The Provisional IRA, From Insurrection to Parliament Review

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28/09/2016 by socialistfight

Tommy McKearney Pluto Press, 2011, London, Review by Gerry Downing

Tommy McKearney’s 2011 book takes us through the Troubles in the north of Ireland from their inception in the mid 1960s to the general election in the south in 2011. It is enthralling as a coherent narrative and ties up many issues for the reader in the overall picture he paints so well. I certainly understood many things in their context much better after reading it.

But this review will concentrate on the politics he espouses in the book with which we found many disagreements. The first are found at the start of the book in the preface on page x where he tells us he will be using the term ‘Northern Ireland’ throughout and the generic term ‘Catholic’ instead of ‘Nationalist’ or ‘Republican’.

He thereby signals he accepts the legitimacy of the border imposed by Britain in 1920 and accepts the ‘sectarian’, i.e. religious nature of the conflict, of which more later.

On p. 208 in the Chapter A New Republic and a Relevant Republicanism he sets out his solutions. ‘At Easter 1916, the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the Irish Citizen’s Army prevented John Redmond’s party finding an Irish settlement within the British Empire. In a later era, Provisional IRA tenacity was a crucial element in undermining the Orange state.’

Do we have to point out that the Republic proclaimed in 1916 was never achieved and that the 1922-23 counterrevolution by the agents of British imperialism in Ireland CONSOLIDATED the domination of the British Empire over a miserable 26-county neo-colony and an even more reactionary 6 county Orange state? And, as he himself points out many times, the result of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) was to win over the Provisional IRA and Sinn Féin to a defence of the border and the establishment?

He tells us that the Orange state is gone and it has been replaced by a ‘sectarian state’ but we might be excused for thinking that, like the Police Service of Northern Ireland/RUC, this state was still the old Orange state accepted/defended by former Republicans as well as Nationalists now.

His prospects for the future involves a very vicious condemnation of present day ‘dissident’ Republicans. He says (p 204):

‘Single-issue Republicanism focusing exclusively on a unitary Irish state has shrivelled because it has finally accomplished as much as it was able to achieve. The reality is only a small handful of people within Republican ranks promoted a semi-spiritual and Nationalist vision of the ‘Irish Republic’’.

There is no mention of or defence of the political or even human rights of hold-out Republican prisoners in Maghaberry or anywhere else.

He takes issue with Bob Purdy [1] and states unequivocally that reform of the state was not possible and Purdy was wrong to suggest it was unlike the Civil Rights movement in the US (unqualified success?) because discrimination was less ‘intense and blatant’ and if ‘the liberals in the North had been able to win a constitutional option for reform’ and the ‘NIRC managed to sustain its initial hegemony’ reform might have been possible. (pp4-5).

The obvious conclusion from that is that the defensive revolutionary armed struggle was necessary. The bulk of the book is then devoted to a critique of the methods of the offensive armed struggle employed by the Provisional IRA. Blatantly missing from this is a revolutionary critique of the IRA methods or any suggestions that such a revolutionary option ever existed in anything other than ‘a semi-spiritual and Nationalist vision of the ‘Irish Republic’’. He says (p. 3),

‘From our perspective the Northern Ireland state (and for other reasons the government in London) could not simply concede to the civil right demands in spite of the fact that they were indeed, by any standards on any contemporary ‘normal’ bourgeois democratic government, straightforward. Yet, founded upon partition, which was in reality more a partition of the population and society in Northern Ireland than a geographic division of the island, the Northern state could not deliver the usual passivity of most liberal democratic states in the post war, let alone post-1920s) period.’

His understanding of the centrality of partition is wrong, his understanding of the INEVITABLE posing of that problem in ever serious struggle in Ireland is wrong and his separation of the national and socialist question is wrong. So while he goes into great detail in accounting for and analysing the actions of the IRA and Sinn Féin there is absolutely no account of or real analysis of the Irish Republican Socialist Party or Éirigi, both relegated to two passing references.

