The Queen in the postcolony

Talking about the effects of a long history of colonisation is not exemplary of the holding of a 'petty grudge' or a failure to let go of the past, writes Cian O'Callaghan. The effects of Ireland's particular history on its particular present cannot so easily be dismissed, and deserve to be engaged with.

While running for the train last Wednesday morning I grabbed a copy of Metro Herald from the vendor outside the station. Unsurprisingly, a picture of Queen Elizabeth adorned the front page, smiling benignly and holding flowers as she met with Trinity students yesterday. The accompanying article described the visit as an ‘extraordinary occasion’, while also giving more marginal coverage to a range of protests that marked the day. Inside, another article titled ‘Forget history, we’re here for the fashion’ suggested that for many people the dresses worn by Mary McAlese and the Queen would be of greater interest than any political or historical concerns. On the letters page, the subject of the Queen’s visit was again raised by a disgruntled reader proclaiming their ‘boredom’ with the ‘negative comments’ surrounding the visit.  He suggested that, ‘Now is the time to show that we’ve moved on and don’t hold petty grudges.’

While personally I do not find the protests by Sinn Féin and other republican groups especially constructive, and I certainly do not sympathise with the calls for violence espoused by some dissident groups, taking issue with the long history and the sustained impacts of British rule in Ireland hardly amounts to a ‘petty grudge’. I bring up this letter not because it is particularly insightful, but rather because it offers an example of what appears to be a relatively commonplace response to the British monarch’s visit: that is, the perspective that Ireland’s colonial past no longer matters; that we have overcome this heritage and that, in the context of contemporary globalisation and cosmopolitanism, suggesting otherwise amounts to an exercise in a futile and dangerous anachronism. This attitude is arguably an outcome of the transformations experienced during the Celtic Tiger period. The rapid changes to Ireland from the early 1990s seem to have brought with them a cultural amnesia, wherein Irish people forgot the nation’s troubled history and position within the political geography of Europe in favour of an assumed identity as cosmopolitan citizens of a post-political age.

However, the inescapable fact remains that Ireland is a postcolonial nation. And as the postcolonial studies literature shows us, the effects of colonial rule do not suddenly cease upon the moment of emancipation.

Because of its geographical position, on the periphery of Europe but nevertheless within the area politically designated as European, Ireland has occupied a particular (in many ways privileged) postcolonial position. Its geographical proximity to Europe and its cultural proximity to the US; its racial composition; and especially its access to the EU, have afforded Ireland opportunities for economic and structural advancement not offered to other former colonies. In many ways, it could be argued that Ireland’s position as a postcolonial nation within Europe mitigated some of the more trenchant outcomes of imperialism.

It has not been the target of economically and politically neo-colonialist interventions (at least up until the recent IMF bailout). Postcolonial nations have frequently struggled to build any sort of functional state apparatus or economy. In regard to nations in Africa, for example, Simone (2004, p. 158) suggests that ‘Even though urban wages increased substantially in the postwar period – at an average of 116 percent increase between 1949 and 1955 – top wage levels for Africans in 1962 fell well below the bottom wage for Europeans.  There was just not enough money to support a massive project of resocialization.’ Only a small proportion of the populations in modern African nations are employed in the formal economy, while the informal sector has become increasingly important to the survival of many inhabitants. Similarly, the public sector has never recovered from the decimation left in the wake of the colonial powers leaving.

While Ireland certainly experienced poverty in the postwar period, it didn’t experience economic and social problems anywhere near the scale of those experienced in Africa or Latin America.  Moreover, the Celtic Tiger ‘economic miracle’ saw dramatic increases in GDP, wage levels, and standards of living. This was seen as evidence of Ireland’s escape from its postcolonial status, to be replaced by an identity as a global economic leader. Furthermore, the case of Ireland was used as a vehicle to hide the unequal nature of economic development, by suggesting that the Celtic Tiger offered an example of the benefits of a country opening itself up to the global market, and thus perpetuating a view that these markets offered an equal playing field.

