“Socialism is the objective”

Shortly after the publication of his book The Provisional IRA: From Insurrection to Parliament, activist Tommy McKearney was interviewed in Issue 46 (December 2011).

In your book you mention a shift that the Provisionals underwent from being a broad-based defence force which would more or less train or arm anyone willing to fight back to being a more tight-knit military force. What kind of impact do you think that had on how the struggle developed?

Ultimately it was to mean that the Provisionals were able to exercise a hierarchical influence within the movement and change it from being a people’s movement to a very tight, hierarchically organised move­ment. Prior to that, the Provisionals were willing to take anybody for training, they didn’t have to join the Provisional IRA. You were finding middle-aged men who were unwilling to commit themselves to all the actions of the IRA but were anxious to provide military protection for their neighbours. Then you also got a broad range of what you would call left-wing people who understood that there was a need for military protection and a military role but weren’t willing to subscribe to an association called the Provisional IRA. Now, by the make-up of Northern Irish society, obviously those left wingers were very much in a minority to the concerned Catholic middle-aged people, but they would have been able to have a certain ideological impact in a broader constituency had it still been there.

But probably after Operation Motorman, when the British decided to smash the no-go areas, the Provisionals felt strong enough to effectively issue an ultimatum to join the movement and subscribe to it totally, or you didn’t join. So you start to take away the idea that it is a broad-based popular movement, a popular mobilisation. It meant that the people, as a people, were not conditioned to provide them­selves with a popular defence. It all starts to fit into a grander scheme which allows a small amount of people to dictate, to militarise and control that process. My argument in the wider context is that what was required—and is still required, for that matter—is a broad, mass popular movement which is, almost by definition, beyond the control of a hierarchy or an elite.

Do you think that could have worked?

I’m convinced it would have worked, because we got a couple of opportunities to see a broad mass movement. The first opportunity came in the late 1960s and early ’70s, when there was obviously a mass civil rights movement. I think one of the difficulties for those who organised the civil rights movement is that the original concept came from within the left. The earliest documents outlining the absence of democratic rights in Northern Ireland came from the old branch of the Communist Party. Eventually it broadened out, and they lost control because of very real circumstances where the Orange state was quite unwilling and incapable of self-reform. Whenever the democratic movement came up against the oppression of the Orange state, many of those on the left thought nothing justified a military response, the traditional tool of providing an armed response. But in the early days the Provisionals were much broader. Their enemies have often described them as right-wing and Catholic, but it wasn’t that simple, it was more broader-based than that and not quite as hierarchical, and that was the clincher thereafter. That was the first opportunity and, if you like, the Provisionals stamped their authority on that in late 1972.

The second opportunity, and it was a major one, was in the aftermath of the hunger strikes, when there was a mass movement, many of whom were not affiliated to Sinn Féin but were, in the widest sense, of the left. That was a threat to the state, if we couple the mass unemployment and emigration with the fact that we had a couple of hundred thousand on the streets in demonstrations. Obviously, we’re not talking about chemistry here where one gram of this plus two grams of that gives you a certain result, and society doesn’t work in simple A‑B‑C‑D‑E, but the conditions were certainly there to have a mass movement. But then, because the Provisionals exerted their stamp of hierarchical influence on that broad national movement and turned it into a Sinn Féin electoral machine, we lost an opportunity for a mass movement north and south. I would have argued from within the jail that we had to have an organic connection with the organised working class. The ICTU might try and prevent us doing that, but with the numbers we had at that time we could organise enough people to get a negotiating licence despite the ICTU.

But the Provisional leadership was as opposed to that type of national movement as it was to the state north and south. You can see that in the hostility towards Bernadette McAliskey whose election campaign was picketed to prevent her becoming an MEP, and in the way they ordered personnel to gain control of all the H-Block Committees, not obviously up front but in an underhanded way, never open or democratic. They made sure that the mass movement didn’t gain control of the situation, and that’s again a sign of the imposition of a political hierarchy. And the first sign of that comes in late 1972 when they moved away from trusting the people with arms. Only a revolutionary democracy can trust the people with arms.

Did that kind of hierarchical control help the shift towards electoral politics and away from a military campaign?

It would have been much, much more difficult without a compliant military machine. Because, at the end of the day, what took the Sinn Féin project along was the input of the Provisional IRA. In exactly the same way, a century earlier the republican movement had been controlled by the IRB as a secret society within the IRA that pushed through the Treaty. By the same token, the IRA acted within Sinn Féin, taking it where the Army Council wanted it to go. It’s not by force of arms that it’s done, the IRA didn’t send personnel into Sinn Féin cumann meetings to draw weapons and threaten people there. But because of the nature of the campaign and the dynamics of human beings, if two or three or four people follow a plan at a meeting, knowing exactly what they want, also having prestige because of their involvement in the war, they were generally able to get it, to move things on a certain path. On occasion that path was taken through a fear of parliamentary politics, but there was no option to argue for the mass movement.

