Ireland at the Intersection

Ireland’s experience of race, class and capital


In 1890s London, the O’Houlihan gang (a group of thieves and petty criminals) were apprehended by police.[1] The coverage following their arrest systematically linked their criminality with their Irish heritage, relating it to a distinct set of shared racial stereotypes, a typology of Irishness established by centuries of creeping colonialism. Thirty years later, those same stereotypes provided a level of ideological cover for British Auxiliary and ‘Black and Tan’ units as they burned down entire towns and cities during the Irish War of Independence. Over a century later, in 2010, a Rochdale-based group were brought to court for grooming and molesting children. Despite the fact that they were found guilty, the English Defence League protested at the court about the police’s perceived leniency toward “Muslim criminals”. The gang’s Asian heritage became the centrepiece of the Rochdale debate, used to hammer home racist points about “Islamic culture” being responsible for the criminals’ behaviour, and to open a wider debate about the consequences of immigration. (In the Greater Manchester area that covers Rochdale, 95% of those on the Sex Offenders’ Register are white.[2])

The Rochdale gang and the O’Houlihans do not share skin colour, language, religion or national background, but their crimes were racialised through the lens of the media in remarkably similar ways. Proceeding from the hopefully uncontroversial view that racism is a phenomenon created and deployed by ‘White’ formations under capitalism, conceptions of ‘Black’ and ‘White’ were invented by the colonial elites that developed racism as we understand it today.[3] By this argument, it is not merely that racists and imperialists have ‘othered’ Black people, but that Black as an idea exists so that it may be othered. A discussion of race as a neutral scientific concept is both flawed and irrelevant here. Skin pigmentation is in this account indicative but not inherently necessary for Blackness, hence the development of Black as a political category, to highlight the common ground shared by all those who have experienced racism. There is a comparison here to be drawn with gender; the radical feminists of the 1970s may have come to the conclusion that ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ were of themselves patriarchal constructs, but that did not preclude the importance of liberating ‘women’. Similarly, the idea of political Blackness acknowledges the falsity of ‘black’ as a concept, and that it is useful only to unite the victims of racism and imperialism. Since the 1970s, Irish students have been allowed to attend the National Union of Students’ Black Caucus. Yet terminology is consistently divisive in the student movement, with Anti-Racism or Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) Officer being used by a range of student unions.

The term has met with increased opposition from anti-racists. ‘People of Colour’ is more widely used today. Asian and Arabic activists, for instance, felt as if their identities were being erased by the universalisation of Blackness. The idea that light-skinned people (such as the Irish or indigenous people of Northern Europe) could be Black has offended a number of black activists. Others have drawn a corollary that Blackness being merely a political term invalidates their cultures and identities.

It is with this background that I want to situate the debate in a specific geographical context: Ireland (both the Republic and the North) today. The idea of political Blackness is complicated in the relationships between black People of Colour and other traditionally marginalised peoples. An anecdote I heard involved an African man being ejected from a pub in County Kerry by an Irish barman who refused to serve his “type”. On the surface, it looks like a clear-cut case of racism, a white person oppressing a black person; it seems intuitively to have more social power than another African reproducing a racist comment. In such contexts, does the argument for the Irish as Black hold? One answer might be to say that since the end of British rule in the twenty-six counties of the South, the Irish are no longer as othered as they once were. In the British public psyche, the ‘terrorist’ is now an Arab Islamist rather than an Irish republican. Another explanation is that the barman in our case is exercising the privilege of ‘passing’ as white due to the roles of skin tone and shared culture in our understanding of race. Ireland has a shared experience of oppression with the colonised world, and yet is by no means in the state that ex-colonies in, say, sub-Saharan Africa are today. It is difficult to situate without creating some form of hierarchy of racism, something which I would feel very uncomfortable doing.

To shed some light on the problem, it is worth highlighting the racial politics of the sectarian divide in the North. In the republican Bogside district, the Palestinian flag flies alongside the Irish tricolour, and murals to South American independence struggles blend in with memorials to the victims of the Troubles. West Belfast republicans produced welcome packs for incoming immigrants, and Sinn Fein produced leaflets in Polish to welcome migrant workers. On the loyalist side, as might be expected considering its militant British nationalism, an uglier approach to race is manifested. The unionist paramilitaries had significant links to Combat 18, the National Front and other British fascist groups.[4] These sentiments continued after the end of the Troubles: according to a 2006 report 90% of racist attacks in Northern Ireland were carried out in loyalist areas[5], and in County Tyrone at the end of 2013, threatening signs appeared warning landlords not to let properties to foreign nationals.[6] In one incident, a Filipino hotel-worker was locked in a freezer by colleagues.[7] Whilst the Progressive Unionist Party campaigned to portray racism as “anti-British”, many of their rank and file were involved in intimidating the Chinese community in Donegall Pass, Belfast. (Northern Ireland, incidentally, has the UK’s lowest immigration rate, which is not especially unsurprising.) According to a Queen’s and Ulster University survey, 42% of Northern Irish pupils have witnessed racist abuse at school, whereas 78% of Catholic and Protestant children now have friends on the “other side”; in other words, even where  sectarian tension is lessening, racism is unabated.[8]