Whatever the political weakness of Seamus Costello and his comrades (on bombings etc.) at least they understood that the revolutionary task in Ireland combined both anti-imperialism and anti-capitalism and therefore the border was the central question that divided these questions in Ireland. And for that reason the deep state expended much more effort and recourses in subverting that organisation and its military wing than it did the IRA at certain points.

So it is not a question of the ‘partition of the population and society in Northern Ireland’ but the partition of Ireland that requires the overthrow of both British imperialism and Irish capitalism, north and south; its direct colonial agents in the North and its no less loyal neo-colonial agents in the South, both installed in the terrible counter-revolutionary years of 1920-23.

James Connolly was correct in his analysis, which McKearney obviously rejects. In his article Labour and the Proposed Partition of Ireland, published in the Irish Worker on 14 March 1914, he made the following commentary:

‘And now that the progress of democracy elsewhere has somewhat muzzled the dogs of aristocratic power, now that in England as well as in Ireland the forces of labour are stirring and making for freedom and light, this same gang of well-fed plunderers of the people, secure in Union held upon their own dupes, seek by threats of force to arrest the march of idea and stifle the light of civilisation and liberty …

Such a scheme as that agreed to by Redmond and Devlin, the betrayal of the national democracy of industrial Ulster would mean a carnival of reaction both North and South, would set back the wheels of progress, would destroy the oncoming unity of the Irish Labour movement and paralyse all advanced movements whilst it endured. To it Labour should give the bitterest opposition, against it Labour in Ulster should fight even to the death, if necessary, as our fathers fought before us.’

Image result for Tommy McKearney IRA From  images

McKearney tells us that even though ‘Northern Ireland’ became a ‘militarised society’ nonetheless it had ‘an indelible democratic hue’ (p. 4) and then goes on to sympathetically evaluate the views of pundits O’Dowd, Rolston and Tomlinson on what was the differences between ‘Northern Ireland’ and ‘other bourgeois liberal states’ (p.6) and ‘most other liberal states’ (p. 7) in apparent disregard that this is precisely what ‘Northern Ireland’ was not and is not. It was and is an illegitimate, artificial state, like colonial Algeria, Rhodesia and South Africa were and like Israel and some of the southern states in the USA like Alabama and Mississippi still are; states that are not nations but created artificially to defend the privileges of a religious of racial colonial minority thereby dividing the working class along those lines. As he outlines so well that is precisely what ‘Northern Ireland’ is and why it should be referred to as ‘the north of Ireland’ or the ‘six north-eastern counties of Ireland’ to reject the British imposition.

He is therefore profoundly wrong to conclude in his introduction: ‘If we were to argue, for example, that we will forever let our differences about the ‘Border’ (why do we need these inverted commas?) divide us, then prospects for a properly developed opposition to neo-liberalism will be hopeless’ (p.19). The total opposite is the case. We cannot develop a proper opposition to neo-liberalism, now enforced by Sinn Féin in alliance with the DUP, without workers’ equality and, given that the border is still there, that ensures Loyalist supremacy and continuing working class inequality and division.

Kearney is simply wrong about the growing equality that he claims is now happening because of the GFA. In reality the Loyalist and Nationalist middle class are doing well out of it but the working class Republicans and Loyalists have got nothing but austerity. And the Nationalists have got more austerity; they are still significantly more unemployed than Loyalists and the Housing Executive is notorious for hiding its results but what happens in North Belfast in gerrymandering and discrimination in housing just cannot be hidden. And the Loyalist working class still blame the ‘Catholics’ for their oppression not their own ruling class—because of the border!

The ‘Flags’ confrontation and ‘Peace Walls’ as clear evidence of a growing far right movement amongst Loyalist workers, whose Orange Lodges welcome all types of far rightists and fascist from Britain and Europe and whose youth attack immigrants far more than the Nationalist community. The ‘Border’ is not alone physical but it is a political and ideological weapon against workers’ unity. It is a priority to demolish it in the course of the struggle defeat British imperialism and to overthrow capitalism north and south.

