Review: The Provisional IRA

In Northern Ireland, the Provisional IRA was a central force from the 1970s onwards in what is euphemistically known as ‘The Troubles’.

Thousands of books have been written about the Troubles. No-one could read them all, and many are not worth reading. Tommy McKearney’s book, The Provisional IRA, From Insurrection to Parliament, is worth picking up, however. It is one of the few serious attempts to explain the genesis of the Provisional IRA and its subsequent trajectory over four decades. And, of course, the author is not a bystander or commentator from afar but was a key Irish Republican Army activist in the 1970s and a participant in the 1980 hunger-strike. Since that time he has emerged as an articulate critic of the mainstream republican movement. He spoke at the Socialist Party’s Socialism 2012 event in Belfast.

While this is an important book it has to be stated clearly that Tommy McKearney has not broken with his past. He condemns the sterile approach of those republican dissidents who seek to resurrect the failed strategy of militarism, and he concludes with an emphasis on the need for Protestant and Catholic workers to unite on social and economic issues, but his conclusions are fatally undermined by his line of argument. Essentially, he accepts and restates basic republican tenets, with only a few caveats. He thus marshals confused and contradictory arguments that, ultimately, undermine his conclusions even if some of his conclusions are formally correct.

His ideas are intimately related to ideas that continue to dominate mainstream republican thinking, and to those which motivate dissident groups. This review cannot dissect every detail of McKearney’s book, especially as it is an ambitious attempt to explain an entire historical period and to ask and answer some very big questions. Instead, it focuses on certain themes in order to analyse key ideas which have dominated the thinking of republicanism over the course of the Troubles.

Importantly, McKearney makes much of the standard republican argument that there was no alternative to the resort to arms by a section of Catholic youth in the early 1970s. For example, he states: “When… unionism… reacted with bloody violence to a campaign for democratic rights, the leadership of the civil rights campaign was left floundering. They were, in reality, invited to accept the limited reform package offered by London with its details to be implemented by Stormont’s Unionist government or to go home quietly and sulk”. (p97)

Civil rights and the working class

The view of the Socialist Party is very different. There was an alternative. The origins of the Provisional IRA campaign lay in the turmoil of August 1969. In the period before August, the youth who poured onto the streets in opposition to the unionist establishment also held in contempt the nationalist politicians who had delivered nothing for the Catholic community. Socialist ideas began to develop a real echo, especially in Derry where the radicalised local Labour Party was able to articulate the anger of young people. Had the civil rights movement organised a struggle not just against discrimination, but also for decent houses and jobs for all, a powerful and united movement of the working class could have emerged.

The civil rights movement did not move in this direction because of the absence of any leadership equipped with the ideas and the authority to give a class lead. The trade union leadership, heading a 210,000-strong movement, sat aloof from the turmoil that followed the Royal Ulster Constabulary attack in Duke Street on 5 October 1968. A motion to the Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP) conference in May 1969 called on the party to attempt to take a leadership role in the civil rights struggle. The right-wing leaders, cautious about opposing the motion openly, tried to get it remitted, but the conference overruled them and it was passed. The leadership simply ignored that, however, and imitated its union counterparts in doing nothing.

The failure of the labour movement to intervene allowed the so-called civil rights ‘moderates’, such as John Hume, to stamp their authority on the civil rights movement. Hume, a voice for the conservative Catholic middle class, argued vehemently against class or socialist ideas that might ‘split’ his aim of all-class, Catholic, unity.

There would have been a reaction from diehard unionists and from the most backward sections of the Protestant population to the civil rights struggle no matter what, but the effective limiting of the programme of the movement to rights for Catholics allowed the government to paint this as a movement against Protestants.

A united workers’ defence force

The forerunner of the Socialist Party (Militant) made these points at the time and not just with the benefit of hindsight. Similarly, when the troops went in we took a clear and independent class position. The headline of the September 1969 issue of the monthly Militant newspaper (issue number 53) was ‘Northern Ireland: For a United Workers Defence Force’. It demanded the withdrawal of the troops. An article analysing the situation warned: “The call made for the entry of British troops will turn to vinegar in the mouths of some of the civil rights leaders. The troops have been sent to impose a solution in the interests of British and Ulster big business”.

