Allan Armstrong gives his personal reflections on The Provisional IRA – From Insurrection to Parliament (by Tommy McKearney, with an Introduction by Paul Stewart).

I first met Tommy McKearney in the preparations for the initial Republican Socialist Convention, which was held in Scotland. He was due to pick me up from the Dublin Monaghan bus. I described myself over the phone – “Late fifties, with short grey hair.” Tommy laughed and said, “A lot like me then.”

When I opened the front cover of his new book, there was photo of Tommy in 1975 with long hair and a droopy moustache. His appearance then was not too different to mine at the time either. Tommy, like myself, had also been drawn into political activity – part of that worldwide post-‘68 generation. Unlike many, we have both remained committed to socialist politics.

However, during my own political activity as a trade union militant and political activist, over more than 40 years in Scotland, I have never faced anything worse than minor inconvenience and mild harassment – often from union officials and the Left! In contrast, Tommy, who became an active IRA member, was arrested, ill treated, then convicted in a Diplock court on the uncorroborated word of an RUC officer, and imprisoned for 16 years of a 20 year long sentence in Long Kesh. During this time he spent a period of 53 days on a hunger strike that brought him within hours of death.

Tommy’s book explains better than any other I have read, why the situation in Northern Ireland – or ‘the Six Counties’ – has been and remains so different from those other parts of the United Kingdom, including Scotland. In the process, the book also helps us to understand why the course of activists’ lives, on either side of the Irish Sea, has usually been so different; and why those from ‘the Six Counties’ have experienced degrees of repression unknown to most of us living on this side of the water.

So, whilst Tommy’s book is written from that shared international experience of being a socialist (red), it explains very clearly the political impact of the national differences between living in Northern Ireland (orange) and the rest of the UK, which in my case means Scotland (blue).

Back in 1970, as a young student and socialist, these differences were not that clear to me. I was mesmerised when Bernadette Devlin (McAliskey today) spoke to a large audience at Aberdeen University, giving her account of the Battle of the Bogside and the setting up of ‘Free Derry’. She easily demolished the arguments of those (including a Young Ulster Unionist invited for balance!), who were opposed to the actions taken by the Peoples Democracy wing of the Civil Rights Movement, of which she was then a member.

As young ‘68ers, many of us students had already taken the radical wing of the American Civil Rights Movement to heart. We loved the new wave of Black music. One or two even went for Afro haircuts! However, the young protestors from Northern Ireland seemed even more familiar. They dressed the same way, listened to an even wider range of shared music (including traditional music, which, in Scotland, often took its lead from the resurgence in Ireland), and held the same disdain for the British Establishment. Yet, not only those young people in Britain and Northern Ireland, but also those protesting in Chicago, Detroit, Mexico City, Paris, Prague and beyond, all seemed to be part of one common struggle. Any still remaining national differences seemed insignificant as international revolution beckoned.

In January 1972, we got the first real inkling that things were different in Northern Ireland, at least compared to the rest of the UK. Fourteen people were shot dead by the Parachute Regiment during a civil rights march held on a Sunday afternoon in Derry. It would still be a number of years before Kevin Gately (1974) and Blair Peach (1979) were to be bludgeoned to death by the police on demonstrations in London – but even these events were seen as exceptional. Meanwhile, in contrast, killings by the British army, UDR and Loyalist death squads had become almost routine in ‘the Six Counties’.

We were certainly outraged over Bloody Sunday. We cheered Bernadette when she mauled Reginald Maudling, the Tory Home Minister, as he lied in Westminster about the role of the British troops in Derry. However, after one last major march in Newry, on the following weekend (which attracted many from the South for the first time), the Civil Rights Movement just seemed to peter out.

How could protestors deal with the sheer brutality of the British state, its continued support for the Ulster Unionist leaders of the Stormont regime and, before long, its clandestine backing for Loyalist death squads too? Even in the American South, as Tommy points out, “The US federal government made some serious attempts to redress {the} underlying grievances” (p. 50), which had held black people there in subjection for so long.

