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Friday, March 2, 2012

The Provisional IRA: From Insurrection to Parliament

Daniel Finn


Books on the IRA and its political wing Sinn Féin have tended to fall into one of three categories. [1] Journalists who spent their careers reporting on the Troubles in Northern Ireland have produced general histories of the republican movement, along with studies of particular regions (South Armagh), topics (the 1981 hunger strike) and leaders (Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness). In more recent times, academic historians have tilled the same ground hoping to achieve greater depth and perspective now that the dust of conflict has settled and government archives have begun to yield their secrets. Veterans of the ira themselves have usually preferred to work through their experiences in the form of memoir and autobiographical fiction. They can draw on a distinguished literary heritage—some of Ireland's finest twentieth-century writers, including Séan Ó'Faoláin, Frank O'Connor and Brendan Behan, were graduates of the ira—and have enriched our understanding of the movement's history. But few have set out to deliver a broad account of the ira that transcends their own role in the 'long war'. Fewer still have brought the story up to date by analysing the current political set-up in Northern Ireland, which sees the ira's former leadership helping to govern a territory that remains firmly encased within the United Kingdom while 'dissident' republicans seek to reignite the struggle against British rule.

Tommy McKearney's new work The Provisional ira: From Insurrection to Parliament breaks with the established pattern, drawing on the author's career as a republican militant without referring directly to his experiences during the conflict. McKearney joined the ira in rural Tyrone while still a teenager and soon became the commander of his local unit. He received a life sentence in 1977 for the killing of an off-duty soldier (the conviction was secured by an unsigned confession that McKearney has always denied making). Fellow inmates of the Long Kesh H-Blocks have referred to McKearney as the prison's self-taught historian, shouting lectures on Bismark and Napoleon to the rest of the wing through gaps in the cell walls. By the time he was released in 1993, McKearney had spent almost two months on hunger strike and lost three brothers to the conflict. He had also broken with the ira, and now works as a journalist and trade union organizer. McKearney's first publication traces the history of Ireland's secret army from the civil rights campaign of the 1960s to the southern general election of February 2011. It is not a comprehensive study of the Provisionals, but touches on all the key issues in their journey from internment camps and safe houses to the corridors of power. Although McKearney has chosen not to write another first-person narrative of the Troubles, his partisan views are clearly expressed: the book offers both a staunch defence of the ira against its traditional opponents, and a critique of the movement from a left-wing perspective. It is as deplorable as it is unsurprising that McKearney has yet to find a reviewer in the broadsheet press on either side of the Irish border.

Before addressing the birth of the Provisional ira in the late 1960s, McKearney describes the nature of the political system which it confronted. Ever since its foundation in 1920, Northern Ireland's government had been 'an anomaly, an aberration and a relic of empire'. Although the region was an integral part of the United Kingdom, Westminster absolved itself of any responsibility for Northern Irish affairs, delegating power to the local Stormont assembly and allowing the Unionist Party to do as it pleased with its permanent electoral majority. The system which Unionist politicians created was based on 'an unwritten and perverted form of social contract between a Protestant elite and a Protestant working class' that granted the latter group preferential treatment: 'This did not mean that all Protestants became wealthy or even comfortable. What it did mean was that they received first refusal on what little was available in terms of employment, housing and local government influence.' Systematic discrimination against the Catholic minority was overseen by a predominantly Unionist civil service that was unable to deliver the 'sine qua non of a properly functioning bureaucracy', namely even-handed treatment of citizens. A militarized police force was also saturated with the Unionist ethos and 'incapable of providing an agreed service to the public'.

It is no longer controversial to speak of discrimination under the old Stormont system: all of the major political forces involved in the conflict have accepted that there can be no return to the status quo ante, although Unionist politicians are still liable to dismiss talk of Catholic disadvantage as exaggerated or imaginary. More commonly the sectarian practices of Unionist rule are attributed to paranoia: fearing Catholic domination and British treachery, the Unionists responded with misguided yet understandable suspicion of the large minority within their borders hostile to the existence of the state. In contrast, McKearney discerns a far more calculated strategy intended to block the emergence of class politics. Belfast had seen two major strikes in 1907 and 1919 that brought Catholic and Protestant workers into confrontation with the local bourgeoisie. The industrialists and landowners who dominated the Unionist hierarchy feared that 'any dilution of the bond between working-class and ruling-class Protestants would risk the future of the state'. Sectarianism was an invaluable weapon in their hands and ensured that Northern Ireland would have the weakest labour movement in Western Europe, its vast shipyards and engineering works never spawning the militant trade unionism to be found across the Irish Sea in Glasgow and Liverpool.