The call for a trade union-based defence force was not an abstract slogan, removed from the reality of the time. It was the actions of working-class people that prevented trouble spreading in 1969. In areas of Belfast such as the docks, Grosvenor Road, East Belfast, and Alliance Avenue, people took to the streets and physically stopped the violence and intimidation. Shop stewards in the big factories and workplaces acted to halt sectarian intimidation. Shipyard shop stewards called a mass meeting attended by virtually the entire workforce and called a brief token strike opposing conflict. Shop stewards followed this by visiting the homes of Catholic shipyard workers who had stayed away from work and assured them of their safety if they returned. It was the instinctive actions of working-class people that prevented a slide to civil war.

The outlines of a workers’ defence force existed. Had the trade union leadership been prepared to give a lead, or had there been a revolutionary organisation with sufficient support in workplaces and working-class communities, it would have been possible to bring together shop stewards’ committees and the various anti-sectarian defence organisations that had sprung up.

McKearney’s position on the period in question is essentially negative. In order to support his argument that there was no alternative to the Provisional IRA campaign he must necessarily deny any possible ferment among Protestant youth, and hence any possibility of working-class unity in struggle. For McKearney, “the Protestant community was content with the clientalist state apparatus in which the repressive wing (the police) and parliament were mutually supportive of the maintenance of a ‘Protestant state’.” (p7)

With reference to the late 1960s, he correctly points out that, “it was a period when the marketplace for ideas among the Catholic population was more open than it had been for many years and for decades afterwards”. (p39) He makes no reference, however, to any similar processes underway among Protestant youth.

Provisional IRA tactics and strategy

McKearney does raise criticisms of the IRA campaign: “While taking the view that circumstances and conditions made the resort to arms unavoidable and therefore justified, we are not uncritical of the tactics and strategy of the Provisional IRA”. His criticisms are not clearly articulated, and McKearney’s view of their ultimate importance is not clear.

To take three examples, McKearney makes much of the influx of unreliable new members into the Provos during the 1974-75 ceasefire, of the decision to instruct IRA members not to go ‘on the run’ but to remain at home after training in counter-interrogation techniques in the late 1970s, and of the role of well-placed informers.

Presumably, McKearney believes that a more restrictive approach to recruitment during periods when the IRA was more prone to infiltration, and the avoidance of the ‘turning’ of activists when leaned on during interrogation, would have resulted in fewer arrests overall and less penetration by informers. The real question is whether a different approach would have swung the military balance in favour of the Provos and against the British state. He hints strongly that he believes that this is the case without ever coming out explicitly and saying so.

Militant pointed out the bankruptcy of the IRA campaign from the very start. In 1972 our paper carried a major article headed ‘Provisional IRA Strategy Will Not Defeat Imperialism’. The Socialist Party opposes ‘individual terrorism’, the Marxist term for the tactic of assassinating representatives of the ruling class by an armed minority. In many cases, this involves detonating bombs which cause death and injury to innocent bystanders. These methods do not raise the sights of workers to the goal of a socialist revolution. Instead of demonstrating the need for activity by the working class as a class, armed clandestine groups substitute their deeds for such actions. The working class is cast as a passive observer of the struggle.

Individual terrorism will never succeed in defeating a modern capitalist government. In the specific context of Northern Ireland this is even more the case. Throughout most of the Troubles the Provos’ support amounted to only a minority of the minority. In the concrete reality of Northern Ireland, the IRA campaign stoked the flames of sectarianism and vastly reduced any prospect of its aim of ‘British withdrawal’.

The IRA leadership recognised this reality eventually and stumbled pragmatically into what has been grandly termed the ‘peace process’. In a peculiar way, and standing reality on its head, McKearney is at one with Sinn Féin leader, Gerry Adams, in that both argue that the IRA did achieve its aims. To make this case McKearney presents a convoluted argument in which he suggests that, for most IRA volunteers, the campaign was not about British withdrawal and a united Ireland for most of the Troubles, but rather was about “smashing the Orange State” and ending unionist supremacy.

This argument is doubly false. The IRA campaign was precisely aimed at achieving a British declaration of intent to withdraw though, of course, the motivation of IRA volunteers was complex and for many amounted to a desire to hit back against a repressive state in the only way they saw as available. And the IRA campaign did not smash the Orange state. The civil rights movement, and the mass uprising in Catholic working-class areas in the early period of the Troubles, had ensured that there would be no return to the old way of running the North before the offensive campaign of the IRA began in earnest.

