Irish Workers Group, 1966-68

[This is a repost from Cedarlounge, 15 October 2009]

Of the other elements involved perhaps it is worth mentioning the Irish Workers Group, which is a revolutionary Socialist group which aims to mobilise the Irish section of the international working class to overthrow the existing Irish bourgeois states, destroy all remaining imperialist organs of political and economic control and establish an all-Ireland Socialist Workers Republic. The leader is Gerard Richard Lawless of 22 Duncan Street, London, a former member of the I.R.A who was interned by the Government of the Irish Republic in 1957. Eamon McCann of 10 Gaston Square, Londonderry, a prominent participant in the unlawful procession, is chairman of the Irish Workers Group in Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland membership includes Mr. Rory McShane of 14 Upper Crescent, Belfast, who was prominent in the formation of the so-called Queen’s University Republican Club.” (William Craig, 16 October 1968, Stormont Papers, Vol.70 (1968), p.1022)

Copy of Irish Militant, May 1966, here. (5MB)

Copy of Workers’ Republic, May-June 1967, here (note:38MB)

The Irish Workers Group (IWG) was formed in London in 1966, out of the divisions within the Irish Communist Group. It is argued by D.R. O’Connor Lysaght that the IWG was the first active Trotskyist group to establish itself in Ireland since the Revolutionary Socialist Party of the 1940s. This does not mean that the origins of modern Irish Trotskyism lie within the IWG – the SWM/SWP and Militant/Socialist Party, who arrived in the 1970s, are both outside its borders, while the Socialist Labour League had activists in Ireland contemporaneous to the IWP – merely that it is pivotal to any understanding of the Trotskyist movement on the island. Indeed, in terms of personnel, if not quite ideology, it is possible to trace the IWG in 1967 to the present-day Workers Unemployed Action Group in Clonmel, as well as Socialist Democracy.

The IWG may not have been the only Trotskyist group in Ireland, but what made it a step apart from the others was the fact that it had been set up by Irish émigrés in London and brought back to Ireland by Irish people. Almost all other groups I have come across so far were essentially branches of already-established British movements. Whether this lessens or strengthens the authority of the IWG in Irish Trotskyism, I don’t know. However, it is a fact, and needs to be acknowledged.

In 1967 the IWG published its Manifesto, available here.

As regards the story of the IWG, there are two main written accounts. One is by Seán Matgamna, who was a member of the group for a short time, and D.R. O´Connor Lysaght, who wrote an article sometime in the 1980s on the history of Irish Trotskyism.

Matgamna’s account is available on Workers’ Liberty, here. He takes issue with a lot of what O’Connor Lysaght says, particularly with regard to Gery Lawless, for whom Matgamna seems to carry a personal disregard.

Matgamna makes a few claims about Gery Lawless regarding the time Lawless was interned in the Curragh – claims that are unfounded as this article by John McGuire of the University of Limerick makes clear. Matgamna also makes claims about Lawless’ case against Ireland in the European Court of Human Rights. However, a reading of the actual case shows that Matgamna, on this point, is again somewhat less than accurate.

O’Connor Lysaght’s account is not freely available, and so I’ve taken the liberty of reproducing an extract from his article where he deals with the IWG.

Similarly, ‘The Origins of Trotskyism in Ireland’ by Ciaran Crossey and James Monaghan,although available, is hard to find. The last six paragraphs which deal with the re-emergence of Trotskyism in Ireland after 1958 is reproduced after O’Connor’s article below.

I believe, but I am not certain, that membership of the IWG included the following: Gery Lawless, Eamonn McCann, Liam Daltun, Michael Farrell, Joseph McAnna, Bairbre McCluskey, James Lynch, Anne Murphy, and Paddy Healy.

By the way, both extracts claim that Gery Lawless was instrumental in establishing the Irish Workers Union. From conversations with one person who was in the Irish Workers Union at the time, and with another who knew some of the people involved, this does not appear to be the case. However, Lawless was certainly a member of the Irish Workers Union, and an active one at that.

Here’s what O’Connor Lysaght has to say on the IWG. As always with this series, all comments and clarifications gratefully received.

[From 'Early History of Irish Trotskyism' by D.R. O'Connor Lysaght.]

