In a historic battle against the might of the British Empire during Easter week in 1916, hundreds of Irish nationalist revolutionaries who made up the vanguard of the Republican movements’ struggle for Irish sovereignty, took positions in and around Dublin, attacking and occupying government buildings and strategic locations. Although the rebellion in itself was quelled with the execution of 15 of its leaders and imprisonment of the rest, the determination, heroism and martyrdom of Irish revolutionaries in their fight to emancipate their nation from the yoke of colonialism, rekindled the spirit of national resistance among the beleaguered Irish people. The proclamation of a sovereign progressive Irish republic during the Easter Rising by James Connolly, Patrick Pearse and other leaders, laid the revolutionary Irish republican thought as pillars in the collective consciousness and memory among the Irish masses. The reverberations of the rising were soon witnessed throughout the emerald island with the Sinn Fenn victory in the general elections of 1918 and the Irish War of Independence from 1918-1921. Yet amidst the Irish people’s democratic aspiration to emancipate their national sovereignty in all the 32 Irish counties making up their homeland, the Anglo-Irish treaty of December 1921 bifurcated Ireland into a free state with dominion status in the south and a British colony to the north. Before being executed for his leading role in the Easter Rising, Patrick Pearse, in one of his famous speeches, illuminated the dialectics of oppression and resistance when he prophetically orated:
“ Life springs from death; and from the graves of patriotic men and women spring living nations… They think they have pacified Ireland. They think they have purchased half of us and intimidated the other half. They think that they have foreseen everything, think that they have provided against everything; but the fools, the fools, the fools! – They have left us our Fenians dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace. “
The Irish political struggle to regain their lost sovereignty is a long history of courageous resistance, and systematic state repression from the British. From sporadic resistance throughout Ireland against the Anglo-Saxon rule and law to the 1787 rebellion of the United Irishmen Movement against the British Empire. The 20th century was characterised by the various campaigns of the Irish revolutionary republican movements. To counter Irish insurgency, the British devised and codified counter-insurgency (COIN) strategies, implemented systematic impoverishment, and instigated famines against Irish localities of resistance. Subsequently they began processes of forced deportations to prison colonies in Australia and America. The conditions of the Irish masses also resulted in their mass exodus as migrants to North and South-America during the 18th, 19th, and 20th century.
The British state formations as well as its ruling and capitalist elites throughout history recognised the strategic importance of the Irish Islands in general but in particular for securing and advancing their imperialistic geo-political, economic, and military interests. The fact that six counties in Northern Ireland remained under British rule in the aftermath of the Easter Rising and the Irish War of Independence, along with the creation of the Free State of Ireland, reflect these strategic considerations. Towards such an effect for centuries, the British enacted structural genocide and social engineering targeting the essential foundations of the Irish national existence. The modern demographic and physical composition of the six counties was engineered through policies of the British state, associated amongst others with the plantation of Ulster. The case of Ireland illuminates the long sightedness of considerations made by those who wish to exploit and oppress sovereign people and their lands, as well as it reflects the dialectics of resistance of the oppressed and the strength of a peoples’ determination.
The interlinkages engendered by dialectics of oppression
The nation of Eelam Tamils, in the heart of the Indian ocean are conjoined with the Irish due to similar dialectics of oppression and resistance, and through processes of British supervised counter-insurgency, geo-politics of imperialism, and structures of neo-liberalization . The British experiment in the subjugation of the Irish for centuries evolved techniques of oppression orchestrated through state aided colonization, militarization, and constitutional means of legalizing violence against a target population. Such techniques coupled with modern COIN, constituted the basis for the British aide in enhancing the Sri Lankan state’s military capacities in pursuing a military solution to the Tamil national question.