This error is reinforced by the assessment of Britain’s reasons for opposing democratic rights for Nationalists (pp 59-60). He implies Britain would have conceded to the NICR but for the cold war with the USSR; ‘its NATO allies viewed remaining in Ireland as a strategic asset that had to be kept within the Western alliance’.

Image result for Seamus Costello images

This understanding is profoundly one sided and therefore incorrect. It follows from this that the collapse of the USSR in 1991 should have removed that cold war threat and by the time of the GFA Britain would have been supported Irish unity.

Britain and Irish political leaders North and South opposed the mass movement that the NIRC sparked from 1969 to the 1971 introduction of internment and the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre, and the mass movement around the hunger strikes ten years later because they were movements of revolutionary proportions which threatened both Irish capitalism and British imperialism and therefore the partition of Ireland.

And here we note the other great error, the wrong analysis of the relationship between the struggle in Ireland and the class struggle of the British working class. In his chapter on The War in England (p. 127) he speculates:

‘The IRS’s English campaign certainly made a powerful point, reminding Britain that its war in Ireland was not a cost-free exercise. Whether in the long run it was the best option for Republicans is another question. Might a different approach to a British working class battered and embittered by Thatcherism have paid higher dividends? Might it have been possible to create a firm political alliance with sections of Britain’s alienated and marginalised population that would have put real pressure on Westminster? We cannot know.’

We can and do know the answer to that question and its came during the great miner’s strike of 1984-5. As we wrote in Class Consciousness and the Revolutionary Party:

The struggle itself had made the miners and their communities open to political advances in all areas as shown by the struggles of the Women against Pit Closures, the Lesbian and Gay support groups etc. The Irish and Black support was reciprocated. But it needed a real revolutionary party to concretise those advances in terms of new cadre for the revolution. This largely did not happen, few miners actually joined far left groups but there was a huge influx into the Labour Party. Here the obvious opportunity to qualitatively develop class consciousness on vital issues for the British working class – racism and Ireland – was criminally rejected by the WRP and many other left groups to maintain unprincipled relations with Arthur Scargill. Their ‘united front’ with the NUM was unprincipled and one sided, it amounted to an opportunist rotten bloc with Scargill and the opportunity to win miners to revolutionary politics was lost. This was a major factor in the break-up of the WRP and other left groups after the defeat of the strike. However, it would be wrong to conclude that all is now lost from that strike. The heightened class consciousness still lives on even in the Labour party and in the trade unions. [2]

However, despite its proximity to the hunger strikes, the IRA/Sinn Féin leadership had no such orientation. And none, apart from individuals and small groups like Workers Power, had this orientation in Britain then. Learning from 1920 and early 1921 [2] the appeal should have been to the British working class ranks and file and that fight should have been conducted within the unions against the pro-imperialist leaders of these unions.

Many did sterling work within the unions on Ireland but the IRA tactic of the bombings of civilian areas in Britain and the north of Ireland made that unity very difficult to achieve.

McKearney sees the solution as a ‘new and different republic – one that is not merely independent but a republic that is socialist.’ (p.208). But not one achieved through revolution (p. 209):

‘it is logical therefore to argue that ending the current constitutional position of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom would be a positive step towards ending sectarianism and replacing it with normal class politics – a vital step towards building a socialist republic’.

One wonders what makes that former IRA prisoner and hunger striker, Marxist of sorts, leading member of Congress ‘86 and Forthwrite magazines, different to the Officials/Workers Party who slip-slided away from opposition to British imperialism and Irish capitalism under the cover of ‘Marxist’/Stalinist/Michael Collins two stage theories (‘a vital step [ing stone] towards building a socialist republic?’) to embrace ‘normal (reformist) class politics’.


[1] IMG working class leader, author of Politics in the Streets, see Obituary: Bob Purdie 1940-2014, by D. R. O’Connor Lysaght, 4-1-15,

[2] Class Consciousness and the Revolutionary Party (2-8-15)

[3] Hesitant Comrades: The Irish Revolution and the British Labour Movement, Book Review: Geoffrey Bell (Pluto Press, Feb 2016, 273pp, £17) Review by Gerry Downing,


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