“Although the Republican movement had adopted an economic and social programme [in the 1950s] it was little more political than it had been during the Emergency. Many, particularly in Dublin, chafed at this conservatism. Others, in Co. Tyrone (Saor Uladh) wanted especially to hasten the military struggle. The two dissident groupings broke with mainstream Republicanism and came together around the demand for more action, both political and military. Before the new body could be named, it was destroyed by Government repression. Even then, its members’ search for revolutionary politics had produced a man who has as such claim as anyone to the title of father of modern Irish Trotskyism, embarrassing as it may be to his child.

The man was Gerry [sic] Lawless. He learnt about Trotskyism in the Curragh prison camp where he read the documents of the Fourth International fifth world Congress. On his release, he had to leave Ireland for Britain. There he served a political apprenticeship with the S.L.L. [Socialist Labour League]. In 1963, sections of the International Committee to which the S.L.L. was affiliated, reunited with their opponents, the International Secretariat to form a United Secretariat of the Fourth International (U.S.F.I.). The S.L.L. did not support this move. Lawless did so, partly out of dissatisfaction with the Leagues´greater British chauvinism.

Though he broke with it, he did not join the U.S.F.I. which was probably his single biggest mistake. Instead, he sought to build an Irish Trotskyist group that could not take sides in the International (and even at that time more confusingly the British) Trotskyist controversies. In this course, he made strange bedfellows among London Irish immigrants. First he formed an Irish Workers Union. Then he combined with the Maoists who would constitute the so called Irish Communist Organisation (now the B.I.C.O.) in an Irish Communist Group. When this last split into Trotskyist and Stalinite [sic] parts in late 1965, the former founded the Irish Workers Group (I.W.G.) which brought Trotskyism back to Ireland at last.

The I.W.G.´s Dublin branch was founded in May 1967. A few months later, it initiated a branch in Belfast which included Michael Farrell. Another branch was started in Dundalk. The group oriented towards the Labour parties on both sides of the border. This was justified by a somewhat Stalinophobic attitude to the Stalinites who had taken over the Republican movement after the border campaign collapsed in 1962. However, it was corect for other reasons. The Labour youth movements were wide open. Furthermore the new social hyper-activity of the Republicans was kept within the perimeters of the Stalinite concept of rigorously controlled revolutionary stages, the current one being that of (anti-landlord) bourgeois revolution. Outside Bray, Co. Wicklow, this did not pay dividends. It would be the six county crisis from 1969 that revived Irish Republicanism, even if, in doing so, it split it. On the other hand, the IWG’s contribution reflected also among its members a variation of the traditional theoretical weakness of the Irish left. Ignorant of the 1944 [theses]

[part missing]

… of the Irish international question. In common with nearly everyone, including most Republicans, they expected a peaceful end to partition.

This weakness affected the way the IWG split in 1968. To strengthen the group’s politics, Lawless had brought in Seán Matgamna and his comrades of Workers Fight, a British group with a history of political analysis of a sort. Matgamna showed himself a prolific theoretician but one as weak as anybody on the National Question, in particular on the EEC. He wrote an article for Irish Militant (the IWG’s agitational paper) in which he posed as a fighting slogan “in or out of the Common Market, the struggle goes on.” Anticipating opposition, he made a pre-emptive strike. He proclaimed a faction around the demand for a homogeneous organisation, which meant in his concrete interpretation, expelling Lawless. In the resulting struggle, the three issues were, in order of importance, the national question, party building, and Lawless, but the volume of the debate as in reverse ration.

Matgamna and his allies, including Patrick (Paddy) Healy, were defeated in the group as a whole. They withdrew on St. Patrick’s Day 1968 and Healy formed the League for a Workers’ Republic. The minority had won a majority of the Dublin branch. The IWG was unable to reform before the civil rights agitation in Northern Ireland reached a critical phase. The Belfast members of the group had tended to be alienated from Leninism by Matgamna’s appeal to its tenet to justify anything he wanted to do. On 7th October 1968 they broke with the IWG to form a much more promising but distinctly non-Leninist mass organisation on the lines of the mass centrist bodies that had appeared in contemporary Europe as a result of the uprisings the previous May. The new body was Peoples Democracy. Its birth was, in fact, the end of the IWG, though it was not liquidated officially until May 1969. It seems also to have been the end of Gerry Lawless’ consistent career as an Irish revolutionary as distinct from a British revolutionary supporting the Irish struggle.”

Here’s what Ciaran Crossey and James Monaghan have to say about the re-emergence of Trotskyism in Ireland.

