Books on the Provos, the dominant faction after the ‘70s IRA split with their more Marxist comrades, tend to fall into two categories. Historians and academics such as Rogelio Alonso, Kevin Bean, J. Bowyer Bell, Richard English, Henry Patterson, and Robert W. White lean towards heavily footnoted, analytical narratives; whereas journalists from both Ireland and abroad such as Tim Pat Coogan, David McKittrick, Eamonn Mallie, Ed Moloney, Malachi O’Doherty, and Peter Taylor combine equally footnoted but more anecdotal accounts gleaned from a life or a stint reporting from the heartland of the Troubles during which the contemporary IRA revived and roared, mostly within the Northern Irish province.
What has been lacking from the growing shelf of studies are books which combine a journalist’s verve with an historian’s detachment. Until now.
This new book—so up-to-date that it covers the Irish Republic’s elections this spring after the Dublin government collapsed into debt and sought an EU bailout—comes from a former IRA member who served over a decade and a half in the maximum-security, brutally-run prison known to the British securocrats as the Maze and to the Irish republicans as Long Kesh. Tommy McKearney speaks from the position of an insider, although his own crucial contributions are nearly unacknowledged.
He was part of the 1980 hunger strike and helped spur (along with fellow critic of current Sinn Féin policy Anthony McIntyre) the prison movement the League of Communist Republicans in the later ‘80s. McKearney gives but one parenthetical aside as to his own leadership, and makes no mention of volunteering for the first of the major hunger strikes that soon would bring worldwide attention to the plight of Republican prisoners “on the blanket”.
The results, therefore, serve to offer an objective, almost clinical, view of IRA strategy and tactics. These sections are preceded by chapter vignettes which open each chronological section with powerful paragraphs about the decisions made by various Northerners growing up in the Nationalist community, or coming into contact with it, who had to decide, by the end of the ‘60s, whether to take up arms or to hoist the placards to bring about social change and more freedom for the Catholic minority. This community’s rights were suppressed by a sectarian regime guaranteeing, by gerrymandering, discrimination, prejudice, and violence. The “Protestant state for a Protestant people” ever since 1921 had compromised an Ireland into a Southern Republic and a Northern statelet.
The author rejects the revisionists who claim the Protestants were merely misunderstood; he places the blame for the conflict on a British-run, Protestant-majority system meant to keep the Catholics down. No moral or cultural equivalence can be sustained, and no civil rights movement seeking by peaceful means to bring about change in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, McKearney insists, could have challenged the Crown enough to bring down an entrenched establishment. Even if the PIRA could break the Orange state, the one that followed is not quite Green, he adds.
That is, the IRA insurgency brought Northern Ireland to a standstill but not a military victory against an enormously capable British defense force and a political power able to resist reform. The Unionists now share power with the Republicans, but the new state, he finds, remains sectarian, if on a compromised scale according to Protestant and Catholic representation. Class solidarity is weakened while ideological separation, on parallel tracks, is strengthened. Capitalism continues, and socialism totters, undermining any claim by Republicans and radicals that cross-sectarian alliances might bring about equality.
McKearney’s take, therefore, reflects leftist rejection of his Republican colleagues who have entered into the political parliaments, North and South, which they cannot overthrow. This has been the fatal attraction for generations of Republicans, for none have been able to overcome their minority status as a party or faction against their rivals already conducting affairs and running the state, who vow to keep business as usual. Poverty persists on each side, post-Celtic Tiger, of the border, as his end-noted statistics tally all too well.
Those who sought economic and social justice as new leftists, such as Bernadette Devlin in the civil rights days before the Troubles erupted, were able to wrest power from such as Communist organizer Betty Sinclair. Devlin, approaching Derry city, led marchers. She convinced crowds not to sit down alongside Sinclair, but to charge the barricades. But, as McKearney reminds readers, such heady promises of radical revolution soon failed when the guns of British troops killed14 innocent protesters on Bloody Sunday at the start of 1972. The futility of non-violent unrest convinced many to rise up and fight against the British.
As Provos took the advantage and took up arms, they did so in McKearney’s view first as self-defense, then as a deterrent against reprisals, and then in a hope that the British could be forced by guerrilla warfare (and attacks in the British homeland) to withdraw from Ireland. No master plan carried this strategy out, as it was an ad hoc policy worked out hastily by often passionate volunteers committed to action rather than reflection, militarism rather than politicking. This weakened the Republican Movement in the ‘70s as it had in earlier decades for those who ran the Irish Republic. Those who fought did not make necessarily the best candidates for leadership in the political parliaments they then sought, eventually, to enter rather than to erase.
Still, as others retreated from British guns, those who fought back inherited the responsibility to keep the struggle underground in a tiny island where guns, people, and talk all could be followed easily, by suspicious neighbors, by informants, by Protestant foes, and via British intelligence and informers. When, as recent years have shown, the head of IRA internal security and the right-hand advisor to Gerry Adams have both been revealed as informants to the Crown at critical stages in the Troubles dating back to the mid-‘70s, no wonder the IRA failed to bring about its idealistic goals of a 32-county socialist, secular republic.
Principles and prudence clashed with the brutal realities of torture, betrayal, and weakness as working-class men and women sniped and bombed an enemy on many fronts—the Protestant militia, Loyalist paramilitias, the local police, and the British army. (McKearney skims over another factor, violent feuds with the Provos’ former Marxist comrades, as they splintered and turned against one another.) Yet, in McKearney’s pragmatic explanation, the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) had no choice, abandoned by the Republic of Ireland which viewed the resurgent Republicans as “the real problem rather than a response to it”.
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