Any acceptance of the common position of Adams and McKearney bolsters the position of all the dissident groups who can argue that, if the Provos achieved this much, a renewed campaign can one day achieve more. The lesson of the Provisional IRA campaign is not that it achieved its aims but that it did not and never could.

Britain’s ‘strategic interests’

McKearney argues the traditional republican position that Britain remained in the North at the time of partition, and continues to hold its position, because it has its own strategic reasons for doing so. “Britain’s interest in Ireland lay not in promoting Protestantism but in a very calculated determination to protect its western flank by maintaining a physical military presence in Ireland”. (p59) He goes on: “In order to maintain its strategic base in Ireland, Britain therefore had to ensure that it did not alienate Unionism”. (p60)

McKearney argues that Britain’s position is essentially unchanged since the 1920s. When discussing the early days of the peace process he states: “The then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Peter Brooke, issued a statement on 9 November 1990 saying that Britain had ‘no selfish strategic or economic interest’ in Northern Ireland. Significantly, Brooke refused to accede to Republican requests and insert a significantly important comma between the words ‘selfish’ and ‘strategic’, indicating that whatever the morality of Her Majesty’s Government’s interests, the British state most certainly did retain a strategic interest in Ireland”. (p60)

Following partition in 1920, Northern Ireland was an important industrial and military base for British imperialism. This changed in the post-second world war period. Indeed, by the 1960s Britain might have been prepared to see the creation of a united Ireland, so long as it was a capitalist entity and did not threaten its interests. It simply could not move in this direction because of the opposition of one million Protestants. The main body of the British ruling class actively considered pulling out of the North in the early 1970s. It did not take this course of action, not because it had strategic, military or economic reasons to stay, but because it feared the consequences of withdrawal.

McKearney is right when he holds that the true intentions and interests of the British state are often hidden or disguised and are seldom written down. Nevertheless, there is documentary evidence of its true intent, especially in the release of a series of government papers over the last decade under the ‘30-year rule’. British government policy has been by and large one of pragmatism. These papers illustrate that, far from having a resolute attachment to the union of Northern Ireland and Britain, the British establishment was prepared to consider options that ceded control of parts of, or all of, Northern Ireland.

In 1972, the extent to which the government felt that the situation in Northern Ireland was spiralling beyond its control resulted in consideration being given to a series of radical and desperate ‘solutions’, including repartition and an independent Northern Ireland. On 13 July 1972, following the breakdown of a temporary Provisional IRA ceasefire, the Tory prime minister, Edward Heath, ordered the drawing up of various contingency plans in case the ceasefire breakdown became ‘irrevocable’.

Heath planned for repartition which would be preceded by two earlier measures. On ‘P-day’, a state of emergency would be declared. On ‘R-day’, the number of army battalions would be increased from 20 to 47, bringing troop levels to 50,000. The huge increase in troop numbers would have been necessary to enforce repartition. The officials who drew up the plans admitted that they were “extremely doubtful” that the plans would work as “great resistance” would result and the government would have to be “completely ruthless in the use of force”.

The Labour Party considered similar options during this period. Papers from 1975 reveal that Harold Wilson’s Labour government, in the aftermath of the collapse of the Sunningdale Executive – part of a failed attempt to establish ‘power-sharing’, which lasted from December 1973 to May 1974 – considered all the options open to it, including withdrawal. The option was quickly dismissed out of fear of the consequences. In the records of comments made by government officials and members of the British embassy staff in Dublin it was argued that any steps in the direction of British withdrawal would lead to widespread civil conflict and “more or less permanent instability in the whole of Ireland”. It was feared that, ultimately, it could result in a collapse of the authority of the Southern government, “leaving the field open to extremists, even to the extent of some sort of extreme left-wing takeover”. One official warned of the danger of “a Portugal on our doorstep”.

These comments demonstrate how the ruling class is concerned, above all, by any threat to its position in society. In 1975, Portugal was very much on the minds, and in the nightmares, of the ruling class. In April of the previous year the Portuguese working class, in a mass movement initiated by middle-ranking army officers, overthrew a 40-year fascist regime. Eighty per cent of the economy was nationalised and The Times proclaimed that capitalism was “dead” in Portugal. The ruling class in every European country feared the effects of a successful socialist revolution. Fortunately for them, the main workers’ parties in Portugal did not seize the opportunity and saved the day for capitalism.