['The Origins of Trotskyism in Ireland' by C.Crossey & J.Monaghan, Revolutionary History, vol.6, No. 2/3, 1996]

“towards the end of the 1950s, the Socialist Labour League from Britain did recruit a few individuals in Ireland, but nothing substantial came of this. This toehold did develop later into an apparently substantial SLL group here which worked in the Northern Ireland Labour Party. They quickly established control of the Young Socialists, which they ran for the next two years. They also had a base in the Draughsman’s Union in the shipyards. A leading recruit from the Communist Party of Great Britain in the late 1950s was Brian Behan, brother of Brendan. Behan was an industrial organiser for the CPGB in the building industry, and continued in this role for the SLL. He developed anarchist ideas, and split during a dispute with the SLL leadership, taking the Dublin branch with him.

Unfortunately, the ultra-left policies of the SLL in general were also applied here, so that in 1964 the SLL and the Young Socialists walked out of the NILP and into the political wilderness. Considering that the 1960s saw the development of civil rights agitation, the Loyalist reaction to it, and the growth of worldwide politicalisation, it is shocking to see the SLL was nowhere to be seen. An organisation which allegedly had widespread support in 1964 had collapsed by 1966, had only a few individuals in 1969, and made no impact on events, although branches of the SLL existed in Derry, Belfast and Dublin, at least in paper.

apart from the SLL, attempts to revive Marxism in Ireland were centered around Gery Lawless. Lawless was a Republican prisoner in the 1950s, and whilst inside read a range of socialist material. Upon his release he ended up in England where he initiated the Irish Workers Union and then the Irish Communist Group. This was a mish-mash of different political strands, including some who later ended up establishing the Irish Communist Organisation, which subsequently developed into the British and Irish Communist Organisation.

The ICG split in late 1965 into its Maoist and Trotskyist wings. The Trotskyist wing, the Irish Workers Group, existed for a period in Britain, but without any support in Ireland. In its early period, the IWG held a number of discussions with the Militant group in Britain. When the debate inside the IWG developed over Maoism, Brendan Clifford wrote documents attacking Trotskyism and the application of the theory of permanent revolution to Ireland. The relpy was written for the Trotskyist faction by Ted Grant, who was at the time the political editor of the Militant newspaper. A slightly abridged version is available in Ted Grant’s The Unbroken Thread.

By May 1967 the IWG had set up a branch in Dublin, to be followed a few months by the Belfast branch, and then one in Dundalk. They set up a paper called the Irish Militant (nothing to do with the later group), and a theoretical journal, Workers Republic. The IWG lasted a short period before it collapsed in late 1968. It suffered two splits that year. After a factional discussion on threetopics – the national question, party building, and Gery Lawless and his role in the organisation, the minority faction withdrew on 17 March 1968 to set up the League for a Workers Republic. This faction was led by Seán Matgamna and Paddy Healy, and took the majority of the Dublin branch of the IWG. Disillusioned by the in-fighting the IWG and attracted by the potential mass student movement in the North, the Belfast branch effectively ceased operating when they joined the newly developing Peoples Democracy in ctober 1968. This was a radical youth group in and around the Civil Rights Association. I think it could best be described as radical, but definitely not a Marxist group, with some of its leadership describing themselves as ‘post-Marxist’.

The League for a Workers Republic built up its base through the growing Young Socialist organisations which seem to have been semi-formal sections of the two Labour parties. In the North the left wing of the NILP and the Young Socialists moved in a number of directions. Eamon McCann is now one of the leaders of the Socialist Workers Movement, whilst some of those active in Derry YS joined the Militant.

By the early 1970s there were a number of groups claiming to be Trotskyist: the League for a Workers Republic, the League for a Workers Vanguard, the Movement for a Socialist Republic, Militant and the Socialist Workers Movement, as well as possibly some other grouplets.”

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[John Palmer writes, 15 October 2009]

Just one slight correction to this history. Gery Lawless did not “initiate” the Irish Workers Union. Indeed when the IWU was set up on the initiative of the Irish/Australian syndicalist, Michael Callinann in the run of 1959/1960 I am not sure that Gery Lawless was even in London. Gery L. was on the periphery of the IWU in its closing stages – prior to the establishment of the Irish Workers Group which was founded on a much more explicitly Trotskyist basis.

