Jul 16 2019




Communist, Republican, Trade Union Militant,

Scottish Internationalist, Glasgow Bear

 9th February 1941 – 2nd June 2019





Brian made a big impression upon whomever he met. Nigel Jeffrey, who encountered him on the picket line during the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike wrote, “Brian Higgins stands out because he was 6′ 6″ plus… He was a big lad as broad as he was tall… There must have been half a dozen police went for this Brian Higgins and snatched him… He was shoving them off left, right and centre.” [1] Continue reading “BRIAN HIGGINS – A PERSONAL AND POLITICAL TRIBUTE”

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Oct 11 2014

AFTER THE SEPTEMBER 18th REFERENDUM VOTE – A socialist republican response

In the aftermath of the September 18th Scottish independence referendum, Allan Armstrong(RCN) updates his  earlier piece (http://republicancommunist.org/blog/2014/09/03/up-to-and-beyond-the-september-18th-independence-referendum-a-socialist-republican-perspective/).


A Movement-in-the-making

The campaign for Scottish independence has been the largest movement for popular democracy seen in these islands since the Irish War of Independence. In terms of electoral participation it was unprecedented. Voter registration was 97% and voter turnout was 85%.

The ‘Yes’ alliance faced the biggest ruling class offensive, backed by the UK state, since the Miners’ Strike. Only this time it brought together the combined Tory/Lib-Dem/Labour ‘Better Together’ ‘No’ alliance, UKIP, Ulster unionists, the Orange Order, other Loyalists, British fascists, the BBC, the Pope and the Free Presbyterian Church, and the US and Chinese governments!

Continue reading “AFTER THE SEPTEMBER 18th REFERENDUM VOTE – A socialist republican response”

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Dec 17 2011


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. 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] 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] 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

[1] see Allan Armstrong:- http://republicancommunist.org/blog/2015/10/03/the-making-and-the-breaking-of-the-uk-state/ (sections v-viii)

[2] see Chris Ford:- http://republicancommunist.org/blog/2002/08/05/british-nationalism-and-the-rise-of-fascism/

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:-  http://republicancommunist.org/blog/2011/08/26/tommy-mckearneys-new-book-the-ira-from-insurrection-to-parliament/

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Aug 26 2011

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

Tommy McKearney, former Provisional IRA member and hunger striker, now an organiser for the Independent Workers Union in Ireland,  has spoken at the first Republican Socialist Convention organised the the SSP’s International Committee, and at the third Global Commune event – Trade Unions – Are They Fit For Purpose (organised jointly the the RCN and the commune).Tommy has recently undertaken a tour to launch his new book – ‘The IRA – From Insurrection to Parliament’ (published by Pluto Press, with an introduction by Paul Stewart). He spoke to an audience of over 300 in Dublin, 150 in Belfast, 60 at Free Hetherington, and 40 at Word Power Bookshop in Edinburgh This week he is going on to speak in Cork and Monaghan). 1300 copies of his book have already been sold. Tommy has written up the talk he gave at Word Power bookshop, which can be found at:-
Brian Garvey from the Independent Workers Union also sang at the Edinburgh book launch. The words of his song are printed below.



Come my dear, come hold me now
The night is cold I’m not sleeping
Let the thundering sky, pass us on by
And leave us in peace one more time

If this is new to you
Let me walk you through
The streets and fields of my rising
By Derry’s walls, Short Strand and the Falls
Where the red paint of war is still drying


I send this letter out to the world
On the back of a cigarette paper
It’s a call to your humanity
While in here we struggle for ours

The night was dark, the moon was down
By a window he feared for his mother
He saw a flame in the sky, saw his neighbours run by
As the shadows descended on childhood

That boy I knew, in second hand shoes
By the barricades knew the risk he was taking
For they cut him down
Left him there on the ground
Afraid of the new world he was making


For a moment you know, the smoke did clear
The helicopters ceased of their buzzing
We stood on the shore of a brave new world
And I held you there close to my heart

Are we on the dawn of a brave new world
It’s hard to know what a young mind is learning
But streets are on fire, burning with desire
For a world that’s been too long in turning


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Feb 11 2011


Below are two articles. The first is a report of the Third Global Commune event entitled ‘Trade Unions – Are They Fit For Purpose?’. The second is Allan Armstrong’s talk given to the Independent Workers Union conference in Dublin on 4.4.09. on behalf of the  SSP’s International Committee.



Trade Unions – Are They Fit For Purpose?


