What now for the cause of Irish freedom?

A new book from a former member of the Provisional IRA provides a valuable history of the struggle for a united Ireland but comes up short in its analysis of how to move Irish politics forward today.

Jason Walsh

Topics Books

Any list of industries in decline in modern Britain would surely have to include the publishing of left-wing books about Ireland. Once a staple of British radicalism, Ireland has now been downgraded to Z by the leftist political credit-ratings agencies. And yet, here is a new book on the journey of the IRA from its Bombay Street holdout in West Belfast, burnt down by loyalists in 1969, to seats in Ireland’s two parliaments.

Tommy McKearney’s The Provisional IRA: From Insurrection to Parliament unfortunately come a few years too late, but it is still an essential read for the dwindling number of people interested in Ireland. A former IRA member, McKearney is a self-described ‘left-wing Irish republican’.

McKearney, who I’ve interviewed on a number of occasions, is far more clued up than other republican critics of the Provisional IRA and Sinn Féin, like Republican Sinn Féin (RSF) and the 32 County Sovereignty Movement (32CSM). A former hunger striker, now an organiser with the small but radical Independent Workers’ Union and a freelance journalist, McKearney makes no attempt to disguise his position as a republican who got his political education at the centre of the maelstrom of the conflict. But anyone wishing to cast this ex-Provo as a ‘typical’ republican, full of speeches about fraternity yet blinded by sectarianism, or worse a ‘green fascist’ (as anti-republicans are fond of saying), would be more than slightly wide of the mark.

Northern Ireland, then and now

Politically, McKearney’s starting point is that Northern Ireland is no longer the Orange State documented by civil-rights activist Michael Farrell in his seminal 1976 book of the same name – and he is entirely correct. He is also correct that this does not mean that all is well.

In fact, there remains more than something sectarian in the statelet of Northern Ireland. The Northern Irish state is no less sectarian than it was at the height of Unionist dominance – from partition in the early 1920s through to the nationalist uprising against it in the late 1960s. But instead of being a simple case of Catholic ruled and Protestant rulers, the new ‘agreed’ Northern Ireland is a rotten experiment in creating a ‘separate but equal’ society, one that does more to expose the dark underbelly of identity politics than any screed in the conservative press could ever hope to.

McKearney provides, unusually these days, a realistic account of Northern Ireland prior to the civil-rights demonstrations of the late Sixties. ‘Catholics were not routinely lynched or shot dead in the heat of a Mississippi night’, he writes. ‘Then again, when they challenged the status quo with mass civil disobedience in 1969, Catholics were driven from their homes by petrol bombs, they were shot down in broad daylight and by the government and its local armed forces.’

For those of a socialist persuasion, particularly in Britain, the big question in relation to Northern Ireland has always been why sectarian division trump class politics, even during eras of industrial militancy elsewhere in both Ireland and Britain. McKearney lays out the answer in some detail, exposing gerrymandering and Unionist domination of political and public-service offices. The cross-class coalition of Unionism, combined with Keynesian welfarism, drove a wedge between Protestant and Catholic workers. So while the shipyard worker in east Belfast may have little in common with senior civil servants, all of whom were Unionists, he did nonetheless benefit from a society rigged against Catholics. Council houses were routinely doled out to Protestants and denied to Catholics, industrial employment was available to Protestant but not Catholics, and the establishment went to great lengths, including using what would now be regarded as a form of socialism, to ensure Protestant workers were privileged relative to Catholics. The corporatist nature of business and state relationships locked Catholics out of meaningful participation in society while the selective use of Keynesian policies guaranteed industrial peace.

None of this is news, but it is rarely spoken of today. Notably, McKearney laments the fact that overcoming this has its own costs. Northern Ireland remains, and is intended to remain, a divided and sectarian society, with the hope that equally doling out rewards will pacify the belligerent, while the ‘cross-sectarian middle class, civil service and bureaucratic elite’ get on with the business of running the place in a peculiarly narrow and anti-political manner.