It’s very much the critique by Rosa Luxemburg of Bolshevism: whatever value there was in Leninism—and there was certain value—the party substitutes itself for the people, the politburo then substitutes itself for the party, and eventually one man substitutes himself for the politburo, and thereafter socialism in that state will only be as good or as bad as whatever is in the head of that one man. That’s what we’re looking at: the political, social and economic outlook of the party that emerges as Sinn Féin is only as strong as the most dominant figure on the Army Council.

Do you think they were helped by the fact that much of the opposition was stuck in a traditional, militaristic mode?

That was a huge factor. In the first significant rift, when Sinn Féin moved in 1986 to end the old abstentionist policy, defined opposition came from Ruairí Ó Brádaigh and Dáithí Ó Conaill: honourable men of integrity, but men with very traditional conservative views. It ensured that other points of view were not heard. But having said that, we may have to eventually look at this as the dialectics of history. Many who viewed themselves as people of the left saw themselves as siding with progressives on the side of what has now become the mainstream, and viewed Ó Brádaigh as reactionary. Economically, he’s not any more right of centre than Sinn Féin is, but he was construed as such.

The success of the Sinn Féin party, in some ways, has been to deal with its opposition by what could be described as the shedding of leaves rather than the smashing of branches, taking the opposition off in salami slices. I’m always reluctant to describe Sinn Féin as Stalinist because it’s a different era, but it’s a tactic of man management that was used in the Stalinist era, where the opposition always came out in small pieces. Had they all come out at once they may have been successful. It happened very slowly, so the opposition forces never had a chance, they were so shocked. We have seen some movements away from Sinn Féin, but the momentum of Sinn Féin left them significantly behind. Another factor, of course, was that many of those that were putting forward broadly a leftist position from within the republican movement were in jail, people like myself. Others that would have been broadly sympathetic to a leftist position were subsequently expelled in what was known as the Ivor Bell affair.

You argue that the outcome of the Good Friday Agreement is that the Orange state and one-party Unionist rule is gone, but what we have in its place is still a sectarian state. Does that mean that politics in the north is divided into two equal but separate groups?

Well, the demographics mean there’s a larger unionist community than the nationalist community, but we are talking about equal but separate. The way I describe it is no longer an Orange state, but an Orange and Green state, to the exclusion of class-based politics. Whereas Sinn Féin has moved away from being a republican party and is now a Catholic party, the DUP was always a unionist and Protestant party. The DUP now represents Protestants, and Sinn Féin now represents the Catholics. Hence, now Sinn Féin concen­trates on its Gaelic language programme and its GAA programme, enhancing the Catholic community and its ethos, and the DUP stands up staunchly for the Protestant community and its ethos. Politics is divided in Northern Ireland into the Protestant camp and the Catholic camp. I don’t use the word ‘power-sharing’—there’s not a lot of power to share: power resides firmly with the sovereign parliament in London—it’s administration sharing. It’s no longer as it was in the old days, when one community was able to overlord the situation to the exclusion of the other in return for marginal benefits—and that’s all it ever was: marginal benefits. Now we have that sectarian divided state, and that is anathema to class-based politics because it is a road block in the way towards class and common interests. So long as that exists, you have a sectarian state.

It has been described as a type of benign apartheid, as opposed to a malignant and vicious apartheid. The analogy I sometimes use is the Irish News and the Belfast News Letter. Neither the editor and staff of the Irish News or the editor and staff of the News Letter are sectarian: in many ways they are very decent people. But if Northern Ireland wasn’t divided into a Protestant readership and a Catholic readership, there would be no significant role for the Irish News or the News Letter. Many people would, unfortunately, buy the Sun or the Star! By the same token, if we didn’t have sectarian headcounts, you wouldn’t have Sinn Féin representing the Catholics and the DUP representing the Protestants, we would have an end to parties that have a vested interest in having a sectarian division. If you had a working class party that went across the working class, there would no longer be a role for Sinn Féin apart perhaps from organising one or two buses for Bodenstown.

That’s why we’re in this lamentable situation. But having said that, we have moved on and the Orange state has gone. The old type of privilege that existed, when it was simply a matter of sending your son around to see the local Grand Master on a Friday evening to organise a job in the shipyard on Monday morning, that doesn’t happen now. Houses are allocated on points, not on religion. There is no material benefit any longer in being a member of the Protestant working class, in an objective sense. That’s not to say that it’s easy, or that people will move quietly or quickly away from centuries of tradition. But if we believe, as Marxists, that material conditions eventually carry the day, the objective conditions now indicate that there are no material benefits to being a member of the Protestant working class. In the past Orange and Unionist domination was maintained by a corrupted social contract, where the Protestant working class supported the status quo, since the 1790s when many abandoned their aspirations for a republican democracy, and were rewarded with some advantage marginally. But the Unionist ruling class knew that there had to be significant material benefits to ensure that the Protestant working class remained loyal. That loyalty was challenged in 1798, and in a different context in the twentieth century. Certainly it was challenged in 1907 in Belfast, the only time the RIC ever mutinied, and it happened again in 1919 when the engineering workers came out on strike, in the aftermath of the first world war, when the Unionist Party’s control over the Protestant working class was shaken. We should never dismiss the Protestant working class as definitively reactionary. What organised labour there has been in the north has been often organised by Protestant workers and their demands. People like Betty Sinclair led the working class movement for many years, raising issues of democracy and the absence thereof, and let’s be honest, it was often that tradition rather than republicans who effectively raised them.

