The intensively mediated death of Elizabeth Windsor, accompanied by the relentlessly maudlin and invasive coverage of official mourning and her funeral, had an intensity that can only be described as imperial. Forced as it was into every corner of public discourse, this coercive atmosphere of state sorrow had a distinctly colonising thrust and meaning. Unleashed during a moment of total class warfare within her very disunited kingdom, it also marked an endpoint in the trajectory of her most obedient servants: the formerly Irish but now thoroughly British political party, Sinn Féin. During Windsor’s reign colonial chickens came home to roost as the woman who presided over British forces while they rampaged across the six counties of British-occupied Ireland then became over the past decade and a half the queen of foodbanks in her own country. (1) Her reign spanned a long period during which overt political violence in Ireland was paralleled by ongoing economic brutality not only there but also in England, in Scotland, and in Wales. The integral nature of state and economic violence was highlighted by the fact that loyalty to the British crown was professed across the official political spectrum while in workplaces her death was marked by coercive announcements from bosses ordering workers to show their respect. But for those who have endured imperialist violence in colonies such as Ireland, Kenya, Aden, Malaysia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya – to cite just some of the more infamous theatres of British military violence during Windsor’s reign both as head of state and as commander-in-chief of the British military – memories of very direct forms of colonial coercion will have been revived. They certainly were for me. This time the orders were mediated within the disunited kingdom by a thoroughly compliant media rather than by an aggressive British military but the ideological objective was the same: the even tighter closure of the mainstream news outlets to anything like dissenting thought. Having grown up in Derry, Ireland during Britain’s war of counterinsurgency there, the past two weeks produced a coercive political environment reminiscent of the repressive atmosphere that I experienced as a child and adult. This time around, however, Sinn Féin’s complicity in the imperial spectacle played a decisive role in the latest state operation.
Historical Erasure and the Deletion of Consciousness
In a particularly unctuous statement issued before the embalming fluid even had time to settle the Sinn Féin leader, Mary Lou McDonald, announced her grief for her ‘powerful advocate and ally’ and declared: ‘I salute her’. (2) Her diction conveys much about the domestication of her party and its relationship to the entire monarchical spectacle, the objective of which is the deeper and ever more thorough colonisation of the popular imagination. This was attempted through the the manipulation of public opinion via a highly uniform discourse articulated from the very outset on September 8th by political parties, media outlets, corporate organisations, educational institutions, legal entities, and cultural bodies. Describing this as the process of hegemonisation, the communist intellectual Antonio Gramsci has shown how these formations function cooperatively in the service of power by collectively producing and disseminating official narratives that influence the public reception of political events, economic trends, cultural tastes, and even the understanding of history. Such is the extent of their discursive power that these hegemonising narratives can ultimately shape how reality itself is interpreted and understood – they form attitudes, tempering and shaping the public’s will to tolerate authority while diminishing its capacity for resistance. The objective of hegemony is the saturation and domination of public expression, private conversation, and, ultimately, of individual thought. It is used to reduce independent and critical consciousness by cultivating the unquestioning acceptance of power, but not just power in its abstract sense: hegemonising discourses also normalise the violence through which power is channelled and with which authority is physically enforced. However these forces can be resisted and their potential reversed by the organisation and presentation of liberating and more powerful counter discourses. (3)
For all of its pathological and undignified fanfare Elizabeth Windsor’s funeral and the lead up to it was a significant attempt to erase the past and Sinn Féin has obligingly fulfilled its role as a key agent in this operation. Despite its claims to Victorian tradition the British imperial state and its figureheads in the monarchy desire nothing more than the deletion of the past along with the eradication of anything resembling a politically informed and historically aware popular consciousness. For all of its claims to be uniting her ‘subjects’, the entire event was designed to isolate and atomise people even further from one another: you could gather with others to profess your obedience, but only behind the boundaries imposed on public space by police lines and palace railings. (4) This is why the British monarchy, with all of its corporate connections and seedy side hustles is a truly neoliberal phenomenon. The ten day cycle of passive spectatorship and enforced image consumption was designed to instil a permanent cycle of obedience, where gratification is experienced through an ongoing feed of reductive images. The drawn-out spectacle of Windsor’s coffin, like the very concept and practice of monarchy, is about disempowerment and disenfranchisement – something like an extreme version of going through airport security, trying to get into the Louvre, or passing through a military checkpoint, experiences that are all based on highly refined techniques of domination.
