November 2011        


The IRA: from insurrection to parliament

Tommy McKearney, The Provisional IRA: From Insurrection to Parliament (London: Pluto Press, 2011; ISBN 978-0-74533074-7; £12.50)

Tommy McKearney’s book is intelligent and timely, and, not surprisingly, it was launche in Dublin to a large audience in Connolly Books. He was a senior member of the Provisional IRA, and while serving sixteen years’ imprisonment he participated in the 1980 hunger strike in the Maze. His views, reflected in this book, are an accumulation of many arguments and discussions among republican prisoners during those dark years.
     The book is timely, in view of the torrent of abuse that faced Martin McGuinness in his presidential bid, the low point being Miriam O’Callaghan’s “How do you square with your God the fact that you were involved in the murder of so many people?” It is typical of the establishment and its media that they design to erase from the recent Troubles the fact that the first bombs and murders (including the first RUC death) were carried out by the loyalist UVF, and the RUC itself, who indeed reintroduced the gun into Irish society.
     To perhaps inform a new generation, Tommy McKearney’s opening chapters analyse the nature of the statelet that was set up by Britain as the rebuttal of the democratic wish of the people of this island for independence. The “carnival of reaction” that Connolly had predicted, north and south, saw an Orange state institutionalised by repressive laws at the central and local levels. The “Protestant Parliament for a Protestant people” governed the civil, social and economic policies that ensured that the Catholic population were both socially and nationally deprived.
     The book describes how this was achieved: politically, through the permanent ban on Sinn Féin and its papers, the loyalty oath for public-service jobs, discrimination and gerrymandering to maintain unionist control of local government—even in Derry, a Catholic city; socially, the low allocation of houses and jobs to Catholics. If after all “the Croppies wouldn’t lie down” there was the Special Powers Act, the Flags and Emblems Act (making it a criminal offence to display a Tricolour or an Easter Lily), the B Specials (the legal paramilitary force), and the armed RUC.
     In any “normal” capitalist democracy there is an attempt, or the appearance of such, to gain a hegemony of consent and approval. Here there was none. The establishment was built on state power to control the minority and to protect a wealthy elite. In this situation, is it any wonder that the Catholic minority felt alienated and doubted the legitimacy of that state?
     Furthermore, Stormont was a sub-set of the British state, enshrined in its Government of Ireland Act (1920), whereby the mother parliament had complete control.
     But every state represents the domination of one class over another, and these antagonisms are expressed in class struggles. So where was the opposition of the Protestant section of the working class to the rule of big business and the landed gentry? As a good historian, Tommy is aware of Connolly’s and Larkin’s roles in Belfast, the general strike in 1907, the hounding of “red” Protestants with their Catholic workmates from the shipyards in 1920, and the joint outdoor relief struggles in the 1930s; so is it too simplistic to say that “by granting privilege status to one section of the population, the Unionist Party enjoyed a comfortable majority that it would not have if normal class politics had prevailed in the region”?
     Tommy returns to this theme when he discusses the republican movement and class and attempts to point out a new direction for that movement. It is a subject that requires more attention, research, and debate, for he maintains that while the peace process has ushered out the Orange state, the North is still a sectarian state.
     The book, however, is an analysis of the republican moment from someone who was deep inside it. He argues that the Northern state was unreformable and that insurgency was justified once the British had chosen the militarisation option. He quotes Marx: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it under their own choosing but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The traditions of all dead generations weigh like a nightmare on the brains of the living . . .”
     How well this must have weighed on the mind of the author as he and other prisoners contemplated the rationale of a physical-force movement divorced from the social aims of working people . . . or how to break the chains that bound the mass of Protestant workers from the unionist ideology. Or indeed, if republicanism is to be more than anti-partitionist, what is it to be in modern politics?
     The book offers no precise prescription on all these topical debates but adds the correct parameters about how republicans “must emphasize the socialist as well as the independent nature of a republic.” For all on the traditional left and the republican left, this is a book to read and engage with.

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