How did you feel about Martin McGuinness standing for president?

I have several reservations about Martin’s campaign. On the one hand, I get irritated with the type of coverage in the Sunday Independent and the Irish Independent, with a type of anti-northern hostility. There’s a chauvinistic approach that comes from the Independent which is something that’s not only experienced by certain elderly northern republicans like myself: they’ve managed to offend more than me! But ‘President of Ireland’: I resent the very title. You don’t have to be a die-hard old conservative republican to believe that Ireland is the whole of the island. I don’t like this idea of calling the 26 counties Ireland. I noticed, believe it or not, that a unionist recently wrote a very angry letter to the News Letter complaining of the southern Irish claiming to be Ireland. This is worrying for me, to be on the same side as angry unionists writing to the News Letter! Secondly, the concept that the president of the Republic or the 26 counties has to get permission to go to the north, that’s frankly partitionist. And moreover the recognition for the Gardaí and the Irish army: there is an element of that which is anathema to the old republican attitudes.

Now, things have to change, move on and what not, but what really irritates me is that Martin McGuinness is being coy and disingenuous, telling us he left the IRA in 1974, saying that some actions of the IRA were murder and some weren’t. I do suspect he would have had more respect from the people if he would stand over his CV. For reasons of pure political expediency he is abandoning crucial parts of his past, denying the legitimacy of his past and denying that legitimacy to others in the northern context. The war that I fought in was a good fight and a justified fight. No battle, no war is ever fought without mistakes and regrettable incidents. Each and every action the IRA carried out, many would be deemed in­appropriate, but they were all part of a war. You don’t make war without mistakes, but I have long contended that the IRA’s war would stand scrutiny alongside any imperial war. A large amount of IRA volunteers died in premature explosions, the vast majority of which happened because they were using timing devices in an attempt to avoid civilian casualties. They did make mistakes, some of them horribly regrettable, and you put your hands up to that. Our reason for fighting was right, and you could argue that it should have been called off a few years earlier, but you don’t take war piecemeal. War is terrible, and if Martin is accepting some parts and disowning other parts, he is disowning a lot of poor people—because, for the most part, it was the less well-off people who fought that war in the north—who have not benefitted materially from the campaign, and to take the last thing away from them, which is their dignity and pride, I think that’s what really annoyed me about Martin McGuinness’s campaign for the presidency.

Many on the left would argue that the way to unite people across the divide is by leaving aside partition and the national question. Is there any sense to that, or is that avoiding the issue?

I don’t think, in general, you can ever avoid issues. Many years ago someone said that “You can ignore the national question, but the national question won’t ignore you.” That apart, I think you’ve got to look at this situation pragmatically. At this point in time, as a result of the Good Friday Agreement and the numbers of people that voted for it—and continue to support Sinn Féin today, and cannot claim to be unaware of the implications of the Good Friday Agreement, which effectively means that state won’t change until a majority in Northern Ireland desire it to change—we are going to have to come up with a programme that says we can’t defy the wishes of the people of the island: it’s not any longer just the wishes of a small northern minority. I think we have to look for a programme which says that I’m entitled, and will continue, to advocate my point of view that the best solution for the people of this island is a socialist independent state. But there has to be a situation arrived at where we can work on a range of social and economic issues, accepting each other’s different views on the constitutional issue. But that will have to be put in such a context that if and when that national issue comes up, that is going to have to be addressed honestly and not, as some have in the past, ignore these differences. The thing about it is, at this point in time, the national question is not an issue. Issues become significant when people make them significant.

Do you think that’s a long way down the road?

To be quite honest—I’m not trying to be evasive or facetious here—I don’t know. We are talking here, and by tomorrow evening or Wednesday the Euro could collapse. As I said at a meeting in Belfast a while back, if I was to stand up at a meeting in Belfast three or four years ago, before Lehmans collapsed, and say: ‘Capitalism is in crisis. We must organise. We don’t know what’s going to happen from month to month. We need to get into the trade union movement. We need to band together to look for an alternative to this free market system’, most of the people would laugh at me, some would say I’m a died-in-the-wool old Marxist. Now, at this point, a unified political system on this island where socialism is organised is not on the agenda, but with the developing conditions in the world changing so rapidly, nobody knows.

I say to republicans and people on the left that I want rid of Britain from this island because I’m a republican: I didn’t become a republican because I want rid of the English. I want rid of British rule and freedom from that empire because I’m a republican. And I’m not a socialist because I’m a republican: I’m a republican because I’m a socialist. Taking it on that basis, we don’t put the cart before the horse: socialism is the objective, and if republicanism will take us there, then we have to emphasise the republic. But nothing comes overnight: the people have to be convinced that a republic is a good idea, and that a socialist economy is a good idea, and then the rest starts to follow on.