One of the outcomes of the prevalence of free-market ideology over the last number of decades has been a disavowal of the role that history and geography play in contemporary economic, social and political contexts. Some of the popular reactions to the Queen’s visit to Ireland exemplify this perspective. While to an extent the deep ambivalence that the visit represents is being acknowledged and it is being seen as of ‘historic importance’, there is a latent underlying narrative constructing this as a straightforward diplomatic mission. This is achieved in large part by consigning British imperialism in Ireland to the category of ‘history’, something to be read about and studied but which bears little relation to realities as they currently stand. Part of her itinerary thus involves a series of ceremonial functions that symbolically gesture towards a reappraisal of British involvement in Ireland, but do so only opaquely and without formal apology for the political violence and injustice that were the outcome of this involvement. Therefore, this history is both remembered and forgotten; remembered only briefly to be forgotten, forgotten for us to remember that as a nation we are now somewhere else, somewhere where this uncomfortable history can be comfortably remembered and forgotten.

But this imagination of the nation elides not only a whole section of Ireland’s past, but crucial ways of understanding its present. As protests organised yesterday by the Socialist Party pointed out, British imperialism did not end at the close of the colonialism era, but is ongoing in countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq in the form of direct involvement in conflict, and in complex neo-colonial relationships with their former colonies. As Edward Said (1994, p.8) suggests, ‘…direct colonialism has largely ended; imperialism… lingers where it has always been, in a kind of general cultural sphere as well as in specific political, ideological, economic, and social practices.’ The project of colonialism and the residual effects of imperialism have formed a colossal global project that continues to shape the world we live in. Ireland is no exception in this regard. Apart from the very obvious problems stemming from the political situation in the north, the Republic of Ireland, on account of its colonial status, started its independent march towards modernity with an economic and administrational deficit. The apparatus of governance and public administration that had been built up in other European nations was largely missing from the Free State inherited by the Irish people, and the nation has had to contend with a series of rapid transformations from this stunted base. This has had, and continues to have, significant implications for the Irish state’s ability to function. Mac Laughlin (1997, p. 3) argues that the country’s social problems stem from ‘…the fact that Ireland has become a postmodern society before becoming a modern nation.’

Far from effacing and erasing these challenges, the Celtic Tiger period exemplified their continued applicability. Faced with its postcolonial deficit – the weakness of its political system, the paucity of state-owned and indigenous industry, the high levels of out-migration – the state turned to the unsustainable policy of trying to attract foreign direct investment as a way of developing the economy. While, owing to a range of factors, this strategy was successful for a time, it still bespoke the limited mechanisms of the postcolonial state. These limited mechanisms were also mirrored in the levels of political cronyism and corruption that mired the property boom that was to follow. Of course, Ireland’s current economic crisis cannot be blamed entirely on its status as postcolonial.  Much of the current problems faced by the country are very clearly the outcome of incompetence, greed, and under-regulation by Irish banks, politicians, and developers. However, rather than being tangential to these processes, the legacy of colonialism plays a key role in Celtic Tiger Ireland and its catastrophic aftermath. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the IMF/ECB bailout. Here Ireland draws closer to its spiritual neighbours on the postcolony than perhaps ever before. If Morgan Kelly’s apocalyptic warnings are anything to go by, Ireland could already be locked into a system of perpetual debt. In this regard, its status as a postcolonial nation may have increasing significance.  So as the Queen visits these shores, rather than drawing divisions between those who have ‘moved on’ and those ‘living in the past’, perhaps we should be asking what this past really means for our present.

Author’s postscript

After I posted this article last week on Ireland After NAMA, it received a number of comments that criticised my use of the term ‘postcolonial Ireland’. Clearly the term comes with much baggage, both theoretical and historical. To clarify, when I use the term ‘postcolonial’ here, I am not interested in ‘blaming the British’ for Ireland’s problem, but rather, in line with Edward Said, to explore how the experience of colonialism has shaped and continues to shape both Britain and Ireland. It was suggested that Ireland is so different from other ex-colonies so as to make it a groundless comparison to other former colonies. I do not find this argument valid, because it a) discounts Ireland’s colonial experience as having any bearing on its evolution and b) suggests that all other ex-colonial nations have had the same experience. Another point that was raised was that using the term ‘postcolonial Ireland’ does not take into account the differential experience of Northern Ireland. This raises a valid argument, I think, about how we conceive and think about Ireland. To see a fuller discussion of these issues, see the original article on Ireland After NAMA. While the use of postcolonial to describe Ireland is certainly contentious and perhaps problematic, the fact that it stimulates contemporary debate supports, I believe, its continued applicability. Therefore, in keeping with this spirit of I feel it is appropriate to re-publish the piece in its original format.

Image top: infomatique.