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Ireland: Former hunger striker: 'The IRA should have embraced socialism'

Updated April 17, 2012 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Tommy McKearney was a senior member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA)  from the early 1970s until his arrest in 1977. Sentenced to life in jail, he served 16 years, during which he took part in the 1980 hunger strike in the Maze prison. Now a freelance journalist and an organiser with the Independent Workers Union, he has published a book, The Provisional IRA, From Insurrection to Parliament (Pluto Press 2011), that argues the Provisional IRA should have embraced socialism. Mat Ward spoke to him.

Can you sum up for our readers why the Provisional IRA should have embraced socialism?

I am assuming that [your] readers accept the value of socialism as a system. What we’re talking about here is why the Provisional IRA should have -- and could have -- adopted an explicitly socialist agenda. During the early years of the Provisional IRA’s development, the movement was “pro-socialist” in an unscientific sense. The membership was working class, empathised with the less well-off and had a “democratic socialist republic” as its headline demand. What it didn’t have was a tangible socialist program as distinct from socialistic aspirations.

My argument is that at a time when the IRA’s membership was examining options in the late 1970s, it could have been persuaded to adopt a radical socialist program. Had it done so, the energy and scope of the Provisionals could have created a real momentum for economic transformation in Ireland. It would, moreover, have given Irish republicanism a better chance to engage positively with the Protestant working class and combat the [religious] sectarianism that is so corrosive in northern Irish society.

You note how reporting of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland by the likes of British newspapers such as the Guardian, Observer and Sunday Times in the late 1960s was seen as new and exciting. Do you see the flow of information from the likes of WikiLeaks and the internet in general bringing about further change in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland?

There are two points here. First is the existence of technology that has revolutionised and democratised the means of human communication. I feel that the internet may do for contemporary society what the printing press did for medieval society – open the way to a new Enlightenment. Second, this process is unlikely to impact first in any part of Ireland either north or south. There is a greater likelihood that a worldwide wave similar to the Occupy movement will begin in one of the crucial centres such as the USA or China or Germany and its reverberations will eventually be disseminated in Ireland by the technologies mentioned above. To an extent, in 1968-69 the Guardian, Observer and Sunday Times were bringing the worldwide revolt of 1968 to Ireland.

You document the actions taken against the persecuted Catholic minority in Northern Ireland over the years. There seem to be many parallels with persecuted minorities worldwide. For example: police facilitating riots and the burning of Muslims' houses by the Hindu majority in Gujarat; Palestinians using stones as ammunition against a heavily armed oppressive state; Palestinians being used as a source of cheap labour by their oppressors; Sri Lankan Tamils being branded terrorists rather than freedom fighters; the wiping out of Australian Aboriginal languages as a form of cultural genocide. Can you talk about these and any other parallels you see?

To the extent that the history of the world is the history of class struggle, imperialism/colonialism and racism are tools used by the powerful in their battle to maintain control over the world and its wealth. In some of the examples listed above you will notice that the minority is numerically significant. Creating an unnatural division between them and the majority allows the ruling class to divide and rule where otherwise they could not. To do so, the ruling class invariably demonises and belittles the minority -- Catholic, Jew, black, Muslim and the list is endless over history. By doing so, a spurious rationale is created for discriminating, usurpation, appropriation, enslaving or even genocide, and with these practices go the need for violent repression. Those physically carrying out the violence are often the less well off also, and are rewarded with marginal privileges (“the poor whites” or in Northern Ireland, less well-off Protestants), but are also kept in check by fear of the anger of the oppressed. This balance facilitates the rule of the few.

It's been said that the success of the current Occupy movement will hinge on whether it brings trade unions on board. Would you say the same of the Provisional IRA/Sinn Fein?

Bringing trade unions on board is, in short, to bring the organised working class on board and as such this is a perfectly accurate and valid observation. However, we have to examine where the organised working-class movement is at the moment.

In many countries, including Ireland, the mainstream trade union movement has become docile and conservative, making the organised working-class movement passive and weak. Care should be taken therefore to ensure that the trade unions come to accept the radical message of the Occupy movement and don’t corrupt its radicalism.

The situation with Sinn Fein is a little different. If Sinn Fein were to adopt a stance in support of radical trade unionism, the party would undoubtedly be able to play a very significant role in transforming Irish society. However, if it merely acquires the support of the conservative Irish trade union bureaucracy in return for raising mellow social-democratic issues in parliament, little will change.