This view certainly accords better with historical evidence than the more benign explanation of sectarian practices. If Unionist politicians had simply been concerned about the threat of absorption by a Catholic-majority state in the South, it would have been wise for them to neutralize any potential fifth column by extending their hand to the Catholic middle class and its representatives. Radical nationalism had always been weaker among northern Catholics than in the rest of the country: the Home Rule Party continued to hold its own against Sinn Féin in Ulster after it was routed everywhere else. If nationalist politicians had been slow to respond to any conciliatory gestures, the Catholic hierarchy would have applied pressure in the right places, keen as it was to establish a modus vivendi with state power. Yet this would have meant discarding the shield of communalism in the face of challenges from below. The most destructive bouts of sectarian violence before the modern Troubles came after brief episodes of class conflict, following the engineering workers' strike of 1919 and radical unemployment protests during the Great Depression. In both cases, senior figures in the Unionist Party beat the Orange drum as loudly as they could in a successful bid to exorcize the spectre of working-class unity. They assumed that sectarian conflict would be easier to manage than the class struggles raging elsewhere in the capitalist world. For half a century, the gamble paid off.

By the time the Unionist system faced effective opposition from a civil rights movement pressing demands on behalf of the Catholic minority, it was incapable of reforming itself without pressure from outside:

Northern Ireland's ruling class realized that to attempt reform in any area risked alienating not only some particular group but also triggering a chain reaction across Unionism. As in one of the old Soviet satellite states, removing one block from the wall threatened to undermine the entire edifice. Northern Ireland was in that wretched condition where to survive it had to make reforms but due to the nature of the state and the composition of its ruling culture and ideology, it could not itself bring about the changes necessary for a peaceful transition.

McKearney notes that the boundary dividing state and society in Northern Ireland was never clearly defined: the full-time Royal Ulster Constabulary was supported by part-time B Specials who were allowed to keep their weapons at home, while the Unionist Party which had colonized the local power structure was in turn dominated by the sectarian Orange Order. Civil rights marchers thus faced a violent response both from 'civilian' mobs heavily stacked with off-duty B Specials and from uniformed ruc officers. The eruption of August 1969 forced Harold Wilson's government to intervene directly in Northern Ireland by deploying British troops: almost two thousand families—80 per cent of them Catholic—had been forced to leave their homes in Belfast by frenzied inter-communal violence while young Derry Catholics fought pitched battles with the ruc, using stones and petrol bombs to exclude them from the city's Bogside.

With the authority of Stormont crumbling, now was the perfect time for Westminster to cut the Gordian knot by imposing reform on its unwilling subordinates. Yet Wilson and his successor Edward Heath chose to maintain the regional government, granting an implicit veto to the Unionist Party as London feared that any drastic changes would strengthen its right wing—or worse still, the bellicose preacher Ian Paisley. McKearney explains the course followed in terms of strategic calculations. In his view, Britain was determined to maintain sovereignty over Northern Ireland, recalling the significance of its ports and bases during the war with Germany. Paisley and his allies might play the Rhodesian card and press for their own udi if the local power structure was demolished by the Westminster establishment. The argument is plausible, although it may simply have been a wish to exercise power without responsibility that shaped London's policy. Successive British governments had enjoyed the best of both worlds since 1920, never having to concern themselves with day-to-day administration of Northern Ireland though it remained part of the Union. If Stormont was replaced by direct British rule, this comfortable arrangement would go with it. Better to lean on the nationalist population, whose discontent had always proved manageable in the past.

Had they been paying attention to developments in republican politics, British politicians might well have chosen a different path. The southern-based Marxists who then led the ira had been toying with the option of a strictly unarmed strategy before the events of August 1969 thrust the demand for guns onto the agenda. Soon after, a group of traditionalist republicans broke away to form the Provos and began preparing for a struggle against British rule that would revive the hit-and-run guerrilla tactics of the old ira. All they needed were recruits, and the methods used by the British Army to preserve Stormont would take care of that. For nationalists, the transition to overt repression was symbolized by the Falls Road curfew of July 1970, which saw the Catholic ghetto in West Belfast placed under military rule for three days as British soldiers ransacked homes and saturated the area with cs gas, killing four civilians in the course of a search for weapons.

