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Research and Scholarship

After Empire: real context for 1916 commemorations

When political leaders are in power they are constrained by politics and diplomacy.  But, once they leave office they are no longer surrounded by advisors and handlers and no longer answerable to their electorate.  So, if you really want to know why and how decisions are made, ask a retired leader.

This is exactly what happened for the “After Empire” leaders’ discussion, held in UCD on 4 February 2016.  In the context of the centenary of the Easter Rising, we wanted to draw comparisons with other post-colonial countries.  We may share a common legacy in terms of administration, judicial systems and language but we have also had to deal with the more difficult consequences of independence such as partition, sectarianism and economic dependence.

Choosing the countries from which to invite former leaders wasn’t difficult – half of the countries of the world are former British colonies.

‘After Empire’, drew together former national leaders of South Africa, Tanzania, and India before an audience of over 800.  On stage were former President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, former President of Tanzania, Benjamin Mkapa, and former Minister of Laws and Minster of External Affairs of India, Salman Khurshid. Joined on stage by Professors Mary Daly and Art Cosgrove and by Dr Conor Mulvagh, the assembled leaders discussed the commonalities and differences of experience between these nations as they emerged from the British Empire during the 20th century towards sovereignty.

South Africa is interesting because of the subjugation of the native people by both the Boers and the British.  South Africa was one of only two home rule legislatures to be established in that name, the other being the state of Northern Ireland.  As Thabo Mbeki explained, although white South Africa gained its self-government in 1910 but it was not until 1994 that the country’s majority was elevated to the status of equal citizenship.  As Nelson Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mbeki holds the political memory of the anti-apartheid movement and of South Africa’s emergence as a democracy with universal suffrage in 1994.

As the British Empire was exiting Ireland in the early 1920s, it was only settling in to the colonial governance of Tanzania, which had been governed by Germany until the latter’s defeat in the First World War. As Benjamin Mkapa observed, one third of the African troops serving in the Second World War were from Tanganika, and these returned soldiers became a mainstay of the independence movement in Tanganika post-1945.

Tanzania offers a contrast to other African colonies in that, although colonised three times, its emergence as an independent state in 1964 can be seen as a model of democracy where tribes and religions co-exist in harmony. As President of the United Republic of Tanzania for ten years (1995-2005), Benjamin Mkapa led his country in quite a different manner to his East African neighbours – he was foreign minister when Tanzania led the overthrow of Idi Amin in 1979 – and when he was democratically elected President he set about building on the ideals of Nyerere by investing in education, health and the economy.

Independence is not a moment but a process and the discussion explored the routes to incrementally achieved freedom charted by these three modern states. A quarter of a century after the foundation of the Irish Free State in 1922, India achieved its independence.

India independence in 1947 can be seen to both draw from and influence the political movement in South Africa.  It shared with Ireland an experience of partition.  Salman Khurshid’s observations on partition were influence by not only growing up on the Indian/Pakistan border with family on both sides but because he was India’s first Muslim Minister of Eternal Affairs serving in the Government of Indian’s first Sikh Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh.

The discussion ended on the question of Scotland’s independence. On this, the speakers were divided. Mr Khurshid commented with amusement that the Scots might be invited to just such an event as ‘After Empire’ in the years ahead. Mr Mbeki sounded a word of timely warning of the potential implications of Scottish, or indeed Catalan, independence and how this might have an impact on the integration of Europe’s new refugees in regions only just trying to articulate their own autonomous national identity. Mr Mkapa, meanwhile, observed that the break-up of the United Kingdom would have ‘very serious implications’ for modern Tanzania and could bring into question the precarious union with Zanzibar. Such insights show just how interconnected our independent but deeply interdependent states have become in the modern world.

While the three leaders were at UCD we took the opportunity to film one-on-one interviews which give a rare and real insight into their individual impact on our world.

By Eilis O’Brien and Conor Mulvagh. This story first appeared in the spring 2016 edition of UCD Today, the university magazine.

For more on UCD’s Decade of Centenaries scholarship and events, see:

Featured Researcher:

Dr Conor Mulvagh, Lecturer in Modern Irish History

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