Rayner Lysaght, 1941-2021

Submitted by martin on 13 July, 2021 - 7:49 Author: Sean Matgamna
Rayner Lysaght

Rayner Lysaght (centre of the photo) debating with Sean Matgamna in London, November 2018

Rayner Lysaght died in Dublin on 2 July 2021, at the age of 80. He was one of the earliest and longest serving members of the Mandelite Trotskyist organisation in Ireland, from 1971.

A Welshman of Irish descent, he went to Ireland to study, and stayed; from a well-off background, which his accent and manner never ceased to proclaim, he migrated in his mid 20s to Marxist working class socialism, and there too he stayed, for the remainder of his life.

He claimed descent from distinguished ancestors and was proud of it. From Fergus O'Connor, the leader of the revolutionary wing of Chartism and earlier an O'Connellite Repeal-the-Act-of-Union MP; from Arthur O'Connor, United Irishman and distinguished Napoleonic soldier; all the way back to the last crowned High King of Ireland, Rory O'Connor, in the mid 12th century.

In a notable style of writing and language, Lysaght himself sought distinction in producing writings on Ireland, the Irish working class and the history of socialism.

As well as many articles on current politics over the years, he published a book in 1970 on the history of the 26 county state, The Republic of Ireland, important articles on the soviets that were briefly thrown up in a few places during the War of Independence (1919-21) and a pamphlet on the soviet that took control of Limerick City in 1919. In his last period, he collected and published writings and memoirs of members of the small Irish Trotskyist group of the 1940s.

Apart from the period 1970-2, when Workers' Fight, the earliest version of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty, took a position of critical support of the Ernest Mandel International - I persuaded Peter Graham to that view and Peter persuaded his friend Lysaght - Rayner and I rarely agreed on anything. But over the years, I made a point of inviting him to contribute to discussions in our papers and magazines on aspects of Irish and Irish-British politics and history, and he always did.

— 2 —

Rayner first became involved with Trotskyists in the mid 60s. Peripherally. It was a different political world then. Except for the Healy organisation, the SLL-WRP, the different factions and organisations talked to each other, argued about our differences, and collaborated in certain activities. The most important of these was the solidarity movement we created in support of Vietnam, then being pounded in an unequal conflict with the USA. Lysaght wrote some reports from Dublin for a Labour Party “entrist” magazine, The Week, run by the Mandelites in collaboration with other Labour leftists.

They had a strategy of creating "replacement leaderships" in social democratic parties by putting forward the sort of politics a straight social-democratic left would have, if it existed... Centrally, they advocated workers' control of industry..

(That approach didn't prove fruitful, and it gave way, once the anti-Vietnam-war movements took off, to a wildly ultra-left phase. By the 1970 general election, they were calling for the breaking up of Labour Party election meetings.)

IS, what became the SWP, was then a very loose , politically inchoate organisation. Rayner Lysaght was amongst their sympathisers in Ireland.

He joined the Irish Workers' Group in early 1967 when the IS people in Ireland - Michael Farrell was one of them - joined as part of an agreement between Gerry Lawless and Tony Cliff. The IWG was a not-always-coherent mix of Orthodox Trotskyism, IRA-ism, and God-knows-what-ism. There is much about it on this website, and I won't describe it here.

In the IWG, Rayner was still a left social-democrat. The left was strong in the Irish Labour Party then, its hopes were high, and Lysaght saw no limit to its potential. He believed that its then leader Brendan Corish "will lead us as far as we want to go".

When the IWG ruptured into a bitter factional dispute, from October 1967 to March 1968, Lysaght took the side of what we, their opponents, called the "Anti-Trotskyist Coalition". It included the ostentatiously non-Leninist Irish IS speople, some Mandelites, and one or two who were openly evolving into Guevarist urban guerillas, towards the Saor Eire Action Group, which robbed banks.

— 3 —

I met Rayner Lysaght for the first time at the start of January 1968. He appeared one evening at Rachel Lever's and my door in Manchester, a tall man of striking appearance, looking a bit like King Henry VIII in Hans Holbein's well-known portrait.

I recorded the visit of one of the key Dublin IWG figures for people on our side of the dispute, describing him as sincere and honest, but vulnerable to Gery Lawless's shameless flattery. I was not wrong, on any of the three points.

Lysaght's background and education had not trained him to disqualify himself out of modesty. He let Lawless and his friends make him, after six or nine months involvement, National Secretary of the IWG, though, by that point, there wasn't much to be national secretary of.

At the IWG conference at Moran's Hotel in Dublin on 17 March 1968, he voted with those who chose to split the organisation.