It was generally agreed by participants that the third Global Commune event, jointly hosted by the Republican Communist Network (RCN) and the commune, on Saturday, January 29th, was a very worthwhile day. Once again, the event was held in the ‘Out of the Blue’ Centre in Leith (Edinburgh) and involved, as well as the organising groups, members of the Independent Workers Union (IWU) in Ireland, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), Permanent Revolution, the Autonomous Centre in Edinburgh (ACE), current and ex-members of the SSP, and the Anarchist Federation.

The theme for the day was, ‘Trade Unions – Are They Fit for Purpose?’ There was a shared agreement that the traditional Broad Left strategy for working in trade unions had been shown to be wanting. By and large, Broad Lefts accept the existing union structures and concentrate on replacing Right wing leaderships. However, we now have the situation where new Broad Lefts have to contest old Broad Lefts, which have become as conservative as the leaderships they replaced. This highlights the flawed thinking behind their ‘capture the machinery’ approach.

Mary Macgregor of the RCN chaired the initial and plenary sessions.  The opening platform of speakers consisted of Allan Armstrong of the RCN and the commune, Stuart King of Permanent Revolution, Tommy McKearney of the IWU, Alberto Durango of the Latin American Workers Association (LAWA) and the IWW, and Mike Vallance of ACE. They each put forward different approaches, including organising within or outside existing trade unions, in TUC/ITUC-recognised or independent unions, and the possibility of a strategy involving a mixture of these methods.

Apologies for being unable to attend were given by Brian Higgins of the rank and file Building Workers Group, who is currently involved in the anti-blacklist campaign; and by Jerry Hicks, who has just campaigned on a rank and file platform for the post of General Secretary in UNITE. Therefore, Allan Armstrong, the former Scottish Teachers’ Rank & File convenor provided a rank and file perspective.

Allan used his experience in the Lothian and the Scottish Rank & File Teacher groups. He drew a distinction between a rank and file movement and a rank and file caucus. In 1974/5, the Rank & File Teacher group had been to the forefront of a three month long independent (unofficial or wildcat) rank and file movement of Scottish teachers organised through Action Committees. The central demand was for a £15 a week flat rate pay increase. The Action Committees organised weekly three-day strike action, street activities, large demonstrations, and an occupation of the EIS (the main Scottish teachers’ union) HQ. Negotiations were conducted directly between delegates from the Action Committees and representatives from the Scottish Office at New St. Andrews House in Edinburgh. The teacher delegates were backed by a demonstration outside of striking teachers, whilst the Scottish Office had the backing of the Special Branch (or some other state agency) cameramen on the roof!

The Action Committees held weekly open meetings of striking teachers, and sent flying pickets to other schools to draw them into action. They also worked within the EIS. Many activists were EIS school reps. Eventually there was a palace coup at EIS HQ. This enabled a rejigged union leadership to sanction its own official action. Negotiations were confined once more to union officials and the Scottish Office, much to their mutual relief. Nevertheless, the strength of the independent strike action was enough to force the government to concede the financial equivalent of nearly the whole rank and file movement’s £15 pay demand. However, with negotiations now conducted by EIS officials, the distribution of the money gained was massively skewed in favour of school managements.

The self-confidence gained by teachers meant that further action over the next two years, mostly official, but sometimes involving independent action, was able to win substantial improvements in teachers’ conditions. A new contract clearly defined maximum working hours and class sizes. In the process of these struggles, Scottish education and teacher trade unionism was turned upside down. The employers and union officials were unable to fully reassert their control until the McCrone Deal was implemented in 2001.

After the ending of the initial rank and file movement, around the action over pay in 1975, Scottish Rank & File Teachers continued as a caucus. They campaigned around a very wide range of issues, e.g. pay (for a single salary scale, for flat rate increases), improved conditions (smaller class sizes), for women’s and gay rights, against the use of the belt (the form of corporal punishment in Scottish schools), for the right of school students to organise, for egalitarian educational provision, secular education and support for Gaelic language teaching. They also campaigned to democratise the union – demanding head teachers out and directly elected and accountable union office bearers on the average pay of the members. Most importantly though, they championed the sovereignty of the membership in their workplaces, and defended, and when possible initiated, independent action.

The Scottish Teachers Rank & File caucus was sabotaged by the SWP in 1982, leaving only the Lothian Rank & File group. Later, a Scottish Federation of Socialist Teachers (SFST) brought together the Left once more. However, the SFST became a hybrid Broad Left/Rank & File caucus. Furthermore, the employers had encouraged division amongst teachers by creating a plethora of promoted posts. They also curtailed a vibrant culture of alternative educational thinking amongst classroom teachers, through the top-down promotion of tightly policed ‘educational’ counter-reforms. The Tories’ anti-trade union laws undermined independent strike action, massively aided by trade union officials. However, there was still limited independent action until as recently as the 2003, in protest against the war in Iraq.

