the peace talks, to say, you can have a mode of independence for 26 of the counties of Ireland. But the six northern counties where Unionists are in the majority, they will not be part of your form of independence, they will maintain, they will continue to be part of the United Kingdom, also with a small devolved government in Northern Ireland. So that, it goes on after that, because then the Republican split as to whether they would go with the treaty or not, and a civil war ensued, etc, etc, etc. Now, okay, if you didn’t know any of that detail, you’ve now either run out to get a glass of whiskey, or you’re falling asleep. But here’s the point. The point is simply that, how to put it—it’s partly a rubbish point about the democratic choice, but it’s also a point that we make in the book of saying that you become towards the end of the 19th century, and the start of the 20th century, in Ireland, and especially in the southern parts of Ireland, you’ve got to coming together of a lot of forces, for liberation. There were feminists, there were socialist, trade Unionists, writers, all sorts of people. Now, they all they didn’t all agree on every aspect. But there was a real hyper real buildup of steam over this possibility of a new liberated Ireland. An Ireland, that we would not only not be an empire, but would be different from anything else that they did seen. It was it was a, it was a leap of imagination. And it had some consequences. For example, the first woman to hold ministerial office in the world was in this illegal toil that the Republicans the illegal parliament that the Republicans set up Constance Markievicz, Minister for labor, so there was a great chance for an imagination for actually saying the summer is coming, you know, we’re really going to get into something new here. And that was beat on the head that was stopped by the British intervention and bipartition. Jumping forward for one last sentence to say that we believe that not quite in the same way not the same extent, but echoes of that period, we’re coming at a moment to another such period when a whole lot of forces on this island are getting together to say we want to imagine something different and we can make this happen
LL: Well, so specifically talking about that and having in mind that elections are coming out and Sinn Féin might actually be elected on both sides of the of the of the colonial border, I think some things that I was keen to talk about is how, at least for the external reader and I am I feel that usually the paradigm in which we read the north of Ireland is as the place of the country that still under occupation and that we need to free in order to mean that we reunite Ireland. And, with this, this very sort of one sided process where the North joins the South, so to speak. And what really hit me in your book is how you’re basically saying that both the north and the south are still very much involved with logics of colonialism. Of course, the North one is much more explicit one and the south. But still, like, at the end of the day, the vision that sort of your book promotes is a vision where it’s the entire country that needs to be decolonized in order to form a new Irish polity. And so I wanted, I wanted to ask you to tell us more about this.
RM: Yeah, I think, well, an easy way into that would be to just say that, you know, recently, you know, directly because of the war in Ukraine, you’ve seen the debate spring up again around our membership of NATO, and against Irish neutrality, and that kind of a, it’s a stark reminder of how far the 26 county state is coming from its origins and where it sets where it thinks it sits in the contemporary world. And I suppose the only thing I would observe about that is that, if you do with our analysis, that the decision around NATO should be a decision for the whole of Ireland up for either of the two states, which may exist on the island. So I mean, that’s a stark, stark example of a way that, you know, a widespread and deeply felt commitment to neutralism and neutrality coming out of Irish history is now beginning to shift into a very different place. Now, the way I think that we would begin to locate that is that, as we’ve touched on before, the two states that emerged out of partition were certainly not one thing, that’s the, you know, the kind of self, the state that emerges from a process of self-determination in most colonial contexts.
