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Ireland and U.S. Imperialism

When discussing Ireland’s role in imperialism today it is vital to highlight the role Ireland plays in assisting the U.S. to extract profits from ‘poorer nations’. That is to say nations that have abundant natural resources that the mass of the local population do not get to reap the benefits of. The basic pattern of which is as follows; that value is extracted from these countries via the procurement of raw materials or the production of goods, the taxes on these are paid (or not as the case may be) through the headquarters of multinational corporations, which are located in Ireland, and then the profits are syphoned off to billionaires in America.

Imperialism leaves behind germs of rot which we must clinically detect and remove from our land but from our minds as well.” – Frantz Fanon

When one begins any discussion on imperialism it must be founded on one key idea: imperialism exists today. When imperialism is spoken about or taught in schools it is far too often resigned to the past. Imperialism should of course appear in history books, but it should just as equally be taught in geography and politics and other subjects that deal with more contemporary issues. To think of imperialism as something that ‘happened’ rather than as something that is ‘happening’ is a fatal flaw in any analysis of society today. The U.S. is not the world’s only imperialist institution, the European Union, for one, has plenty of skin in the game. However, it is undeniable that the world’s foremost imperial power is the United States and therefore, all analyses must sit within this framework. As such, the purpose of this article is to give a brief explanation of the role Ireland plays in U.S. imperialism.

As Michael Parenti highlights in his book, The Face of Imperialism, there are two types of states in relationship to the imperial core: Satellite states and Enemy states.(1) As such, it should be quite obvious to the reader which of these two categories Ireland fits into. As a vassal state of the U.S. empire Ireland’s primary role is to ensure that it acts in the interests of U.S. policy and capital. This is not to say that someone representing the U.S. government has to ring Micheál Martin, or whoever it may be, up once a week and remind them of their role. It is totally inherent in one’s political success in a vassal (capitalist) country that they will do the bidding of capital and, therefore, imperialism. Imperialist aggression against Bolivia and Venezuela in recent times highlights this fact, although thankfully the people of Bolivia have managed to re-establish their democracy. Rather, one must critically examine what it really means to play this role in the imperialist machine. One must investigate how Ireland’s tax laws, or signing sanctions actually impacts other countries. These are not individual acts to be analyzed in an unrelated manner, they must be linked into the structural and hegemonic flow of capitalism and imperialism. The first step opposing imperialist aggression is understanding its varied and, often professionally by the media, concealed way of working. Imperialism does not only happen in ‘monumental moments’ like invasions or bombings. It happens in the everyday, as part of the longstanding, historical process of the development of capitalism.

On 18 September Leo Varadkar tweeted how he had just ‘Signed some new laws today updating EU/Irish economic sanctions against North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Syria, DRC and CAR focusing on the individuals responsible for violating human rights and threatening our security, not ordinary people’. Let us consider for a moment just one impact of such sanctions on one country, North Korea (DPRK). According to a Koreapeacenow report, authored by a panel of ‘seven international and multidisciplinary independent experts’ and published in October 2019, at least 3,968 people (mainly children under the age of five) died as a result of ‘sanctions-related delays and funding shortfalls impacting specific UN humanitarian programmes’ in 2018 ALONE.(2) Again that is almost 4,000 people, mainly children under the age of five, who died in a single year as a direct result of the impacts these sanctions have on UN programmes. Imagine the outrage were the roles to be reversed, and the actions of the DPRK resulted in nearly 4,000 people in a western country dying in one year. The invasion and occupation of the DPRK would already be under way. This death toll does not even consider the impact such sanctions have on other food, water, medical and electricity supplies etc. of the country and the amount of deaths these impacts cause. Would Leo Varadkar, or others who support such sanctions, argue that these children are ‘the individuals responsible for violating human rights and threatening our security’ who these sanctions are supposed to target?