Allan summed up by saying that he thought the rank and file approach was still valid in various unions. However, there had been a rapid decline of union membership in many sectors of employment, as well as new areas of work without any union organisation. Union leaderships were often more interested in suppressing any attempts to resist the employers, acting in effect as a free personnel management service for the bosses. Such leaders wanted little more than sweetheart agreements with the employers to ensure a tick-off system of subs collections, primarily for their own benefit. Therefore, socialists should think tactically, and consider when an independent union, or possibly dual official/independent union approach, may be more appropriate than a rank and file caucus approach.

Stuart King of Permanent Revolution then drew on the experience of the early Minority Movement in the trade unions in the early 1920’s. The CPGB’s work in the Minority Movement formed part of the wider work of the Third International, which had organised the Red International of Labour Unions (RILU) in 1920 to conduct united front work within the international trade union movement. Although mostly associated with the official Communist Parties, RILU drew together wider forces within the unions, especially those from a Syndicalist tradition.

Stuart argued that there were some similarities in the early 1920’s to the situation we face today. In April 1921, the two leaderships of the NTWU (later the TGWU) and the NUR, failed to support the miners of the MFGB (later the NUM), in the face of employer imposed wage cuts, despite being part of the Triple Alliance. This ‘Black Friday’ climb-down led to a growing feeling of demoralisation amongst workers. Many left their unions. The Minority Movement launched a ‘Back to the Unions’ campaign, with the intention of getting workers organised to resist the growing employers’ offensive, and to bring the union leaders under the effective control of the rank and file.

Stuart said that we also face a period of retreat today, as existing union leaderships had joined social partnerships with the state and employers. There was also declining union membership. The ‘Awkward Squad’ had also turned out to be not that awkward when it came to effectively challenging the employers and the state. Nevertheless, workers still look to their official unions when it comes to taking defensive action – as recent strikes of civil servants, airline cabin staff and others have demonstrated. This means communists must be active within the existing unions and struggle to bring them under effective rank and file control.

Stuart’s contribution provided a counterpoint to others who emphasised the fundamental differences in the situation we face today, compared to the past. In particular, Tommy McKearney of the Independent Workers Union of Ireland highlighted the major challenges workers now face.

Tommy argued that thirty years of neo-liberal economics have finally done fundamental damage to the system it was meant to promote. Facilitated by globalisation, the enormous transfer of wealth from workers to capitalists has created a situation where consumers in the west no longer have the purchasing power to buy the produce of their own industry and the developing countries have not yet reached a level where they can take up the slack. The contradiction is explicable only by Marxist economists.

What has also happened, almost unnoticed by many commentators, is the collapse of social democracy in the face of the neo-liberal assault and the most recent crisis in capitalism. For a few years the social democratic movements of Europe disguised their collapse by stealing the clothes of the neo-liberals. Tony Blair, Schroder, Mitterand were in reality as far to the right as any Tory or Christian Democrat. In the face of economic collapse post 2008, they could only offer right-wing solutions.

Moreover, the trade union movement that had give birth to and thereafter sustained these parties for almost a century was as ideologically and organisationally bankrupt. There is no longer a viable middle way between socialism and capitalism.

The IWU recognises this fact and has decided to seek out new and more appropriate methods of organisation in order to meet the new challenge. Among other strategic options, the IWU is actively developing a policy of building community and/or social justice unionism. This concept is not new or devised by the IWU but it recognises the need to emphasise the struggle between classes and the need to promote the unity and solidarity of the working people.

Tommy summed up by saying that we are in a new era. There has been a fundamental change in social relationships in the west, and we must recognise this in our ideological analysis, in our policy decisions and in our organisations structures. The IWU may be small but we are confident in our analysis and in our strategy.

Then Alberto Durango gave a thorough and humorous account of his experience as a migrant worker from Colombia now living in London. Migrant workers often had more than one job to make ends meet. This sometimes meant that they could be in more than one union.