So if you’ve correctly characterized some of the issues in the six counties in the north, that people are probably quite familiar with in terms of this, you know, this notion of a Protestant state for a Protestant people that was almost the antithesis of anti-colonial self-determination. But what happened in 26 counties in some ways, more interesting and even more problematic, in some ways, because it’s harder to read, whenever the British allowed partition on a level of independence to development, 26 counties, the model that they presented, that was one of white dominion. So it was, it was precisely the model of a movement towards a level of, of autonomy, and democracy and in places like New Zealand, Canada, Australia, and for us, I think, most strikingly, South Africa. So they constructed South Africa as a white dominion, even though it clearly had a, you know, an overwhelming black majority. But the space that was, that was provided to South Africa, and all these other white dominions in the context of Empire was one in which the empowering of a settler colonial class was to be reproduced rather than removed by further autonomy. So that white dominion model that was foisted upon 26 counties, nobody, neither Unionists, nor Republicans wanted that, but it was a British colonial model, was one that continues to define the politics of that entity to this day, you know, the kind of the politics that emerged from that state where, again, the antithesis with some of the stuff that bill was talking about earlier, the kind of the radical internationalist progressive movement that supported the rise of Sinn Féin and other broad progressive movements in Ireland was very quickly closed down. And you saw the emergence of a fairly conservative Catholic polity that married in many ways the conservative prose and polity and the north. And, you know, the reality is that we still have to deal with those both of both of those policies today. So the big question for anyone who’s, who wants to return to the to the question and issue of what would self-determination for Ireland look like is that now you have to negotiate the relationship with both of those states and both of those states have very entrenched internal logics, in which they think their own survival is much more important than any more, any bigger vision of what self-determination for the whole of Ireland might look like.
BR: I just like to take up for a minute that point that Robbie made about white dominion or the white bit of that phrase. I mean, Robbie, I know those this argument better than I do, but the argument of Noel Ignatiev who wrote the book in the United States about “How the Irish Became White.” And that’s how they were incorporated into the white system having been outside that system before and haven’t been seen originally as not white when they originally, poor Catholics emigrated to the United States, what became the United States. But there was a very different but not dissimilar project that happened through this incorporation of the free state into the white dominion club, whereby the Irish had been racialized themselves. But now Ireland as a state was facing this sort of choice. Where is it you lie? Where is it your interests lie? Do your interests lie with the other white powerful states in the world? Or do they lie with the majority world as we call it now? And there were all sorts of vestiges of a radicalism that kept appearing at various points that said that a lot of the politics was happiest when placed in the majority world seeing themselves part of the majority world. But over the decades, that has decreased, there’s still vestiges of it there. I think, for example, a low we can get into long and virulent debate about the welcoming of Ukrainian refugees throughout Europe at the moment compared to the non welcoming of refugees of color in Europe at the moment, but let’s leave that just aside. But it is interesting the speed with which the South of Ireland, the Irish Republic, as it’s called, responded to this crisis, in terms of offering places to people, much quicker, for example, than the UK did, than Britain did, the UK of which we in the north are part. So there’s still that vestige of a bit sort of empathy, this resonance with the majority world. But that has declined massively over the years through all sorts of things, including participation in the European Union. Short version of the conclusion that story is then to say that, we would argue that one of the challenges facing a new Ireland is to say where do you place yourself? Do you place yourself with the white majority world? Whether that’s in terms of joining NATO, etc, etc? Or the non-majority world, the white world excuse me? Or do you place yourself with the majority world? And what are the consequences of that, not just in terms of non-alignment, but also in terms of support for development, opposition to militarism, etc, etc.
