Building a class-struggle trade union: interview with Tommy McKearney

Tommy McKearney is interviewed by Philip Ferguson. The interview initially featured in Redline on 27 November 2013.

images3Tommy McKearney is a long-time socialist-republican in Ireland.  He joined the IRA while still in his teens, following the introduction of internment in the six counties (“Northern Ireland”) by the British in 1971.  He was actively engaged in the armed struggle against the British occupation and served as O/C of the IRA’s East Tyrone brigade.  He spent 16 years as a prisoner in the H-Blocks (from 1977-1993), took part in the blanket and dirty protests and was on hunger strike for 53 days in late 1980.  He is now northern regional organiser for the Independent Workers Union in Ireland – a small, new, progressive union – and a founder-member of the Peadar O’Donnell Socialist-Republican Forum.  Tommy is also author of The Provisional IRA: from insurrection to parliament (Pluto Press, 2011).  The interview was conducted in 2009 and has appeared in several places.  Although now four years old, it retains its relevance in relation to both Ireland and New Zealand.

Philip Ferguson: Could you tell us a bit about the Independent Workers Union in Ireland?  How did it begin?  What sections of workers does it try to organize?

Tommy speaking at a commemoration organised by the irish socialist-republican organisation éirígí
Tommy speaking at a commemoration organised by the Irish socialist-republican organisation éirígí

Tommy McKearney: The IWU is a general trade union that organizes among all sections of the workforce.  It has, however, found that some workers are more open to recruitment than others.  This has come about partly due to our origins and partly as a result of the current situation in the Irish workplace.  The IWU was set up seven years ago in response to an attempt by bureaucrats in the trade union hierarchy, working we believe in concert with the employers and the state, to stymie criticism of the Social Partnership agreement.  The strongest criticism of partnership was at the time emanating from the Irish leadership of the Irish region of the (British Isles-wide) Transport and General Workers Union.  To prevent this bureaucrat-orchestrated clampdown, a small craft union of operative butchers (i.e. counter hands who work for a wage) affiliated to the union in Munster province broke away and rebranded itself as the Independent Workers Union.  This new union established itself as a union fundamentally opposed to the ‘partnership’ arrangement and as such neither sought to affiliate to the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) nor was it ever likely to be accepted under present conditions.

PF: Could you tell us about any successes the IWU has had and what have been the main problems faced by the union?

TMcK: The main success the IWU has had is first in having established itself in the face of stiff opposition from the establishment and from the Partnership unions.  We have, for example, a constant fight for workplace recognition yet have managed to survive.  We have also made an impact with the migrant worker community who have found us more amenable to them than the larger unions who are often only interested in dealing with large blocks of easy to organize workers.  Thirdly, we have managed to create a profile for the IWU that while not enormous is visible and one that trade unionists disenchanted with the larger more conservative unions are aware of.

Our main problem is one of resources.  We have a small membership that in many areas is scattered and dispersed.  We have difficulty servicing our members because we are still short of adequate financial resources to maintain enough full-time officials.

PF: In NZ, a lot of top union officials are big advocates of ‘partnership’ with the bosses and the state.  They usually hold up the south of Ireland as a model of the supposed achievements of this strategy.  Can you tell us about how workers in Ireland have really fared in recent years?

TMcK: Social Partnership, or Corporatism as it should more accurately be called, has helped the employers and entrepreneurs and speculators enormously.  For twenty years they have been assured a stable and agreed rate of wages in manufacturing and services.  They have had almost no industrial unrest over that time and because the ICTU has been content to represent unionized workplaces without demanding universal union recognition, foreign multi-national companies and local capitalist entrepreneurs have been able to set up and do business in Ireland while refusing to recognize unions.

As a consequence, union density in the Irish private sector is now less than half of what it was twenty years ago.  Moreover, we are now in a recession in Ireland and many of the foreign multi-national companies are leaving in search of cheaper labour and the Irish capitalists are cutting back on their workforces.  In other words, trade union ‘restraint’ has been accepted but with no reward for the workers.

The most damning aspect of the failure of Ireland’s Social Partnership arrangement, however, is that while vast sums of money were made by business in this economy in the boom years, very little of it was invested in the infrastructure to provide a social wage for workers.  We have a deeply-flawed health service where over 50% of population in the South feels it necessary to subscribe to expensive private health insurance, where public housing is almost non-existent and workers are now threatened with mortgages they can’t maintain and face repossession, where care for the old is privatized and prohibitively expensive and where our telecommunications infrastructure has been privatized and is now in the hands of a gang of Australian pirates who are under-investing in the upgrades necessary to keep us level with global standards.

PF: Your political background is in the Irish Republican Army.  How did you move from the IRA to being an organizer for the IWU?
TMcK: Shortly after I was released from prison, the IRA called a ceasefire and most of its members concentrated their energies on progressing the organisation’s political agenda. I had been critical of this tendency for many years, not because it wanted to end the armed campaign but because in my opinion their politics were very reformist and centrist.  I found no other political party that really reflected my outlook and instead focused my attention on the then-developing IWU trade union which was/is left of centre and has a range of different left political activists from different political parties within its leadership and activist base.  I found working with the IWU practical and more rewarding than getting lost among the arguments of the marginalized left.