The Power of Refusal
When perceived in reverse from a consciously asserted and resistant counterposition the spectacle of Windsor’s funeral underlines what the British establishment and its neoliberal allies fear most – the very simple but profound form of power that resides in the hands of every person capable of recognising it. This is the power of refusal, a power that is capable of confronting and challenging any degree of state saturation. Unlike the hegemonising and official drama of death and mourning that saturated the press, tv media, and internet news sites for ten days, this power is diffuse, decentered, and truly democratic as it is possessed by every human being regardless of their material circumstances. It was exercised with tremendous effect by Irish peasants during the Land Wars of the late nineteenth century, particularly by the children, girls, and women who bore the brunt of British violence during this period (a pattern of resistance that recurred during the insurgency of the late 1960s-1990s during which I grew up).
This is why the repeated performances of obedience from Sinn Féin have become so central to the operation of British state power: they are about the negation of this potential for resistance. The party’s craven devotion to the British monarchy has been a matter of public record for over a decade now. It involves repeated and explicit acts of submission that would not be tolerated in many areas of England where anti-monarchical sentiment is considered an unnegotiable matter of dignity and pride. The appearance at the funeral of the party’s vice president Michelle O’Neill was the inevitable outcome of its prolonged presence at the centre of the British and neoliberal establishments. The fact that she was accompanied by the SDLP leader, Colum Eastwood, indicates the condition of outright paralysis of constitutional nationalism in the six counties, where the compliance of these politicians has a tremendously destructive impact on communities.
Maskey’s and O’Neill’s attendance at this funeral was the latest staging point in a decades-long pattern of co-option within, conformism to, and obsequious participation with British institutions and processes. Sinn Féin embarked on this course during the mid-1990s when its participation in the pacification of British-occupied Ireland (referred to in official political and media sources as a ‘peace process’) was hawked globally as a triumph of moderation. This began with the open support that the party and its armed militia gave to orange marches in Derry in 1996, at a time when people who opposed them were being brutalised by the state and its loyalist proxies British military across the six counties. It was at this point that Sinn Féin truly entered the game of publicly performed political obedience.
This pattern intensified with the re-establishment of Stormont parliament in 1998, when Sinn Féin’s policy changed overnight from abstentionism to participation, accompanied by state-sanctioned violence against any Irish republican who objected to their reformist trajectory. The party’s public slogan of disbanding the RUC disguised their real objective, shared with New Labour, of rebranding the RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary), as the PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland). These goals were accompanied by the broader political-cultural moves into the British mainstream that accompanied Sinn Féin’s protracted and steadily downward journey toward this funeral.
These instances of Sinn Féin’s imbrication within the imperial system were accompanied by what were intended as softer but no less ideologically significant performances. These included Danny Morrison’s allegedly accidental but clearly staged and highly symbolic meeting with Charles Windsor at the Glastonbury Festival in 2010. Afterward, Morrison fawningly described the colonel-in-chief of the parachute regiment as ‘very warm and affable’. In 1981 when he was Sinn Féin’s director of publicity Morrison sent IRA volunteers out to fight and face death, torture, and imprisonment with ‘a ballot paper in this hand and an armalite in the this hand’. (5) Many of the IRA volunteers who took his advice and held armalite rifles in their hands still endure the ongoing legacy of state harassment, poverty, discrimination, and blacklisting. This has led in some cases to chronic depression, addiction, and the breaking up of families and relationships caused by the hardships and disruptions of imprisonment and fugitive living. Today some remain in prison or are on closely policed licensed release due to the ongoing political crisis in Ireland that is disguised as a peace process. Morrison, in contrast, has done very well, having held the English king’s hand in his.
