Insurrection to accommodation

The Provisional IRA:

From Insurrection to Parliament
TOMMY McKEARNEY was a senior member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) from the early 1970s until his arrest in 1977. He was sentenced to life imprisonment and served sixteen years, during which he participated in the 1980 hunger strike in the Maze Prison. Throughout his book he offers an astute assessment of the conditions that gave rise to the “Provos,” puts forward well-developed explanations for and criticisms of their strategy and tactics, and, outlines some possible alternatives. Central to his analysis is the attempt to comprehend and come to terms with the IRA’s transition from an insurrectionary movement to accommodation with establishment politics. 

McKearney depicts the Northern Ireland of the 1960s as “an anomaly, an aberration and a relic of empire” whose major weakness was its inability to “accommodate democratic reform.” With a very informed historical grasp of the emergence of the northern state in 1920, McKearney explains the conditions that laid the basis for the northern Catholic population’s struggle for equality and what subsequently became  known euphemistically as “the Troubles.” 

The Government of Ireland Act of 1920 introduced more than fifty years of Unionist Party rule, during which the Catholic population faced systematic marginalization. Working-class Catholics faced discrimination and poverty while somewhat better-off Protestant workers, still suffering lower wages and worse conditions than workers across Britain, were linked to Unionist employers and political parties based on their allegiance to Loyalism and the Orange Order, a Protestant fraternal organization. The state couldn’t exist without discrimination against the Catholic minority, the ideology of Protestant supremacy, and the threat of violence. 

Belfast’s Unionist bosses were terrified by a 1907 general strike and a 1919 strike by 40,000 engineers for a shorter working week. These years showed the real potential for working-class unity, but the Northern Irish ruling class effectively used the “Orange card” to divide and conquer. The new state had a violent birth: 23,000 Catholics were evicted from their homes, and 11,000 Catholics and nearly 2,000 Protestant trade union activists were ousted from their workplaces. 

In 1969, in response to attacks on Catholic neighborhoods by police and loyalist thugs, the IRA split into two factions, Official and Provisional. In the 1960s the IRA had moved away from a “physical force” strategy under the influence of the Communist Party. 

The Communist Party advocated a Stalinist “stageist” strategy to end British imperialism. First, there would be a “bourgeois-democratic” struggle to reform the Northern Irish state, which required a nonviolent popular-front alliance of republicans, communists, the Catholic and Protestant middle classes, and the British government to end Unionist rule. With Unionist rule ended and British “standards” of democracy imposed upon the North, the door to Irish unity and socialism would open. 

Of course, this was all premised on muting independent working-class demands as well as socialism. More conservative physical-force republicans rejected this strategy and joined with Northern republicans, who were arming to defend Catholic working-class people from sectarian attacks, to form the Provisional IRA. 

The British government, rather than forcing Unionism toward fundamental reform, sent the British Army into Northern Ireland to violently defend the state against rebellion. This set the stage for the dramatic growth of the PIRA. The initial goals of the PIRA were straightforward: smashing the northern state, driving the British Army out of Northern Ireland, and unification of Ireland. The brutality of the British Army’s crackdown on the civil rights movement ended confidence in a nonviolent strategy and made driving “the Brits” out of Northern Ireland the commonsense solution to a new generation of radicalized working-class Catholics. 

McKearney argues that the Provisionals, despite early optimism, determination, and sacrifice, never had the capacity to defeat the British military. Republican strategy was revised after the mid-1970s into a “Long War” of attrition to make Northern Ireland ungovernable. McKearney writes:

At a stage when it could have led to a widening and deepening of the mass struggle, the shootings on Bloody Sunday curtailed street protest for a number of years. The negation of the mass movement, to be replaced with a focus on armed struggle dovetailed with other aspects of historical development. A large number of Northern Irish Catholics believed the British Army action on Bloody Sunday was not accidental but was designed to channel anti-government mobilisation into a single arena that its military could deal with: armed conflict.

McKearney raises this but doesn’t discuss what the alternatives might have been. He also argues the IRA’s traditional hierarchical militarism and conspiratorial methods lead to a further distortion because it prevented the political development of its activists through democratic debate and discussion. 

The failure to defeat the British military, exhaustion of the IRA’s volunteer and support base, the Provos’ inability to defend their members from Loyalist death squads, and infiltration by security forces caused deep demoralization and pushed the Republican movement toward the peace process. The British government spurred this process by indicating it no longer had any “strategic” interest in Northern Ireland. The leadership of the Republican movement negotiated a peace settlement with Unionism, along with the British and Irish governments—including the involvement of the US government—on terms that caused no threat to the established political order. The one-party Unionist regime was broken, but Northern Ireland remained an institutionally sectarian state. 