You note how the unification of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland is perhaps no longer an issue. If it ever did come about, what measures do you think the Catholic majority would have to take -- apart from trying to promote working-class solidarity -- to ensure the Protestants did not become a persecuted minority?

Political unification is certainly not a major issue for the vast majority of Irish people, although this may not always remain the case. If unity were to come about it would be vitally important to ensure that the Protestant community would not suffer discrimination or disadvantage. There are times when some of the old liberal bourgeois-democratic principles retain their validity and this is one such time. It would be crucial that a united Irish state would guarantee and deliver an equality of citizenship. This would also have to be recognised as both morally and practically essential to a progressive republic.

You note the mainstream media's role in the occupation of Northern Ireland. Glasgow University Media Group has done extensive work on media reporting of the Middle East in Bad News From Israel and More Bad News From Israel, released by your publisher, Pluto Press. What similar studies would you recommend on the media's reporting on the occupation of Northern Ireland?

I can think of only one contemporary work: The Propaganda of Peace: The Role of Media and Culture in the Northern Ireland Peace Process by Greg McLaughlin and Steve Baker, published in 2010.

You note how Britain might keep hold of Northern Ireland to protect its western flank and avoid a Cuba-like "rogue state" on its doorstep. In your experience, to what extent are people in Britain and Ireland aware of this possible agenda?

In my opinion, most people in Ireland and Britain are unaware that London views Ireland as a vital strategic location. Of course, the British state’s view of how to manage this situation varies from century to century or even from decade to decade. London’s response depends on the political situation in Europe and on technology, but most importantly on what political forces are in play in Ireland and how they are disposed to London. At present, Irish society is posing no threat to British -- or capital’s- - interests. Britain can, therefore, be more relaxed about what is happening here at the moment because Britain can depend on conservative forces both north and south to adhere to the imperialist agenda.

You refer to the "United Kingdom". To what extent do you balk when you use this term?

I don’t balk at all when saying the “United Kingdom” or even “Northern Ireland“. Both are current terms to describe contemporary political entities and realities. That I don’t endorse either entity doesn’t stop me using the terms any more than my distaste for NATO would prevent me using that term.

What does irritate me, however, is when people use the term Eire when they mean the Republic of Ireland or simply the Republic. Eire is Gaelic for “Ireland” and using it in an English language article would be similar to writing Deutschland when referring to Germany. Margaret Thatcher and the Belfast News Letter call it Eire. As for the term “mainland Britain”, think about it: Ireland and Britain are two islands off the coastal seaboard of continental Europe. Only people who believe that Europe is isolated by a fog in the English Channel would really view Britain as Ireland’s mainland.

The 2008 financial crisis seems to have been a missed opportunity for the left. As the European financial crisis looms, do you think the left is any more ready this time to take advantage?

To a certain extent, the left is always ready to respond to a crisis in capitalism. Unfortunately, the people are not always prepared to listen to or take advice from or follow the left. There is no easy answer to this. We simply must persevere and be patient because when the people begin to move, the left really has to have answers and must grasp the opportunity being provided by the movement of people. Remember Lenin used to say that at such times the people are often in advance of the party.

Does Sinn Fein's recent lurch to the left, noted towards the end of your book, offer real hope?

We would be unwise to place any great hope in Sinn Fein emerging as a left-wing alternative. In Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein sits in a coalition with the right-wing Democratic Unionist Party while administering the British government’s harsh austerity policy. The Sinn Fein excuse in Stormont is that since Northern Ireland has not got ultimate control over its finances, Sinn Fein is doing the best it can to mitigate the impact of the cutbacks ordered by London. In Dublin, on the other hand, the Fine Gael and Labour Party coalition insist that they must implement the austerity package ordered by the International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank and they (that is, the coalition) are trying to mitigate the impact of these measures. For doing so, they are criticised by Sinn Fein!

You conclude by saying: "As always, the world is in the process of change. The point is how to influence what is happening." What ways do you see, if any, of influencing what is happening?

The greatest difficulty, in my opinion, facing working people and the left at present is the absence of a clear, viable and easy-to-read alternative to what is known as current economic orthodoxy. It would be a major asset in terms of making a positive influence on the world if we could identify an alternative economic model and promote as broad an acceptance as possible among progressive elements in society.

What is your opinion of the United Left Alliance initiative in the south?

