Fourthwrite for Irish Freedom

Against the Current, No. 91, March/April 2001

Stuart Ross interviews Tommy McKearney

“Ideas are the most important of weapons.” –Fourthwrite, Issue no.1 Spring 2000

Tommy McKearney, a native of Moy, County Tyrone, is a former republican prisoner and one of the founding members of the Irish Republican Writers Group (IRWG.)  He currently works with Expac — the Ex-prisoners Assistance Committee — in County Monaghan. Stuart Ross interviewed him last fall for ATC.

Stuart Ross: Can you give me a bit of background on the Irish Republican Writers Group (IRWG)? How did it come about?

Tommy McKearney: For many years now, there have been a number of left leaning republicans in Ireland — myself included — who believe that Sinn Fein’s [peace] strategy is flawed. We argue that Sinn Fein’s policy is one of parliamentary reform and that such a tactic is incapable of transforming what is essentially the undemocratic entity — the Northern Ireland state. As radical republicans we also believe that it is equally mistaken to promote blind militarism as an alternative to reformism.

Based on this analysis, we decided that it is of the utmost importance to encourage and facilitate the creation of a new republican platform in Ireland. Hence the establishment of the IRWG and the launch of the magazine Fourthwrite.

Q:  Did you expect Fourthwrite to cause as much controversy as it did?

A: To be honest, the IRWG was [surprised by] the publicity generated by the magazine. Many of the people associated with the magazine had grown used to controversy but they were still somewhat surprised. It did tell us that there is a real desire for a rational alternative to what is currently available to republicans.

Fourthwrite has already sparked an amazing amount of debate and discussion in republican circles. Indeed Sinn Fein has even felt compelled to launch its own analytical publication, Left Republican, in an attempt to cater to members who felt that debate in the party is stifled.

The real benefit of the magazine and of the IRWG though, has been to draw a number of different constituencies into the debate. We are finding a fresh interest from many republicans who had grown weary and disillusioned. We also find that many leftists and intellectuals are willing to enter into dialogue with us and that is a good thing. We even have pro-Unionist people willing to enter the debate and that’s extremely valuable. In all we are happy with the progress made to date but much more remains to be done.

Q: Danny Morrison, Sinn Fein’s former publicity director (1981-1990), reviewed the first issue of Fourthwrite in West Belfast’s Andersonstown News (3/13/00.) In that review, Morrison wrote:

“…many of the articles and analyses in the new magazine have been written by deeply committed republicans who fought and suffered for their convictions, and whose families also suffered. The magazine cannot be ignored — but neither are its views to he specially weighted because of the people from whom they originate. That their opinions might be thoroughly outnumbered by the diametrically opposed views of other ex-lifers, ex-blanketmen or ex-hunger strikers, in support of Sinn Fein policy, does not invalidate the arguments expressed in Fourthwrite. Everyone else might be wrong.”

Here, Morrison singles out the ex-prisoner community — a community that is a very important part of the Sinn Fein constituency. In your work with ex-prisoners, do you find a strong support for Sinn Fein’s peace strategy?

A: Your question raises a number of points.  First is the identification by Danny Morrison of the ex-prisoner community. Significantly, Danny Morrison fears that our opinions might be “specially weighted because of the people from whom they originate.”  He views our impact through its emotional content and not its logical power. In many ways this allows him (and his colleagues in Sinn Fein) to evade the issues and concentrate on personalities.

This is quite a common tactic used by Sinn Fein and it illustrates our point that open debate and intellectual analysis are of crucial importance and that options should not be decided as a result of soundbites and half-truths.

The second point is that the “peace process” and the “political process” are not identical. After thirty years of a brutal and desperately unequal war with a powerful enemy, the vast majority of republicans — including “ex-lifers, ex-blanketmen or ex-hunger strikers” — are content to have an end to war and conflict and the suffering and death that it brings in its wake.

One should not confuse this as support for the political process. In truth, there is little enthusiasm for the new Sinn Fein strategy at ground level. There is, instead, a weary acceptance. In this respect, ex-prisoners are no different to the rest of the republican community — they share the views and hopes of their friends and neighbors.

