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time Is Running Out For Republicanism
Between the unattractive alternatives of the Belfast Agreement and a return to war, there has to be a new way forward for the Republican movement. So says former IRA man and respected Republican TOMMY McKEARNEY. Interview: EAMONN McCANN PICS: CATHAL DAWSON
Eamonn McCann, 26 May 1999
The return of Stormont and the maintenance of the Union are total anathema. But it s a dangerous fallacy to imagine that going back to shooting and bombing is an alternative .
So says Tommy McKearney, a former IRA man from Tyrone, highly respected in Republican circles across the North. Now living in Monaghan and working for an ex-prisoners organisation, his rejection of both the Multi Party Agreement and of calls for another armed struggle might seem to leave him outside the running argument between Republican groups.
But there s a sizeable number of Republicans thinking on the same general lines, who accept the war is over but feel perturbed about the outcome.
The tensions were highlighted last month when Tommy objected to Sinn Fiin holding an Easter commemoration at the Tyrone graveside where members of his family who died in the struggle are buried. Scant press reports located Tommy in the camp of Republican Sinn Fiin and/or the Sovereignty Committee associated with Bernadette Sands and Francie Mackey of Omagh. This was something of, at best, an oversimplification.
In Monaghan last week, I asked him whether he saw the Agreement as a defeat for Republicanism.
At the time of the first ceasefire, when people drove in convoys up and down the Falls claiming victory, I used a phrase from Chou En Lai at the Paris negotiations on the Vietnam War you never gain at the conference table what you didn t take on the battlefield. It might be said that that reality was reasonably well reflected in the Belfast Agreement.
There is no room for self-delusion talking about something as serious as this. For Republicans, the battle was to break the Union. For me, the simplest analogy works best. When the Indians attack the cowboys, they have to take the fort. It doesn t matter how many Indians or cowboys are killed. If, when the film ends, the cowboys still hold the fort, the Indians have lost. To that extent, the IRA has lost. You can use the term undefeated , but when one side breaks off, and the other side holds on, well . . .
Then how come the broad mass of Republicans embraced the Agreement? What does that tell us about the Movement?
When I joined the IRA in 1971, the Provos weren t as well-defined as they were to become later. They used to train people to defend themselves and their areas, who might not follow the party line all the way. That allowed a certain democratic input, a blending with the people. When the decision came to stop that, to say instead, We will do the defending on your behalf , that represented a move back to the idea that a handful can take the decisions and then move the people forward.
But leaving aside the military dimension, didn t the shift from civil rights agitation to the IRA campaign represent a vindication of Republicanism and a major failure of the civil rights perspective?
The civil rights people left the vacuum which was filled by traditional Republicanism. They underestimated the genie in the bottle which they had uncorked. The Republicans were carried along by a popular will which they hadn t themselves generated. I don t think they understood why they suddenly got so much support. Some tried to rationalise it as recognition of the years they had spent in internment camps in the 40s and 50s, of their essential unwillingness to compromise. It was almost a religious experience. They had made sacrifices and prayed to the Lord for 40 years, now their prayers were miraculously answered. They weren t led towards any deeper analysis.
But they did have an analysis, and it did seem to fit at the time . . .
The Movement defined itself as the government of the people. The army council of the IRA could speak as a government, mandated by the 1916 Proclamation. But that was a concept which was always going to come into conflict with reality. All theory in the end stands or falls by being tested in practice.
As for the influx into the Movement, it wasn t that people had to make a decision to join the guerrillas in the mountains, had to consciously consider whether they were fully committed to the platform and agenda of this particular group. People were finding bullets flying about their heads and houses on their streets burning. You grabbed what was to hand to fight back. Many people were hurled into the Republican Movement, bringing with them a variety of reasons and perspectives.
As long as that wave of militancy and anger lasted, the Movement could get by. But when we moved into more difficult times, the ideas weren t there.
Sure, there were some who were in the classic Republican mould, from Republican families who had been committed to the cause long before the civil rights era. The family of the late Sean Keenan from Derry, a few in Belfast, a few dozen in Tyrone. They may have had a bigger electoral turn-out on occasion, but those with a hard-core approach were few and far between and their numbers never really increased.
Traditional Republican ideology was bandied about, and provided some sort of political coherence. But it was reflected more in clichis than in worked-out ideas Brits Out , which has now become almost a pejorative term. You hear it said, So and so s only a Brits Out Republican .
What were the implications of this contradiction? How did it work its way to the surface?
It was inevitable that a Movement that grew up on the back of the civil rights movement would pose problems in time for the iron ideologists. By the late 70s and early 80s, it was clear that the IRA army council was not speaking on behalf of the Irish people, no matter what the theory said. Other forces, the Dublin Government most obviously, could claim the loyalty and mobilise the majority of the people for or against the perspectives of the Republican Movement. The Unionist parties and the British Government held the allegiance of another substantial section of the Irish people. Ordinary practical reality began to seep in.
Then, because of the conditions of the Movement s formation, it was relatively easy for those who wished to move towards the parliamentary process to say that, actually, the armed struggle had always been only a tactic. And not surprisingly, those who objected were the old ideologues, represented by Ruairi O Bradaigh and so on. There was a great shortage of newer Republicans with radical ideas who could stand up and say, I don t necessarily agree with Ruairi s analysis, but neither do I accept that parliamentary reformism is the answer .