Before falling into a narrative that targets the racism of the pro-British alone, 10% of the Northern Ireland cases did occur on the republican side, and the South is facing its own growing racism problem. The Irish branch of the European Network Against Racism (ENAR) report an alarming increase in incidents. According to Siobhan O’Donoghue of the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland, the Dail aren’t helping: “The Government is displaying a baffling reluctance to release European funds already allocated to Ireland for integration and refugee services.”[9] The Irish Council of Immigrants reported an 85% increase in racist incidents reported to them between 2012 and 2013, the sharpest rise being among young people: one in five of the cases cited involved a perpetrator under the age of eighteen.[10] One could draw a conclusion that the Irish postcolonial process has (in the South, at least) reached the stage at which Ireland is fully assimilated into racist power structures. The oppressed adopting the ideas and preferences of the oppressor is by no means uncommon, whether it is white indentured servants and black slaves uniting to kill Native Americans by the thousand in early colonial America, or the English-speaking zones still extant in modern India. The concept of ‘passing privilege’ readily applies in Ireland, not just in terms of skin tone, but also in terms of a Gaelic cultural identity which, though reasserted, occurs through the lens of an irretrievably Anglicised culture.

To add a layer of complexity to the analysis, however, it is important to consider the effects of austerity. Mayo Intercultural Action and Galway Refugee Support have been crippled by budget cuts. ENAR Ireland director Shane O’Curry states that “austerity measures in Ireland are hitting minority ethnic groups worst”. Though very little about Irish politics is simple, there seems to be a basic explanation in this case: economic instability is acting as a seedbed for racism. One of the explanations provided for the loyalism-racism link in Ulster has been housing: immigrants are mostly being moved into Protestant areas. (For historical reasons, pressure on Catholic areas for space is at an all-time high.[11]) One cannot dispute the importance of accommodation politics in the region; the starting gun for the Troubles was a protest movement against poor housing, the sectarian element being that the loyalist-led Stormont government had essentially ghettoised Catholic residents into small and deprived areas.[12] The government’s drive recently has been to prove that Northern Ireland is “open for business”, which, in reality, means sacrificing labour rights in the interests of capital. Neoliberalisation is a work in progress in Northern Ireland: according to the Antrim-born writer Richard Seymour, “where once few “mainland” companies or multinationals would fancy settling in an urban shopping centre in Northern Ireland, the local Crazy Prices and poky little shops have been replaced by Tesco and Sainsbury’s.”[13] Yet the old politics hasn’t gone anywhere; sectarian incidents are at a six-year high. In the last year, 411 cases of people being forced from their homes were reported to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, a situation which is at an impasse due to the propensity of the paramilitaries to terrorise their own side more than “the other”, and police reluctance to admit their own failures. [14] Resource issues, Seymour argues, are predicated along sectarian lines partially because that is what the Good Friday Agreement enshrined in parliament: “If a hospital is faced with closure, the first question is not whether it will be closed, but will it be closed in a unionist or a nationalist area?”

Nowhere is the deliberate implementation of a divide-and-rule strategy more clear than in Northern Irish history. The 1970s saw a string of murders of Catholics carried out by the ‘Glenanne Gang’, an alliance of loyalists, police officers and British Army troops, and there is some evidence that military and state authorities were aware of the gang’s operations and did not act.[15] In the earlier half of the twentieth century, Lord Brookeborough’s creation of the infamous ‘B Specials’ (a loyalist para-police) and the original Ulster Volunteer Force was inimitably tied to the British ruling class and conservative elites. The timing of such initiatives is telling. 1907 and 1919 saw dock strikes that paralysed Belfast and involved tens of thousands of Catholic and Protestant workers, the latter case resulting in the formation of a radical ‘Independent Orange Order’, a loyalist force that promised to favour candidates on the other side of the divide in elections if their policies were more left-wing.[16] In both cases, employer-sponsored pogroms of Catholic workers followed shortly after. The Irish nationalists of the time, obsessed with either a pan-class spiritualised vision of the Republic or a moderate parliamentary solution, were not especially helpful in challenging divide-and-rule strategies.

