From Insurrection To Parliament

Tonight the Pensive Quill carries a book review of Tommy McKearney’s The Provisional IRA From Insurrection to Parliament. The review is by guest writer Sandy Boyer.

This is the first book to present a comprehensive republican case against the Good Friday Agreement settlement. Tommy McKearney is intimately familiar with the Provisional IRA. He was the Officer Commanding of the East Tyrone Brigade which led him to Long Kesh where he participated in the blanket protest and the 1980 hunger strike.

McKearney argues that the Good Friday Agreement has transformed Northern Ireland from an Orange State into a sectarian state. The Orange State, gave a Protestant elite a monopoly on political power. The Protestant lower classes had the first access to the crumbs that fell from the table.

Under the God Friday Agreement political power is explicitly divided between parties who label themselves “nationalists” or “unionists” – effectively Catholics or Protestants. There is little room for any non-denominational, working class politics. A government run by and for a Protestant elite has been replaced by one where power is divided between Protestant and Catholic elites with working and lower-income people effectively shut out.

Some may see this as progress but, for McKearney, it bears little resemblance to the republican movement’s stated goal of a democratic socialist republic transcending the sectarian divide.

He places much of the responsibility for the Provisional movement’s failure on a top down, conspiratorial leadership style. He says the Provisional leadership had a deep distrust of any popular movement they couldn’t control.

McKearney believes IRA members accepted the cease fire, decommissioning and the Good Friday Agreement in large part because the organization had been weakened and demoralized by loyalist death squads operating with the support of the British security forces. He argues that the solution would have been to arm the nationalist people something the IRA leadership would not contemplate because this would have created a popular armed force beyond their control.

McKearney is convinced that the H-Block/Armagh Committees could have grown into a mass movement to challenge the political and economic establishment North and South. He says the republican leadership never seriously considered that option. Instead they maneuvered behind the scenes to control formally open, democratic local H-Block/Armagh Committees. When the 1981 hunger strike ended, the Provisional leadership disbanded the H-Block/Armagh Committees and recruited a new generation of activists from them to Sinn Fein.

He argues that the Good Friday agreement has made traditional Irish republicanism – “a one plank Republican platform confined to breaking the Union and ending Partition” – obsolete. He says that Irish people North and South are “prepared to tolerate the parameters of the Six and Twenty-six County states. Far fewer Northern Catholics now see an urgent need to change current constitutional arrangements than at the beginning of the 1970’s and for half a century before.”

If this is true, the current attempts to revive the armed struggle against British rule are doomed to failure. As McKearney says “no matter how peeved the unreconstructed ‘physical force’ republican constituency may be, its influence is minimal.”

Critically, McKearney offers an alternative to both Sinn Fein’s parliamentary strategy and the attempt to revive the armed campaign. He argues for creating a new radical republicanism, explicitly socialist and based in the working class North and South.

He says that it should address “unemployment, poverty, access to housing, hospitals, education and protection of citizens” rather than just Irish unity. He calls for reaching out to Protestant workers to “develop cross-sectarian working class solidarities while putting differences on the national question to one side.”

While The Provisional IRA From Insurrection to Parliament is dealing with a very serious subject, it is clearly and popularly written and relatively short at 236 pages. Each chapter starts with a brief anecdote which provides a valuable insight into the thinking and feelings of republican activists.

This book should be read and carefully considered by everyone with any serious interest in republicanism or the future of the left in Ireland. In the unlikely event that supporters of the current Sinn Fein leadership have any intellectual honesty left, they owe it a prompt response.

The Provisional IRA From Insurrection to Parliament should spark a critical debate about the way forward. Many people will disagree with this strategy for building a new republicanism. They should take the book as a challenge to put their ideas in writing as Tommy McKearney has now done.  Without that kind of debate and discussion Irish republicans could be consigned to becoming either agents of the establishment or just increasingly irrelevant.

The Provisional IRA From Insurrection to Parliament, by Tommy McKearney. Publisher - Pluto


  1. Thanks for the rewiew Sandy, I will be buying or ordering this book tomorrow. Tommy is a great republican socailist activist and thinker.