LL: Thanks, well, you already started answering my next question. I think I want to push you even further on that because I will say I will say this again, I really thinks is book is excellent. And it not, your publisher didn’t put me up to it. But because, as we said, it’s like, okay, let’s talk about the history of Ireland. But let’s place it within the global history of colonialism, but also, okay, let’s talk about colonialism. But how can we talk about colonialism without talking about racialization as well, which is not exactly like both of histories are not exactly the same, but they overlap in large part. And I really, I’m really interested in how you do not shy away from this question and you, you really engage with the relationship between Irish people and whiteness, in a way that I think can make it much more complex than what we’re often getting in terms of discourse on whiteness, also, because they tend to come from settler colonies themselves where whiteness is fairly simple you know, it’s a settlers’ race. So in the continent that has an it’s islands that has that has birthed whiteness, I feel that we’re also witnessing much more nuanced or degrees of whiteness. I mean, we you just talked about Ukrainian refugees, and we’ve seen how, at this moment in Europe, Ukrainian refugees are white, but that that that may be the first time really we unfortunately, that might not last at all, like in two months. I mean, if you if we talk about your nemesis, I mean, the Brits will definitely realizing in a few months that Ukrainians are not white, if I may say it in such great way. Just like the during the Brexit debates as they’ve been like, there’s been like horribly racist discourse against Polish people. And, and also, I think I want I want to hear a little bit more from you about this relationship between Irish and whiteness. And its many different configurations. I mean, there’s the pre 1922 dimension. There’s, of course, a way whiteness might be perceived in the south versus the way it might be perceived in the north. Visa vis the police, for example. In the diaspora, I mean, you talked about how the Irish became white, I mean, you know, I lived in New York for five years, and most cops you’ll run into would be and those who actually are guilty of some of the most anti-black actions there, they’d be Irish. And also talking about black people, you also talk about Irish blackness, which is, which is also something that sometimes goes unnoticed, I would say. So, sorry, that was quite long. But would you us more about that?
RM: I mean, there’s a lot in that obviously, but I think I would start with the I think this is a conversation which has to be very nuanced and you know, the that are there are ways in which it is very often abused in quite a reaction and racist way in the sense that the, the specific location of Irishness has seemed to somehow mediate some of the some of the racist abuses that have been meted out against other people, particularly live in the states where you can see the experience of the Irish sometimes put up as a, as a mollifier against the experience of African Americans. Most notorious examples, obviously, the notion that the Irish were enslaved in much the same way as African Americans, and therefore, that the somehow the injustice that was meted out through enslavement and, and racism in the States is less significant than should be, so we, you know, we need to acknowledge that that is part of this debate. And it’s really very problematic. But at the same time, the other side of that, as we’ve said already, is, it’s important to recognize that whiteness ever existed, in terms of our instinct to protect people from the catastrophe that wasn’t Gorta Mór, as we’ve already talked about.
So in that sense, it does begin to unpack the simplicity that sometimes informs the way that people think about whiteness and being of color, or whiteness and non-whiteness, right. And, specifically, in the Irish context, I think that the reality is in terms of colonial history, for most of that history, Irish people didn’t think of themselves as white in Ireland, and it was really the process of moving, both of us as refugees of starvation, and later as migrants to settler colonial regimes that first made Irish people aware that but for some of them, at least, there was an opportunity to mobilize whiteness in a way to empower themselves in the way that we’ve sort of, we’re going to talk about already like the police, not just New York, but across many police departments in in the States is the classic example of that. That you could use Irishness and whiteness as a way of getting power for yourself and your community and both political and economic advancement. So that that’s something that happens. And once again, in the context of empire, it only really becomes meaningful in the debate and Ireland at the time of rotation, as we said before, and at that point, whiteness is very clearly thrust upon the 26 counties, you know, as I said before, the place that the new 26 counties state is given within empire is one of weight domain, and that’s the model that they’re supposed to follow. So the first time Irish people have to think about what it means to be weighed in that in that context, and as I say, it wasn’t particularly a choice that they made, it was a quality and a structure that was forced upon them. That then changes again over time. I think, for us the 26 counties joining the European Union was a key moment in terms of the integration of Irishness and particularly the 26 counties state into a new notion of Europeans and also whiteness that was that was different again and moving people away from their awareness of their own colonial history and you know, a nucleus in which parents people began to think of themselves as good Europeans. And therefore, whiteness was kind of integrated into that in a way that wasn’t particularly thought about.
RM: And then even more recently, we’re going to see more straightforward racist politics and marching in 26 counties where, you know, particularly around the citizens wrapped around them were tiny numbers of, of people of color, children, children or refugees force, a change and citizenship law over 26 counties, straightforwardly racist way so that, you know, there’s a long history of people beginning to engage with what it means to be white in the context of, of Irishness.