The Army command had launched the Falls incursion after clashes between unionist rioters and the Provisionals' Belfast Brigade: although their former comrades in the Official ira did most of the fighting during the curfew, it was the Provos who reaped the benefits. By 1971, their movement would have enough weapons, explosives and trained volunteers to launch attacks on British soldiers in tandem with a bombing campaign that reduced commercial districts to rubble (while exacting a heavy toll in civilian casualties). When Unionist demands for internment of republican suspects were met in the summer of 1971, the unrest which followed merely gave another boost to the recharged ira. The insurgency ratcheted up another notch after the killing of thirteen nationalist civilians by British troops as they marched against internment. The statistics gave their own verdict on London's security policy, with the number of lives lost in the conflict rising twenty-fold in the space of two years. Confronting the biggest civil disturbances in any Western country since 1945, Edward Heath's government finally changed direction and gave Stormont its notice. Direct rule from Westminster was imposed mid-way through a year that brought almost five hundred deaths.

The Provos saw the fall of Stormont as vindication of their tactics and predicted that 1972 would be the 'year of victory', with one more push needed to force Britain out altogether. Four decades later, Northern Ireland is still part of the United Kingdom and the main body of republicans have ended their campaign. The factors determining this gulf between ambition and achievement are explored by McKearney mid-way through the book in its longest chapter, which considers the political and military strategy of the ira. He notes the inherent difficulties of launching a guerrilla campaign in a small region where 'a motorist can comfortably drive diagonally from one end to the other within a three-hour period'. The mountains and forests that have sheltered guerrilla forces in Colombia or Turkish-ruled Kurdistan are entirely absent in Northern Ireland. There was never any serious prospect of the Provos defeating the British army outright—something that gradually became clear to ira volunteers as the euphoria of the early 70s faded:

Belief in a decisive victory was dimmed somewhat by experience but was replaced by an equally seductive premise that a sufficiently high casualty rate among regular British troops would cause the uk population to vote for withdrawal from Ireland. The Vietnam conflict with its anti-war movement in the us was sometimes quoted to reinforce this idea but, however plausible it seemed in theory, the reality proved different. Quite simply, the ira did not have sufficient capacity to inflict the scale of casualties on Britain's army that might generate the type of broad anti-war movement that troubled the Pentagon. Moreover, because its army was not suffering excessive casualties, Britain's Ministry of Defence never had to ask for conscription.

Indeed, the losses suffered by British troops declined sharply after the peak of 1972—in part because of the intensive surveillance methods described by McKearney, which allowed the army to build up a picture of its opponents by mounting checkpoints, searching homes and recruiting informers. But equally important was the 'Ulsterization' of Britain's counter-insurgency: two local forces, the ruc and the Ulster Defence Regiment, were placed in the front line of the war against the Provos and absorbed a growing share of fatalities. In 1972, 106 soldiers from the regular army had been killed, against forty members of the ruc/udr. By the end of the decade, the casualties suffered by the army's regional partners were usually higher—often by a significant margin. The burden across the whole conflict was evenly distributed, almost to the last man—502 deaths against 497—yet the majority of army losses came in the first decade.

McKearney strongly defends the ira's policy of targeting part-time members of the ruc and udr, which has often been presented as a nakedly sectarian campaign against the unionist population which supplied the vast majority of recruits to both forces. He argues that 'these men acted not only as the eyes and ears of the regular army but actively supported it logistically and militarily . . . the Provisional ira would have been incredibly naive, not to say extraordinarily stupid, had it failed to recognize the threat these forces posed.' Whatever may be said about the moral questions involved, there can be little doubt about the practical consequences of 'Ulsterization' for the ira. Protestant families whose relatives were killed by the Provos would never demand a British withdrawal from Ireland: if anything, the losses increased their determination to support the Union.

It would have been useful for McKearney to explore in more detail the roads not taken in the early years of the conflict, when everything was still in flux. Against those who believed that there was a simple choice between parliamentary politics and the ira's armed struggle, a disparate group of radicals argued for mass civil resistance to challenge British policy. Their call was partly answered, as it was not simply the Provo campaign which toppled Stormont: following internment, non-payment of rent and rates by council tenants was combined with street demonstrations and the erection of barricades to exclude the army and police. McKearney notes that one effect of the Derry massacre in January 1972 was 'to incapacitate the mass movement of peaceful protest . . . a large number of Northern Ireland Catholics believed that the British Army action on Bloody Sunday was not accidental but was designed to channel anti-government mobilization into a single arena that its military could deal with: armed conflict.' This is a crucial point, and one that deserves greater stress. The British state was struggling to cope with a multi-faceted civil disobedience campaign, but was much better equipped for a straight fight with the ira. The militarization of resistance to British rule made their task a great deal easier. This was never fully appreciated by the Provos, who based themselves, as McKearney writes, on 'a militaristic and hierarchical mode of organization that remained suspicious of uncontained mass movements'.