Almost seamlessly, the Republican movement transitioned from shooting police officers and discussion of establishing a socialist Ireland to promoting police recruitment, condemning “dissident republicans” as wreckers, and championing neoliberal development strategies for Northern Ireland’s economy. Ending the armed struggle against the British state didn’t mean the Republican movement also had to accept establishment politics. What explains this? McKearney writes:

Along with its uncompromising position of “a united Ireland or nothing,” the IRA had an ambiguous socioeconomic outlook that was in essence poorly developed and even utopian, rather than ideologically or scientifically based. The IRA had adopted the goal of an Ireland-wide socialist republic early in its history.… What was missing, however, was a coherent analysis of what it meant to be a socialist or how it might be implemented, apart from a broad and sometimes uncertain view that the details would be worked out in the aftermath of an IRA victory.

McKearney argues that this was “hardly surprising” because volunteers were involved in an intense military struggle with the British state. However, the source of this problem is much more profound and fundamental. First of all, the Republican movement has always prioritized the struggle to unify Ireland over the struggle for socialism. The vagueness of the socialist project was not accidental; the emphasis of the IRA and its strategies flowed not from fighting for socialism but for a military victory over Britain. The IRA didn’t look to the power of the Irish working class to fight for socialism or, as a consequence, to break British rule. 

The PIRA’s framework once again counterposed the struggle for socialism and ending British control in stages. First, the nation would be united; then it would be possible to fight for socialism. Thus, what socialism meant and the strategies to fight for it were completely abstract. Would socialism be won through the self-activity of the working class or would it somehow be based on the military victory of a guerrilla army? Leaving these questions undeveloped ensured the struggle for socialism remained purely tokenistic; answering these questions would have meant abandoning Republicanism and searching for political alternatives. Because revolutionary politics were so narrowly conceived as “armed struggle or not,” the inevitable other alternative was the path to reformism. 

Additionally, though not discussed in the text, the backdrop to the Republican movement’s gravitation to peace was the abrupt collapse of the East European bloc and the Soviet Union and the notion that there was now no alternative to global capitalism. Apartheid had ended in South Africa, but the former liberation leaders accommodated themselves to a neoliberal South Africa. Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization moved from intifada to negotiations—and concessions to Israel and the United States. Insurrectionary struggles in Central American were defeated or transitioned into mainstream reformist channels. Similarly, social democracy in Europe and the Labour Party in Britain caved in to the strictures of neoliberalism. 

The IRA’s own limitations and the international pressures of compromise with the triumphant established order thus forced the Republican movement to lower its sights and accept the wider terms of a nonthreatening peace process. The leadership of the Republican movement moved into an embrace with Number 10 Downing Street, Leinster House, and the White House—and sought connections with and became more influenced by sections of capital that had an interest in stability and peace. 

In the chapter on “Republicanism and Class,” ­McKearney writes:

Growing out of the bourgeois democratic period at the end of the eighteenth century and early nineteenth century, Irish Republicanism was not and never has been a classically socialist philosophy seeking to base itself within an industrial proletariat. It has, however, usually reflected the class interests of its adherents, frequently including the most disadvantaged in society.

It is no surprise then that the framework of Republicanism would not develop strategies aimed toward working-class emancipation; in fact, it would be hostile to such strategies. Republicanism embraces all classes who oppose British rule. Therefore, emphasizing revolutionary working-class goals in a specific way would be alienating for those opposed to working-class power. 

Of course, this doesn’t mean socialists should be indifferent to the struggle for national independence. James Connolly founded the Irish Socialist Republican Party in 1896 and argued that socialists should champion the struggle for national independence through the establishment of a “workers’ republic.” Connolly believed only the working class could end British rule and would do so only in pursuit of its class goals. This meant that ending British control would be necessary to establish workers’ power. Connolly gave class content to the struggle for a republic. Appealing to workers, both Catholic and Protestant, on a class basis would be the only way to overcome sectarianism in the North. The magnificent working-class struggles in Northern Ireland in 1907 and 1919 point toward these moments of possibility. 

McKearney asks whether the IRA’s bombing campaign in England was counterproductive and admits the Provisionals had no strategy to win over the Northern Irish Protestant working class. Nor was the IRA able to win active support from the vast majority of workers in the South—in the Republic of Ireland. The inability to deal with these crucial questions represents the dead end of Republican politics for working-class liberation. It is also the key to understanding why Republicanism failed to create a united Irish republic. 