Although the content of the geopolitical dynamic and interests as well as the oppression in Ireland and Sri Lanka are different in form and trajectory, the nature of their logic are interlinked. Ireland was made and perpetuated as a colony, to facilitate the enrichment of the British state, elite classes, and empire, and to facilitate as a springboard in their strategic and economic interests within the Atlantic Ocean. Various regions of the island of Sri Lanka were first subjugated by varying and rivalling European imperialists for strategic and economic purposes during the16th and 17th century due to its proximity to India and prime location in the heart of sea trade routes of the Indian Ocean which connects world trade. Shortly following the British conquest of the entire island in 1815 it was amalgamated into one administrative framework and a unitary state implanted in 1833. Over the years up to ‘independence’ in 1947 the British groomed a class of subservient Sinhala English educated elites who were then handed the colonial unitary state. British social engineering and orientalist practices succeeded in stipulating an aggressive Sinhala supremacist ideology, intended to secure the national loyalty of the island’s Sinhala speakers towards the Sinhala elites and the unitary state implanted by the British imperialists. These processes treacherously resulted in the demonization of the Eelam Tamils and their national cause which demanded first a federal and later an independent state to secure their sovereignty, people, and future.
Rather than the native peoples democratic aspirations or mandate, imperialist considerations and associated geo-political and geo-economic interests dictated the formation of both undemocratic political-judicial structures of governance, and nation-states.
The struggle for Irish political rights and sovereignty resurged in the 1960s as a result of systematic structural policies issued by the government of Northern Ireland in disenfranchising Irish Catholics from employment and education, and by introducing the arbitrary internment of Irish Catholics under the pretence of the Prevention of Terrorism Act introduced in 1971. These acts were introduced in the backdrop of several systematically executed anti-Irish and Catholic pogroms instigated by state supported paramilitaries and the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Such a tactic in turn evolved out of British counter-insurgency against the IRA during the Irish War of Independence. Under the directives of Winston Churchill, the empire operated a force of temporary recruited militia consisting of ex-soldiers and civilians under the Royal Irish Constabulary nick-named the Black and Tans who systematically targeted Irish catholic settlements and civilians .Out of these encounters of repression against the Irish, the British state and capitalist elites aspired to transfer these techniques to the dependent neo-colonial states of their former empire to secure their own geo-political and geo-economic interests in these regions.
In the 1970s the British specifically trained Sri Lankan security forces through the services of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and in 1978, the parliament of Sri Lanka introduced the Proscription of Tamil Tiger Act which was renamed the PTA in 1979. As in Ireland, the Sri Lankan state implemented processes of colonization and discriminatory laws which followed sporadic but state orchestrated pogroms. A detailed report onto the British role in the war against the Tamils, illustrates that:
“In response to the deteriorating security situation on the island by 1979, Britain sent a man named Jack Morton to offer the Sri Lankans some advice. Morton, a former director of the UK security service MI5, was a veteran British spook. In 1973, he had helped re-organise the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) Special Branch to set up an MI5/Army database on terror suspects for Britain’s counterinsurgency campaign against Irish rebels. The RUC Special Branch would gain a reputation for being “a force within a force”, an opaque arm of the British state that colluded with Loyalist death squads.” (Miller 2014)
Subsequently, a private mercenary firm, Keenie Meenie Services (KMS Ltd), comprising of British, Rhodesian and South African ex-special forces, were engaging against the LTTE during the 1980’s discretely on behalf of the British state. They were crucial in reorganizing the Sri Lankan armed forces in accordance with COIN and training them in commando tactics. The dynamics of resistance, also in broad terms developed in a familiar fashion in both Eelam and Ireland as the oppressors increasingly acted in collaboration.
The institutionalization of systematic persecution and interment of Irish and Tamil youth, men and women, were integral to counter-insurgency policies implemented to quell the spirit of resistance whilst also debasing conceptions of liberation from the oppressed. Furthermore, the history of British and Sri Lankan state enacted persecution, terrorisation and violence illustrate their intention towards rupturing the social fabric and community life of the Irish and Tamil people. In these parallel developments and dialectics of oppression and resistance, the Irish and Tamil mode of protest has been of similar nature albeit at different historical junctures.
The struggle of political prisoners
Unless the sovereignty and self-determination of oppressed nations and peoples are rightfully accommodated, the material and structural basis for oppression will remain, hence necessitating the dialectics of resistance. In Sri Lanka, the demands of the Tamils are still criminalized by the 6th amendment of the Sri Lankan Constitution, proscribing any action in violation of the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and unity of the British implanted unitary state. The regime change of last year brought to power a U.S. friendly regime in Colombo to control the comprador unitary state of Sri Lanka, rather than the Rajapakse regime which tilted towards China. For the Tamil nation, there are neither structural changes nor accommodation of the Tamils’ democratic and national aspirations or grievances. Whether it is the imperialists or Multi-national companies of the East or West, the unitary state of Sri Lanka and the national elites in Colombo are seen as the preferred governing conditions through which to exploit the strategic, human, and natural resources of the island.