When republican prisoners began a prolonged hunger strike in 1981 to demand political status, large numbers took to the streets for the first time in almost a decade. Prison candidates were elected to the House of Commons and the southern Dáil, giving republicans their first real taste of electoral success, and a new layer of activists came to the fore. Sinn Féin emerged from the hunger strike as a serious political force: no longer a feeble shadow of the ira, it would eventually supplant the Provisionals' armed wing as the cutting edge of the movement. Yet McKearney—who observed these developments from a prison cell—considers the hunger strike to have been a missed opportunity, when republicans could have forged a 'new and dynamic anti-establishment mass movement', but chose instead to build Sinn Féin as a conventional parliamentary party.

The author belonged to a group of left-wing Provisionals in Long Kesh who called for the movement to adopt a clear socialist programme in the 1980s (they also questioned the viability of the ira campaign at a time when such matters were considered taboo). Although the Provos had declared a 'workers' republic' to be their goal during the conflict, McKearney argues that they lacked 'a coherent analysis and understanding of what it meant to be socialist or how it might be implemented, apart from a broad and sometimes uncertain view that the details could be worked out in the aftermath of an ira victory'. He suggests that while the movement's ideology had always been primarily nationalist, its supporters tended to be working-class and could have been persuaded to support a consistent left-wing platform. This would have offered some basis for republicans to engage in dialogue with the unionist working class—on economic issues at least. Sinn Féin preferred, however, to maximize its immediate vote-winning potential with a populist approach that stressed pan-Catholic unity (McKearney alludes contemptuously to its 'Irish News republicanism', in reference to the mouthpiece of respectable Catholic opinion in the North).

The final chapters of the book trace the path towards the Belfast Agreement of 1998 and describe the system it has established in Northern Ireland. McKearney compares Sinn Féin to New Labour, noting the slender attachment to principle and the obsessive media-management which has characterized both parties. Unlike many republican critics of Gerry Adams, he does not accuse the Sinn Féin president of 'betraying' a movement that would otherwise have fought its way to victory. Rather, McKearney faults the Provo leadership for their slide into 'right-of-centre social democracy of the Blairite mould', and their acceptance of a structure that makes radical economic change virtually impossible:

The [Northern Irish] executive has little real power. It cannot raise taxes, take control of security, or influence foreign policy. Westminster decides the size of its annual budget almost as parents supply dinner money to their school kids. Central government in London also determines the nature of the society over which the local assembly is allowed to administer. Westminster tolerates no challenge to the free market by Stormont—and in fairness to the Stormontites, none is considered. In reality, the Northern Ireland Assembly has about the same relationship with the House of Commons in London as the management of Tesco in Belfast has with its head office in the uk.

Although Sinn Féin has followed a rather different course in the South, putting itself forward as a radical, anti-establishment force, McKearney notes the vacillations of the party as it has sought to leave the door open to coalition with right-wing partners. In the wake of last year's election advances, party activists have debated whether to challenge the new government from the left or to position themselves as a substitute for Fianna Fáil: 'That the question is being asked is, in itself, indicative of the absence of a firm socialist ideology in the movement.' It is some measure of Sinn Féin's political dexterity that its closest ally on Capitol Hill is New York congressman Peter King, arch-Islamophobe and scourge of Occupy Wall Street.

McKearney's proposed alternative does not base itself on traditional republican orthodoxy. He argues that while the Belfast Agreement has not eliminated partition, it has certainly ended the 'Orange state' based on sectarian privilege and removed much of the urgency behind demands for constitutional change. With Irish unity now a low-intensity goal for most nationalists on either side of the border, there will be little support for groups that confine themselves to a 'one-plank' struggle against the Union without adopting a broader socialist agenda. McKearney suggests that advances can be made towards left-wing objectives within the established territorial boundaries, given 'the ability we now possess—impossible during the era of the Orange state—to develop cross-sectarian working-class solidarities while putting differences on the national question to one side'. Two main obstacles are identified: the entrenchment of communal identities at the heart of the political system—which requires parties to define themselves as 'nationalist' or 'unionist' if they wish to have any substantial role—and the incapacity of that system to carry through radical reform against the will of London. This certainly appears to be a sensible agenda for those who wish to promote working-class interests in Northern Ireland, whether or not they come from a republican background—though it will, of course, be an entirely different task to assemble the forces capable of challenging sectarian politics.

[1] Tommy McKearney, The Provisional IRA: From Insurrection to Parliament, Pluto: London 2011, £13.99, paperback 256 pp, 978 0 7453 3074 7

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