Is there an implication in this that Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness etc. manipulated the situation to contrive a sell-out?
I am generally reluctant to accuse people of treachery. The charge is too serious. The onus rests on those making that charge to produce the proof, and I don t have that proof. I can try to explain to myself how they might have come to the conclusion which they did. None of it represented a startling development in Irish politics the radical party, or a substantial part of it, deciding to switch to a policy of reform. Nor is it a peculiarly Irish thing.
There are simple things. People reach middle-age, and it has an effect. We all slow down. The question arises, Can we achieve anything concrete before we pass on? And there s the process of attrition. Over a number of years, a very much larger, better equipped and better financed enemy came to grips with the Provisional IRA and had worn it down. I d say the Provisional IRA s base has always been less than a quarter of a million strong: men, women and children.
What s his own view? Can the Republican leaders, however they arrived where they are today, surmount the decommissioning hurdle, go into an Executive, and retain radical credentials?
They are going to have great difficulty with decommissioning. I don t see an easy way out. My instinct tells me that Sinn Fiin has moved so far along this road it cannot easily retreat. Trimble is in a stronger position. The Dublin Government has said decommissioning must happen, plus the British Government,and the Americans, and the SDLP. Almost everybody standing around is, if not cheering for Trimble, basically agreeing with him. Sinn Fiin cannot appeal to the by-standers. It has nowhere to go.
We now have the argument being put by Niall O Dowd, Vincent Browne and so on, that perhaps they have been pushed too fast into this corner. What they are saying is, give them until the year 2000. But that isn t all that more tasty. The odds are stacked against Sinn Fiin. But in the end, the party has nowhere else to go .
So what do they do?
We have to look at what the SDLP is advocating. It s basically their game-plan which has been in operation for the last few years. Hume and his party have been able to hold the door open or closed for Sinn Fiin as it has suited them.
At the moment, the SDLP is advocating that 2000 will be the deadline, that meantime Sinn Fiin should be brought into the Executive with the proviso that if it doesn t deliver, the SDLP will pull the trapdoor on them. If there is to be movement, it will be along those lines. I can t see the IRA decommissioning this side of Sinn Fiin in an Executive. The risks are too great. But there will be decommissioning.
What about Sinn Fiin maintaining the line that decommissioning is undeliverable, but that a return to war isn t possible either, and so going into opposition, mobilising their people from outside the Executive to push their own agenda across the range of political issues?
That is an option. There were slight indications along these lines if you listened carefully to Easter speeches in mid and north Tyrone. This would have fewer pitfalls than premature decommissioning. But it would put Sinn Fiin into a semi-abstentionist position. And it would confine the party within the parameters of parliamentary activity, but without their hands on the levers of power. They would be in a netherworld, neither in opposition to the State nor controlling the State. That in turn might allow the SDLP to claw back support.
There s a new Sinn Fiin vote since the ceasefire, young middle-class people who would never back a party using force but who think the SDLP is a bit staid. If the SDLP gingered itself up it might just attract those people, since the difference between the two parties wouldn t be vast, and the SDLP would be in a position to deliver. So there are big difficulties with the option of Opposition. I think it has been considered, but it is far from risk-free .
Does he entirely rule out another phase of armed struggle? Some say a relaunched campaign would eventually win mass support as the Agreement fails to make any significant difference in the areas which sustained the armed campaign for so long.
It s not something which can be ruled out. But it won t be cultivated by the odd operation. It s not like growing potatoes, where you set a few and many come. Republicans have launched futile campaigns endlessly, over the last 100 years and more, and always and inevitably they have ended in calamity. What sometimes misleads Republicans is they believe it was their armed campaigns in the 40s and the 50s which gave them the credibility to launch another one in the 70s. Even yet, they haven t realised that the great influx in 69, 70 and 71 was almost an accident. My father has a great expression, How the cow killed the hare . He didn t get up in the morning and plan to do it. By the same token, the rise of the IRA in those years wasn t a result of their own planning.
A return to war is not a current option. If arms are to be invoked, the people as a whole must mandate it, and that means that the movement making war must be part of the people as a whole.
What does the future hold for the Republican Movement, then?
If Sinn Fiin remains within Stormont it will become indistinguishable from the SDLP. For all the talk of populations changing and Unionists becoming disenchanted so that within so many years there will be a nationalist-Catholic majority and they will vote the place out of the Union, I think that s crazy, a crazy count in the first place, plus it underestimates the politics of the matter. In that situation, Sinn Fiin wouldn t be the same party as it is today. Already we see the process of embourgeoisment under way.
As for the traditionalists, their ideology has remained frozen. I m not sure they will survive that long, politically. They don t want to look for the more radical ideas and impulses that can be found within Republicanism.
That brings us to the core question: is Republicanism dead, then?
After the battering we have all taken over the past ten years it s hard to know. But it would be premature to put it to bed. There are very positive elements in Republicanism. The anti-establishment instinct, the tendency not to be afraid to oppose the power of the State and its minions. And there is a myriad of issues that instinct can relate to.
As the purist elements define it, I do think Republicanism is running into the sand. On the other hand, if it is to be merely a form of parliamentarianism, then it will be no more than a label. We have reached a stage where the theoretical debate is crucial. If we do not have a clear, agreed set of ideas which go far beyond just holding on, either for the conditions for another round to be created, or for new institutions and some process of historical inevitability to carry us forward into the promised land, if nothing else emerges, then it s over. n