After Bloody Sunday, new images appeared on our TV screens. We tried to take in the appearance of those people wearing forms of dress unfamiliar to us – men in military attire with balaclavas or black berets. These people didn’t just throw stones and petrol bombs. They had guns and real bombs. They were the IRA. Republicans didn’t even call the place ‘Northern Ireland’. It was the ‘Six Counties’ – a name which revealed another struggle, much older than that shared by the world’s youthful ‘68ers. But was an armed response the only possible reply to UK state repression and Stormont intransigence?

As regular visitor to Ireland, including the North, I never knowingly met IRA members. However, I did come across RUC police stations built like small fortresses. I was stopped at British army-manned checkpoints (many later remotely-controlled from helicopter-supplied hilltop bases). I was forced to turn my car back when I found Border roads that had been rendered unusable by British army-made craters. I soon understood that Northern Ireland certainly was not “as British as Finchley” as Thatcher was later to claim – before she found that Brighton was nearly as Irish as Belfast!

Watching Brian Friel’s play, The Freedom of the City (1973), helped me understand that necessary moment of transition from the Civil Rights Movement to the Republican Movement. Michael, the earnest young civil rights protestor, believes the British army is making a big mistake, as they point their rifles at him, before shooting him dead; unlike Skinner, the young ne’er-do-well, who had up to this point survived on a mixture of quick wits and cynicism, but who now understands what is about to happen to him, and appreciates that an altogether more serious response is needed in the face of what they are up against; whilst the older Lily, drawing on her longer experience of the existing order, realises that they have transgressed and upset the ‘natural order of things’ and, as a result, are going to pay the ultimate price.

This play is not about just any British city council, calling upon the ‘boys in blue’ to get them out ‘a spot of bother’ with the locals. It is about Londonderry City Council, that beachhead of the local Unionist and Orange order, located on the furthest land frontier of the UK state. These locals are not even fully recognised by the authorities as belonging to the same country. This explains the presence not only of the hated RUC and B Specials, but also of the British army, ready to kill to uphold the existing order.

Therefore, as Tommy shows, specific national histories have to be taken into account. “Unlike other parts of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland had a quasi-colonial tradition where one section of the community {Unionist} participated enthusiastically in policing the other {Nationalist} (p. 49). In the ‘Deep South’ of the USA some Dixie Democrats might well have been members of, or enjoyed close relations with the racist Ku Klux Klan. In Northern Ireland, however, the relationship between Unionist politicians and the sectarian Orange Order was even closer.

Both the southern states and Stormont could also draw upon armed police and militias. However, unlike those US federal forces, which had come to put a check on the segregationist South, the British army, when it arrived in 1969, came to bolster the local Orange state. Any covering rhetoric was just that, as Callaghan, Labour Home Secretary, revealed his tactics – “talk Green, act Orange” (p. 61).

Tommy highlights the mindset of the British ruling class, still wedded to the maintenance of an imperial order. This led to their “very calculated determination to protect its western flank by maintaining a physical military presence in Ireland… They were then, in the midst of an ongoing cold war with the Soviet Union” (p. 59-60).

However, as well as these undoubted strategic worries, the British ruling class faced mounting political opposition closer to home. They were confronted by rising national movements in the UK – not only in Northern Ireland, but also in Scotland and Wales. Douglas Hurd, then Tory MP, later Northern Ireland Secretary (1984-5), wrote Scotch on the Rocks, in 1971. This novel showed his concerns about the spread of new national challenges to the UK – in this case, Scotland. Perhaps, in contrast to the more determined efforts of the US ruling class in the southern states, the British ruling class’s unwillingness to seriously reform its troubled ‘Ulster’ political slum, reflected a growing uncertainty and an element of paranoia. The sun was setting upon the British Empire. Worrying shadows were being cast over the UK itself.

This aspect of British ruling class thinking would not be so apparent to others at the time, particularly anyone in ‘the Six Counties’. For the ruling class’s strategy in Northern Ireland diverged[1]see Allan Armstrong:- THE MAKING AND THE BREAKING OF THE UK STATE (sections v-viii) from that in Scotland and Wales, because they faced different problems there. However, once the perceived threat from the USSR had evaporated after 1989, the underlying national threats to the UK state emerged as the central concern of the British ruling class.