Morrison’s meeting with the future king of England and serving colonel-in-chief of the parachute regiment occurred as the party was launching another campaign in its struggle to normalise the officials, symbols, offices, and ultimately hard politics of empire. Two years later the party’s deputy leader, Martin McGuinness, met the British queen in Belfast for a handshake of his own, and again in 2014. These events led, in turn, to the gruesome spectacle of him posing by a portrait of her in London in 2016, where he applauded the monarch as she unveiled the painting.
McGuinness also placed himself at the forefront of the campaign to have Derry named as ‘UK City of Culture’, a recognition that was granted by the British government in 2010 and which the city was awarded for the year 2013. Appropriately enough, the campaign for this prestigious badge of British regionality adopted a man-sized rodent as its mascot.
The Point of It All
For the British all of this collusion has domestic applications that are just as important as its colonial purposes. Once a party of national independence (its title is the Irish for ‘ourselves alone’) Sinn Féin has been penetrated, and colonised, and asset stripped of its dignity in the most thoroughly imperial and neoliberal manner imaginable. Like any imperial or neoliberal project, the ideological traffic has moved relentlessly in a single direction – toward the centre of power. Sinn Féin now serves as the advance party for a grander campaign in which the British monarchy and the power interests that it represents are working hard (for once) in an attempt to normalise themselves in civic, political, and cultural circles. This is why the meeting between another prominent Sinn Féin politician Alex Maskey (speaker of the non-existent Stormont assembly), Michelle O’Neill, and Charles Windsor was so prominently broadcast in the across news media. This meeting was accompanied with a not-so subliminal subtextual message for the Scots, Welsh, and disobedient English: ‘if the Irish can crawl, then why can’t you?’ Meanwhile, this culture of total prostration manifested itself again in a particularly grovelling display of sycophantic conformity, when Derry and Strabane District Council – the local administration of the city in which 14 peaceful demonstrators were murdered by the parachute regiment on Bloody Sunday in 1972 – changed its logo to black on social media to mark its mourning for its imperial mistress. Given that her successor is the colonel-in-chief of that regiment, the sentiment behind this gesture is very clear: complete and obedient identification with élite agents of state violence and the military regiments at their command.
These longer-term performances of respect and political passivity are vital to British hegemony in Ireland, where Sinn Féin is now proposing the entire country’s entry into the commonwealth. Internationally the party is now projecting the monarchy as a progressive and benevolent force – something that no British government could ever achieve abroad on its own – coming from the Brits themselves, this kind of operation simply does not have the same potential for political, social, cultural, and psychological infiltration. This pilot project for the political co-option of the colonised and domestically downtrodden has seen O’Neill being lauded as an example for colonial crawlers everywhere. The party’s leader, Mary Lou McDonald, who has already called for Ireland to re-join the British commonwealth, has now admitted her role as an imperial proxy by declaring that her own obsequiousness will show the world ‘just how much further we can go’. (6) Stream of consciousness waffle about her desire to lead her party into whatever the next big sell-out might be is, of course, McDonald’s political trademark. No boot is too far away for her to lick, as shown when she travelled to Derry in order to refer to it as “Londonderry” for the gratification of loyalists in 2018. But again, none of this should be surprising – she did, after all, finally find her way into Sinn Féin after failing to build a career for herself in the Irish Labour party affiliate, the Institute of European Affairs and then in Fianna Fáil during the 1990s. (7) For McDonald her party’s latest acts of servitude are not an endpoint at all but just another step on the never-ending and ever-degrading path toward the improvement of her own job prospects.
There is nothing new about the seepage of colonial ideas and rhetoric into Sinn Féin’s political identity and organisation. Their steady absorption into the imperialist and capitalist system has been signalled repeatedly since the mid-1990s; in 1998 my own family was violently attacked for publicly highlighting it. Back then we warned that the corruption had already begun and we predicted, correctly, that it would lead to the demeaning cycle of party statements, positions, and policies now being issued on a daily basis. The grander significance of their servile behaviour and language goes beyond the six counties as it has wider international applications, like the sterile and fraudulent ‘peace process’ out of which this wholesale debasement emerged. It is now a model for the containment of insurgent people and spaces, for the recolonisation of minds, and the reversal of progress. The British establishment will share the results of this project with any of its other allies interested in the subjugation of thought and the elimination of critical consciousness.
