Books on the ira and its political wing Sinn Féin have tended to fall into one of three categories.footnote1 Journalists who spent their careers reporting on the Troubles in Northern Ireland have produced general histories of the republican movement, along with studies of particular regions (South Armagh), topics (the 1981 hunger strike) and leaders (Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness). In more recent times, academic historians have tilled the same ground hoping to achieve greater depth and perspective now that the dust of conflict has settled and government archives have begun to yield their secrets. Veterans of the ira themselves have usually preferred to work through their experiences in the form of memoir and autobiographical fiction. They can draw on a distinguished literary heritage—some of Ireland’s finest twentieth-century writers, including Séan Ó’Faoláin, Frank O’Connor and Brendan Behan, were graduates of the ira—and have enriched our understanding of the movement’s history. But few have set out to deliver a broad account of the ira that transcends their own role in the ‘long war’. Fewer still have brought the story up to date by analysing the current political set-up in Northern Ireland, which sees the ira’s former leadership helping to govern a territory that remains firmly encased within the United Kingdom while ‘dissident’ republicans seek to reignite the struggle against British rule.

Tommy McKearney’s new work The Provisional ira: From Insurrection to Parliament breaks with the established pattern, drawing on the author’s career as a republican militant without referring directly to his experiences during the conflict. McKearney joined the ira in rural Tyrone while still a teenager and soon became the commander of his local unit. He received a life sentence in 1977 for the killing of an off-duty soldier (the conviction was secured by an unsigned confession that McKearney has always denied making). Fellow inmates of the Long Kesh H-Blocks have referred to McKearney as the prison’s self-taught historian, shouting lectures on Bismark and Napoleon to the rest of the wing through gaps in the cell walls. By the time he was released in 1993, McKearney had spent almost two months on hunger strike and lost three brothers to the conflict. He had also broken with the ira, and now works as a journalist and trade union organizer. McKearney’s first publication traces the history of Ireland’s secret army from the civil rights campaign of the 1960s to the southern general election of February 2011. It is not a comprehensive study of the Provisionals, but touches on all the key issues in their journey from internment camps and safe houses to the corridors of power. Although McKearney has chosen not to write another first-person narrative of the Troubles, his partisan views are clearly expressed: the book offers both a staunch defence of the ira against its traditional opponents, and a critique of the movement from a left-wing perspective. It is as deplorable as it is unsurprising that McKearney has yet to find a reviewer in the broadsheet press on either side of the Irish border.

Before addressing the birth of the Provisional ira in the late 1960s, McKearney describes the nature of the political system which it confronted. Ever since its foundation in 1920, Northern Ireland’s government had been ‘an anomaly, an aberration and a relic of empire’. Although the region was an integral part of the United Kingdom, Westminster absolved itself of any responsibility for Northern Irish affairs, delegating power to the local Stormont assembly and allowing the Unionist Party to do as it pleased with its permanent electoral majority. The system which Unionist politicians created was based on ‘an unwritten and perverted form of social contract between a Protestant elite and a Protestant working class’ that granted the latter group preferential treatment: ‘This did not mean that all Protestants became wealthy or even comfortable. What it did mean was that they received first refusal on what little was available in terms of employment, housing and local government influence.’ Systematic discrimination against the Catholic minority was overseen by a predominantly Unionist civil service that was unable to deliver the ‘sine qua non of a properly functioning bureaucracy’, namely even-handed treatment of citizens. A militarized police force was also saturated with the Unionist ethos and ‘incapable of providing an agreed service to the public’.

It is no longer controversial to speak of discrimination under the old Stormont system: all of the major political forces involved in the conflict have accepted that there can be no return to the status quo ante, although Unionist politicians are still liable to dismiss talk of Catholic disadvantage as exaggerated or imaginary. More commonly the sectarian practices of Unionist rule are attributed to paranoia: fearing Catholic domination and British treachery, the Unionists responded with misguided yet understandable suspicion of the large minority within their borders hostile to the existence of the state. In contrast, McKearney discerns a far more calculated strategy intended to block the emergence of class politics. Belfast had seen two major strikes in 1907 and 1919 that brought Catholic and Protestant workers into confrontation with the local bourgeoisie. The industrialists and landowners who dominated the Unionist hierarchy feared that ‘any dilution of the bond between working-class and ruling-class Protestants would risk the future of the state’. Sectarianism was an invaluable weapon in their hands and ensured that Northern Ireland would have the weakest labour movement in Western Europe, its vast shipyards and engineering works never spawning the militant trade unionism to be found across the Irish Sea in Glasgow and Liverpool.

This view certainly accords better with historical evidence than the more benign explanation of sectarian practices. If Unionist politicians had simply been concerned about the threat of absorption by a Catholic-majority state in the South, it would have been wise for them to neutralize any potential fifth column by extending their hand to the Catholic middle class and its representatives. Radical nationalism had always been weaker among northern Catholics than in the rest of the country: the Home Rule Party continued to hold its own against Sinn Féin in Ulster after it was routed everywhere else. If nationalist politicians had been slow to respond to any conciliatory gestures, the Catholic hierarchy would have applied pressure in the right places, keen as it was to establish a modus vivendi with state power. Yet this would have meant discarding the shield of communalism in the face of challenges from below. The most destructive bouts of sectarian violence before the modern Troubles came after brief episodes of class conflict, following the engineering workers’ strike of 1919 and radical unemployment protests during the Great Depression. In both cases, senior figures in the Unionist Party beat the Orange drum as loudly as they could in a successful bid to exorcize the spectre of working-class unity. They assumed that sectarian conflict would be easier to manage than the class struggles raging elsewhere in the capitalist world. For half a century, the gamble paid off.