Much of the discussion around the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising focuses, reasonably enough, on political and military issues. But there was a long-standing and powerful economic argument fueling the drive for Irish independence.
British imperialism typically had a disastrous impact on the economies of its colonies, as documented by Maurice Coakley: “what manufacturing industries these societies possessed were first curtailed by mercantilist restrictions imposed by the colonial power, and then subjected to the blitzkrieg of free trade by the newly mechanised industries of Britain and the other imperial powers.”
For example, a 1699 law banned the export of Irish woollen products abroad while high trade taxes impeded their sale to Britain itself. The 1801 Act of Union allowed the by then hyper-competitive British products more or less free access to the Irish market and contributed to deindustrialisation in all but the north-east of Ireland.
Some writers have queried what they term this “traditional nationalist” narrative but, politically, it was hugely influential, leading prominent Sinn Fein figures like Arthur Griffith to argue that Ireland’s industrial development could only be achieved through an independent government implementing measures such as trade protectionism.
The independent.ie/opinion/columnists/david-mcwilliams/the-heroes-of-1916-were-economically-clueless-and-the-nation-paid-for-it-34189127.html">argument was not that Irish people were getting poorer, necessarily, but that, absent independence, the country as a whole was condemned to largely remain an agricultural province of Britain. Other, more immediate economic factors that played a part in the run-up to the Rising were tax increases to fund World War I and the British government’s refusal to fund a resolution to a housing crisis impacting working-class Dublin in particular.
The types of policies Griffith recommended were not implemented until Fianna Fail took power in 1932, and what followed was indeed a growth in industrial employment, though the project ran out of steam with the stagnation of the 1950s, at which point the now dominant policies of free trade and openness to foreign investment began to be adopted.
Coakley has described that shift as follows: “Where earlier developmental strategies were premised on asserting greater national independence, further development was now to be achieved through subordinating Irish sovereignty to the requirements of North American and European capital.”
Specifically, Ireland would adopt a strategy of “industrialisation by invitation”, serving as a low-tax location for US capital, in particular, to access the European market.
Many of the issues I have dealt with previously in this column – including Ireland’s role in facilitating corporate tax avoidance, its dependence on potentially volatile inward investment, and the recent hospitality extended to vulture funds – stem in one way or another from this decisive historical shift.
The decision to repay in full, at the price of austerity for the general public, the debts owed to European and US bondholders similarly reflects the subordination of sovereignty to the diktats of external capital. That subordination means that Ireland ends up paying 42 percent of the total cost of the European banking crisis.
The desire of the 1916 leaders to create a sovereign, economically independent state has mutated into an aspiration to be “the best small country in the world in which to do business”, the leader of which is happy to have his head (literally as well as metaphorically) patted by the powers that be.
There is also a certain irony in the fact that 100 years after the Rising, a housing crisis is again generating political controversy. Dublin City Council admits that the 22 modular homes that were supposed to have been built by December last will not be ready before May.
And this drop in the ocean will do almost nothing to address the fact that there are 769 homeless families (including 1,600 children) in Dublin living in emergency accommodation at the end of January. In Cork a terminally ill child had to live with his family in a car for three weeks after being made homeless.
According to the 1916 Proclamation, “The Republic guarantees . . . equal rights and equal responsibilities to all its citizens and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all the children of the nation equally.”
In reality, in 2016, the rights of corporate tax cheats and property-finance interests well outweigh the rights of homeless children.