The use of ‘soft’ power

Today, it is possible, either through gainful – and preferably post-industrial – employment or sheer force of will, to live a relatively normal, non-sectarian life in Northern Ireland. This option, however, will never be open to the majority of people.

McKearney also points out the way that the state uses the provision of services as a means of social control: ‘The dubious good as witnessed in the proliferation of community centres, sports halls and other cultural apparel in tandem, must be weighed against the other proliferation of “peace walls”, increased poverty and rising levels of sporadic sectarian violence set against that other pathology of rising unemployment.’

Any British readers of this review who believe the recent London riots were a response to the closure of community centres and the like would do well to note that the ‘division of spoils’ in the form of a few buildings and unproductive non-jobs should not be mistaken for a positive development, if the experience of Northern Ireland is any guide.

As for the view of the British government as an honest broker, McKearney points out: ‘The British state has enormous resources (as does any state) exercising as it does control over military, policing, the judiciary and legislation. The state also manages social spending, allowing it to roll out services such as housing, health, transport and welfare. During the Northern Ireland conflict, London made no bones about using this power to support its policy. Community groups supportive of republicans were denied access to funding available to others, housing estates were designed to facilitate British Army containment and cross-border roads were left in disrepair to disrupt easy access by IRA supply chains. At a more mundane level, some elements of the British government apparently held the view that the conflict was the result of the unemployed having too much spare time and funded a grandiose programme of building sport and leisure complexes.’

Aside from why republican-supporting community groups should expect British state funding, McKearney’s point is well made and will make uncomfortable reading for doctrinaire left-liberals: political power may flow from the barrel of the gun, as a murderous dictator like Mao would well know, but it also flows from other, softer forms of state activity; cod-socialist noblesse oblige is one of them. Indeed, though I doubt the upper echelons of the British state ever really believed their own claim to be impartial on the question of Ireland’s political future, I do not doubt that the therapeutic prism through which the conflict is now viewed – and post-conflict society organised – is more than merely expedient cover for a retreat from more overt and traditionally economic welfarism. State officials probably do mean well and are, as a result, perplexed by the fact that, if anything, the sense of grievance on both sides of the divide has been nurtured by the neverending ‘peace process’.

Away from the Armalite, towards the ballot box

In order to get us to the present-day situation, the bulk of McKearney’s book is taken up with the history of the Provisional IRA, the rise of Sinn Féin and the resultant transformation from armed insurrectionists to ‘partners in peace’ with Unionists – and in parliament.

Beginning with a meticulous documentation of the civil-rights movement and the brutal Unionist response to it, the rebirth of armed republicanism and the 1969-1970 IRA split into ‘Official’ and ‘Provisional’ wings, the book also notes the different compositions of rural and urban republicanism, internal IRA recruitment practice, and a range of other material too diffuse to cover here. Indeed, alongside McKearney’s actual thesis, there is a straight history of the IRA from the point of view of a member, if that is what you want to read.

McKearney pinpoints the transformation of republicanism from paramilitarism to politics as occurring within the IRA in the late 1970s. The shift is most clearly seen in the wake of the 1981 hunger strikes, specifically the election of hunger-striker Bobby Sands as a member of parliament, ultimately giving new life to Sinn Féin as a genuine political party in its own right. Prior to this, Sinn Féin existed as little more than a sop to politics with the real power located in the military command-structure of the IRA. Doubtless, there is a pre-history to this transformation and McKearney writes that, at the end of the 1970s – after a decade of hard-fought and costly conflict – ‘IRA realists were forced to accept that the political landscape both at home and abroad offered little prospects for republican success in the short term’.

At peace or at war, today it would be unreasonable to ignore one fact: if the promise of Irish republicanism is the unity of Protestant, Catholic and dissenter, then it has failed.

In fact, it is worrying that Provisional IRA supporters didn’t realise sooner that, whatever their grievances, bombs were a poor way to attract support from Protestants. It is equally worrying that those republicans who did realise this rather rapidly jettisoned their republicanism and transformed themselves into crypto-Unionists, whiling away the days complaining that events on the ground failed to fit their rhetorical demands for developing cross-community harmony.