Bombing campaigns in England were not designed to create working-class solidarity between the Catholic workers of Northern Ireland and those across the water. In fact, British politicians used them to whip up anti-Irish sentiment when British workers were being hammered by Thatcherism. Conversely, it encouraged the idea among working-class Catholics that all English workers were their enemy. 

Similarly, Protestant workers in Northern Ireland were viewed as a reactionary rump that could only be reached out to after the establishment of a united Ireland. The allegiance of Protestant workers to Loyalism created an enormous challenge, of course, but the only way to reach those workers would be on class terms, as James Connolly and his comrade Jim Larkin had demonstrated was possible. Protestant workers could be won to opposing British imperialism on the basis of class liberation—or not at all. Muting independent working-class demands to fit the struggle for socialism into an undialectical stageist framework guaranteed the impossibility of winning over Protestant workers. 

McKearney, however, is very clear that a different direction is needed. He writes:

Some are unwilling to or unable to recognise the profound changes brought about by a post-Good Friday Agreement Ireland and believe they can return to the 1970s. 

Blindly disregarding the almost total absence of support for armed insurrection, they continue to make a fetish of the use of arms. Without a relevant analysis and no policy apart from repeating mantras about “betrayal” and the “right of the Irish people,” they are doomed to obscurity through becoming a historical irrelevance.

Rightly, McKearney argues the tactic of armed struggle right now is a dangerous distraction to the task of building united Protestant and Catholic opposition to the anti-working-class Northern Irish Assembly. 

Today, Northern Ireland is at a political, economic, and social crossroads. Billions of pounds in funding cuts and privatization schemes will lead to a further hike in unemployment and a widening of poverty. Already advertised as a low-wage haven, the region will struggle to attract foreign investment, since there are cheaper options elsewhere. Among working-class Protestants and Catholics there is a strong desire to keep the peace but deep disillusionment with the peace agreement. Northern Ireland is nothing like the Orange State it was over four decades ago, but it still is a deeply sectarian and segregated society. 

The confessional character of the Northern Ireland political system pushes workers into a Green or Orange ballot box. Despite the lack of support, “dissident” Republicans have managed to regroup and have staged bold attacks on security forces. In Protestant neighborhoods, Loyalist paramilitaries are flexing their muscles and attempting to tap into disillusionment and feelings of abandonment by targeting Catholic areas for sectarian rampages. More bursts of sectarian rage are certain, which makes the project of building a class alternative all the more urgent. 

The magnificent 2009 Belfast Ford/Visteon workplace occupation for dignity and a fair severance package demonstrated the grand potential for working-class struggle to galvanize support. Ford/Visteon workers occupied their workplace for five weeks and garnered solidarity from Scotland, England, the Republic of Ireland, and across Northern Ireland. 

The stakes have grown immensely in recent years. The global economic mire, epitomized by the collapse of the Celtic Tiger, has deepened tensions but stoked resistance that has lifted everyone’s horizons. McKearney’s analysis of modern Republicanism demonstrates in the negative why socialist politics and strategy must be made concrete and not subsumed within another tradition. 

McKearney makes the case that for “radical Republicanism” to remain relevant, it must recalibrate itself by emphasizing its socialist goals rather than the less urgent issue of the border and partition, which in the author’s opinion is “parked.” This is certainly moving in the right direction. However, the case for socialism should not just be given more emphasis but must be made the explicit overriding project across a country where millions are seething with class anger at the Irish political establishment and Irish bankers. What’s needed more than ever is an explicit revolutionary socialist organization that can speak to and organize Catholic and Protestant workers in the North on class terms, not Green or Orange, and argues that their immediate fate is tied to the working-class struggle in the South, Britain, and Europe. Developing “cross-sectarian working-class solidarities,” as McKearney terms it, must be the heart and soul of a revolutionary socialist strategy in Northern Ireland today. 

McKearney’s book is a very readable and informative account of the rise and fall of the Provisional IRA. Though he is often very critical of the IRA’s strategies and tactics, McKearney’s refusal to root these holistically within the Republican tradition is the book’s principal political weakness. Similarly, he identifies the immense contradiction between Republicanism and class politics but doesn’t break out of it. Nonetheless, anyone who is interested in Irish politics, the history of the IRA, national liberation movements, and more will get a lot out of engaging with McKearney’s analysis. Finally, and very importantly, McKearney’s rejection of armed struggle and establishment politics offers the opportunity to debate and work toward building movements and the kind of political instruments needed for an alternative. 


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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