And I think I mean, the only thing that we can say simply in terms of a rejoinder to that is that at the same time, we have to, first of all say that this was never a given, you know, at the time of Gorta Mór
where it would be meaningless to suggest that that is whiteness as did anything for various people at that time. But at the same time, right through this history, there have been Irish people of color. So we have to, you know, continuously contest that notion that there’s just there’s a simple equation between Irishness and whiteness. Irishness has gradually seen whiteness become more important for some Irish people, but at the same time, you’re seeing a whole counter-narrative with the emergence particularly in the, in the 26 counties recently of a of a new generation of, of people of color, Irish who completely contest the notion that, that that to be Irish has to be white, because it’s simply not empirically true. And we would argue it shouldn’t be politically true at all. It’s a really dangerous development that needs to be rejected.
BR: Yeah, that’s quite a good one, Robbie. I mean, the point is, I’m sure you know, that Léopold, you know, if you were doing sociology, or racial studies 101 the first point would be to point out that race is a social construct, it’s not a given. And sometimes it’s very hard to see that when you’re in the midst of a thing, like, for example, if you were to say to most Irish people today know that people in the time of the famine An Gorta Mór did not see themselves as Irish—sorry, didn’t see themselves as white, excuse me, they probably say, but like, of course, they were white look at them, you know, but that’s only the surface. And the point is, not only did they not see themselves as white, they were not seen as white by Empire. And that’s a crucial point. The two things go together, the Empire certainly did not see or represent the Irish as white, just as early America did not see the Irish, especially Irish Catholics, as white. And that’s, that’s been a lot when you’re in the middle of it, you don’t necessarily notice that transformation, that has been a substantial transformation in culture and identity over 150 200 years, about what it means to be Irish.
Now, this challenge of black Irishness now it’s really, really interesting, because you’ve now got some of the best Irish dancers are sports people, Irish musicians are black. And not just immigrants, but children of immigrants born and raised in Ireland. And that is sort of the most obvious cultural challenge to this narrow-minded view, that it’s all on the surface, that being white and being Irish are coterminous. You asked about the north, the north has a as a different nuance to it. I mean, I’m saying this two days after the Multicultural Center in Belfast, which is less than a mile away from me, was burnt down in a racist fire, right. So you’d like to think that somehow being victims of colonization, would make you aware of other victims of colonization and to align with other victims of colonization, it doesn’t always work. It’s clear in the Irish example, it’s clear in many other colonized examples, it doesn’t always work. But certainly in the North, you’ve got a much more open and obvious alignment with Empire than you have in the South. It used to exist in the south in much in a much greater form, but now a days, that’s more obviously apparent in the north, that there’s a recognition between empire and being Northern Irish being an Ulster person as they say. And that lends itself to not seeing this connection easily between your own situation and the situation of others. I’ll give you just one quick example. I’ve got a grid, I’m interested in looking at wall murals and photographing wall murals over the last 35 years. And anybody who’s been to Belfast will know the range of international connections that you see in Republican wall murals. Over the years there have been wall murals about Cuba, Palestine, Nicaragua, Kurdistan, South Africa, Caledonia, sorry, Catalonia, right Caledonia, from Catalonia, Basque Country, etc, etc, etc. You know, so it’s, it’s this notion of we’re all brothers and sisters in this big international struggle together. But if you look at the murals of the other side, it is very rare to see international references at all, in any of the loyalist murals, and the only one you’re likely to find is representations of Israel. Right. Interestingly, by the way, there are also now Ukrainian flags flying alongside foster volunteers force flags, in parts of Belfast, and not quite sure how to figure that one out.