Alberto had started as a cleaner in a non-unionised office. First of all, his boss had resorted to Alberto for help, asking him to inform workers who did not speak English that they would have their hours cut and changed. Alberto brought the workers together and told them in Spanish  – “This fucking manager wants to… !” They began to organise, turning first to the T&G. The T&G (now UNITE) organised an official Justice for Cleaners campaign. There were some initial successes against large City of London and Canary Wharf companies. LAWA, which Alberto was very much involved in, was to the forefront of campaigning, and was provided with office space and money by UNITE.

However, there was a limit to how far the UNITE leadership was prepared to push. After organising some demonstrations, it contented itself with signing ‘no further action’ deals in return for minimum pay awards. The employers then started changing workers’ hours and conditions and pressured them over their immigration status. Alberto was sacked, arrested and had his home raided by the police.

UNITE’s leadership wasn’t prepared to challenge this. Therefore, workers had to organise their own independent Cleaners Defence Committee. This had led to an international campaign {including solidarity action in Edinburgh, following Alberto addressing the first Global Commune event}. The UNITE leadership, supported by the local Broad Left, then turned on the workers involved, smearing activists, refusing to back those without papers, and taking away LAWA’s facilities.

In order to organise, LAWA then turned to the IWW. A wider organisation was required to unite migrant workers from many countries. They needed an independent forum for organising, without being directly sabotaged by UNITE officials and the Broad Left. The new IWW cleaners’ branch provided this. However, some cleaners still worked within UNITE too, and had participated in the rank and file campaign to elect Jerry Hicks.

The last of the morning speakers was Mike Vallance. He explained how ACE, with its own premises, had been set up in the aftermath of the successful Anti-Poll Tax campaign. ACE became very much involved in claimants’ campaigns, providing a venue for meeting and socialising, organising support demonstrations and providing advocates to support people in their dealings with various state agencies. ACE also operated as a venue for a wider range of campaigns and various organisations, including the Anarchist Federation. It was also involved in the production and distribution of a number of bulletins and other publications, including the commune.

Currently ACE was involved in the Edinburgh refuse workers’ campaign which was challenging the City Council’s massive cut in pay and worsening of conditions. The Council’s attack was being made under the guise of bringing about ‘parity’ across their workforce. It had begun under the last administration led by the Labour Party, and was continuing under the present Lib Dem/SNP administration. The refuse cleaners’ union, UNITE, was in cahoots with the Council, and they had organised no effective backing, despite the campaign being official. Their main concern was to bring the current official work-to-rule to an end.

ACE had been involved in providing bulletins, posting support stickers, but most of all, in attempts through sit-down actions to blockade scab drivers employed by the Council to break the refuse workers’ work-to-rule. Workers fear that it is the Council’s intention to privatise the refuse collection service, and replace them with non-union workers on lower pay and worsened conditions. Yet, despite the almost total lack of official support, the workers had so far rejected any of the union-backed ‘offers’. In the light of this determination, ACE was hoping to draw others into its solidarity campaign.

This was followed by a short plenary session. Contributions ranged from one participant who said that social democracy had revealed its bankruptcy as far back as the First World War. Matthew Jones of the commune particularly welcomed Tommy’s appreciation that a new political trade unionism was needed after the now evident failure of social democracy and stalinism. In order to maximise participation, the meeting soon broke up into two workshops, with RCN and commune members acting as facilitators and recorders.

After lunch, Paul Stewart and Patricia Campbell of the IWU presented the case for a community or social justice unionism approach. Paul showed a DVD drawing on the experiences of the Kanagawa City Union in Japan. This union organised migrant workers, especially from Latin America. It addresses not only workplace issues, but the wider problems workers face in the community such as racially motivated and domestic violence, sexual harassment, health, welfare and visa problems. It also calls on members to participate regularly in protests outside offending companies. Paul was going to make this DVD more widely available.

Patricia followed this up with a power point presentation (until the technology failed!) of the current work of the IWU in attempting to broaden out union organisation into the communities. The IWU had conducted a participatory survey into the issues that local communities wanted to address. It also sought to address the problems faced by migrant workers. The IWU had already challenged the strong-arm tactics of the PSNI (the revamped RUC) in Armagh City. It had also campaigned on the streets, with red banners, against the DUP/Sinn Fein government’s proposals to limit marches. These would prevent workers from organising their own demonstrations. The IWU had helped to force the authorities to retreat.

The two follow up workshops discussed the possibilities of wider community organising. They also returned to the issue addressed in the morning of whether unions were fit for purpose.

There was a final report-back plenary session with further discussion. The initial platform speakers were provided with an opportunity to say what they thought had been learned and gained from the day. The majority of those in attendance over the day were activists. However, the need for wider forums for strategic debate and discussion, which did not necessarily lead to immediate calls for activity, was nonetheless appreciated.