It has been argued that the Irish experience was  class- rather than race-based. That would rely on a historiography that throws together English enclosures, the Highland clearances, and the maladministration that led to the potato famine, creating a narrative of class oppression alone, which would be transparently false. Irish citizens were sent into slavery long before the imperial slave trade in Africa began in earnest.[17] Even the Irish ruling class were disenfranchised to a large extent by British civic institutions, their religious institutions tolerated at best and suppressed at worst, and their land settled or taken over by absentee landlords in a pattern conforming to every colonial stereotype. To engage in non-English sports, music or art was subversive, and even now, Irish Travellers in Britain face racism. Of course, many Irish joined the British military and were instrumental in developing racism overseas, but the military recruited from colonised populations the world over. This said, class played a central role in the articulation of racism both in Ireland and across the colonial world. From Cork to Calcutta, local elites, whilst they might still be regarded through the lens of racist ideology, were brought into the fold, more often than not to collude with the implementation of classist-racist systems in their own nations. The race-class intersection is perhaps a defining reason why liberal anti-racist narratives of tolerance and multiculturalism do not effectively tackle racism anywhere. The racialisation of society was implemented to provide an ideological framework of support for colonial projects that enriched European elites. Nowhere is this more the case than in Northern Ireland, where sectarianism and racism have been repeatedly stoked up and structuralised as a tool of division.

I wrote this article to question whether the Irish should be categorised as People of Colour, or Black, and how appropriate and effective our terminologies are. In a sense, it is a moot point: oppressed people can speak for themselves and define themselves in whatever terms they wish. A perfect typology of oppression will never exist, because it is not something that can be solved with tick-boxes and categories, but through individual social relations, solidarity, understanding, debate and action. There will always be a surfeit of analyses of oppression, but the most useful are the ones that directly help us to end it. The progressive movement has come a long way in listening and responding to the voices of the oppressed, and in recognising the existence of white ‘privilege’ ( the word jars because living free of discrimination is surely a right, not a privilege). Yet in all the talk of microaggressions and social interactions, we cannot lose sight of the wider picture. The point here is one that has been slightly lost in all the arguments between orthodox old-left ideologues and intersectionalists. Marxist class analysis is not a reason to ignore the separate and distinct patterns of all forms of oppression, and how they could continue to exist in a post-capitalist world. But with an integration of liberation issues into our activist work, aiming towards working-class unity remains fundamental to ending racism. In Belfast today, politicians that might once have shot at each other now administrate neoliberalism in tandem while austerity fans the flames of racism. Ordinary people suffer, with migrants facing hatred and oppression not just from the state and capitalism but from their fellow citizens as well.

Any person of a dominant culture can be a racist, but questions of race and class are inseparable. Anti-racists must recognise the face of racism as not just white, but also belonging to the ruling elite.


Nathan Akehurst is a History and Politics finalist at Lincoln College, Oxford, and a member of the Oxford Left Review’s editorial board.




[1] Daily News, 1894

[2] ‘Racism is not the issue in Rochdale’, Counterfire, 2012

[3] This article will use capitalised forms of the term ‘Black’, ‘White’ and ‘People of Colour’ to designate when they are being used as political categories. The inverted commas will be removed from this point onwards.

[4] Wood, I., Crimes of Loyalty: A History of the UDA, Edinburgh 2006

[5] ‘Loyalists linked to 90 per cent of race crime’, The Guardian, 2006

[6] ‘Locals outraged by menacing sign from racist thugs’, Belfast Telegraph, 2014

[7] ‘Filipinos “suffer workplace racism”’, Irish Independent, 2012

[8] ‘Sectarian hatred is being overtaken by xenophobic racism in Northern Ireland’, The Telegraph, 2012

[9] ‘Racism rising at an ‘alarming rate’ in Ireland’, The Journal Ireland, 2013

[10] ‘Warning of rise in racism among Irish children’, Irish Examiner, 2013

[11] Guardian, 2006

[12] McCann, E., ‘War and an Irish Town’, Pluto, 1993

[13] ‘In an era of austerity, Northern Ireland looks more fragile than ever’, The Guardian, 2013

[14] ‘High in homeless cases over paramilitary and sectarian threats’, Belfast Telegraph, 2013

[15] The Cassel Report, 2006

[16] Ellis, P., A History of the Irish Working Class, Pelican 1972

[17] Jordan and Walsh, White Cargo: The Forgotten History of Britain’s White Slaves in America, New York, 2008

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