RM: I don’t know how deeply you want to go into this. But I think maybe one of the significant developments for me in terms of this, the relationship between Irishness and whiteness is the significant if underreported move by Boris Johnson and the Tories in the UK response to Black Lives Matter where they set up a commission that was supposed to engage with the legacy of the questions of Black Lives Matter for the UK state. And the most significant thing that came out of that commission was the construction of the UK, which I think for the first time as a white majority country, you can see, you can see where they’re going with that, you know, there’s a there’s a there’s a possibility to mirror some of the problem in the States and the sense of you can you construct a populist majority around, you know, straightforward racism and the reality of a white majority status for a certain amount of time. I mean, that’s what that project is about. And the interesting thing for us in terms of the six counties, of course, is that they, that part of that construction of a white majority UK depends on the vast majority of people in the six counties who may or may not see themselves, you know, certainly Republicans and nationals haven’t seen themselves in those terms at all, they haven’t seen themselves as British, let alone, you know, white British in that context, but it shows the way that this, that that concept moves on and becomes particularly dangerous in the context of the politics of the contemporary world. But you know, in that moment, you kind of see all the contradictions of a whiteness, both in the in the British context, but also in the way that impacts directly on to politics in the north.
LL: Yeah, perhaps just to add to the north. I mean, could you can you tell us very briefly about the segregation in jobs as well, because I think that that would definitely go further in your way Bill, like saying, this is not just about how people are seeing like their degree of paleness or something like that. But like, there is there is a straight up colonial, perhaps unofficial, yet sorry, efficient segregation between Protestants and Catholics in the north in when it comes to jobs. So can you tell us about it?
BR: Well, one of the things we argue in the book is that if you’re looking at it, I’m swinging back a bit for the answer, to take a run at it. If you look through the 19th century, as Ireland is incorporated into the Union, you see an increasing acknowledgement, I suppose, by the British rulers that you have to give the Catholic majority in the in most of the Senate, you have to give them a political space. They were denied a political space before the union for centuries, you had the existence of what was called the Protestant ascendancy whereby the bulk of land jobs and political power and wealth were in the hands of Protestants and particularly of Anglicans, of high church Protestants. So in the 19th century that declines and you begin to get Catholic wealth, Catholic power, Catholic ownership throughout, especially the southern part of Ireland, what became the southern part of Ireland. Now, partition did this amazing thing in that it turned back the clock in relation to the north, it in effect reestablished the Protestant ascendancy. Right. It in fact said that, as long as we can maintain it, wealth, power, etc, will be in the hands of Protestants and not of Catholics. Now, we’re not going to go into all that, but that’s where the Civil Rights campaign came as a reaction. So there’s something about the North that’s a complex mixture of Direct colonial intervention and then almost—what is it they call it Marxist books comprador bourgeoisie—it was, it was not just done to us, we did it to ourselves, if you want to put it that way. This arrangement in the north whereby the segregation was in the interests of not just the British, but in the interests of Northern Unionists. And they have maintained that to the best of their ability, they’ve come under severe pressure from the Civil Rights campaign up to the present, where by holding that line of ascendancy has become, if not quite impossible, increasingly difficult. No, what I’m saying is that, all of that, to my mind, now, maybe Robbie should come in here. But all of that, to my mind, doesn’t directly relate to the question of whiteness. Of course, you had unions of certain points of time colluding with colonial views of the Irish and seeing a Catholic Irish in particular, but not them, of course, as Protestant Irish, seeing the Catholic Irish are somehow less than civilized less than white. But why did I leave it there, and let Robbie do a better job with it.