The Provisional IRA and Sinn Fein, which headed the military and political struggle against the British occupation from the 1970s to 1990s, initiated two prison hunger strikes to secure Irish prisoners the status of political prisoner and to protest the unlawful detention institutionalized by British authorities. Brendan Hughes and twelve others led the first hunger strike in the Long Kesh prisons in 1980 against prison condition and torture of Irish internees. Their hunger strike was halted after 53 days as the British refused to negotiate further and a protestor was near death. The second campaign commenced in 1981 with seven IRA and three INLA political prisoners and was led by Bobby Sands. Due to the callous disregard of the Irish people by the Thatcher regime, Bobby Sands and his nine comrades fasted unto death in a historical display of the Irish resoluteness for freedom.
The imperialists’ aide in enhancing Sri Lanka’s capacity to pursue a military solution to the Tamil national question and the Tamil struggle for sovereignty led by the LTTE, resulted in the genocidal massacres of Tamils at the coasts of Mullivaykal in the North-East of the island in 2009. Several months of government military offensives saw tens of thousands of Tamil civilians butchered, and the annihilation of the LTTE’s military formations and de-facto state. When the genocidal war concluded, over two hundred fifty thousand Tamils were hurled into detention centres run by the Sri Lankan security forces. Six years after, while many have been released, a large mass of Tamils continue to exist in internal displacement, subjugation, and marginalization in their homeland under military occupation. The military occupation perpetuates calculated processes of state aided colonization and militarization in strategic areas of the Tamil homeland and facilitates the systematic persecution and sexual violence targeting Tamils. The cosmetic changes associated with the regime shift in Colombo in January 2015 served U.S. geopolitical interests, whereas the structures of oppression subjugating Tamils remain intact. The Sri Lankan state criminalizes Tamil democratic aspirations and blatantly denies the genocidal massacres while providing no information regarding the over 146 000 Tamils unaccounted for after the last war. The known Tamil political prisoners numbering over 200 held in prisons around the country have in the spirit of the Irish hunger strikers, embarked on sustained and desperate protests against the unlawful detention of Tamils under the PTA and 6th amendment. The struggle of Tamil political prisoners is still unfolding despite skilful schemes by the state to avoid negotiation by opting to ‘pardon’ selected prisoners while remanding the rest as criminals and terrorists.
While the form of resistance among the Tamils has changed with the loss of politico-military power and depletion through war of attribution by the oppressor state, as long as the conditions of oppression are perpetuated any oppressed people are compelled to resist in whatever manner they can muster under given circumstances. During the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising, the Tamils alike other oppressed nations of the world, are reminded of essential universal ideals of humanity, and through it the material and human interlinkages between oppressed peoples and nations and the moral legitimacy of the struggle for equality, self-determination, and sovereignty. While military occupation is upheld in the Tamil homeland, the situation in Northern Ireland since the Good Friday Agreement has yet to give dividends to the Irish catholic masses. For the Irish nationalist following the principle of sovereign 32 counties and a free progressive Ireland, the situation of no dividends and the continued suzerainty of the British state system remind them that the struggle looms at large.
Oppression and resistance alike are processual, as everything in nature and life is transitory over time and in flux, hence structures of oppression and material conditions have to be perpetuated in relation to the changing conditions among the oppressed. Furthermore, governing structures and material conditions are also in a dialectical relation to dynamics within the realms of the oppressed and the larger sphere of geo-political and geo-economic operation of the oppressor state. The oppressors of sovereign people are often interlinked by geo-political, strategic, military or economic considerations. The realms of the oppressed should then be tied together by conscious action of solidarity, so the wretched of the earth no longer shall face their respective destiny in isolation from the struggles and comradeship of the oppressed people and progressive forces of the world.
- Aretxaga, Begona. 1997. Shattering Silence: Women, nationalism and Political subjectivity in Northern Ireland. Princeton University Press.
- Phil, Miller. 2015. Britain’s Dirty War: against the Tamil people. International Human Rights Association, Bremen