PF: I believe you were also one of the founders of Fourthwrite magazine.  Could you tell us a bit about that?

TMcK: I was part of the original group that set up the left-republican magazine Fourthwrite at a time when we thought there was an opportunity to influence a section of the republican movement towards developing a left-wing critique of the Sinn Fein strategy and from which might grow a left wing party, or movement that would participate in the building of such a party.  We were only partly successful in this.  We were able to develop the critique but did not gather sufficient numbers to launch a significant political movement.  However, since ideas and arguments are something that can last, our critique has not been entirely lost and others are coming to see some merit in what we have been saying.  Fourthwrite can be seen now as part of the process of transformation that has been necessary for republican Ireland as it moves dialectically forward with some elements getting stuck in the reactionary backwaters of pure militarism, others opting for centrist reformism and another section trying to build a progressive left wing movement with momentum.

PF:  As a socialist-republican critic of the incorporation of the Provos into the British state machinery in the north of Ireland, what do you think happened to the Provos?  How did they go from militant opponents of British rule to being part of the administration of British rule?

TMcK: I have come to view this as part of a dialectic process rather than as an act of dishonesty.  Much of the Provos’ momentum came from popular discontent with the old Stormont state rather than a deep desire for an all-Ireland republic and when the ancien regime was abolished and replaced with administration-sharing, allowing Sinn Fein into office, much of the Provo momentum dissipated. However a new set of circumstances demand new responses that can only be answered by a socialist republic and hence the dialectic wheel turns and leaves some behind and others moving on to other areas of struggle.

PF: There are now a number of socialist-republican organisations, such as the Irish Republican Socialist Party and eirigi, and also many individual socialist-republicans, opposed to the pacification process in the north.  What prospects are there for joint action and for actually bringing the socialist-republicans together in a single movement?

TMcK: In the long run, all left-wing and socialist groups and individuals must come together if any real progress is to be made.  This is not an easy process as groups have to find their own way towards unity by their own volition.  The one thing that all groups have to accept is that none of the present parties or organisations as constituted are going to become the dominant group in a new structure.  There is no Bolshevik Party ready and waiting in Ireland and that if a new mass party of the working class is to emerge, all those presently in place will have to consider dissolving and merging or stand outside the process. There are precedents for a such a departure in other parts of Europe and they are worth examining for those of us in Ireland on the left.

There are efforts being made to encourage unity but it will take time and effort.  Circumstances often are the catalyst that encourages and impels people towards unity and the present economic crisis may help speed this process along.

PF: What are the current prospects of a renewal of the struggle for national liberation and socialism?

TMcK: There are no prospects for renewal of a sustained armed national liberation campaign. The struggle for socialism on the other hand is ongoing but nobody is talking of taking up arms.

PF: Lastly, is there anything you’d like to add or to pass on to fellow workers and revolutionaries in New Zealand?

TMcK: Fraternal greetings and best wishes to all workers and socialists in New Zealand. Keep up the good fight and don’t be misled by claims for Social Partnership – it is only corporatism under another name.


  1. Revolutionaries in N.Z.??

    Anyone I know there has gone there for work.

    Admire Tommy for his political longevity but honestly detect some kind of political sadomasochism in all this.

    After Thatcherism trade unions are toothless. From my own experience of the ITGWU rep who was in a bigger hurry to lunch with our managing director BEFORE meeting the workers; if it aint a closed shop, I'm a non-union employee.

    Better a hit squad for top bankers than this Tommy. How many years do you think you have left?? A millennium?

  2. Tommy ,I wish you success in your prospective undertaking.Coming with a sincere motive for justice and welfare of others after being through complex challenging times is commendable.
    From my experiences until very recently Trade Unions exploit their members by promoting an ideal/purpose that has been destroyed.Through ongoing betrayal,various forms of corruption,etc does not instill confidence.Many of their Reps are like phony insurance salespeople, working on a commission basis. That`s all they are thought plus sales speak The only unity the workers have is being united in backstabbing ,each other etc.
    Personally today I will not label myself any class as everyone is equal The fact that we may not be treated equal/fair by employer`s etc does not justify labeling myself to their pleasure.Every one of us, Princes to Paupers are identical,by being unique individually,to each other. Everyone has a role to fill and be rewarded accordingly. A them and us mentality is not to the majority`s equality as it makes us victim`s to them. That`s what I learned from experience and its my personal opinion.It doesn't discredit another`s view or intention.
    Tommy, your view on loyalism is similar to mine. They are by their claims ,mindsets nomadic,culture-less and have man-made sectarian bigoted traditions of anti-humanity. They are fed ghost stories on ,the Antichrist in Rome,Catholic clergy performing satanic Priest-craft and everyone else devils disciples
    They want to walk on the Queen`s highway ( not the road) to glorify ,justify their venomous hatred. They can never be united even through hunger as they`l choke on their flutes first.Then more accusations of Papist trickery.
    There are very good non-Catholic`s,ie Christians Protestants , Dissenter`s and not of nomadic mindset`s.
    Nuair a bheith tu ag obair chomh tseirbhis ar ndhaoine eile, a bheidh leat ar fhail nios bhfad