RM: Well, I mean, I suppose I think the reality is, in some ways, the thing that you’re, the question you’re asking is, works better with it with a standard that was established at partition, there’s been quite profound changes in the state over the last 100 years. And most notably, first with the imposition of direct rules, whether the UK Government takes responsibility for the state because of the outbreak of the Troubles in 1972. And then, more profoundly, in some ways with the Good Friday Agreement, where there’s an attempt to create a new state of your life based on a peace process, which at least acknowledges the reality of Catholic and Protestant difference nationalist and Unionist, different Republican and loyalist deference. So you know, how successful it’s been, I think, is going to be called into question, at least by the election, which is going to come in less than a month, but the reality was that that state looks very different from the state that was explicitly a Protestant state for a Protestant people, you know, established in 1992, with partition. So to go back to your question, the reality of institutional discrimination and segregation is also very different because of the changes in those states. At your night, we’re now approaching a situation where it looks as if there will be a Catholic voting majority or a nationalist Catholic voting majority fairly soon already, as, you know, the transition towards a Catholic demographic majority. And those, you know, those two things aren’t necessarily related. Because, you know, of course, it’s possible that a large proportion or some proportion of Catholics start to vote for explicitly Unionist Party.
So, you know, there’s not a correlation between those two changes, but the one, the one reality that unions have to face up to, which I think they haven’t really faced up to is the old model of a Protestant state for Protestant people isn’t possible in the context of the new demography that we that we live with a Catholic and perhaps nationalist majority in the sixth counties. So that’s the reality that’s less to do with politics, sadly to say and more to do with demography. So in that context, you know, go back to what I was saying earlier about the dangerous politics that come out of any kind of populist majoritarianism, whether it’s in the UK with this new notion that it’s a white majority country, or indeed Trumpism in the States, where you where the depressing thing is that you can see some of the characteristics of, of Trumpism a new republicanism, as you know, the explicit racial gerrymandering of popular elections and the politics of controlled, democratic control that goes with that, precisely mirroring what was done in the early years of the North Ireland state. So in that sense, you know, this, that, that the kind of complexity that comes out of populist sectarian racist majoritarian ism is not an old thing, to absolutely characterize Northern Ireland from day one, it’s beginning to infect and infect the politics of the whole world and you know, in some ways that’s another good reason for reading Irish history and understanding it. But it also is shows how important it is to engage with these histories if you want to develop a politics that has some way of countering them.
LL: Thanks for as a last question and going back to what you were just talking about Bill describing the West Belfast murals. And that, of course, is very spectacular in mostly a great way. And you know, seeing all those struggles sort of being part of the West Belfast Republican imaginary. To the list you did I would add Eelam Tamil struggle which I was very happy to sort of see on those walls. Or similarly to see Palestinian flags in many places, including, like in small Catholic villages along the coasts that I’ve seen. I mean, as you can see behind me as these flags are definitely something in particular, the Palestinian flag, some things that I absolutely don’t think as, as a non-operational solidarity, but I sort of wanted to ask you, beyond the sort of the spectacular, the visible, the, what is meant to, to act as a visual symbol, what forms do you do you see, as a solidarity taking between Ireland and other places, other struggles in the world that already exists that could exist that should exist? So in a way that to end this conversation on a very internationalist matter where we started from?
BR: Well, if I take it first then Robbie, I know has things to say on this. I go back to something that I hinted at earlier, it would be lovely to think that it because you’ve been colonized that therefore you have this sort of collective memory of that, and that, therefore, you immediately bond with all those others in the world who have been colonized. But it doesn’t work that way. We know it doesn’t work that way. It didn’t work that way in the heyday of colonialism, and it doesn’t work. Now, for the Irish, or indeed, I would argue for any other colonized people. Right? So let’s put it in the Irish context. One thing that we argue throughout the book is that the choice in Ireland facing people, facing everybody from the highest to the lowest of the social hierarchy is, where do you stand? Do you stand with Empire? Or do you stand with Republic? Do you stand with decisions being made for you in a boat, you elsewhere? Or do you stand for liberation and making your own decision? Do you stand for savagery? Or do you stand for liberation right? Now, the surprising thing is that not every colonized Irish person answered that and the way you might expect. Right through the latter part of the 19th century, in particular, it was clear that most Irish nationalists, especially political nationals, I mean, those who are involved in political parties, etc. sided with Empire. And their position was one of saying, Look, we have fought for Empire, we have administered empire, we have got jobs through empire, we have exported to Empire, we want a fair share of empire, you know, the English are getting all the advantages we want our fair share.
