2009 interview with Tommy McKearney

This is the main part of an interview I did with Tommy McKearney back in 2009.  In the next few weeks the blog will get up a review of his excellent book on the Provos and their incorporation by the Brits.

Philip Ferguson: Could you tell us a bit about the Independent Workers Union in Ireland?  How did it begin?  What sections of workers does it try to organise?

Tommy McKearney: The IWU is a general trade union that organizes among all section of the workforce. It has, however, found that some workers are more open to recruitment than others. This has come about partly due to our origins and partly as a result of the current situation in the Irish workplace. The IWU was set up seven years ago in response to an attempt by bureaucrats in the trade union hierarchy, working we believe in concert with the employers and the state, to stymie criticism of the Social Partnership agreement. The strongest criticism of partnership was at the time emanating from the Irish leadership of the Irish region of the Transport and General Workers Union. To prevent this bureaucrat-orchestrated coup, a small craft union of operative butchers (i.e. counter hands who work for a wage) affiliated to the T&G in Munster broke away and rebranded itself as the Independent Workers Union. This new union arose out of difficulties within the T&G but established itself as a union fundamentally opposed to the partnership arrangement and as such neither sought to affiliate to the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) nor was it ever likely to be accepted under present conditions.

PF: Could you tell us about any successes the IWU has had?  What have been the main problems faced by the union?

TMcK: The main success the IWU has had is first in having established itself in the face of stiff opposition from the establishment and from the Partnership unions. We have for example,  a constant fight for workplace recognition yet have managed to survive. We have also made an impact with the migrant worker community who have found us more amenable to them than the larger union who are often only interested in dealing with large blocks of easy to organize workers. Thirdly, we have managed to create a profile for the IWU that while not enormous is visible and one that trade unionists disenchanted with the larger more conservative unions are aware of.  

Our main problem is one of resources. We have a small membership that in many areas is scattered and dispersed. We have difficulty servicing our members because we are still short of adequate financial resources to maintain enough full time officials.

PF: In NZ, a lot of top union officials are big advocates of ‘partnership’ with the bosses and the state.  They usually hold up the south of Ireland  as a model of the supposed achievements of this strategy.  Can you tell us about how workers in Ireland have really fared in recent years

TMcK: Social Partnership or Corporatism as it should more accurately be called, has helped the employers and entrepreneurs and speculators enormously.  For twenty years they have been assured a stable and agreed rate of wages in manufacturing and services. They have had almost no industrial unrest over that time and because the ICTU has been content to represent unionized workplaces without demanding universal union recognition,  foreign multi-national companies and local capitalist entrepreneurs have been able to set up and do business in Ireland while refusing to recognize unions. 

As a consequence, union density in the Irish private sector is now less than half of what it was twenty years ago. Moreover, we are now in a recession in Ireland and many of the foreign multi-national companies are leaving in search of cheaper labour and the Irish capitalists are cutting back on their workforces. In other words, trade union ‘restraint’ has  been accepted but with no reward for the workers.

The most damning aspect of the failure of Ireland’s Social Partnership arrangement however, is that while vast sums of money was made by business in this economy in the boom years, very little of it was invested in the infrastructure to provide a social wage for workers. We have a deeply flawed health service where over 50% of the Republic’s population feels it necessary to subscribe to expensive private health insurance, where corporation housing is almost non existent and workers are now threatened with mortgages they can’t maintain and face repossession, where care for the old is privatized  and prohibitively expensive and where our telecommunications infrastructure has been privatized and is now in the hands of a gang of Australian pirates who are under investing in the upgrades necessary to keep us level with global standards .

PF: Your political background is in the Irish Republican Army.  How did you move from the IRA to being an organizer for the IWU?

TMcK: Shortly after I was released from prison, the IRA called a ceasefire and most of its members concentrated their energies on progressing the organisations political agenda. I had been critical of this tendency for many years, not because it wanted to end the armed campaign but because in my opinion their politics were very reformist and centrist. I found no other political party that really reflected my outlook and instead focussing my attention on the then developing IWU trade union which was/is left of centre and has a range of different left political activists from different political parties within its decision makers.  I found working with the IWU practical and more rewarding than getting lost among the arguments of the marginalised left. 

PF: I believe you were also one of the founders of Fourthwrite magazine.  Could you tell us a bit about that?

TMcK: I was part of the original group that set up the left-republican magazine ‘Fouthwrite’ at a time when we thought there was an opportunity to influence a section of the republican movement towards developing a left wing critique of the Sinn Fein strategy and from which might grow a left wing party, or movement that would participate in the building of such a party. We were only partly successful in this. We were able to develop the critique but did not gather sufficient numbers to launch a significant political movement. However, since ideas and arguments are something that can last, our critique has not been entirely lost and others  are coming to see some merit in what we have been saying. Fourthwrite can be seen now as part of the process of transformation that has been necessary for republican Ireland as it moves dialectically forward with some elements getting stuck in the reactionary back waters of pure militarism, others opting for centrist reformism and another section trying to build a progressive left wing movement with momentum.

PF: As a socialist-republican critic of the incorporation of the Provos into the British state machinery in the north of Ireland, what do you think happened to the Provos?  How did they go from militant opponents of British rule to being part of the administration of British rule?

TMcK: I have come to view this as part of a dialectic process rather than as an act of dishonesty. Much of the Provos’ momentum came from popular discontent with the old Stormont state rather than a deep desire for an all Ireland republic and when the ancien regime was abolished and replaced with administration sharing allowing Sinn Fein into office, much of the Provo momentum dissipated. However a new set of circumstances demand new responses that can only be answered by a socialist republic and hence the dialectic wheel turns and leaves some behind and  others moving on to other areas of struggle.

PF: There are now a number of socialist-republican organisations, such as the Irish Republican Socialist Party and éirígí, and also many individual socialist-republicans, opposed to the pacification process in the north.  What prospects are there for joint action and for actually bringing the socialist-republicans together in a single movement?

TMcK: In the long run, all left wing and socialist groups and individuals must come together if any real progress is to be made. This is not an easy process as groups have to find their own way towards unity by their own volition.  The one thing that all groups have to accept is that none of the present parties or organisations as constituted are going to become the dominant group in a new structure. There is no Bolshevik party ready and waiting in Ireland and that if a new mass party of the working class is to emerge, all those presently in place will have to consider dissolving and merging or stand outside the process. There are precedents for a such a departure in other parts of Europe and they are worth examining for those of us in Ireland on the left. 

There are efforts being made to encourage unity but it will take time and effort. Circumstances often are the catalyst that encourages and impels people towards unity and the present economic crisis may help speed this process along. 

Posted on April 10, 2012, in 21st century republicanism and socialism, éirígí, Economy and workers' resistance, Independent Workers Union, Interviews, Irish politics today, IRSP, six counties, Trade unions, twenty-six counties. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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