[Nollaig O writes, 16 October 2009]

am pleased to see the IWG getting the long overdue attention on CLR. Thanks, Conor, for your efforts.
Maybe this could be followed up soon with some of the writings produced by the RMG/MSR in the 1970s.
There are many problems with certain account here and regretfully, I would have to describe Raynor’s account of the 1950s/early 1960s as disappointing.

First I should repeat, as I said recently on CLR, that I do not have personal experience of these groups. I moved to London permanently in late 1969 by which time the Irish Workers Group [IWG] had disintegrated, although I did meet many of the participants and had the opportunity to read many of the documents. I never heard about the Irish Workers Union [IWU] of the early 1960s until I read the Matgamna / John Palmer correspondence about the IWU on the AWL website in early 2008.
My concerns are mainly with the Gery Lawless odyssey. The description, a character, is totally inadequate to describe him. This anecdote from an early meeting I had with him should give a flavour of the man:

During the PD Jan1969 march from Belfast to Derry, the Roddy McCorley monument was damaged by explosives. To most of us at the time, this was clearly part of the vicious Loyalist harassment of the march but apparently not! Lawless was on the march (see Bernadette Devlin: Price of my Soul). He explained to me some months later:
“We needed the Republican Towns west of the Bann to turn out in support. I knew, from my time in the Sperrin Mountains during the 50s campaign with Liam Kelly, that if one town turned out then the rest would follow suit. Maghera turned out because Toome had turned out. The reason that Toome had turned out was that the Roddy McCorley monument had been blown up the previous night…”
[Dramatic pause, much body language]!!!

So often the claims , like the Burntollet March anecdote, are either humorous but far fetched or they fit very awkwardly into a timeline.
• The Curragh radicalisation:
This is an old refrain of Gery’s:
There he was in the Curragh, wrestling with the conundrum of the successful launching of Sputnik and the bloody suppression of the Hungarian uprising. How could a social system show such economic achievement on the one hand but engage in such bloody suppression on the other hand? Into his lap falls a pamphlet on the 20th Congress of the CPSU by the American Trotskyist, J P Cannon. In that document was the explanation that cut the Gordian knot, the degenerated workers’ state theory! [I have been unable to locate this "document" in the Internet Archives]. Lysaght also has him studying the documents of the 5th World Congress of the Fourth International (Pablo / Mandel branch) in the Curragh. The Congress met in October 1957 and, according to the Maguire document, Lawless left the Curragh in December 1957 – documents must have arrived by personalised expressed delivery!
• Gery’s early days in Britain:
Again there are problems with the Lysaght account which John Palmer has already noted:
In spite of being inspired by documents of the rival FI in the Curragh, we are told that he ends up in the SLL till 1963 – then he founds the IWU! We have sources in the Matgamna / John Palmer correspondence indicating that the IWU existed prior to that and that Michael Callinan was the probable founder. [Catholic Herald, 5th Feb 1960; Newsletter, early 1960]. There were also old claims from that period about Gery being abroad and involved with the Algerian War of Independence. Also he had the little matter of the international court case! In fact I would be interested to see if any written sources from the time can link him to either the SLL or the IWU.
• Matgamna allegations:
Seán makes two very serious political allegations about Gery Lawless:
(1) He was a supporter of Maria Duce and (2) he “signed out” of the Curragh in the 1950s.

The Maguire document deals with the latter less serious charge:

On 16th August 1957 G.R. Lawless was informed that he would be released provided he gave an undertaking in writing “to respect the Constitution and laws of Ireland” and not to “be a member of or assist any organisation which is an unlawful organisation under the Offences against the State Act, 1939.” G.R. Lawless declined to give this undertaking….
……….a compromise in relation to the government’s constitutional undertaking was reached with the Attorney General, Andriais O’Caoimh. Lawless, who stated that he could not respect the Constitution owing to religious objections, consented to give a revised form of the undertaking, in which he agreed to ‘obey’ as opposed to ‘respect’ the Constitution…..

So Gery did not “sign-out” in the usual meaning of the term.

The evidence for the former charge, according to Seán, are statements allegedly made by Lawless at the trial. Seán’s gives a source without giving the quote. I found it impossible to locate the “source” on the internet. However it is not an allegation confined to Seán. A very similar accusation was made to me in early 1970 by a prominent member of the Irish Workers Party [forerunner of CPI].