Now let us consider one more impact of these sanctions, still only looking at the DPRK, Tuberculosis rates per 100,000 of the population. In the DPRK this figure stands at 513 per 100,000,(3) of whom more than 40 per 1000,000 die (this mortality rate is assumed by the World Health Organization as accurate data for 2019 was not available),(4) among the world’s highest. Compare this to the figures in South Korea (ROK), where the infection rate is only 59 per 100,000,(5) of whom somewhere between 1 and 4.9 people per 100,000 die, a significant difference.(6) What could possibly explain these drastic differences in tuberculosis rates? Can it possibly be ‘natural’ reasons such as the climate or environment? Or perhaps there is some inexplicable genetic condition that promotes the infection of tuberculosis in the population of the DPRK? No, it certainly cannot be either of those things. There is no great disparity in climate between the DPRK and ROK, in fact all that lies between them is an arbitrary line drawn by two American colonels in August 1945. There is also of course no difference between the people north and south of the ‘border’, they are all Korean, and despite what western media or politicians may say they always have been. So then, the reason for this disparity must be artificially induced.

According to a 2019 report conducted by the UN, some 11 million people in the DPRK lack access to ‘sufficient nutritious food, clean drinking water or access to basic services like health and sanitation’.(7) The report also notes that ‘there is an established relationship between poor nutrition and increased vulnerability to some diseases, including tuberculosis’,(8) as well as this it is noted that ‘there are significant challenges in sustaining pipelines for supplies without funding’.(9) So what are these challenges? The report states that while the sanctions ‘imposed on the country clearly exempt humanitarian activities, humanitarian agencies continue to face serious unintended consequences on their programmes, such as lack of funding, the absence of a banking channel for humanitarian transfers and challenges to the delivery of humanitarian supplies’.(10) Here we see clearly that the DPRK’s increased tuberculosis rate is linked directly to the sanctions imposed on the country.

If such reports make very clear and obvious the, supposedly unintentional, impact sanctions have on the people of the DPRK, why are they not lifted? Well one would be forced to conclude that perhaps the destruction of life in the DPRK is, infact, the goal of these sanctions. Why would this be the case though? Why would the peace and freedom loving United States, in partnership with its many other peace and freedom loving allies, want to destroy the DPRK (or any of the other countries placed under sanctions) and its people? The answer is quite simple. The DPRK has refused to integrate into the global free-market system, and as such the nation and its people must be crushed into submission. The sanctions imposed on the DPRK today are simply a continuation of the policy of western aggression against the country dating back to the Korean War. During the war, the U.S. dropped over 600,000 tonnes of bombs on the northern half of the peninsula and killed an estimated 10-20% of the population.(11) That was not unintentional and neither are the impacts of these sanctions. The DPRK refused to buckle to U.S. imperialist aggression so the US, and its allies, continue their imperialist aggression today, hoping that the DPRK will give in to the free-market and capitalism. Again, we must note that any recent extension of sanctions against the DPRK, and all other countries, are not decided upon arbitrarily in the weeks before they are signed. They are part of the historic and continuing imperialist aggression against these nations and their populaces.

Wherever you go in Africa today, the Africans are suffering from violence inflicted on them by the white west, be it that they are stripped of their culture, of their human dignity, or of the resources of their very land.”–Kwame Ture.

When discussing Ireland’s role in imperialism today it is vital to highlight the role Ireland plays in assisting the U.S. to extract profits from ‘poorer nations’. That is to say nations that have abundant natural resources that the mass of the local population do not get to reap the benefits of. The basic pattern of which is as follows; that value is extracted from these countries via the procurement of raw materials or the production of goods, the taxes on these are paid (or not as the case may be) through the headquarters of multinational corporations, which are located in Ireland, and then the profits are syphoned off to billionaires in America. For example, let us look at the mining of cobalt, an essential mineral for the production of rechargeable lithium-ion batteries found in phones and laptops etc., in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). DRC produces somewhere in the region of 60% of the world’s supply of cobalt all in some of the worst working conditions in the world. These conditions include widespread child labour, forced labour, abhorrent levels of pay (anywhere from $0.81 to $2.04 per day), as well as serious and regular injuries, and fatalities. Once the cobalt has been extracted (by any means or consequences necessary) it is sent off to China where it is used to make batteries for phones and laptops before finding its way into the phone/laptop and then onto the shelves.(12) Recently a lawsuit was filed against five multinational corporations (Apple, Alphabet Inc. [Google’s parent company], Microsoft, Dell and Tesla) by International Rights Advocates on behalf of some of the thousands of people who suffer under these conditions. Along with detailing the horrors that the defendants have had to face the suit also alleges that the companies have knowingly been using forced and child labour, as well as the conditions of the labour used.(13)

