Comment: The world keeps telling us Ireland isn't western

When I lived in Beijing for a year I came across some taxi drivers who tried to scam westerners. They had a simple trick. When you tried to pay with a legitimate 100 renminbi note (about €8) they’d take a look at it and tell you, sorry, the note is counterfeit. They’d ask for another. With legerdemain they’d switch your legitimate note with a counterfeit they’d kept in their pocket, hand you the fake and wait to receive another 100. And repeat. I was caught once, how bad. 

The second time a driver tried it with me I told him to fuck off – I’m not like one of those westerners – and he laughed it off. I told a friend about it, a guy from Texas, who told me he didn’t mind having the trick played on him. “I guess that’s just the westerner tax right?” he said. I agreed at the time but later that evening thought to myself, here, hang on, Irish people aren’t the same kind of westerners as Texans. Where’s our record, at state level, of imperialism, of colonialism, of war and invasion across the world? We’ve been on the other end. I’m not like one of those westerners.

And materially I’m not. The Irish state isn’t. NATO, paragon of western values and new favourite of so many Irish radicalised since the beginning of the Russia-Ukraine war, has a member still occupying six of our counties. Aesthetically though we look and speak the part. To those taxi drivers in Beijing I might as well have been American or British – to them I should pay the westerner tax, as my Texan friend called it. My Chinese colleagues at a state media newspaper, paid less than me primarily because they weren’t native English speakers, probably thought the same, aside from the ones I explained to otherwise. I’m not like one of those westerners. 

'We promise not to end up like Cuba!'

Members of the Irish ruling class – it exists! – think differently. Establishment politicians, big businesspeople, the industrialists who built this state/did it some service, as well as their less successful de facto spokespeople and adherents: they desperately want to be those westerners. Some have given plausible impersonations and played the roles of imperial intermediaries. According to one of the godfathers of the free state, Peter Sutherland, paraphrasing Thomas Kettle, “To be truly Irish we have to be European first.”

Even the dominant strain of Irish republicanism, the project with the best chance of ending that NATO member’s occupation of part of the country, seeks western validation. Sinn Féin’s supporters and detractors agree the party’s reunification campaign relies on the implicit and explicit endorsement of the US. All those photo opportunities, all that funding, all those pleas for support for our little western country. (We promise not to end up like Cuba!)

These people were reminded what true western patricians think of us after Simon Harris and his fellow coalition leaders announced Ireland’s intention to recognise the state of Palestine. Our international betters, these westerners, think the inverse of those Beijing taxi drivers. No matter the efforts of Irish elites, nor the language we were forced to speak, nor our signing away of the country to foreign pension funds and US multinationals: none of this changes that to these westerners we’re uppity Micks. 

Ex-Sky News journalist Adam Boulton was brusque on X. “Terrorism works,” he said, the response to which, I suppose, is, yes, what these people consider terrorism does work – presumably that’s why the British state colluded with so many UVF and UDA paramilitaries during the northern conflict. Last month alone we got further allegations, this time from a BBC documentary, that mid-Ulster UVF leader and still hero to juiced northern Rangers fans, Billy Wright, was a British state agent. Newstalk (and it would be Newstalk) invited Boulton on to elaborate. He told People Before Profit’s Richard Boyd Barrett’s he “should be ashamed” of himself for suggesting Israel may be a terrorist state.  

The New York Times explained to its readers that Ireland “also experienced its own seemingly intractable sectarian conflict between mostly Catholic nationalists who supported independence and mostly Protestant unionists who supported alignment with Britain”. For the original paper of record the northern conflict was a sectarian blood feud, with colonialism erased, as well as one of the combatants in the British state (between which and those “mostly Protestant unionists” it was at times hard to differentiate). 

Israeli foreign minister Israel Katz was petulant and snide, writing to Simon Harris to tell him, "Hamas thanks you for your service," and posting a video on X to tell the people of Ireland the same, soundtracked by a bastardised Dropkick Murphys-rip off reel. This week Benjamin Netanyahu’s office announced Israel’s intention to “strengthen” illegal West Bank settlements, partly in response to Ireland’s recognition of the Palestinian state. 

We’re not like those westerners. Not to these people. The country serves a different purpose to those in that club. 

'I would not want people to think either that only revolutionaries speak in this way'

Referring to a 2004 Foreign Policy study that concluded Ireland was the world’s “most globalised country”, academic Marie Moran agreed, but with the caveat that, “Ireland had become a central hub for global finance, and was 'globalised' to the extent that money flowed in and out of its borders without ever staying there – excepting, of course, the bank accounts and holdings of large investment houses, accountancy firms and wealthy individuals who skimmed off the top.” 

This foreign capital passing through the country, facilitated by a suite of double-taxation treaties passed to help multinationals book profits here rather than the global south, does two things: it helps keep the south poor, depriving it of taxes to which it should be entitled; and it has allowed a stratum of Irish elites – the Europhiles and wannabe westerners, the tax advisers, accountants and lawyers – to play that same imperial intermediary role of Sutherland et al.

The benefits aren’t shared but have rather led to “the serious enrichment of certain sections of the Irish middle and wealthy classes, who pumped their own excess income into fee-paying schools and second or third properties, as well as back into the financial markets themselves through hedge funds and investment banks”, wrote Moran. All in the name of “international competitiveness”, she wrote. 

Our allegiances, those of us away from the professional services and the Irish Times opinion pages, should be elsewhere. If nothing else the world tells us so. 

When Thomas Sankara, the soldier who led the revolution to liberate Burkina Faso in 1983, addressed a meeting of the Organisation of African Unity in 1987 he called for African states to find common purpose with each other and reject the imperial debt with which they’d been burdened. “We hear about clubs – the Rome Club, Paris Club, club whatever. We hear about Group of Five, Group of Seven, Group of Ten and maybe Group of One Hundred. And what else? It is normal that we too have our own club and our own group,” he said. 

He told the meeting “the refusal to repay is not an aggressive move on our part, but a fraternal move to speak the truth” and that it wasn’t necessarily an act of revolution. “I would not want people to think that Burkina Faso’s proposal is coming on behalf of youth without maturity or experience. I would not want people to think either that only revolutionaries speak in this way. I would want one to admit it is merely objectivity and obligation,” he said, ending his speech with “Patrie or death, we will overcome!”

He was right. He was killed three months later.  

Last month in an Irish Times piece a Trinity College student who opposed the BDS encampment at the university said Israel’s genocidal campaign in Gaza is “based on a decades-old conflict that does not concern the vast majority of students partaking in it, students who treat it like a game with no personal stakes”. 

Some can and will say it has nothing to do with the Irish people, others will say everything. These two ideas clash, nothing and everything, and something emerges. It has something to do with us.

To start: we’re not like those westerners. 

Eoghan McNeill

Eoghan McNeill