UK state and Northern Ireland

Michael Keaney michael.keaney at
Tue Feb 18 06:21:43 MST 2003

James writes:

My thanks to Michael Keaney for bringing up the Irish question again. Of
course it has enormous relevance to any theory or practice of the breakup of
the UK state. But notice that your formulation, Michael, is about "Northern
Ireland", and from the perspective of the UK state.


James, the issue of Ireland is very important in any effort to understand
and confront the British state, so I appreciate the opportunity to discuss
that with those much closer to the realities pertaining to that issue than
I. I'm not sure what to make of your drawing attention to my formulation,
however: "about 'Northern Ireland' from the perspective of the UK state" may
not be how republicans view Ireland's relationship with Britain but it makes
sense for them to consider the British state perspective whilst confronting
it directly in practice. As for my perspective, I think that Northern
Ireland, as conceived by the British state, is absolutely crucial to
understanding that state as it has evolved during the last 30 years amid the
global restructuring of capital sponsored by the US state. I make no
apologies for the British state in doing this -- far from it. As one who
argues that the British left should be attending to the demise of the
British state I could hardly be more anti-UK state.

You continue:

A Greek friend of mine asked me recently to help him answer his friends'
(only recently arising) question: "What's wrong with them wanting to remain
British?" Even many anarchists and post-Marxist identity theorists would
agree that that is a fair question. That dovetails with the two nations
position adopted by Tom Nairn and the other editors of the New Left Review,
according to which
the (progressive because Protestant) Ulster nation had a right to its
national territory, the six counties.


Oh dear. Well that's not my view, nor has it ever been. Nairn's recent work
on Scotland I've been poring over in some detail, and it's good in parts,
seriously deficient in others. Whatever Marxism he might once have boasted
seems to have receded in favour of a more straightforward nationalism,
progressive if not Protestant. Nairn is very good at analysing the entrails
of the British state as it slowly unravels, and his account of Scottish
political development as that has been affected by the reconvening of the
parliament is especially convincing. However he completely ignores questions
concerning the future place of an independent Scotland (presumed) in the
world, opting instead for echoing Göran Therborn's vision of a modest,
peaceful Europe built along Swedish lines. Talk about post-structuralism!
Thus questions of an independent Scottish state as a more effective
legitimation of neoliberalism do not enter into the equation because all
attention is focused on the antiquarian repressive apparatus of the British
state as is. That is a necessary but hardly sufficient condition on which to
build a Marxist vision of an independent Scotland's place in the world. I
believe that British leftists should be working to dismantle "Britain" and
to collectively, as England, Wales, and Scotland, together with their Irish
comrades, struggle within the European state against imperialism. To those
who would decry this as supportive of an EU superstate my response is that
by dismantling "Britain" much of the firepower necessary for such a
superstate would no longer exist. Even if "Britain" were not dismantled
there is no sign that Europe as it stands is in any condition to mount an
imperialist challenge against the US that would be effective. It can only do
that in alliance with Russia and China. But that's another story.

As far as Ireland is concerned, part of the "British" left's task in
dismantling the British state is to assist that process by insisting upon
withdrawal from Northern Ireland. The GFA makes that task harder because,
for the first time since partition, there is a semblance of parity in the
political arrangements, but it is no less necessary.

The GFA also poses an interesting constitutional conundrum for Ireland as a
whole. Assuming reunification does take place, the political institutions
supportive of regional autonomy that have been set up will have
institutionalised devolution in such a way as to act as a source of tension
within any united Ireland governed directly from Dublin. As with the
Scottish parliament and Westminster, the practice of bourgeois democracy
will enhance the development of a localised perspective that will resent
many of the intrusions of the centre. Apologies if these questions have been
considered in much greater detail by Irish comrades, but has there been any
effort to envisage the potential political crisis ensuing in the Republic
should Ireland ever re-unite?

Michael Keaney

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