The reason that these large companies utilize child labour and forced labour and labour under such conditions is simple; profits. This is where Ireland comes into play, in its role helping these large multinational corporations maximize the profit they gain from exploiting such labour conditions. Of the five companies named in the lawsuit, Apple, Dell, Google and Microsoft all have their European headquarters in Ireland. So, one would logically ask why this might be. Perhaps it is our highly skilled and trained population? Or maybe our location on the very western edge of the continent makes it more convenient for big-wig employees to fly to and from Ireland? Or could it possibly be that these companies are attracted by the striking beauty of our cities, towns and wild landscapes? Or, may I suggest, is it our friendly, open, hospitable and charmingly roguish nature that means companies cannot help but to set up their regional headquarters here? Or could it be that Ireland is essentially a tax haven that allows them to maximize their profits?(14) Ah, yes, I think we’ve found the solution to that riddle then. The study, authored by Thomas Wright and Gabriel Zucman, reveals that U.S. multinationals book roughly 18% of their foreign profits in Ireland, more than anywhere else in the world.(15) Ireland’s laws also help U.S. corporations to achieve a pre-tax profits-to-wages ratio of 800%.(16) In the end this amounts to Apple owing the Irish government €13 billion in back taxes, and a legal dispute with the European Union. In 2016 the European Commission ruled that Ireland had given unfair tax advantages to Apple to the sum of €13 billion, a decision which the Irish government itself appealed. Eventually the decision was overturned by the European General Court in July this year (2020), although further legal challenges to that decision may be forthcoming.(17) It is also important to note that the figure of €13 billion is only for the case of Apple and does not include how much taxes other multinational companies may owe, so the actual figure is so high it does not bear thinking about.

Given the current crises we are going through (coronavirus pandemic, recession, houselessness, climate collapse etc.) this €13 billion may have been useful for the people of Ireland. We should also note that crises is perhaps a misnomer as it gives the impression that these things appeared almost from thin air and will be solved within the current system. In reality, all of these ‘crises’ are part of the historical development of capitalism and are baked into the system, there will be no ‘end’ to them under capitalism, only momentary respite. The people of Ireland being cheated out of taxation is not the primary contradiction at hand, the primary contradiction is the continued exploitation of people in the global south. Whenever one reads a story about Ireland’s lax taxation laws or whenever someone says how the €13 billion tax bill from Apple ‘could come in handy’ it is important to critically engage with it and remember where this money comes from; the brutal and unrepenting exploitation of people in the global south. Assisting multinational companies in evading taxes is not primarily about imagining how useful that money could be for the Irish economy, although of course it is always important to note whose interest the government’s systems of laws and taxes serve. Rather it is about understanding that the Irish government is abetting the most brutal forms of exploitation that exist today. It is about thinking of those men, women and children who are brutalized morning, noon and night in countries like the DRC and understanding the role Ireland plays in helping companies like Apple, or Google, or whomever it may be, maximize the profits they make off of these people’s suffering. We must also note that these are not two unrelated issues, they are two parts of the dialectical accumulation of capital and profits that lead our political, economic and social order. The taxes these companies avoid and the profits they book in Ireland begin in the cobalt mines of the DRC and other countries. This is not a case of ‘lesser evilism’ in which Ireland allows multinational corporations to avoid paying taxes but can turn a blind eye to the conditions of workers in the global south. ‘Lesser evilism’ has never applied to the people of the global south. This is a case of Ireland playing its own role in ONE interconnected web of evil that ensnares the most vulnerable and exploited people in the world. Men, women and children do not live and work in destitution and precarity in spite of the ability of individuals to accumulate massive reserves of wealth, they live in those conditions BECAUSE of the ability of a small few to control so much wealth. This death, and destitution and destruction is not an aberration of capitalism, it is capitalism. Remember, the U.S. is the only nation that has not ratified the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child, this is not an accident.(18) As Aimé Césaire writes ‘capitalist society, at its present stage, is incapable of establishing a concept of the rights of all men, just as it has proved incapable of establishing a system of individual ethics… At the end of capitalism, which is eager to outlive its day, there is Hitler’.(19) In its quest to continually grow and develop new markets capitalism will grow ever more brutal and will relentlessly churn out the bodies of those it sees as expendable.

