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”.
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.