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The Provisional IRA: From Insurrection to Parliament [Paperback]

Tommy McKearney
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
Price: 13.99 & FREE Delivery in the UK. Details
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Book Description

24 Jun 2011
This book analyses the underlying reasons behind the formation of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA), its development, where this current in Irish republicanism is at present and its prospects for the future.

Tommy McKearney, a former IRA member who was part of the 1980 hunger strike, challenges the misconception that the Provisional IRA was only, or even wholly, about ending partition and uniting Ireland. He argues that while these objectives were always the core and headline demands of the organisation, opposition to the old Northern Ireland state was a major dynamic for the IRA’s armed campaign. As he explores the makeup and strategy of the IRA he is not uncritical, examining alternative options available to the movement at different periods, arguing that its inability to develop a clear socialist programme has limited its effectiveness and reach.

This authoritative and engaging history provides a fascinating insight into the workings and dynamics of a modern resistance movement.

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The Provisional IRA: From Insurrection to Parliament + Armed Struggle: The History of the IRA + Making Sense of the Troubles: A History of the Northern Ireland Conflict
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Product details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Pluto Press (24 Jun 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0745330746
  • ISBN-13: 978-0745330747
  • Product Dimensions: 21.1 x 13.2 x 1.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 150,645 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Review

Tommy McKearney’s story is one of those 'must read' books for anyone interested either in the struggle within Northern Ireland itself or in the overall relationship between England and Ireland. (Tim Pat Coogan, former editor of the Irish Press and author of The I.R.A (1970; 2000).)

If we had to choose one person who served in the ranks of the IRA to contextualize the organization's development from revolution to reform it would be Tommy McKearney. A seasoned volunteer with considerable military and political experience McKearney knows his subject matter. In terms of both left-wing politics and IRA activism he has walked the walk. Now he explains to a wider audience the dynamics behind the IRA and in the process gives the reader a new intellectual window through which the IRA campaign can be reappraised. Any student of the IRA who does not have this book in their library will find their comprehension diminished. (Anthony McIntyre, former IRA volunteer and ex-prisoner)

Tommy McKearney has advanced a series of arguments that are presented in an unambiguous manner. There is a strong sense of conviction and explanation in what he has written. The book is a reminder, whether agreeing with the arguments presented or otherwise, of the need for debate concerning the past, the present and the future. The unambiguous tone in which McKearney writes offers space for ongoing and detailed debate given his concern and dedication to key theoretical questions. (Pete Shirlow, School of Law, Queen's University Belfast)

About the Author

Tommy McKearney was a senior member of the Provisional IRA from the early 1970s until his arrest in 1977. Sentenced to life imprisonment, he served 16 years during which time he participated in the 1980 hunger strike in the Maze. He is now a freelance journalist and an organiser with the Independent Workers Union.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great insights, well written 27 July 2011
Format:Paperback
This book gets in to the nuts and bolts of the reasons behind the transition from armed actions to entirely peaceful political actions. I found it to be well written and the analysis to be thought provoking. The section dealing with class and republicanism in particular is very insightful. I would say this is essential reading to understand the current situation in Northern Ireland.
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3.0 out of 5 stars OK 1 April 2014
By Stan C
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Author is trying to appear to be an intellect , language could be a bit more simpler so ordinary lay person could understand it, have started but not finished the book as it is not one of those dont want to put in down books
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Amazon.com: 4.5 out of 5 stars  2 reviews
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A valuable account for an already informed reader 3 July 2011
By John L Murphy - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Books on the Provos, the dominant faction after the 1970s IRA split with their more Marxist comrades, tend to fall into two categories. Historians and academics tend towards heavily footnoted, analytical narratives; journalists from both Ireland and abroad combine equally footnoted but more anecdotal accounts gleaned from a life or a stint reporting from the heartland of the Troubles during which the contemporary IRA revived and roared, mostly within the Northern Irish province. What has been lacking from the growing shelf of studies are books which combine a journalist's verve with an historian's detachment.

This new book--so up-to-date that it covers the Irish Republic's elections spring 2011 after the Dublin government collapsed into debt and sought an EU bailout--comes from a former IRA member who served over a decade and a half in the maximum-security, brutally-run prison known to the British securocrats as the Maze and to the Irish republicans as Long Kesh. Tommy McKearney speaks from the position of an insider, although his own crucial contributions are nearly unacknowledged. He was part of the 1980 hunger strike even he makes no direct mention of volunteering for the first of the major hunger strikes that soon would bring worldwide attention to the plight of Republican prisoners "on the blanket".

