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Is the British State Neutral?

Liam O Ruairc • 11 April 2004

Republicans and the Left have usually analysed the British state's presence in Ireland (so-called "British Imperialism") in terms of selfish economic, political or strategic interests. However, this analysis rests on shaky ground. First, the British state does not benefit economically from its presence in the North of Ireland. It is in fact a net financial loss. The second argument is that the British state remains in Ireland because withdrawal would mean the beginning of the break-up of the United Kingdom.

This argument can be criticised on the grounds that the British government sees the province as a place apart and different from the rest of the United Kingdom, conceding even that it would agree to Irish reunification if a majority of the population in the North wished so. In the age of inter-ballistic missiles, the strategic importance of the six counties is very limited, especially after the end of the cold war. In ideological terms, the province is of no significance to the British identity, there is no "Jerusalem" in the North. So the British state is telling the truth when it says that it "has no selfish economic, political or strategic interests in the North".

But does that mean that the British state is effectively "neutral" or even "benevolent", that because it has no economic, political or strategic interests in the North it could join the ranks of the "persuaders" for Irish unity? How should we analyse the role of the British state in Ireland?

Since the days of Home Rule, the "Irish Question" has been source of troubles for the British state. Thus since 1921, the political class has avoided as much as possible to get involved in the affairs of the North.

Irish affairs are source of problems and troubles, so the imperative is to avoid as much and as long as possible any direct involvement in the affairs of the province. It is thus not surprising for example that between 1921 and 1968 Westminster politicians have only spent a day in the province. The six counties were not worth any trouble from Westminster's point of view, as the place represented no significant economic, political or strategic interest.

Had there been petrol in the North or had the six counties had a major strategic value things would have been different, and the British state would have played a much more active role.

Significantly also, if the place did not benefit the United Kingdom enough for the British state to stay there forever, the six counties are not costly enough to justify immediate or medium term withdrawal. (Remember that the cost of running the province in 2000 in less than that of the British nuclear programme). The North is not "bad" enough to justify an active policy of withdrawal. So it is very important to have in mind that the place is not important enough to have an active policy of either withdrawal or maintaining the status quo. This explains why British policy tends to be reactive rather than proactive.

Those factors account for a certain confusion and indecision in the British state's policy towards the North. If the North had not had this marginal importance for the British state, British policy would have been more coherent and decisive. The only consensus about the North in British political circles is that minimum action or inaction is preferable to any significant involvement, there is no solution to the problems of the North, there is only good or bad crisis management. It is only because it had been forced to intervene, at the point of crisis in 1969, that the British state has had to form policies about the North. The imperative is to avoid getting stuck in the Irish "quagmire".

The consequence of this is that there is no political will to confront the Unionists. And the perverse effect of this is the more the confusion and indecisiveness of British policy, the greater Unionist intransigence will tend to be. In 1969, some British politician said, "the Unionists are the majority, and we cannot afford to alienate them". In theory, the British state might be "neutral" on whether the North should be part of the UK, but in practice it will be objectively pro-Unionist as it operates on the existing balance of forces in the North, because if it has to choose between confronting the stronger element (the Unionists majority) or the weakest (the Nationalist minority), it will always choose to ignore the weaker element - better displease the minority than the majority. This explains why the British state will de facto uphold the Unionist veto and confront the Republican challenge.

This was something the SDLP commentator Brian Feeney recently noted in an incisive and insightful article:

"The default position of the British administration here is the status quo. Put another way, that means when faced with any opposition or even controversy about a policy issue, their proconsul chooses the way of least resistance. In short, he does nothing. ... Doing nothing in this place means preserving the status quo which is unionist in every respect. "
("Ambling Idly along the path of least resistance", The Irish News, 3 March 2004)

A good illustration of the above argument is the British state's likely response to last November's elections, which saw a push for anti- agreement elements. "The British government is set to resume its actively pro-unionist approach to the Good Friday Agreement. This will involve demanding further concessions from nationalists, and refusing to implement any parts of the accord to which unionists object. The Irish government, in its weakest position for many years, looks likely to continue to behave as if a junior partner in the peace process, allowing British officials to set the agenda while it concentrates on the EU presidency.

Already there are indications that the British see the DUP's eclipsing of the UUP as an opportunity to push for the IRA to disband." (Sean Mac Cartaigh, "British will dance to DUP tune", Sunday Business Post, 30 November 2003) Tony Blair may not personally like the Unionists, but he has suspended the institutions, postponed elections and refused to implement many aspects of the Good Friday Agreement precisely because he "cannot afford to alienate the majority".

And this is a fact which seriously worries the likes of Feeney and Sinn Fein:

"There's no policy paper which advises British proconsuls not to promote any change unless compelled to do so. On the contrary, they would claim to be even-handed. The facts suggest the opposite. That makes it especially important now to point out that not only have Mandelson, Reid and Murphy failed to drive change with all deliberate speed, they have deliberately gone slow when they weren't being obstructive. Why is it important now? Because the review of the Good Friday Agreement is going to fail. The only question is when. Some say it'll be lucky to stagger on until Easter. Others think St Patrick's Day is optimistic. For however short a period it continues, our proconsul will do nothing in case it alienates the DUP. The real problem is that when it collapses he will continue to do nothing in case it prevents the DUP sitting round a table again after the European elections. It seems we're back to the position of 10 years or more ago when unionists refused to talk unless meetings of the Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Council were suspended. The reason unionists oppose change now is not because of a campaign of violence but ostensibly because any change is 'a sop to republicans', code for 'concessions to Fenians'. Our proconsul's refusal to expedite change therefore places him entirely in the unionist camp, indeed in the anti-agreement unionist camp. The only issue over which unionists have a veto is constitutional change. They have always managed to twist this position into having a veto on any change whatsoever and the British administration has always connived at that. It needs to be remembered that it is the duty of the British administration here to implement the Good Friday Agreement, not as 'a sop to republicans', but because it is right to do so, because the British government committed itself to do so but most importantly because the people of Ireland north and south voted for it. To date the record is poor." ("Ambling Idly along the path of least resistance", The Irish News, 3 March 2004)

Jeremiads about the British government's poor record of implementing the Belfast Agreement fail to understand that the British state is fundamentally committed to a "realist" approach to the six counties (in the sense of the "realist" school of international relations), not to 'human rights', 'postnationalism', 'peace' or 'reconciliation'.





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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
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Index: Current Articles

11 April 2004


Other Articles From This Issue:


Easter 2004, Arbour Hill, Dublin
Francis Mackey


Good Friday to Easter Sunday, 2 Days and Light Years
Anthony McIntyre


Is there a Republican Alternative to the Good Friday Agreement?
Gerry Ruddy


Bail For Sale - Nationalists Need Not Apply
Anthony McIntyre


Is the British State Neutral?
Liam O Ruairc


Lost Sheep or Shepherd?

Tom Luby


A Person I Admire
Miss O'Dee


Lerner, Said and the Palestinians
M. Shahid Alam


9 April 2004


Richard McAuley - 'a literary giant of our time'
Barney de Breadbin and Eamon Codswolloper


Hear, Hear!
Brian Mór


How Will Paisley's Rise Play in America?
Sean Mc Manus


Other Shoes

Mick Hall


A Septic Needle
Anthony McIntyre


Why More Will Hate More and Less Will Understand Less
Michael Youlton


Save the Hill of Tara
Seaghán Ó Murchú




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