They began to devise a common strategy to bolster the US/British imperial alliance, and to create the conditions to maximise corporate profitability throughout these islands – England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. This strategy, perfected under New Labour, involved the ‘Peace (or pacification) Process’ and ‘Devolution-all-round’. Furthermore, the TUC, ICTU, STUC and WTUC leaderships, drawn by ‘social partnerships’ into cooperation with the state and the employers, gave this strategy a breadth of political support not enjoyed by any previous ruling class attempts to maintain the Union or Partition.

Tommy provides a very clear rebuttal to those pro-British historical revisionists and a reminder that, back in 1968, there was no predetermined Republican plan to become involved in an armed insurgency – the memory of the IRA’s failed Borders Campaign (1956-62) was still too bitter. The struggle that emerged in Northern Ireland was originally for civil rights within the UK. However, the total intransigence of the Ulster Unionists, and the willingness of the British state to give its militarily backing to the Stormont regime, explains the turn to guns and bombs.

After the Loyalists launched their pogroms in the summer of 1969 (involving the B Specials), citizen defence groups emerged in the Nationalist areas of Belfast and Derry. They looked for whatever arms they could get, which meant they were illegally acquired, to defend themselves against the hugely better-armed Orange state and Loyalist gangs often using legally held guns. “One of the first groups to organise for the defence of Catholic Belfast was the Catholic Ex-Service Men’s Association, which was composed of former members of Britain’s armed forces” (p. 68). The Provisional IRA only emerged in December 1969. “When the British Army began shooting petrol bombers, the Provisional IRA began to shoot British soldiers. When the RUC or the British army raided Catholic houses, the IRA bombed British or Unionist-owned businesses’ (p. 112).

Initially the organisation of the insurgency fell upon the IRA’s Belfast Brigade. But “gradually, the British began to impose their strength on IRA districts… foot patrols soon learned the pattern of streets and roadways. More damaging still… was the accumulation of information and knowledge that was being gathered by the British Army and RUC… It became an unpleasant shock to both the IRA in Belfast and to the leadership of the movement overall, when they realised that its largest and most hard-hitting brigade was vulnerable” (p. 115).

Thus, the armed struggle became more focussed on the rural areas where, after “the IRA units gradually acquired the ability to destroy British Army road vehicles… the British used … the UDR (as the B Specials became), supported by the RUC reserve to gather intelligence and to act as a lightly armed counter-insurgent militia” (p. 117).

The UDR often had contacts and overlapping membership with the fascist Loyalist[2]see Chris Ford:- British Nationalism and the rise of Fascism death squads to whom they could pass on information, and offer a degree of protection for their illicit operations. It is not uncommon for reactionary regimes to resort to fascists when required; but usually their services are dispensed with once the particular ‘emergency’ has subsided. The B Specials had been a permanent feature of the Northern Ireland set-up.

Tommy describes vividly the insidious way that the Orange state was able to use these forces to penetrate rural working class communities. “Operating in their own areas… this force performed a function that was vital in every counter-insurgency strategy across the world. That is its members provided a constant on-the-ground presence of men familiar with their native districts who monitored events, responded quickly to incidents, and manned checkpoints at key locations” (p. 111). “They had dual military and civilian roles… Employed as school bus-drivers, postmen, refuse collectors and every other position in the workforce {which Unionist sectarian employment practice very much contributed to} they had a perfect ‘cover’ for travelling covertly through Republican districts” (p. 117-8). “The B Specials were often trusted to store personal weapons in their homes so that they could mobilise at short notice” (p. 50). “Unsurprisingly, therefore, the Provisional IRA responded by proactively targeting UDR members and RUC reservists, whether in or out of uniform” (p.118).

Yet, when it came to those local forces of Unionist law and order, as Tommy points out, “Strenuous efforts have been made over the years to portray {them} as well-meaning part-timers doing their best to protect society insinuating that any attack on their members was motivated purely by sectarianism” (p. 117).

One of the most unpleasant aspects of British counter-insurgency strategy was the attempt to portray this conflict – whether between Loyalist and Republican, Unionist and Nationalist, or Protestant and Catholic – as one between “two warring tribes”. This was used to justify the deployment of British troops “to keep the peace”. Yet, at the same time, British security agencies were clandestinely arming and directing one ‘tribe’, in the form of the Loyalist death squads, in order to intimidate the Nationalists (potential Republican supporters) and to break the real opposition they faced.

