The ex-IRA men: ‘United Ireland? It’s all guff’
A group of paramilitary veterans say Brexit won’t derail the peace process, violence won’t return, and they’ll never see a united Ireland
Brexit will not lead to a return to bloodshed in Northern Ireland, says one Provisional IRA veteran. Talk of a united Ireland is all guff, according to another. A third former republican paramilitary suggests that Ireland would be better off in an economic bloc with the UK rather than with the European Union.
These are among the surprising views expressed by a number of former hard men of republicanism, interviewed by The Irish Times for their unique insights into the thorny issues of Brexit and Northern Ireland’s future.
Three of the four are convicted killers or have served time in relation to a killing. The fourth was imprisoned for offences that included attempted murder. They were active in some of the bloodiest campaigns of the Troubles, and for three of them much of that activity took place along the Border.
Since June 2016, when the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, there has been much speculation about the risk to the Northern peace process. The fear that a hard Border along the UK’s only land frontier with the EU could stir tensions in Northern Ireland has focused minds not only in Belfast, Derry and Dublin but also in London and Brussels.
In initial papers filed last week both the British prime minister, Theresa May, and the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, referred to their desire to protect the peace process. May has said that the British do not want a return to the Border of old. Tusk has said that the EU will seek “flexible and creative solutions” to avoid a hard Border.
But these four veterans of the Provisional IRA’s armed campaign, who are all now critics of Sinn Féin policy, do not think that Brexit will derail the peace process. They see that threat as little more than a scare tactic to force the future of the 499km Border to the centre of the two-year Brexit negotiations.
Partition is going to become more obvious
“I think a lot of the concerns are exaggerated,” says Tommy McKearney, an IRA volunteer originally from Moy, in Co Tyrone, who was sentenced to life imprisonment for killing a part-time Ulster Defence Regiment soldier in 1976.
“Certainly, I think we can rule out the idea of a hard Border with British troops on the Border. That was not to do with economics. That was a security situation. I don’t think we are going to see that again.”
McKearney, one of the 1980 IRA hunger strikers who went without food for 53 days, sits in his Co Monaghan kitchen next to Colm Lynagh, sipping coffee and eating biscuits, reflecting on the unknown period with Brexit ahead.
Lynagh, a fellow republican, served eight years, from 1982 to 1990, in Portlaoise Prison over a charge related to the killing of a nightclub bouncer in Monaghan in 1981.
The two men have a long personal history linked to a time and territory around the Border that witnessed some of the region’s bloodiest episodes. Their brothers, Pádraig McKearney and Jim Lynagh, were among eight members of the IRA’s east Tyrone brigade killed by the SAS during an attack on an RUC station in the Protestant village of Loughgall, in Co Tyrone, in May 1987. It was the biggest single loss of life for the republican movement during the conflict.
Two more McKearney brothers died in the Troubles. Tommy’s older brother Sean was killed in May 1974 when a bomb he was planting at a petrol station outside Dungannon exploded prematurely. Another brother, Kevin, and Tommy’s uncle John, neither of whom was in the IRA, were killed by loyalist paramilitaries from the Ulster Volunteer Force in an attack on the family’s butcher’s shop, in Moy, in January 1992.
There is very, very little appetite among republican circles in the North for a resumption of any armed campaign. Why would article 50 change that?
While Brexit raises uncertainty around how the UK manages trade across a frontier running through those former battlefields, McKearney and Lynagh believe that the climate and conditions – the anti-Catholic discrimination and economic inequality – that ignited the Troubles no longer exist.
Even a few customs posts stopping HGVs crossing the Border would not change that, McKearney says. He considers threats of a return of the British army to Border towns like Aughnacloy as a “cheap shot” and the recent “pantomime” of mock Border checkpoints and anti-Brexit protesters dressing up in customs-officer uniforms as “the hysterical interpretation of what may happen”.
“There is very, very little appetite among republican circles in the North for a resumption of any armed campaign. Why would article 50 change that?” says McKearney. “The reality of it is that after 25 years of armed conflict there is less possibility of an armed campaign of any significance. There will always be a handful of people, but there is nothing can be done about that in any society. But as a community willing to return to armed conflict, there just isn’t an appetite for that.”
Lynagh adds, “There is a vested interest in hyping up the political impact and the scare tactics that it is going to open a hornet’s nest of dissident activity against British rule. I don’t see that.”
It is going to be very embarrassing for a lot of Irish political parties that almost pretended that partition was going. But the reality is that it is going to be more and more obvious
McKearney and Lynagh are dissenters, not dissidents; although they support the peace process they object to the policies pursued by Sinn Féin and some of their former comrades who moved into politics.