  2. Have,nt had a chance to read Tommy,s book yet, but from Sandy,s review if Tommy,s alternative is to create a new radical republicianism,explicitly socialist and based in the working class north and south(youd hardly base it in the leafy suburbs of the Malone rd or Dalkey Tommy)he futher states it should address unemployment.poverty,access to housing ,hospitals education,and the protection of citizens, he calls out for reaching out to protestant workers to"develop cross secterian working class solidarities while putting differences on the national question to one side" this is a throw back to the early sticks and why should the national question be surrendered in favour of a british working class agenda Tommy. the working class and its here I agree with Tommy need to unite and that is the working class on this island united in a common bond and that is a democratic republic based on Tones Protestant,Catholic,and Dissenter under the one common name of Irishmen, there was once a Shankill Rd James Connolly workers republican club, so called republicans fucked that up by attacking these men ,but it can and should possible with goodwill among workers to unite once again under an Irish socialist banner,I,m not sure about this book but in fairness to Tommy I,ll get a copy and read it for myself.

  3. Irish people have no interest in left wing politics.Labour is the most radical of a conservative bunch,The Workers party/Democratic Left joined with labour in the early nineties.53% Of catholics in NI want to remain in the UK.The south is corrupt from top to bottom.How can a man get a 12 yr prison sentence for fiddling dole money, Dave Drumm/Fitzpatrick walk free ?! 26 failed counties.

  4. Kieran

    The more I read the more I accept your conclusions. Wolf Tone and 1798 is a long time ago. It never worked then or since. Tired and inefective.

    I will get Tommy's book and read it to see his perspective and thoughts. Not to consider joining some splinter or pressure grouping.

    As for courting unionist/loyalist working class?? Wake the fuck up, they don't like 'Irish' and don't want to be loved by the Irish. Kiss my Irish ass ffs. FAILED already Tommy.

    But I do agree SF Mi5/6 leadership decided to assist the brits in getting rid of weapons [ a huge amount ] rather than arm the nationalists. Deliberate pro-unionist policy decision.

    Returning to kieran, what you say is the reality. Dreamers should waste only their own time.

  5. Have to agree with Larry, the working class unionist/loyalist despise Ireland and all that is from it, countinued ignorance of the fundamental, or the contrived to deny it, will not lead to a settlement.

    Find it hard to believe though, that there would have been much of a queue for rifles and suchlike, if a decision ever had been made to give away machineguns. Wasn't it that there was a severe shortage of volunteers to go face the Machine, that wern't already lost to it.

  6. Sandy,

    goor review. Pleased to have it. The book is very well written and the arguments well presented. The critique of SF is clinical, mounted from a radical rather than a traditionalist perspective. I really enjoyed the book. We could have benefitted from the type of analysis provided in this book years ago.

  7. I have read Tommy Mckearney book. I have also had the chance to interview him a few times. He also answered questions by my students at the University of Sherbrooke (via Skype ) this summer. It was a interesting experience. I have learned a lot from Tommy McKearney. His book must be read and discuss. Not only for his analysis on the path taken by the provos since 1969, but also for his views on how to make republicanism still relevant in the 21th century.

  8. Larry,

    "As for courting unionist/loyalist working class?? Wake the fuck up, they don't like 'Irish' and don't want to be loved by the Irish."

    Rather than uniting Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter Republican violence and constitutional coercion is primarily responsible for alienating the former of that trinity and giving rise to much of it's belligerence towards an Irish designation. Historically Unionists did'nt have an issue with an Irish dimension. Organisations established to oppose Home Rule included the Irish Loyal and Patriotic Union (1885); Loyal Irish Union (1885), and Irish Unionist Alliance (1891).
    The platform of the 1892 Irish Unionist Convention was adorned with the slogan `Erin Go Bragh'. Edward Carson was, by his own definition an Irishman. Moreover the `Irish' in the names of the Irish Guards and Royal Irish Regiment is not an issue and detracts nothing from the esteem with which they are held by Unionists.

  9. Thanks for bringing this to our attention Anthony and Sandy.Sober analysis in the statement "current attempts to revive the armed struggle against British rule are doomed to failure" but the "alternative to both Sinn Fein’s parliamentary strategy and the attempt to revive the armed campaign" being explicitly socialist alas is also doomed to failure in my opinion.Having said that, I will read it and have recomended it to socialists this side of the water invovled in Irish politics.