This opposition extended way beyond the IRA to the very real ‘communities of resistance’ found amongst the Nationalist working class. These had originated in the ‘No Go’ areas established at the time Internment was first introduced in 1971. Photographs of working class women banging dustbin lids, to warn of British army patrols, became their iconic image. Although ‘Operation Motorman’ put an end to the ‘No Go’ areas, in July 1972, ‘communities of resistance’ persisted.

The fact that Bernadette Devlin McAliskey, and others in Peoples Democracy, made that transition from the politics of Civil Rights to Republicanism was reassuring for many socialists over here. Furthermore, Bernadette, over both phases of her political activity, retained a strong socialist commitment, which meant that she remained a critical voice. We were reminded of the high cost of such commitment when, in 1981, Bernadette was shot by the UDA seven times at her Coalisland home, with British soldiers waiting not far away.

One of the major strengths of Tommy’s book is how he shows that the war of attrition, which sometimes became derailed into murderous dead-end actions, could have developed in other ways. In the early stage, “for approximately three years… {the IRA} offered training in the use of arms to the local defence committees (p. 75). By late 1972… the Provisional IRA leadership decided to cease providing training for defence to non-members… In the short term this had some merit. In the long term, though, it deprived the organisation (and the Catholic population) of the means and the concept of a broad ground-level defence against Loyalist attack. To a large extent, deciding to tighten control over the armed insurrection illustrated a fundamental dilemma… the Provisional IRA… needed popular support yet felt uneasy about placing unregulated trust in the masses. This was and remains an unfortunate feature of insurrectionary Irish Republicanism” (p. 78).

This weakness became even more apparent in the context of the 1981 Hunger Strikes. “The Anti H-Block campaign drew a broad cross-section of left wing and working class people behind its cause. Very few radical elements of Irish society remained outside the movement and for a period a real opportunity existed to forge a new and dynamic anti-establishment mass movement. Fear of losing control, and a limited understanding of the nature and power of a mass mobilisation of people, led the IRA leadership to impose its authority on the movement with unfortunate consequences” (p. 153). “The Republican leadership recognised the power of mass popular actions but instead of creating a broad revolutionary movement from what they had helped to create, opted instead for a parliamentary path… The strategy was successful from a Provisional IRA point of view, leading eventually to the basis for the nascent New Sinn Fein” (p. 152) – where ‘New’ has a similar connotation to the prefix placed before Blair’s Labour Party.

And it was in this context that Tommy became involved, with others in Long Kesh, with the Communist Republican Prisoners, and later the League of Communist Republicans. “Unlike those pushing for acceptance of a purely parliamentary strategy, this group of prisoners were firmly to the left of the movement and Marxist for the most part. They argued that it was imperative that the IRA put in place a strategy that would allow it to win significant support in the South and that its politics and strategy would also allow it to make a significant impact on a strategically important section of the British working-class and radical population” (p. 166).

Yet, perhaps this very notion of a ‘British working class’ also needs to be questioned. ‘Britishness’ is an imperially created identity, which has so often helped to imbue workers in these islands with ruling class ideas. Nowhere is this more obvious than in ‘the Six Counties’ itself, where the notion of being ‘Ulster-British’ was such a powerful pull on Protestant workers. The notion of being both Scottish and British exerted a strong pull on Loyalists over here too. And, of course, this British identity came along with support for the Crown, the Union, the Empire and the British armed forces.

However, when the Communist Republicans were first writing in Long Kesh, it is understandable why they could not see beyond this notion of a “British working class”. It was the Tories’ attempt to introduce the poll tax in Scotland that led to a significant increase in the hostility to the idea of a British identity amongst Scots. The successful Anti-Poll Tax campaign, initiated in Scotland, showed the potential for joint campaigns, organised on the basis of ‘internationalism from below’, bringing in, not British, but Scottish, Welsh and English workers. The Tories were smart enough not to extend this tax to ‘Northern Ireland’. However, once the British and Irish ruling classes had developed their shared ‘Peace Process’ and ‘Devolution-all-round’ strategy by 1997, to maintain their control over these islands, it became much clearer that any republican socialist ‘internationalism from below’ response should bring in Ireland too.