Lynagh is irked by the way political parties in the Brexit debate are portraying people in the Border counties as lawless Irish, similar to the people of Pakistan’s tribal areas, with a pathological predisposition to violence who “will rush out and go to war again because they can’t stand the sight of customs posts”.
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‘The EU is as imperial as Britain’
He believes that Brexit will instead encourage various shades of dissenting republicans to engage politically and that there is a chance of a postsectarian debate among unionists, republicans and nationalists, north and south, about what is in the best economic and sovereign interests for both parts of the island.
“This is the only concern for this area: how can we pacify them and stop them engaging in any violent activity? [It’s] not about what are their economic interests. It is hugely insulting,” Lynagh says as he picks nicotine gum from a wrapper.
Neither republican sees a great prospect of a united Ireland after Brexit.
“It is going to be very embarrassing for a lot of Irish political parties that almost pretended that partition was going. But the reality is that it is going to be more and more obvious,” Lynagh says. “The embarrassment is that a customs man might arrive and show that there is a Border.”
Both share left-wing views and believe that the interests of Border counties are not being well served by the European Union. McKearney argues that cross-Border economics has operated in a beggar-thy-neighbour way: Newry has over the years benefited at the expense of Dundalk, and vice versa, depending on currency fluctuations.
“This is not a land of milk and honey under the European Union. We have been neglected,” McKearney says, citing patchy broadband in parts of Co Monaghan as an example.
Lynagh refers to the high proportion of social-welfare recipients in Monaghan, the county’s “low-wage and no-wage economy” and his work distributing charity food to families. He goes so far as to propose an Irish exit from the EU, given the way that Brussels and the European Central Bank, in Frankfurt, landed Irish people with austerity and a hefty bill from the bank bailouts.
He recalls the “EEC No” signs that accompanied “Brits Out” graffiti around Monaghan when he was growing, up in the 1970s. Euroscepticism had a long history in the area, he says, before Ireland went into the EU.
The lifelong Irish republican even suggests that it could as easily be argued that breaking from the European Union and joining forces with the UK would make better economic sense for the country.
“The European Union is as much of an imperial power as – if not more than – Britain at the moment,” Lynagh says. “We are faced with the possibility of two foreign powers implementing the partition of Ireland, and where is the demand in Ireland to say, ‘What gives you the power to do this?’ ”
McKearney adds, “It is economic imperialism we are dealing with, as opposed to the imperialism that was so raw and so in our face under British imperialism. This is the infrastructure that the European Union has created, and concentrating on a customs post in Aughnacloy is taking us off the core argument.”
The Troubles were ‘ostensibly a failure’
Not far from that Border town is the home of Gerry McGeough, a former IRA man who calls himself a traditional republican rather than a dissident. He voted for Brexit in the hope that it would lead to a united Ireland through the disintegration of the UK.
“It was never going to be delivered by the normal means, by the Irish themselves, but it could come about through the break-up of the so-called United Kingdom,” he says as he sits in an armchair in his living room, in front of shelves of history books that reflect his past studies at Trinity College Dublin and his background in teaching.
We are an unruly people, and if there is an opportunity to be unruly again we will take it, but it will not be violence
Next to the living-room window, with its panoramic views of the farmland and gorse-filled hedgerows of this part of the Border, is an imposing portrait that shows the tradition of agrarian agitation McGeough hails from. It is of his great-grandfather Henry McGeough, a member of the Ribbonmen, the 19th-century society of often violent Catholic rebels.
Gerry McGeough, who is now a farmer, served time in German, US and Northern Irish prisons for paramilitary-related offences, including trying to buy Stinger surface-to-air missiles in 1983 with the aim of taking down British army helicopters. He was arrested in 1988 for crossing the Dutch-German border with AK-47 rifles in the boot of his car and charged with attacks on British soldiers based in Germany.
After breaking from Sinn Féin he stood as an independent republican in the 2007 elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly. He was arrested on the night of the count by the PSNI for the attempted murder of a part-time UDR soldier in 1981. He was sentenced to 20 years in 2011 but was released after two years, under the Belfast Agreement.
McGeough is a supporter of the peace process and now president of the Ancient Order of Hibernians in Co Tyrone. He does not see republican militarism rising up again over a post-Brexit hardening of the Border or a customs presence on country Border roads, although he does believe that it would hit “an atavistic nerve” among people who have grown accustomed to freedom of movement across the Border.
“I know from the old days there were very few people willing to do the business of fighting. I don’t see it has changed any bit since then,” he says. “I don’t see any bloodshed coming from our side. There may be little bits here and there, or attempts here and there, but nothing significant.”