There was a wide consensus that there was no single approach to organising workers in the complex and changing situation we faced. The long period of working class retreat probably disguised some of the new methods of resistance that were emerging in the face of the current capitalist offensive. It was also acknowledged that learning from wider international experience, especially that of the IWU, had been very useful. There had been differences over whether the situation we now face is altogether different from earlier experiences, and over the longstanding issue of whether ‘to party or not to party’. However, these differences were all aired in a very comradely manner.

A good day was followed by the now traditional Global Commune social session in Wetherspoon’s  ‘Foot of the Walk’, where members from all the organisations present through the day continued their discussions till much later!

Allan Armstrong. 10.2.11



Allan Armstrong was invited to speak for the SSP International Committee 

I would like to thank the IWU organisers very much for giving me the opportunity to speak for the Scottish Socialist Party’s International Committee.

The origins of the SSP lie in the Anti-Poll Tax Movement, which   rocked British politics between 1989 and 1991. However, it was to take a number of years before the various political groups involved had broken sufficiently with earlier practices and gained the confidence to create a new political organisation. In 1996 the Scottish Socialist Alliance was formed. And right from the start, political organisation was linked with working class struggles. SSA members threw themselves into the campaigns against water privatisation, the Glacier works occupation and Save Our Schools. By 1998, the SSA had become the Scottish Socialist Party, and Tommy Sheridan was elected to Holyrood the Scottish parliament. Keith Baldassara and Jim Bollan were elected SSP councillors in Glasgow Pollock and West Dunbartonshire. In 2006, the SSP gained 6 MSPs at the expense of both the SNP and Labour Party and formed part of a wider rainbow opposition,

And then of course came the Tommygate ‘car crash’. Tommy McKearney has pointed the finger at the underlying problem, in Fourthwrite. The attempt to build a party around a celebrity figure has a bad record in Britain, whether it be Derek Hatton in Liverpool in the 1980s, Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party in the 1990s  and George Galloway’s Respect most recently. In the 2007 Holyrood election, the SSP experienced wipe out, although all the Left faced setbacks internationally after the failure to stop the Iraq War in 2003. The only SSP figure still in a publicly elected position is councillor Jim Bollan.

However, the SSP is pulling itself up again.  We remain profoundly Scottish internationalist. At our 2007 conference, we gave support to ‘No One Is Illegal’ so we can campaign to defend migrant rights. We reject ‘British Jobs for British Workers’. The struggle of the Turkish GAMA workers in Ireland, the Latin American Workers’ Association leading the London cleaners and Asian workers at Heathrow provide an inspiring example for us all. Showing our commitment to internationalism, the SSP is putting forward a candidate to the forthcoming 2009 Euro-election as part of the European Anti-Capitalist Left. We hope to bring over a French worker to speak to meetings as part of that campaign.

With regard to trade unions, there is spectrum of opinion within the SSP. On one hand there are those who advocate a Broad Left approach which seeks to replace existing Right-wing leaders with Left wing leaders. I, however, belong to those advocating a Rank & File approach, which is, in effect, industrial republicanism. This sees sovereignty lying not with general secretaries in union AGMs, hiding behind AGMs, which they circumvent just as the inner cabinet ignores House of Commons in the UK. And if the union officials don’t actually swear an oath of loyalty to the general secretary, their appointment and privileges ensures where their loyalty lies.

An industrial republican approach sees sovereignty lying with members in their workplaces. Any action we decide to take is not unofficial but independent action. Members can spread this action through both picketing and organising area, regional and national meetings. All union officers should be elected, recallable and on the average pay of the members they represent.

To some of us in the SSP, the IWU’s commitment to developing community unionism represents a twenty-first century update of the industrial unionism, which produced the great Wobbles in the USA and had such a profound effect on Larkin and Connolly’s and Irish Transport & General Worker Union. The wave of the future could well be community unionism which links workplaces with communities.

At a deeper political level, the SSP seeks the break-up of the UK state and its alliance with US imperialism. We want an end to the anti-democratic Crown Powers, which have seen death squads, juryless Diplock courts and detention in her majesty’s prisons in recent Irish history. They have also been used to prevent the people of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean returning to their homes, despite a high court ruling in their favour.  And back in 1975, The Australian Labour prime minister, Gough Whitlam was dismissed by the UK appointed governor general. And these Crown Powers have also been used to bring troops into industrial disputes.