The results, therefore, serve to offer an objective, almost clinical, view of IRA strategy and tactics. These sections are preceded by chapter vignettes which open each chronological section with powerful paragraphs about the decisions made by various Northerners growing up in the Nationalist community, or coming into contact with it, who had to decide, by the end of the 1960s, whether to take up arms or to hoist the placards to bring about social change and more freedom for the Catholic minority. This community's rights were suppressed by a sectarian regime guaranteeing, by gerrymandering, discrimination, prejudice, and violence a "Protestant state for a Protestant people" ever since 1921 had compromised an Ireland into a Southern Republic and a Northern statelet.

The author rejects the revisionists who claim the Protestants were merely misunderstood; he places the blame for the conflict on a British-run, Protestant-majority system meant to keep the Catholics down. No moral or cultural equivalence can be sustained, and no civil rights movement seeking by peaceful means to bring about change in the late 1960s and early 1970s, McKearney insists, could have challenged the Crown enough to bring down an entrenched establishment. Even if the PIRA could break the Orange state, the one that followed is not quite Green, he adds.

That is, the IRA insurgency brought Northern Ireland to a standstill but not a military victory against an enormously capable British defense force and a political power able to resist reform. The Unionists now share power with the Republicans, but the new state, he finds, remains sectarian, if on a compromised scale according to Protestant and Catholic representation. Class solidarity is weakened while ideological separation, on parallel tracks, is strengthened. Capitalism continues, and socialism totters, undermining any claim by Republicans and radicals that cross-sectarian alliances might bring about equality.

McKearney's take, therefore, reflects leftist rejection of his Republican colleagues who have entered into the political parliaments, North and South, which they cannot overthrow. This has been the fatal attraction for generations of Republicans, for none have been able to overcome their minority status as a party or faction against their rivals already conducting affairs and running the state, who vow to keep business as usual. Poverty persists on each side, post-Celtic Tiger, of the border, as his end-noted statistics tally all too well.

Those who sought economic and social justice as new leftists, such as Bernadette Devlin in the civil rights days before the Troubles erupted, were able to wrest power from such as Communist organizer Betty Sinclair. Devlin, approaching Derry city, led marchers. She convinced crowds not to sit down alongside Sinclair, but to charge the barricades. But, as McKearney reminds readers, such heady promises of radical revolution soon failed when the guns of British troops killed fourteen innocent protesters on Bloody Sunday at the start of 1972. The futility of non-violent unrest convinced many to rise up and fight against the British.

As Provos took the advantage and took up arms, they did so in McKearney's view first as self-defense, then as a deterrent against reprisals, and then in a hope that the British could be forced by guerrilla warfare (and attacks in the British homeland) to withdraw from Ireland. No master plan carried this strategy out, as it was an ad hoc policy worked out hastily by often passionate volunteers committed to action rather than reflection, militarism rather than politicking. This weakened the Republican Movement in the 1970s as it had in earlier decades for those who ran the Irish Republic. Those who fought did not make necessarily the best candidates for leadership in the political parliaments they then sought, eventually, to enter rather than to erase.

Still, as others retreated from British guns, those who fought back inherited the responsibility to keep the struggle underground in a tiny island where guns, people, and talk all could be followed easily, by suspicious neighbors, by informants, by Protestant foes, and via British intelligence and informers. When, as recent years have shown, the head of IRA internal security and the right-hand advisor to Gerry Adams have both been revealed as informants to the Crown at critical stages in the Troubles dating back to the mid-1970s, no wonder the IRA failed to bring about its idealistic goals of a 32-County socialist, secular republic.

Principles and prudence clashed with the brutal realities of torture, betrayal, and weakness as working-class men and women sniped and bombed an enemy on many fronts--the Protestant militia, Loyalist paramilitias, the local police, and the British army. (McKearney skims over another factor, violent feuds with the Provos' former Marxist comrades, as they splintered and turned against one another.) Yet, in McKearney's pragmatic explanation, the PIRA had no choice, abandoned by the Republic of Ireland who viewed the resurgent Republicans as "the real problem rather than a response to it".

The PIRA found arms from their old boys' network through those who had fought fifty-odd years before for a partial independence from Britain. Yet, at the heart of this book is McKearney's avowal that the real mission of the Provos was less to gain that delayed unification of Ireland and more an overthrow of the Six Counties, the Northern Irish statelet.

He compares the post-1998 expectations of the Provos since the end of their war to an imagined decision of Hamas to recognize Israel and to give up the refugees' "right of return". The Good Friday Agreement acknowledged with an all-Ireland vote (the first since 1918) that the island would for the present follow a "unity of consent" affording the Unionist majority in the North their right to ally with Britain. The Irish Republic abandoned its constitutional claim to jurisdiction over all of the island.