He has vivid childhood memories of seeing the Moy Bridge and the road to his grandmother’s home in Monaghan lying in the Blackwater River after being blown up the night before by B Specials – members of the Ulster Special Constabulary quasi-military reserve.
The air of foreboding he once sensed when crossing the river into the North doesn’t exist today because the Border is imperceptible, he says. He thinks it would be silly of the British to build a hard Border again and potentially stir up those tensions. “We are an unruly people, and if there is an opportunity to be unruly again we will take it, but it will not be violence,” he says.
The British are sending a plausibly deniable mixed message. They are saying to us: if you want to go down that road we are not going to step in your way. They don’t throw away remarks like that
McGeough sees the Troubles as “ostensibly a failure”, but the UK government does not want a return to those days “any more than anybody on our side” does. He believes that the British had intended to withdraw from Ireland around the late 2030s, by when demographic trends would have led to an overwhelming nationalist majority.
Brexit may prove a catalyst for a much earlier withdrawal, he says, as he knows Protestants who are “soft Irish nationalists” and farmers who do not want to lose EU subsidies.
“The genie is out of the bottle, so you are not going to put it back in again, and at this point in time we are in the uneasy calm before the potential storm. I don’t mean that in terms of violence. I just mean in terms of chaos and upheaval – political, economic and otherwise.”
The Tyrone republican believes that Sinn Féin is wrong to propose a special status for Northern Ireland within the European Union. “They should be pushing instead for a united Ireland, that the day the UK leaves Europe is the same day they leave Ireland,” he says.
McGeough points to the “huge statement” last week by David Davis, the UK’s Brexit secretary – formally, secretary of state for exiting the European Union – who said that Northern Ireland would not have to reapply for EU membership as a new state if it voted for reunification with the Republic.
“The British are sending a plausibly deniable mixed message,” he says. “They are saying to us: if you want to go down that road we are not going to step in your way. They don’t throw away remarks like that.”
United Ireland? ‘It’s all guff’
Anthony McIntyre, an IRA man turned writer and historian who is another supporter of the peace process but critic of Sinn Féin, fails to see how a hard Brexit would fuel any new armed campaign, given that it was not the Border that brought the Provisional IRA into existence but the response in Belfast and Derry to the British army’s behaviour when it came to the North.
“You might have someone taking a potshot sometime, but if you are talking about a serious insurgency or a serious campaign, anything that remotely emulates the Provisional IRA’s campaign, it is not going to happen. What would it achieve?” McIntyre says in his home, on an estate in Drogheda, Co Louth.
“Somebody who might find it difficult to smuggle because of a Border post might go out and shoot a Border-post official? But somebody not being able to smuggle is not what revolutions are made out of. Nobody cares.”
The former IRA volunteer served 18 years in the Maze prison for the murder of a UVF man in Belfast in February 1976. Now he has a doctorate in political science and writes a lively blog, the Pensive Quill, firing off opinions on the peace process, among other topics, and offering a platform to others.
Anybody who has ever fought in the Provisional IRA, as distinct to those who hid in the Provisional IRA, or joined after the ceasefires, will never live to see a united Ireland
Dissidents who backed Brexit with the objective of destabilising the UK are not going to wage an armed campaign, he says. Although logically it makes more sense for Sinn Féin to start an armed campaign, “that is not going to happen – no chance,” he says. “Where’s the insurrectionary energy going to come from? The cops and the security services have been so on top of the armed republican groups that have been operating in the wake of the Provisional IRA. What have they achieved? Maybe a lot of huff and puff – but nothing is going to get blown down.”
McIntyre sees the argument that unionists would be better off economically in a united Ireland within the EU than they would in a post-Brexit UK as a “crass case of economic reductionism”. He pours cold water on the possibility of a nationalist majority in the North voting for Irish reunification in light of the unionists losing their majority for the first time in last month’s Assembly elections.
Unionist opposition to a united Ireland is, as he sees it, considerably stronger than nationalist opposition to staying within the UK if treated equally.
“Anybody who has ever fought in the Provisional IRA, as distinct to those who hid in the Provisional IRA, or joined after the ceasefires, will never live to see a united Ireland,” he says. “I think it’s all guff.”
As for the warnings made by diplomats, bureaucrats and Eurocrats about the threats to the peace process from Brexit, McIntyre says it is similar to Sinn Féin’s use of the peace process to expand its political influence, where “the process must always undermine the peace”.
“The peace process is dead if you can’t throw up the old monster of potential violence,” he says. “The peace process always has to be broken down, has to be in a state of crisis for it to be protected.”