Q: One of the many things that distinguishes you and other members of the Irish Republican Writer’s Group from other so-called “republican dissidents” has been your critique of the armed struggle. In fact, you’ve said that it’s a “dangerous fallacy” to imagine that armed struggle is the alternative to the Good Friday Agreement. How do you go about convincing disillusioned republicans that the politics of physical force isn’t the way forward?

A: The glib answer might be to refer them to the outcome of the last twenty-five years. There is though, a deeper answer than that. Irish republicans have often had armed insurrection forced upon them rather than something they have sought out as a first option. That certainly was the case with many of my generation of republicans.

Many young republicans in the late 1960s were very willing to try street politics for example and there is no reason to believe that a similar outlook would not come about again. It was fashionable until recently to say that idealistic young people on the streets was a thing of the past. However, look at the return of young folk to the streets for the anti-WTO, anti-capitalist rallies recently and ultimately, Irish people are the same as people anywhere.

The problem for us is to find an effective means of bringing about change that does not depend on force. This will of course involve a huge amount of “brainstorming” by republicans but the essence of any such strategy must involve the basic steps of withdrawing consent to be governed by the present regime/system.

Q: Months before the Good Friday Agreement was signed — indeed, months before the IRA ended its 1994 cease-fire — journalist Eamonn McCann argued that “in and around the republican movement there is very little sense of how much they gave away in order to get Clinton on their side.” (Northern Ireland Report, 5/96) In your opinion, what effect has “the Clinton factor” had on the Republican Movement?

A: A U.S. president has, among his many roles, the task of acting as CEO of USA Ltd. He is therefore charged with securing the prosperity of American investment and financial interests abroad. Bill Clinton is very aware of his responsibilities in the economic field. He did after all popularize the expression “it’s the economy stupid.”

When the Eastern Bloc countries collapsed in the 1980s, the United States took the lead in creating a New World Order. In order to secure a stable New World Order the United States has endeavored to obtain settlements to many long running and potentially destabilizing trouble spots. Free from the pressure of the old cold-war days, the United States was and is able to seek out more consensus-based resolutions than was previously the case. Such settlements remain nevertheless, within parameters agreeable to USA Ltd. and its closest allies.

So when Adams and McGuinness [Sinn Fein leaders] sought the help of the Whitehouse, they found that this assistance comes at a price.

The price is not, as some conspiratorialists imagine, making Ireland the 51st state. The price, however, is to cease making a “disturbance” and reach an arrangement no matter what the cost. In this case it was for republicans to accept the Northern Irish state in return for a part on the administration of the area.

Q: Of course, if we’re going to talk about any social change, we need to talk about activism and social movements. Republicanism seems to be in retreat on this front — street politics have given way to electoral politics. What issue(s) might remobilize the republican grassroots?

A: As I’ve mentioned in reply to an earlier question, Ireland is not oblivious to international events and trends. The effects of globalization will impact on Ireland in two ways. First in the importation of cheap consumer goods manufactured by immorally exploitative use of Third World labor and secondly when our multinational employers find an alternative and even cheaper source of Hi-Tech labor somewhere else and move their factories away from Ireland.

Irish people can be made aware of the nasty exploitative side of globalization and motivated towards doing something about it as a preliminary step. The real test of course, will come when, for any of a number of reasons, the current Irish economic boom peters out. At the moment there is no obvious sign of developments apart from an encouraging awareness among the young about and around the WTO and other issues relating to globalization. We have nevertheless to keep our feet on the ground about these developments. They are still at an early stage of their growth.

Q:  And what of the younger generation of republican activists? Are you encouraged by what you see and hear?

A: So long as we are talking about young republicans and not confining our examination to Ogra Sinn Fein [Sinn Fein Youth& — the youth wing of the party], then I am encouraged by their progress overall. In the long run, Irish republicanism has never been disappointed in the youth of this country. If conditions are correct and are cultivated and if the proper means are used to effect change, the young people will carry out the necessary tasks.

In March of last year, the IRWG published the first issue of its quarterly journal, Fourthwrite. Copies of the magazine may be obtained by writing to: FOURTHWRITE, PO BOX 31, Belfast, Ireland BT127EE. It is also on-line at:

ATC 91, March-April 2001