Best to Come to This Book Informed and Alert
The PIRA found arms from their old boys’ network through those who had fought 50-odd years before for a partial independence from Britain. Yet at the heart of this book is McKearney’s avowal that the real mission of the Provos was less to gain that delayed unification of Ireland and more an overthrow of the Six Counties, the Northern Irish statelet.
He compares the post-1998 expectations of the Provos since the end of their war to an imagined decision of Hamas to recognize Israel and to give up the refugees’ “right of return”. The Good Friday Agreement acknowledged with an all-Ireland vote (the first since 1918) that the island would for the present follow a “unity of consent” affording the Unionist majority in the North their right to ally with Britain. The Irish Republic abandoned its constitutional claim to jurisdiction over all of the island.
As with Anthony McIntyre and other prominent opponents to this peace process, the objection of these peaceful radical Republicans comes not from any regression to a “fetish of armed struggle”, but to the fact that the Republicans entering power in Sinn Féin have given up on any attempt to bring about any more than a vague aspiration towards national unity and socialism. Some who fought for the ideals of the Provos now feel that their leaders lied to them even as they sent them to fight or saw them off to prison, and have since then sold them out.
McKearney holds no romance for the Fenian cause, but he does remain driven by its energy. Sinn Féin’s neo-liberal economics, status-seeking respectability, and patterns of suppression of dissent within Republican communities inspire McKearney to the revival of an earlier Irish radical dream, that of a more just society based upon a class-based, secular solidarity.
The hope of a transformed Ireland does not seem to appeal as much as it once had. The Irish Republic ends its national phase, content to govern three-fourths of the territory and to follow neo-liberal capitalism however cloaked in republican rhetoric. The rejection of “single-issue Republicanism” bent on one Ireland means that sectarianism in the North is solidified on Catholic and Protestant identification (a communal one that does not depend on religious affirmation; similar to the Jewish conception of themselves as a people and not only a religious entity).
For McKearney, a non-establishment version of Radical Republicanism perhaps represents the only hope. This book may not convince those unsympathetic to his vision. A marked understatement about what Republicans (if not herein) call “the physical-force tradition” reveals indirectly his own experience in the IRA. He never reveals his own story, but his combination of vivid characters called in to start each chapter as composite representations perhaps of what volunteers and fellow-travelers endured shows his ability to infuse with journalistic energy and a storyteller’s skill the idealism and the agony (and a bit of welcome if droll wit) of the Republican who slogged through the streets and ditches in hopes of bringing about Irish freedom.
However, the horrors of assassinations and of bombings with or without warning, of vicious attacks on civilians, on children, on raw recruits as well as prison staff, on and off duty, does persist, if well outside of this narrative. Some readers may react to this passage with a range of feelings: “Whatever rationale the IRA offered for the imperative of acting as it did, many Protestant people viewed this campaign as a sectarian assault on their community. This anger in turn lent a semblance of justification from a Unionist point of view.” There is a careful, diplomatic distancing within this phrasing. While McKearney combines a short, powerfully imagined scene with a more academic analysis of the PIRA’s campaign and tactics, the scholarly register here may speak to some skeptics of a continued reluctance to accept blame.
I can hear on the page (even at a distance) the power of McKearney’s position; in meeting him once, I was impressed by his compressed energy, his adroit intellect, and his steely insistence that his intricately argued philosophy presented progressive Republicans in Ireland with an alternative to what Sinn Féin and its leaders had proclaimed the party line. The appearance of the renewed leftist bloc Éirígí may signal a wider application of core Republican activists who seek to work within a wider constituency of those disenchanted with capitalism. These progressives seek (as the answer to continuing Irish inequalities in opportunity and in equality) a fairer system, cognizant of class and not sectarianism as the ultimate divide keeping many on the island from fulfillment of their common hopes.
As in person, so in this book: McKearney packs so much material expressing both progressive dreams and pragmatic strategies into such a brief time that one must come to him informed and alert.
His history, one that brings the impact of informers (if not the IRAs’ killing of supposed or real informers), elections North and South, and the continued economic meltdown of capitalism and neo-liberal policies inflicted upon the Irish population throughout the island, makes this a valuable and recommended study. Some of those authors whom I mentioned earlier will prove easier guides to the entire story of the IRA (before and after its spats and splits). But for a contemporary analysis of the main IRA force in its 40 years “from insurrection to parliament”, from a participant not in a seminar but a cell, as an operative and not as a professor, a volunteer and a leader of the IRA—not a reporter, this is the report worth pondering.