The former republican prisoner and hunger striker Tommy McKearney was the central character in the recent RTE broadcast Leargas. His sister Margaret and wife Patricia also featured. The producers sought to trace the history of a man whose family roots burrowed deep into the republican tradition. While not the intention of Leargas it was difficult not to notice the contrast between McKearney’s tradition based republicanism and the historicism it lends to his thinking and that of Provisional republicanism with its periodised and virtually postmodernist instinct for the immediate and fleeting. Tommy McKearney grew up with a strong awareness of much of what had gone before him whereas, by way of illustration, Gerry Kelly’s professed reason for becoming a republican was based on the necessity of the moment and had little to do with Wolfe Tone or things like that.
This is not a value judgement on either man. Each did what they thought right at the time. Both sustained terrible hardship, displayed no small amount of personal courage and continue to this day to pursue with vigour their own respective brand of politics. What the above observation on origins does suggest is that if a person grows up steeped in the republican tradition their attachment to traditional republican values is likely to be much stronger than those whose sense of republicanism stretches back no further than the Provisional phase. This underlines the extent to which traditional republicanism and Provisional republicanism are divided by as much, if not more than unites them. In a matrix of shared sentiment and motivation I would find my own origins nearer to Kelly than McKearney, never having considered myself as much other than a Provisional republican.
When it comes to analysing the shortcomings of Provisional republicanism McKearney’s rather than Kelly’s perspective tends to prevail. Provisional republicanism’s ability to look long and hard at other positions becomes short and mushy when looking inward. There is an internal coherence and intellectual consistency to McKearney’s critique quite often lacking in the perspective of those who continue to adhere to the Sinn Fein worldview. Within the latter the joints are all too often exposed under the microscope of even minimal investigation as the gap between objectives sought and those gained expands exponentially.
Little of this came through in Leargas. The emphasis was on a life inextricably linked to tragedy and suffering. How must Mrs McKearney feel to walk past the cemetery at the bottom of her street knowing that three of her sons are buried there, not one of whom lived out their thirties? The one sure natural order has been subverted. How must Margaret McKearney feel being unable to visit the graves of her siblings? How must Tommy McKearney feel about his brothers - the men he mentally sees as young boys and playmates locked into the un-childlike stillness of the grave?
What Leargas did achieve was to undermine that ideological binary construct which clearly separates and polarises participants in the conflict into victims and inflictors. Tommy McKearney undoubtedly inflicted pain throughout the years of his involvement in the Provisional IRA. But both he and his family sustained grief the magnitude of which visits the rest of us only in our nightmares.