The author’s lament is that he feels the true path between these two poles has not been trod; that there is a space for principled republican politics that neither fetishises ‘physical force as the one and only method of struggle’ nor abandons republicanism for de facto, if unintentional, sectarian politics or, indeed, its political twin in the abandonment of Northern republicans to their fate.

Rather than continuing the war or transforming into a traditional parliamentary party (or doing both, as the IRA and Sinn Féin actually did) McKearney offers the option of engaging ‘in an escalating round of social agitation’ in the the 1970s and 1980s, citing several historical precedents to this course of action, such as civil rights in the 1960s and the nineteenth-century Land War. As McKearney sees it, not without justification, this did not happen because senior republicans feared building a mass movement would threaten its military-style control of republican political activity. This at least has the virtue of explaining why it took the Provisional IRA so long to wind up if, by the late 1970s and early 1980s, it was already recognised it could not win its war by military means: any transformation would have to be gradual and controlled.

This isn’t the only contradiction that such a move may have thrown up, either. In fact, at this very time, the Official IRA and Official Sinn Féin, busily transforming itself into the Workers’ Party, did just this and met with some successes — across the border in the South, at least. The Workers’ Party’s fate in the North was sealed when it supported the institutions of the Northern state, a matter that was drawn to its logical conclusion when the party became seen as pro-partition and its Northern support withered away.

Peace, but at what price?

McKearney does not ignore the fact that Northern Ireland has been transformed by the Good Friday Agreement and subsequent accords, and that, in many respects, this flows from the actions of the IRA and the support it enjoyed. But he has the honesty to recognise that, whatever republicans’ stated goals amounted to, they did not include what we have today: a carving up of Northern Ireland and an unending, if largely non-violent, sectarian squabble. The transformation of a political question into one of identity politics is detailed, but never spelt out by McKearney.

It would be useful, for instance, to compare the operation of Northern Ireland’s ‘consociational’ political assembly and divided civil society to the dogma of multiculturalism. The officially sanctioned meaningless tolerance on display in Northern Ireland appears to be the logical outcome of an idea that rather than being social, economic and political actors in charge of our own destinies, the people must remain bound by ties of kinship. Feeling one belongs to a group, and choosing to identify with it, its culture and traditions, is a world away from being effectively cut off from wider society and having a group identity forced upon you as occurs in both republican and Unionist ‘communities’ today. As is so often the case in Northern Ireland, touchy-feely liberal rhetoric openly transforms itself into methods of social control.

For those of us who are thankful the war is over but dissatisfied with the current state of affairs, McKearney does go some way to suggesting there could be an alternative, but, and this is no fault of his, it is not enough. The end of the IRA’s war with Britain did not occur in isolation. Internationally, politics has contracted to astonishing degree. As a result, the absence of violence, for which we can be grateful, has not been mirrored by the development of a serious, committed and meaningful political dialogue.

As I write this review, Sinn Féin is holding its annual ard fheis (conference) in Belfast, at which the party’s most senior figure in Northern Ireland, deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness said: ‘I see Unionists as brothers and sisters to be loved and cherished as we continue to develop a genuine process of reconciliation on our journey to the new republic.’ I suppose it’s a noble enough sentiment and it is true that respecting one’s political opponents even while disagreeing is worthy. Unfortunately, it is also a statement entirely without content. McGuinness can love and cherish whomever he wants, but Unionists, be they loved and cherished or hated and abhorred, simply don’t want to be on a ‘journey’ to a republic, old or new. Such republican boilerplate moves things neither forward nor backward – not an inch.

The feeble return of radicalism

Republicanism has undoubtedly jettisoned more than just its armaments in its gradual transformation. As the book shows, it also abandoned its radicalism and it is not necessarily the case that the two went hand-in-hand, but it is impossible now to draw a straight line from the significance of socialist agitation in the 1970s, when there was a ready audience for it, to today when there simply is not. McKearney recognises Sinn Féin’s ‘social democratic opportunism’, but if the party were to respond by asking what the alternative is, few answers would be found in Irish political life today.