It is also vital to note that western wealth as a result of the exploitation of people from the global south did not begin yesterday, or even 100 or 200 years ago. The western quest for capital has always viewed these people as expendable. The empires of Britain, France, Belgium, Spain, Germany, Portugal and the Netherlands (et al.) were all built on the same model of exploitation. As Walter Rodney elucidates in How Europe Underdeveloped Africa this process has been taking place on the continent of Africa since the Portuguese first set foot in West Africa in 1444, beginning with the slave trade and continuing to the present day.(20) As Rodney makes clear, and as it continues today, this was, and is, done purely to serve the dominant powers of capitalism (European powers at first with the U.S. joining the scene later). The small example that has been mentioned above is simply a capitalist modernization of this process, with the U.S. taking the place of the old colonial powers. From its earliest flight abroad violence, and the extraction and accumulation of wealth for a small few have always been the modus operandi of capitalism and they will always continue to be. What is being discussed here in regard to history or the accumulation of wealth by a small few is not a divergence from the original point about Ireland’s tax laws. Rather what we have seen is the clear relationship between Ireland’s tax laws and the brutal conditions of workers in many countries across the world and how these laws sit within the hegemony of U.S. imperialism. This relationship is what one must remember when they encounter a story about the conditions of workers in certain countries, or about a legal dispute over Ireland’s taxation laws. Do not simply deplore the conditions that such people work in or the fact that multinational companies avoid taxes or that one person is worth $10 billion dollars, investigate why these things happen and have been happening for centuries. Making these connections is vital to understanding the world we experience today and can only be done by a class-based (Marxist) analysis. Ultimately one must understand who benefits from these actions and who suffers. The free market must rule, no matter the human cost.

There are also very obvious ways in which Ireland assists the U.S. empire, the foremost of these being the U.S. military’s use of Shannon Airport as a stopover sight. U.S. military planes have been using Shannon airport since the end of 2001, when the latest U.S. global ‘war on terror’ and the wars against Iraq and Afghanistan began. Much of what we know about the activities at Shannon has only come to light due to the dedicated work of the people at Shannonwatch who, as the name suggests, have attempted to expose the truth about U.S. activity in Shannon.(21) As such anyone looking for more detailed information should seek out their website. However, it is still necessary to highlight some of the key issues associated with the U.S. military and CIA’s use of Shannon airport here. Their work estimated that between 2002 and 2014 almost 2,500,000 U.S. troops had passed through the airport.(22) They have also estimated that roughly 20 known or suspected rendition planes have used the airport (a rendition flight is when the CIA kidnaps and tortures someone they suspect of being a terrorist, they are usually transported to Guantánamo Bay or other black sites).(23) This is all done despite Ireland following an official policy military neutrality. So, let us consider more closely what exactly this policy of ‘military neutrality’ means. Quite obviously, given the use of Shannon airport mentioned above, the phrase ‘military neutrality’ is totally vacuous. If the U.S. military is allowed to use Shannon airport to help perpetuate its global reign of terror then Ireland is not ‘militarily neutral’, it is actively supporting U.S. imperialism. There is no time here to detail the horrors the U.S. military has committed globally since they began using Shannon airport at the turn of the 21st Century. Needless to say, the death and destruction brought upon Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya and Yemen, to name just a few, is almost incalculable.