The UK state is organised across the three-and-a-bit nations on these islands, and still exerts a great deal of economic and political pressure on the 26 counties too. This is not something that is being countered by the British TUC, Scottish TUC, Welsh TUC, Irish Congress of Trade Unions, or its Northern Ireland Committee. Indeed, the post-1997 ‘Devolution-all-round’ and Good Friday Agreement, which together cover all these islands, have not only reinforced social partnerships between union leaders, employers and the state, but have turned these leaders into significant backers of this political set-up, particularly in Northern Ireland. This represents a further political projection of union officials’ role in supporting social partnerships. These already reduce union officials to a cheap personnel service for the employers and government.

Socialists need to be able to challenge this on an all-islands ‘internationalism from below’ basis. Tommy (McKearney) came across and spoke to the SSP’s Republican Socialist Convention in Edinburgh on. The SSP also took its message to the well-attended Convention of the Left in Manchester in September 2008. I would like to thank the IWU again for inviting me to your conference today. I have learned a lot from the other speakers both form Ireland and further afield here today. The great Scottish internationalist, Hamish Henderson had a saying which I would like to finish on – ‘Freedom Come All Ye!’



also see:-




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Jan 17 2011

Trade Unions – Are They Fit For Purpose? – Global Commune Event

3rd Global Commune Event

Trade Unions – Are They Fit For Purpose?

Saturday, January 29th, 2011

Registration 10. 30 for 11. 00 – 16.30

Out of the Blue Centre,
Dalmeny Street,

In both the UK and Ireland today, the overwhelming majority of trade union leaders have signed up to social partnerships. These effectively reduce unions to a free personnel management service for the employers. However, the traditional Broad Left response of electing alternative leaders has shown itself unable to counter social partnerships. Indeed many current union leaders, who now accept social partnership, were themselves earlier Broad Left members. The third Global Commune event, jointly sponsored by the Republican Communist Network and the commune, asks the question – Trade unions – Are they fit for purpose? A number of different approaches to organising workers will be discussed in workshops over the day.


£5 for full-time employed
£2 for others

First session 11.00 – 12. 30

Panel followed by workshop sessions and follow up plenary

1. Working within trade unions – the rank and file perspective – Allan Armstrong

Allan is a member of the Republican Communist Network and the commune group. He was the convenor of Lothian Rank & File Teachers and involved in the three month long independent industrial action of Scottish teachers in the mid-70’s. He later became the Chair of the first regional Anti-Poll Tax Union, which was formed in Lothian.

2. Working with the IWW – Alberto Durango

Alberto is a member of the Latin American Workers Association, UNITE and the IWW. He is worker from Colombia who has been centrally involved in the campaigns of migrant workers cleaner in London. This culminated in an attempt to victimise him by the Swiss bank, UBS, which prompted a solidarity campaign. UNITE union officials tried to sabotage this, so Alberto has looked to the IWW (which comes from an industrial unionist tradition) to organise cleaners.

3. Building the Independent Workers Union – Tommy McKearney

Tommy is an organiser for the Independent Workers Union in Ireland. He is also the editor of Fourthwrite, a journal designed to promote debate amongst communists, socialists and republicans. Ireland was the first place in these islands where a government/employer/trade union social partnership was formed. The IWU was created to organise workers opposing social partnership.

4. Supporting workers from outside – an autonomist perspective – Mike Vallance

Mike comes from an autonomist tradition, writes for Counterinformation and is involved in the Autonomous Centre for Edinburgh (ACE). Mike was a dedicated activist in the anti-poll tax struggle. ACE has recently been providing support to the street cleaners employed by Edinburgh City Council. They have been involved in a longstanding dispute, hamstrung by local UNITE officials.

How do communists organise in trade unions? – Stuart King

Stuart is a member of Permanent Revolution. He will be drawing on the experience of the Minority Movement in the early Communist Party to show possible lessons for today.

Second Session 1.30 – 15.00

Community unionism – Should trade union membership be confined to employed workers? Patricia Campbell and Paul Stewart

Patricia is a member of the IWU and has been centrally involved in health workers struggles in Belfast. She has also been to Palestine to examine the health implications of the Israeli occupation. Paul is co-author of We Sell Our Time No More – Workers Struggles Against Lean Production in the British Car Industry. He has produced a short film, which will be shown. This shows examples of union organisation in the community, particularly in Japan.


15.00 – 15.15 – break

Third Session 15.15 – 16.30

Repeat workshops followed by plenary

There will be a chance to continue the discussion informally afterwards.

Further information can be had by contacting Allan Armstrong at:-


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