McKearney is a committed socialist and not a vulgar one at that. His command of people’s relationship with economics as a force of history, while also understanding that people do not automatically fight simply as a result of economic conditions, is commendable. But for this reason, the final chapter of his book is perhaps its weakest point. Starting with a quotation from Marx’s letter to Ruge, arguing radicals must supersede ‘foolish struggles’ with a universal one, McKearney documents Ireland’s precipitous decline and sets out his hopes for a new republican and socialist response, one that leaves the 1970s and 1980s warriors of the Provisionals, Officials and Irish Republican Socialist Party firmly in the pages of history.

The Republic of Ireland’s economy has been flattened by the recession, as has been documented on spiked, and in the North economic activity remains largely rent-seeking and parasitic on the state – the British state, at that. For McKearney this, coupled with the global crisis of capitalism, ‘asks fundamental questions about how society is organised’. Really? McKearney might be asking, but who else is? Most complaints expressed in high-profile demonstrations abroad seem to boil down to ‘I can’t get that decent job I expected’. This is a very reasonable complaint, but what is fundamentally an economic matter needs to be addressed in economic terms, not in ethical ones as is currently happening.

McKearney is doubtlessly arguing in good faith but it is difficult to take the recent revival of radicalism as good coin. When an arch conservative like John Gray can stand Marx on his head, saying his analysis of capitalism was correct but he was wrong about humanity’s ability to transform the world, it is worth asking: if this is Marxism, why would anyone want it? Surely the appeal of Marx was not in his description of capitalism – Adam Smith did that, too, after all – but in his argument that: ‘Men make their own history but not in circumstances of their own choosing.’

Marxism always attracted more than its fair share of angry people driven more by a sense of righteous indignation than any belief in the transformative capacity of human work. Today, this is precisely where the new radicals, both those who outright reject Marx and those superannuated socialists who push newspapers on protesters, appear to be. Claims that every protest, be it the ‘indignants’ in Spain and Greece or even looters in London, heralds the beginnings of another world all rest on a degraded vision of human society, are more ‘critical theory’ playschool than workers of the world uniting.

Such is the incoherence of the ongoing protests that even philosopher and rock-star Marxist Slavoj Zizek, a man who himself arguably has questions to answer about his cheering-on of debased politics, criticised the leftist response to the riots-as-authentic-response-to-council-cuts trope for its assault on human agency: ‘The problem with this account, though, is that it lists only the objective conditions for the riots. To riot is to make a subjective statement, implicitly to declare how one relates to one’s objective conditions.’

If Zizek is too smart to see people as mere objects of forces outside their control then so, in his way, is McKearney.

McKearney sees through the previous Irish government’s premise that it had found a new, better way of managing the economy. This was merely papering-over a further retreat from indigenous capitalist industrial activity, something the labour movement was content to play along so long as the corporatist gains kept rolling in. The problem is, nothing has changed. Many of the apparently left-wing arguments emanating from unions today amount to little more than a demand for a return to the days when the Irish Congress of Trade Unions got to sit at the top table with politicians and business advocacy groups.

It feels churlish to accuse McKearney of nostalgia but suggesting, even as he does with caveats, that small left-republican groups, such as Éirígí and the 1916 Societies, are the acorns from which a new branch of popular politics could grow reads as an attempt to be optimistic in the face of cold reality. He could be right, it just seems unlikely.

Popular disgust with capitalism, particularly in its Irish mercantilist and corporatist form, is certainly authentic, but not only is it operating on a moral rather than political level, it is also noteworthy that in the three years since the economy coughed up a furball, no serious attempt has been made to get to grips with how an economy might function, in a capitalist context or otherwise. In simpler terms: there are plenty of critics, from those who correctly note the retreat from production to more quixotic complaints such as growth itself being bad, but the solutions on offer rarely amount to anything more than warmed-over Keynesianism.

Jason Walsh is a journalist based in Dublin. Visit his website here.

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Topics Books


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