The Provisional IRA

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Tommy McKearney

The most recent manifestation of the contradictions in Irish politics was the candidacy of Martin McGuinness for the presidency of the Irish Republic. McGuinness stood on a programme of opposition to the austerity measures in the South, while simultaneously implementing austerity measures in Northern Ireland. His journey from IRA commander to constitutional politician is indeed a compelling story, but this book promises a lot more than it delivers in attempting to explain it.

Tommy McKearney certainly has the credentials for writing an analysis of the Provisionals' shift from armed struggle to constitutional politics. He was a leading member of the IRA in East Tyrone throughout most of the 1970s, spent 16 years in the Maze prison and took part in the 1980 hunger strike. Yet his own experiences are strangely absent from this narrative. It is entirely understandable if he is reluctant to reveal the details of his own involvement as a volunteer, but why the absence of any detailed personal involvement in the arguments within the IRA about the change in strategy? McKearney is right to argue that in the course of this transformation the Republican movement abandoned any hope of establishing a united Ireland or of getting "Brits Out", succeeding only in bringing down the Orange State and replacing it with the present power-sharing agreement. But how did it get to this, and could there have been an alternative?

There are two major flaws in the book's argument. McKearney overestimates the political consciousness of the Republican constituency of the rural poor and the urban working class with his assertion that "they would not baulk at the suggestion of revolutionary politics" instead of supporting the Adams project. Secondly he offers no plausible explanation of how Adams was able to win the argument within the movement. Whatever we think of Adams's politics it would be a serious mistake to underestimate the thoroughness and skill he deployed in winning support for his strategy.

Other accounts, most notably Ed Moloney's A Secret History of the IRA, Peter Taylor's Provos and David Beresford's Ten Men Dead, have dealt with this issue exhaustively. Central to this process were the arguments among the prisoners in the Maze. McKearney argues that the prisoners were excluded from the decision-making process, but this is only true in the most formal sense. The prisoners were among the most politically advanced section of the movement and in the aftermath of the hunger strikes they realised that the armed struggle had no chance of delivering their demands and that a broader political strategy was necessary.

Of course, another strategy was possible. The mass support shown for the hunger strikers evidenced by strikes and demonstrations on both sides of the border could have been the basis for a broader class-based movement, but the weakness of those Republicans like McKearney who would have supported such a strategy was mirrored by a weakness of the left outside the Republican movement, and the constitutional approach with its embrace of political respectability triumphed. Sadly, for all his many qualities, McKearney hasn't provided a credible explanation for this outcome.

The Provisional IRA is published by Pluto Press, £13.99