As with Anthony McIntyre (see my review of his "Good Friday" book) and other prominent opponents to this peace process, the objection of these peaceful radical Republicans comes not from any regression to a "fetish of armed struggle", but to the fact that the Republicans entering power in Sinn Féin have given up on any attempt to bring about any more than a vague aspiration towards national unity and socialism. Some who fought for the ideals of the Provos now feel that their leaders lied to them even as they sent them to fight or saw them off to prison, and have since then sold them out.

McKearney holds no romance for the Fenian cause, but he does remain driven by its energy. Sinn Féin's neo-liberal economics, status-seeking respectability, and patterns of suppression of dissent within Republican communities inspire McKearney to the revival of an earlier Irish radical dream, that of a more just society based upon a class-based, secular solidarity.

The hope of a transformed Ireland does not seem to appeal as much as it once had. The Irish Republic ends its national phase, content to govern three-fourths of the territory and to follow neo-liberal capitalism however cloaked in republican rhetoric. The rejection of "single-issue Republicanism" bent on one Ireland means that sectarianism in the North is solidified on Catholic and Protestant identification (a communal one that does not depend on religious affirmation; similar to the Jewish conception of themselves as a people and not only a religious entity).

For McKearney, a non-establishment version of Radical Republicanism perhaps represents the only hope. This book may not convince those unsympathetic to his vision. A marked understatement about what Republicans (if not herein) call "the physical-force tradition" reveals indirectly his own experience in the IRA. He never reveals his own story, but his combination of vivid characters called in to start each chapter as composite representations perhaps of what volunteers and fellow-travelers endured shows his ability to infuse with journalistic energy and a storyteller's skill the idealism and the agony (and a bit of welcome if droll wit) of the Republican who slogged through the streets and ditches in hopes of bringing about Irish freedom.

However, the horrors of assassinations and of bombings with or without warning, of vicious attacks on civilians, on children, on raw recruits as well as prison staff, on and off duty, does persist, if well outside of this narrative. Some readers may react to this passage with a range of feelings: "Whatever rationale the IRA offered for the imperative of acting as it did, many Protestant people viewed this campaign as a sectarian assault on their community. This anger in turn lent a semblance of justification from a Unionist point of view." There is a careful, diplomatic distancing within this phrasing. While McKearney throughout this book combines a short, powerfully imagined scene with a more academic analysis of the PIRA's campaign and tactics, the scholarly register here may speak to some skeptics of a continued reluctance to accept blame.

McKearney packs so much material expressing both progressive dreams and pragmatic strategies into such a brief time that one must come to him informed and alert. This is a compressed, demanding text, and the opening vignettes with their composite characters help to balance the intricate analysis in the rest of each chapter. Still, come to this with a prior knowledge of IRA tactics, history, and strategy to get the most out of this. It may be both too distanced in tone and advanced in approach to fully satisfy a reader wanting a simpler overview.

For advanced readers, this history, one that brings the impact of informers (if not the IRAs killing of supposed or real informers), elections North and South, and the continued economic meltdown of capitalism and neo-liberal policies inflicted upon the Irish population throughout the island, makes this a valuable and recommended study. Some anecdotal journalists or popular historians will prove easier guides to the entire story of the IRA (before and after its spats and splits). But for a contemporary analysis of the main IRA force in its forty years "from insurrection to parliament", from a participant not in a seminar but a cell, as an operative and not as a professor, as not a reporter but a volunteer and a leader of the IRA, this is the report worth pondering.
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A must have addition........ 24 Feb 2012
By W. Denis Hanley - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It is a must have addition to the library of anyone studying Irish Republicanism. I would like to first comment on the Introduction by Paul Stewart. There is no bio information on Mr Stewart or his connection to Republicanism. While certainly not trying to slight Mr Stewart, I found his writing style difficult to follow and he lost me at several points. I'll leave it at that.

The book itself, written by Tommy McKearney tells the story of the conflict with such depth of realization of the political consequences and stark reality which I have not encountered in the numerous books in my collection. I cannot find reference to Mr McKearney's political education nor any degrees achieved. Which I find a bit odd.
His perceptiveness of the effects caused by the decisions made/not made/paths taken/not taken by all parties involved and their subsequent effects on the eventual outcome of the conflict can only be gleaned come from the learned mind of someone who has lived through those times at close quarters.
I now have a better understanding of why the PIRA and Sinn Fein came to make the decisions they did. Right or wrong, premeditated or by destiny, Mr McKearney illuminates how the PIRA and Sinn Fein arrived where they are now, why they did not achieve all of what we and they expected and what the future may hold.
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