Some points about other participants :
1) The IWU:
I knew Michael Callinan, the syndicalist, in the 1970s in London. IIRC, Mike was a product of the Belfast left in the post war period, like Vincent McDowell who was mentioned in the CLR recently. ( I don’t know if John can confirm this). In the 1970s he was a vociferous PSF supporter. Dick Walsh was the man mentioned as a WP supporter in TLR. Phil Flynn is the same Phil Flynn as the prominent Trade Unionist in Dublin / PSF supporter / … Seán Geraghty is one of the Geraghty family. Since then Seán G has lived in London where he was an active trade unionist over many years. He was very ill in recent years – don’t know if he has made a full recovery. Pat O’Donovan was also in the IWG became a self taught labour historian during the 1970s and had some interesting research published in the London based Irish Post. I don’t know if he is still alive.
2) The IWG:
I am not sure that there was a Joseph McAnna. Was that not an non de plume? Seán Morrissey, who later featured in the Saor Éire Action Group, was very active in the IWG. I mentioned various other active IWG participants in a recent CLR post.
Clearly the IWG contained a large number of talented committed socialists. Many of them continued or continue to play important roles in Irish politics. This provokes the question: Should a single organization with a calmer, more enlightened leadership have been able to contain and guide such people. Clearly there would need to be some consensus about the national question and Irish Republicanism [ The unhealthy, red-baiting tone of the IWG towards the Republican movement has been correctly noted by Hanley and other posts on this site, IMO.] Other “key” issues like state capitalism and “Pabloism” could have been left to the inside pages of the theoretical journal.

After all that, a humorous anecdote:
Fadó, fadó, commenting on a very self laudatory article by Gery in a different journal, Seán wrote:
Yes and his silver spurs went jingle-jangle as he rode off into the Celtic Twilight.
Shortly after, they were both at the same meeting. Seán sent an acolyte over to Gery, bringing the article to his attention. A beaming smile appears on Gery’s face and he comes over and pats Seán on the back.
Seán could not believe it: He’s flattered!

Collapse of stout comrade.

[John Palmer writes, 16 October 2009]

NollaigO: I can confirm that my friend Dick Walsh was a member of the Irish Workers Union in the very early 1960s. In fact he and I edited a (very modest) cyclostyled occasional bulletin “Irish Workers News” – aimed at the large community of Irish (mainly building) workers in London at that time. I recall Phil Flynn from the late 50s when he and I were (briefly) around the Irish National Union which had been set up by sympathisers with Liam Kelly’s Saor Uluadh. He attended some IWU meetings before returning to Ireland. Pat O’Donovan (who like Brian Behan) was briefly a member of Gerry Healy’s “Newsletter group (later the SLL) was also in the IWU for a while. The IWU was a attracted a small but very eclectic formation of people ranging from Michael Callinan’s obsessive Stalinophobian syndicalism, to former activists in Clan na Poblachta, some refugees from the Connolly Association and sympathisers with various British Trotskyist groups. Among them were Mick Quilty and Tom Geraghty (a member of the Firemen’s union and another of the distinguished Geraghty brothers) who were drawn to the Socialist Review group of Tony Cliff (later the International Socialists). It did contain some remarkable working class auto-didacts of a type that no longer really exists. When the IWU expired some joined the IWG – such as Liam Dalton – others eventually joined IS.

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3 Responses to Irish Workers Group, 1966-68

  1. seán mccracken says:

    Read with interest about the IWG but some things aren’t clear; they started obviously in the mid ’60s, existed in Dublin until about 10 years ago, been a slight revival but Éammon McCann i don’t think was ever in them, he was People Democracy, then SWM, if the Rory McShane was the Civil Rights activist from Newry, well perhaps hes in them now which I find funny, Michael Farrell the Civil Rights activist certainly wouldn’t be in them now; the SWM and IWG certainly became serious enemies; it seem to me the only main Trotskyist groups now are the SWP and Socialist Party ant it I think is distancing itself from Trotskyism.


  2. conormccabe says:

    hi Seán, thanks for the comment. Eamonn McCann was in the Irish Workers Gruop – but it was the London group in 1966-67. He was editor of the Irish Workers’ Group’s newspaper “Irish Militant” for a while – again while in London.

  3. Kerry Lawless says:

    I’m interested in gathering more stories about Gery Lawless from people who knew him during the 50s, 60s and 70s. There is a surprising amount of factual – or as close as it gets – information about him on-line and I’d like to hear more of the more personal stories that give a flavour of the man. Thanks

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