THE BLOG

Moralising Instead of Analysing in the Debate on Britain's Imperial Relics Could Increase Colonialism in the Present

14/08/2013 16:48 BST | Updated 14/10/2013 10:12 BST

Last week when riots broke out over a republican parade in Northern Ireland, the oldest and closest relic of Britain's empire, historically-based analysis descended into cheap moralising over violence. Loyalist protestors injured 56 police officers, and Northern Ireland's Chief Constable denounced it as 'mindless anarchy' whilst Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers called it, 'shameful'. Similarly, republicans were urged not to hold the parade, which loyalists claimed glorified terrorism. The reason behind the demonstration, the tragic loss of many republicans during their struggle for civil rights in Northern Ireland, was forgotten.

Another very different colonial relic, the Falklands, was brought back to our attention by renewed claims of sovereignty by Argentine President Cristina Kirchner at the UN Security Council. Whilst some on the far-left would rather have seen Argentinian fascists invade and occupy a place that was never theirs, the historian Eric Hobsbawm made an excellent point that Thatcher's record of support for dictators like Saddam and Suharto, combined with the naked opportunism and jingoism of the war was an ugly return to martial values, not only from Argentina but Britain too. Moralising over the conflict, instead of analysing its causes, opened the door to continued imperial oppression. Thatcher was allowed to look a champion of self-determination and freedom just a year after her disgusting policy towards the Irish hunger-strikers in 1981 and her state violence outsourced to loyalist paramilitaries.

Much of the British press, including of course the Daily Mail, have been talking in neo-colonial language, demanding Britain hang onto these strips of land not because their inhabitants wish it, but because to not do so would show a lack of 'power' on the world stage, as if we still live in the time of Napoleon and Metternich. The language of self-determination and freedom is there too of course, but only as a post facto rationalisation of imperial relics.

The conventional debate obscures the ugly truth that these colonies are vestiges of an empire we should not only feel guilty about, but should analyse and understand so we can better respond to imperialism and colonialism in its still-existing forms, more on which later.

Firstly, simplistic characterisations of Ulster as a fratricidal hotbed of religious tension, and cheap moralising against violence, fail to empathise with the indigenous Catholic Irish who have suffered 800 years of colonial oppression, that still continues with the Ulster loyalists, the last remaining British settlers, a remnant of the Cromwellian and Elizabethan 'plantations'. Protestant settlers like Cromwell butchered the Irish at Drogheda and Wexford, enslaved them while continuing to gerrymander elections in Northern Ireland during the 1960s. I am no supporter of the IRA, and have personally been called a moron by Gerry Adams after telling him to pipe down after the Boston Marathon bombing, yet to view their actions as pure crime, as Thatcher did, or as religious fundamentalism, is both ahistorical and unimaginative on huge proportions. The Troubles began as a civil rights struggle, and we should look forward to the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement and the reunification of Ireland to close a horrible chapter of British history.

Imperialism, once the tool of the British, still exists under new forms of global hegemony. I have had the fortune, or misfortune depending how you see it, on having visited both Belfast and Jerusalem. The settlement of Ulster in the 16th century, with its violence and racism and profits for British business, bears a remarkable similarity to the way in which Jewish settlers are colonising the West Bank today under the racist and exclusivist concept of a Jewish-only homeland, whilst British business G4S runs their torture chambers, which I visited during my time there. Israel's colonisation of Palestine, with the help of the imperial masters Britain and the US, can't be reduced to 'Muslims v. Jews' or fratricidal warfare.

We need to reclaim the discourse on our colonial relics like Ulster and the Falklands, understand the economic factors that drive imperialist expansion, and the racism that justifies it, so as to prevent Palestine and other states like it becoming the colonial relics of Israel and the other colonisers of today's world.