All of this is not to question the ‘agency’ of Ireland’s ruling class, or any other actors who work on behalf of U.S. imperialism. These people have plenty of ‘agency’, the point is to note whom they use their agency to serve. Whose class interests are best served by tax breaks, or economic sanctions designed to open up more ‘free-markets’, or imperialist wars or media reporting that supports U.S. imperialism? It is not mine or yours (most likely), and it is most certainly not the people who suffer death and destruction at the hands of the U.S. empire and its allies every day. ‘Agency’ is not the key issue when discussing imperialism, the key issue is imperialism and those who suffer most under it. As such the purpose of this essay was to highlight some of the ways in which Ireland supports U.S. imperialism. Anti-imperialism is the cornerstone of socialism. As Louis Allday highlighted in his excellent piece ‘Social Imperialism in the 21st Century’, mainstream ‘socialists’ such as Owen Jones and Paul Mason (among many others) have time and again supported imperialist aggression around the world.(24) As the title of the article suggests this makes them ‘social imperialists’ rather than ‘socialists’. It is important not to be distracted or cowed by social imperialist accusations of ‘apologism’ for this or that ‘regime’ or ‘dictator’. If wanting to defend the rights of people who have been abused by the west for decades or centuries makes you an ‘apologist’ in their eyes, then so be it. If not wanting people to live in poverty and destitution or have their families killed or homes destroyed by western-led sanctions and wars makes you an ‘apologist’ in the eyes of so-called leftists who parrot CIA propaganda, then so be it. Make no apology for opposing imperialism and capitalism and its remorseless dehumanization of billions of people across the globe.


  1. Michael Parenti, The Face of Imperialism, (New York, 2011), p. 13.
  2. Koreapeacenow, The Human Costs and Gendered Impact of Sanctions on North Korea, p. 12.
  3. World Health Organization, Global Tuberculosis Report 2020, p. 33
  4. World Health Organization, Global Tuberculosis Report 2020, p. 43.
  5. Data available at: worldhealthorg.shinyapps.io
  6. World Health Organization, Global Tuberculosis Report 2020, Figure 4.17, p. 44.
  7. UN Resident Coordinator for the DPRK, Needs and Priorities Report 2019, p. 3.
  8. UN Resident Coordinator for the DPRK, Needs and Priorities Report 2019, p. 6.
  9. UN Resident Coordinator for the DPRK, Needs and Priorities Report 2019, p. 8.
  10. UN Resident Coordinator for the DPRK, Needs and Priorities Report 2019, p. 9.
  11. Charles Armstong, ‘The Destruction and Reconstruction of North Korea, 1950 – 1960’, Asia-Pacific Journal 51, (2010).
  12. Terrence Collinsworth, Class Complaint for Injunctive Relief and Damages, Case 1:19-cv-03737, filed 15/12/19, passim.
  13. Collinsworth, Class Complaint for Injunctive Relief and Damages, passim.
  14. Thomas Wright and Gabriel Zucman, The Exorbitant Tax Privilege, National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper, September 2018, p. 6.
  15. Wright and Zucman, The Exorbitant Tax Privilege, p. 6.
  16. Wright and Zucman, The Exorbitant Tax Privilege, Figure 3, Panel B.
  17. The Irish Times, 15 July 2020.
  18. Available here: treaties.un.org One can see that the only country without a ratification date is the United States of America.
  19. Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism, translated by Joan Pinkham, (New York), p. 37.
  20. Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, (London, 1972), p. 107.
  21. Available at: www.shannonwatch.org
  22. John Lannon and Roger Cole eds, Shannon Airport and 21st Century War, 2015, p. 7. Available at: www.shannonwatch.org
  23. Lannon and Cole eds, Shannon Airport and 21st Century War, 2015, p. 16. Available at: www.shannonwatch.org
  24. Louis Allday, ‘Socialism in the 21st Century’, Monthly Review Online, 6 August 2018. Available at: mronline.org