Now, it’s not the position that I would take, I don’t know what position I would have taken back then. But I see the contradiction of that. But we would argue that the current choice is exactly the same in Ireland, and the in the southern Republic, quote, unquote, the Free State, quote, unquote, and in the north, which is still part of the UK, that is still the same choice. Do you stand with Republic or empire? And if you’re serious about standing with Republic, what are the consequences of that? No, in the north, there are a lot of people who stand with Republic and see that and international terms who identify who resonate with those who are also colonized currently are in a process of decolonization. And that’s what you see in the flags. That’s what you see in the wall murals. But not everybody from a Catholic nationalist background thinks that and certainly not everybody from a Unionist background thinks that. Not everybody in those two constituencies stands with Republic, but they stand in ways with Empire. And that is the challenge in the north. It’s also the challenge for the whole island to say, look, if you are serious about being an independent republic, what are the consequences of that of your international connections of your international stances of your international alignment? I think the debate is probably more live in the north, especially at the popular level than it is in the south. But it is a debate that’s there and debate that needs to be even more vocal, I think.
RM: Yeah, I just think I mean, it’s just beautifully put. And I don’t know what I want to add that much to it except to say that, but I think, you know, that obviously, the logic of our book is that there, there should be a moment of, of self-determination for Ireland as a whole, there should be a finishing of the revolution. And as a united Ireland, a new 32 County State will emerge out of that process if it happens, all of that, I would stand by, and I would hope that the stance that emerges from that would be, you know, would put itself at the heart of the nonaligned movement, drawing some of the history we talked about earlier, you know, it would see it’s a core role as decolonizing the EU, if it chooses just to stay part of the EU. So it would, it would bring all that history and that new context, but at the same time, you have to acknowledge that, you know, the states that have emerged around the world from self-determination that have also been, you know, far from perfect on any of those accounts. And, you know, we have to acknowledge it, that that’s the reality of, you know, it’ll be, it’ll be a better state, it will be a more internationalist state. It’s more progressive and in opposition to starvation around the world in solidarity with all the other colonized nations than either the six counties or 26 countries have been, but nevertheless, you must, we must expect to be disappointed by the, by the kind of politics that emerges in that state. That’s just the reality.
So where does that where does that leave us in terms of your initial question, it’s like the truth that you see on the walls of West Belfast, it comes from the ordinary people of West Belfast and struggle. And that’s true writ large, like I’d like to see a more progressive, internationalist, Irish state as a consequence of self-determination. But at the same time, it’s going to be ordinary people who make those make the decisions about how they do the right thing on Palestine, or racism in America, or partition in India or whatever the quest, and I suppose the only thing that I would say very straightforwardly and definitively in terms of the politics that we have to start that process with, and it touches immediately on what you were saying about the place of whiteness within Irishness is that I personally think that we Irish people should just reject completely, the notion that they are white and that whiteness has any connection to Irishness. Once you’ve done that it doesn’t mean that we’re absolved of all the responsibility for Irish American racism, or the prepositions that either states have taken in terms of international justice, but what so what it does mean is that the proper terrain to contest those issues is a question of what Irishness is and should be about. And that and the reality is that the first stage to get entirely, if you like and that is to reject this notion that the Irish are white or should be white.
LL: Well, Robbie, and Bill, thank you so much for your time this morning. I mean, there’s so many things we haven’t even touched upon. Well, thanks. Thanks, again, very, very much to both of you. And again, like I highly, highly recommend, it took me a few weeks, I have to say, to read the whole book.
BR: But it’s clear that you did, very impressive. The questions showed that you read the book.
LL: Yeah. But it’s also it’s also because, you know, as I said, it is a very generous book. And I’ve seen it, I’ve seen people in Ireland reading it, and I’ve been able to read it without feeling like I was being left out of your arguments. So I’m very grateful for this. So thanks again. Thank you!