Later, Tommy draws readers’ attention to Bernadette McAliskey’s astute observation about the outcome of the ‘Peace Process’. “She said that it was reminiscent of the Tudor policy of ‘surrender and regrant, in sixteenth century Ireland, when English power was being imposed across the entire island. The Provisional IRA leadership had achieved a certain status by surrendering its old programme and being allocated a place within the British system in Ireland. The era of New Sinn Fein had arrived” (pp.181-2).

Thus, Tommy’s outlining of the Communist Republicans’ viewpoint in the chapter, The Road Less Travelled – The Left Alternative (pp.164-71), provides a very necessary corrective to both those revisionist historians’ accounts and the ‘establishment Republican’/‘New Sinn Fein’ view of events. Tommy highlights the political consequences of ‘the road not taken’. “Sinn Fein now holds 14 seats in the Dail but has not managed to fundamentally challenge the status quo. North of the border, they are partners with the DUP in the administration of Northern Ireland, having accepted Partition and the implications involved in this, including adapting to the neo-liberal consensus that reigns in Stormont” (pp. 170-1).

However, when appraising the course eventually taken by the Republican struggle, after it was eventually brought securely under the wing of ‘New Sinn Fein’, it is perhaps worth remembering the words which Victor Serge applied to Bolshevism. “To judge the living man by the death germs which the autopsy reveals in the corpse – and which he may have carried in him since his birth – is that very sensible?”

Another strength of Tommy’s analysis is that, although very critical of the direction taken by the Provisional IRA, and now ‘New Sinn Fein’, he does not fall back on dissident Republican “mantras about ‘betrayal’ and the ‘right of the Irish people’” (p. 213). Neither does he turn his back on his the long years involved in the Republican struggle. “It broke the foundations of Orange state sectarianism – anti-Catholic discrimination in housing, welfare, the economy and politics. This was a transformative war” (p.202).

But Tommy’s excellent analysis of the nature of this transformation is very revealing. “Something that has not changed, though, is the sectarian division of the Northern Irish working class… The Orange state may have been brought to an end, but in its place is a {new} sectarian entity. This outcome has benefited a significant section of a Catholic middle class born out of the ashes of the Orange state” (p. 189). The new Stormont constitutionally entrenches the position of two ‘communities’ by ensuring that the votes of “representatives of parties who decline to register as either ‘Unionist’ or ‘nationalist’… do not count when it comes to deciding if cross-community consent has been obtained” (p. 190). Furthermore, “the Northern Ireland assembly has about the same relationship with the House of Commons in London as the management in Tesco in Belfast has with the head office in the UK” (p. 193).

Thus, “if ever the Marxist dialectic of one contradiction giving way to a fresh contradiction was evident in any situation, it is surely visible in the Good Friday Agreement” (p. 190). Whereas the British ruling class once depended upon Ulster Unionists and their Orange state to directly defend its imperial interests, today they have positioned the UK state as ‘honest broker’ between the Unionists and the Nationalists, providing each, in the new Stormont, with a forum to raise their concerns, and to mediate between their claims. The British still call the shots and – if it proves necessary again – they will also still fire the shots. And, whereas in the past, there was always some American questioning of the British role in Ireland, the current strategy of the UK state enjoys the full support of US imperialism.

Tommy finishes his book with a call to launch, A New Republic and a Relevant Republicanism (pp. 207-14). There is a great deal of thought provoking material in this chapter. One doesn’t have to agree with all Tommy’s analysis or proposals, which by their nature are still tentative. What is clear though is that Tommy locates Republicanism within a clear class perspective, with a life beyond its main organisations. Tommy shows that, depending on the available obstacles or opportunities, Republicanism’s largely working class base has usually taken a fairly pragmatic attitude towards support for a physical force or a political road.

This particular divide, though, has always led to splits within Republican organisations – whether during the Irish Civil War in 1922; as a result of Fianna Fail’s acceptance of the Irish Dail in 1926; the Provisional/Official split in 1969; or between what Tommy calls ‘establishment Republicanism’ (‘New Sinn Fen) and ‘anti-establishment physical force Republicanism’ (1986 onwards). Attempts to prioritise the working class’s own economic and social issues, whilst keeping firmly to a socialist republican path, have been less successful. However, “as the Provisional IRA military machine has passed into history and the political party that it generated {‘New Sinn Fein’} has drifted into centrism” Tommy sees a real opportunity to create a viable new socialist republicanism, which takes forward the issues the Communist Republican prisoners first raised in Long Kesh.