Political passivity in the face of poverty, discrimination, and state violence has been accompanied for decades by these very active demonstrations of obedience. This is why the state funeral of Elizabeth Windsor was a model event for the tone in with which they want to manage society as a whole. The required attitude is one of helplessness, hopelessness and isolation – that’s what allows politicians to explore ‘how much further we can go’ along the path of co-option. It is the lubricant that keeps the engines of empire and neoliberalism running. These symbolic gestures, actions, and professions of obedience are demanded in a constant and seemingly endless cycle because they are designed to wear down a target population’s capacity for independent thought.
Power seeks the reversal of history and even the eradication of meaning; defeated populations are its currency. As politicians, administrators, corporations, and bosses try to erase not just the facts of the past but the reality of the present we find ourselves living in a surreal moment in which the defiant writings of James Connolly read like messages from a distant and even hopeful future. I wonder if Connolly could have predicted this when he wrote about the power of another English king: ‘We are Socialist Republicans; we work for the realisation of that time when kings and emperors will be no more, when they will be remembered by mankind as the strong man awakened remembers the hideous nightmare which oppressed him as he slept.’ (8)
- There are currently at least 3000 food banks in countries under British jurisdiction. See Dave Beck, “Food banks: an MP claimed there’s no massive use for them in the UK – the evidence shows why he’s wrong’, The Conversation, 22nd May, 2022, accessed 20/9/22: https://theconversation.com/food-banks-an-mp-claimed-theres-no-massive-use-for-them-in-the-uk-the-evidence-shows-why-hes-wrong-183182
- Mary Lou McDonald TD extends deepest sympathies on death of Queen Elizabeth II, https://www.sinnfein.ie/contents/64263, 8th September, 2022, accessed 9/9/22.
- See “Hegemony, Relations of Force, Historical Bloc” in Antonio Gramsci, A Gramsci Reader, Ed. David Forgacs, (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1988), pp.189-221.
- For a focused analysis of the strangeness of this prolonged event and its rather isolating mediation, see Brad Evans, “The Age of the Dislocated Spectacle”, The Philosophical Salon, 19th September, 2022, https://thephilosophicalsalon.com/the-age-of-the-dislocated-spectacle/?fbclid=IwAR1-7MH7GxAwSFS4s7uu4plGSnU-zdZm-mLuSFvm8Ljg_mWxgZgELfiixz8 – accessed 26/9/22.
- Jonathan Bardon, “The year of hunger strikes, the ballot box and the Armalite”, Irish Times, 2nd January, 2012, https://www.irishtimes.com/news/the-year-of-hunger-strikes-the-ballot-box-and-the-armalite-1.437930, accessed 22/9/22.
- “Mary Lou McDonald: the idea of Ireland rejoining the Commonwealth needs to be discussed’, thejournal.ie, 11th August, 2018, https://www.thejournal.ie/ireland-rejoining-the-commonwealth-4174082-Aug2018/, accessed 21/9/22. Darren Marshall, “Queen Elizabeth II: Sinn Féin says tributes won;t alienate republicans”, BBC News, 15th September, 2022 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-62922662, accessed 15/9/22
- “Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald criticised for use of term ‘Londonderry'”, Irish News, 25th April, 2018, https://www.irishnews.com/news/northernirelandnews/2018/04/25/news/sinn-fe-in-leader-mary-lou-mcdonald-criticised-for-use-of-term-londonderry–1313595/, accessed 26/9/22. “We asked May Lou McDonald where she’d be now had she stayed in Fianna Fáil”, thejournal.ie, October 18th, 2014, accessed 23/2/22. Pat Leahy, “Mary Lou McDonald: a Dubliner with deep republican roots”, Irish Times, 12th February, 2018 https://www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/mary-lou-mcdonald-a-dubliner-with-deep-republican-roots-1.3388701 accessed 26/9/22.
- James Connolly, “Coronation of King Edward VII” (1902), Marxists Internet Archive https://www.marxists.org/archive/connolly/1902/xx/coronkng.htm, accessed 26/9/22.