The ULA is a positive and progressive development. The fact that organisations of the left have come together at any time is good and that these groups are doing so at this time of capitalist crisis is heartening and encouraging. The ULA has also given some much-needed visibility to the left through articulate and high-profile spokespersons such as Richard Boyd Barrett and Joe Higgins.

Moreover, the United Left Alliance has taken the lead in organising resistance to austerity measures introduced by the current government, in particular the anti-household charge. This fightback is especially important for two reasons. First, it has given courage to many in Ireland who had previously not resisted the cuts that were doing damage to the lives of working people. On the other hand, the European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund were using Ireland as an example to the rest of Europe to demonstrate how a country could/should pay its debts (in reality debts not incurred by working people) and how its working people would passively accept the consequent austerity. This latter fact is now being challenged thanks to ULA organised resistance.

One caveat, however, is that there remains some significant working-class elements outside the ULA. The working-class Irish republican constituency, the Labour left and Communist Party influenced groups (much larger than CPI membership) would need to be involved to make a really potent alternative. There is a history of suspicion and rivalry between these groups and it would not be easy to bring them together, but objectively speaking, that is a task demanding addressing and resolving. The ULA is well-placed to act as a focus or catalyst to assist this development. At the same time, any move made by the ULA in this direction has to be reciprocated and that is a task for us all.

What do you make of this quote from Noam Chomsky: "Take, for example, IRA terror which was pretty serious! As long as Britain responded using violence, that increased and escalated the cycle of terror. Finally -- partly through United States influence, and partly from internal pressure -- they responded by paying some attention to the legitimate grievances that existed in the background of the terrorist actions. Well, that led to a decline in terror. By now, Northern Ireland -- while not utopia -- is certainly not how it was even 15 years ago. That's the way you deal with terror! Look at its roots, sources and do something about them." (http://thoughteconomics.blogspot.com/2011/04/understanding-democracy.html)

Initially, Chomsky’s comments reminded me of the old quip about a decent man fallen among Fabians. He appears to suggest that the problem is “terror” (whatever that term means in a world order dominated by the US Marine Corps) which can be addressed by enlightened action from the imperial powers. Let’s put the horse back in front of the cart and say that without the application of armed force in Northern Ireland, an undemocratic ruling order was determined to remain unresponsive to legitimate demands. However, in the broader sense, Chomsky’s observation about dealing with the root and source of a conflict, rather than trying to crush the response to it, is perfectly correct.

How much of the book formed in your mind while you were in prison?

The idea for the book arose out of a conversation I had with my friend and comrade Paul Stewart, who wrote the introduction. About two years ago we were discussing the position Irish republicanism had reached and what was happening to the movement that once was the Provisional IRA. The book was a result of that conversation. What can be attributed to my time in jail is the thought process I use when writing. While in prison, I really began to come to terms with the meaning of materialism and the dialectic and since then I do my best to use those tools to inform my thinking.

You don't touch personally upon your time in prison. Why?

The book is not about me, it’s my analysis of the progress of the Provisional IRA from its foundation to its transformation into a reformist parliamentary party and the part it played in altering the nature of the old Northern Ireland state. My intention was to demonstrate the nature of the old “Orange State"; Britain’s strategic interest in it, how the Provisional IRA engaged with this situation and what condition that region (and the Provisionals) is in today.

What are your thoughts on British Prime Minister David Cameron saying any decisions affecting British sovereignty could be determined only by Westminster, as specified in the 1998 statute that granted limited self-government power to Scotland?

The British establishment is making a huge effort to prevent the break-up of the union. England without the rest would be like Russia without the USSR. Almost every week now we hear another scare story about how dreadful it would be for Scotland if it were to opt for independence. Cameron, who appears to be a prisoner of his reactionary  backbenchers, is beginning to wave the stick a little in order to appease his own party and possibly to unnerve the Scots. Of course London has no moral right to tell the Scots whether they can have independence or not. Why call it a “union” if there is no amalgamation of parts which can separate if they wish. What we should watch for is the start of a “dirty tricks” campaign, organised by London “spooks”, similar to that used during the miners’ strike.

Is there anything you would like to add?

Perhaps you could ask me what I think about so many young Irish going to work in Australia at the moment. My main concern is that they should join a trade union as soon as possible and if they need any advice, contact Barry Kearney of the CFMEU training unit in Victoria.

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