What I found most satisfying reading this book, as somebody who has been interested in events in Ireland since 1969, is that Tommy has come through his experiences still very much committed to the working class and to socialist republicanism. This is demonstrated in his current work for the Independent Workers Union, which challenges the ICTU member unions’ backing for ‘social partnership’; and by his commitment to wider political debate, whether in, for example, Fourthwrite and Red Banner, or by attending discussion and debating forums throughout these islands.

Tommy addressed the first Republican Socialist Convention in Edinburgh (November 29th 2008), organised by the SSP’s International Committee on an ‘internationalism from below’ basis. He also spoke to the third Global Commune Event (January 29th, 2011), organised by the Republican Communist Network, where he addressed the question – ‘Trade Unions – Are They Fit for Purpose?’

This latter event also involved Paul Stewart, who wrote the Introduction to Tommy’s book. Paul is from a Northern Irish Protestant background and is a politically engaged academic living in Scotland, researching workers’ struggles. He has given his professional help to the Independent Workers Union, and has helped it in its embrace of social (trade) unionism – which may well turn out to be for the beginning of the twenty first century, what industrial (trade) unionism was for the beginning of the twentieth.

I also had the privilege of seeing Tommy speak to another meeting, this time in Derry. This was organised to celebrate the centenary of James Connolly’s return to Ireland from the USA in June 1910. Bernadette McAliskey, the person who first inspired my interest in the struggle in Ireland, also addressed this meeting. Connolly was born in my home city of Edinburgh. The British army shot him in Dublin for his role in the Easter Rising of 1916. Connolly was the first socialist to challenge ‘the British road to socialism’. He advocated an ‘internationalism from below’ break-up of the UK and British Empire strategy. In this regard, he also inspired that other great Scottish socialist republican and communist – John Maclean from Glasgow, who extended Connolly’s notion of the break of the UK to cover Scotland, after his visit to Dublin in 1919, shortly after the Limerick Soviet.

When people like Bernadette and Tommy remain committed to socialist republicanism, despite all the trials and tribulations they have faced over more than 40 years, we can be a lot more confident about the future. Tommy’s book addresses the issues faced by socialist republicans in a serious and engaging way. Get a copy, read it, get others to buy it (or, if they can’t afford one, pass yours round) and discuss it.

17 December 2011

Tommy McKearney’s book, published by Pluto Press, is available from Word Power Books. The Edinburgh book launch was held on August 20th, 2011.

see:- Tommy McKearney’s new book – ‘The IRA – From Insurrection to Parliament’



1 see Allan Armstrong:- THE MAKING AND THE BREAKING OF THE UK STATE (sections v-viii)
2 see Chris Ford:- British Nationalism and the rise of Fascism


  • Good review Allan, and a fair assessment of Tommy McKearney’s main arguments. I’m reading the book right now and find it very refreshing, and similar in analysis to Anthony McIntyre’s book on the death of Irish republicanism. When you read books like these, and previous works by the likes of Michael Farrell, then it does become clear that there were different options open to the Provisional leadership, which could have seen them transform the struggle into a wider class struggle against both imperialism and capitalism in Ireland. I believe that the choices taken by Gerry Adams and his supporters from the early 80s onwards shut down these options and made their abandonment of republicanism increasingly likely. The undemocratic manner in which these elements ensured their agenda was followed led to a further ossification of the republican movement. Like Stalin, I doubt if Adams would have travelled the road he did, had he been aware of its eventual destination. But when you fight an anti-imperialist struggle without any reference to class issues, then such a destination is always likely.
    The GFA was such a historic defeat for Irish republicanism that it has taken years for anything approaching a recovery to begin and develop. But Tommy’s book is a good and very welcome step in this direction.

  • Allan,

    I really enjoyed this and I am sure it will bring back memories to many who came to international socialism in the 1960’s myself including. If you do not object I will post it on my blog in the new year.

    Mick Hall

    Organized Rage

  • I’m very pleased that you enjoyed it. It would be great to have it on your blog.