Fall-back positions

The actual consequences of a British withdrawal in 1975 would have been very different from that foreseen by the officials quoted above. An all-out civil war would have exploded in Northern Ireland with conflict spreading across the border and (probably) to major British cities with significant Irish populations, such as Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, London and Glasgow. The result would have been two right-wing and sectarian states in a newly partitioned Ireland, not a ‘left-wing takeover’.

If the British ruling class calculated that it had to stay in Northern Ireland then it had to find a way to stabilise the situation. That meant leaning on the Protestant majority while attempting various political ‘solutions’. Ruthless repression was used against mainly Catholic areas. The ruling class will defend its position and privileges by any means necessary and that is what it did in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s. The fact that repression was overwhelmingly directed against Catholics does not prove the correctness of the IRA’s strategy. Then, as now, the ruling class took a pragmatic approach. The IRA campaign did not shift it. Rather, by stiffening Protestant opposition, it took any thoughts the ruling class might have had about withdrawal out of the equation.

The IRA was contained and could not win, but neither could the state completely crush the IRA. Successive British governments took measures to end institutionalised discrimination against Catholics and made periodic attempts to establish ‘power sharing’. In the late 1980s, the British government realised that the republican leadership was seeking a way out and the ‘peace process’ began in an attempt to incorporate former paramilitaries into a ‘solution’.

The mainstream republican version of history holds that the peace process became possible because Britain changed its position. It took at face value secretary of state Peter Brooke’s statement, already noted, that Britain had no “selfish economic or strategic interest in Ireland”. McKearney’s analysis is that there was no change in the position of the ruling class: it remained wedded to the union. Neither version is true. The real truth is that, precisely to protect its own “selfish economic and strategic” interests, the British ruling class had long wished to extract itself from Northern Ireland, and was prepared to withdraw if it could do so.

Workers’ unity and socialism

In his preface, McKearney states his key conclusions in advance. “Options available to the [republican] movement at different periods in its history are also explored and the argument is made that its inability to develop a clear socialist programme and practice has rendered the movement a defender of the status quo in Southern Ireland and incapable of expanding beyond the Catholic community in Northern Ireland”. This sounds like nothing more or less than an admission of defeat and sits untidily with earlier claims that the campaign was really about ending unionist supremacy.

To say that these are confused and confusing conclusions is to state the obvious. They mirror the essential confusion and lack of rigour of all strands of republican thinking. Republicanism, in its modern guise, is a pragmatic philosophy, in the sense that it has any philosophy. It reacts to events and seeks a way forward on that basis. McKearney recognises this but cannot overthrow his own way of thinking, at least at this time.

In order to find a way forward a clear break with the past, and with past ideas, is necessary. This was the case in the period after the failure of the 1956-62 Border Campaign when the youth moved in a leftward direction and rejected unionism, nationalism and physical-force republicanism. It is even more the case now. If McKearney were to admit that the Provisional IRA did not achieve its aims then he would be forced to confront the actuality that its tactics were doomed to failure from the outset. In particular, he would have to address the existence of the Protestant section of the working class. Only then could his conclusions regarding the need to adopt a socialist strategy become concrete.

In order to advance the struggle for a better life in the short term, McKearney suggests: “But what if we agree to disagree about the Border while attending to those other fundamentally vital social, economic and political issues that potentially unite us?” (p19) Ironically, the Socialist Party is often accused by its critics of doing just what McKearney is arguing for, that is ‘ignoring the national question’ and, instead, focusing on social and economic issues. Nothing could be further from the case. In fact, the Socialist Party has paid very close attention to the national question throughout its existence. The national question cannot be ignored or wished away. It will erupt to the surface in a thousand different ways, always threatening to destroy any developing political unity of the working class, unless a class approach to this difficult issue is adopted by wide sections of the working-class movement.

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement has not ‘worked’ in the sense that it solves any of the underlying social, economic or political problems facing working-class people North or South. The vast majority of workers and youth are opposed to any return to conflict. The working class played a key role in creating the peace process in the first place through its mass opposition to the paramilitary campaigns and its demands for a better future. Now the working class must enter the stage of history in a decisive fashion, as a united class.

The position of the Socialist Party on the national question, in all its complex and related forms, is outlined in a series of Socialist Party publications. Reading Tommy McKearney’s book will aid all thinking workers who are seeking a way forward, but read, too, our analysis of the same period in order to truly understand the history of the last four decades, and to map out a way forward based on genuine working-class unity and socialist ideas.