— 4 —

Lysaght, with Peter Graham, was in Derry on 5 October 1968, when the RUC batoned peaceful demonstrators before a world audience enlisted by the TV cameras. And ignited Northern Ireland. Peter Graham wrote me this account of his and Lysaght’s experience there:

“Lysaght and myself were up in Derry on the now famous Saturday [5 October] i.e. when the R.U.C. batoned demonstrators and passers-by indiscriminately. On the previous Saturday I was at a Civil Rights Committee in Derry. The majority of the committee was, as Eamonn McCann described it, a bunch of middle-aged, middle-class and middle-of-the-road fools. On that committee the only radicals were Cyril Toman, Mike Farrell, other YS members from Belfast and from Derry, Eamonn himself. The Chief Marshal wanted the prerogative to beat marchers if they deviated from the straight and narrow as defined by him.

"On the march itself the only ones in a position to do any beating were the cops. They blocked us at the top of Duke St. with big police vans and three lines of baton-waving cops in front and two lines behind. When the crowd first tried to break the cordon it was viciously driven back, then some people spoke off a chair to the demonstrators (about 800 of them, only half of them men capable of fighting the police, of which there was 500). Eddie McAteer (Nationalist Party) was booed down and would not be listened to because earlier in the week he said 'the Nationalist Party would not participate as a party though members from the Party could participate as individuals, we want to keep the politicians out of the Civil Rights Affair'.

"Betty Sinclair, of the NICP was also booed when she suggested we go home. The next speaker was Eamonn. He had absolute silence. 'I was bound over to the peace this morning and I am not going to ask anyone to break that cordon but if anyone goes to break it I won't say or do anything to stop him'. With that the crowd rushed the cops and the rest is history - we were beaten back down the road into the batons of two more lines of cops.”

Peter had news too of the remnant IWG:

“The IWG has just had its AGM, with Lawless and all, a very subdued Lawless indeed, about 12 people were there, including Chris Gray IS. I haven’t the faintest idea of what went on”.

The rump IWG formed out of the "Anti-Trotskyist Coalition" disbanded some time around October 1968, just at the time that the Six Counties began to implode. It had what seemed to those of us who had parted from it in March that year, an appropriate political burial ceremony.

Six Counties Home Secretary William Craig, who was responsible for setting the police on the demonstrators in Derry, denounced the IWG in the Six Counties parliament at Stormont, reading out passages from its Manifesto. Rory McShane, recently elected by the IWG conference its national Chair, and prominent in Queens University student politics, responded to Craig by denying that the organisation existed, or ever had existed.

A little after the demise of the IWG, Lysaght applied to join the League for a Workers' Republic, the organisation of those he had opposed in the IWG faction fight. In its way it was an attempt at reunion. Paul Gillespie, another of the IS Irish people, tried to join at the same time. The smug and unforgiving citizens who led the organisation refused to have either of them.

The leading group in the LWR – Paddy Healy, Carol Coulter, Basil Miller – had begun to orientate to Gerry Healy’s SLL (later the WRP). If you ignored the politics and the rampant sectarianism, it was impressively large and vigorous. Peter Graham and Rayner Lysaght saw the Gerry Healy-Pierre Lambert “International Committee” as hopelessly irrational, dishonest and, frequently, vicious and destructive, and went for “critical support” for the Mandel Fourth International.

— 5 —

Irish politics was a world in flux. The Stalinists of the Official Republican movement had a private army, the Official IRA, and they might, we feared, use it against Trotskyists - as Stalinists had in Greece, Vietnam and many other countries, killing hundreds of people. Peter Graham and some others went for military training with the Saor Eire Action Group.

Peter joined Saor Eire, and took part in the last two bank robberies carried out by that organisation, in the second of which an unarmed garda, Richard Fallon, was shot dead.

Any of the older or more experienced comrades who approved Peter joining Saor Eire would and do deserve severe condemnation. I worked closely with him. I thought having military training a good idea, in the circumstances; but I knew nothing of his involvement in Saor Eire until afterwards. He turned up at a Workers' Fight aggregate meeting in Manchester, his beard shaved off as a disguise (he could regrow a full beard in less than a week), psychologically a bit battered.

The hue and cry over the death of Richard Fallon led Peter, though he was not on the wanted list of Saor Eire people the gardai put out, to move to England, for about a year. For some of that time, he worked as a printer at the Mandelite print shop in King's Cross.

— 6 —

Peter had supported Lysaght’s and Gillespie’s attempts to join the LWR. Rayner Lysaght, on the fringes of the LWR, and Peter Graham within it, came together to resist the drift of the LWR leaders towards the SLL and its “International Committee.”

The LWR suffered two splits. First, in mid-1970, a group split to join the Gerry Healy organisation; later, in 1971, a dozen people around Peter Graham and Rayner Lysaght split off. All of them were youngsters. Graham was 25 when he died. (Soon the LWR would join the France-based Lambertists, recently estranged political and organisational sibling of the SLL. It lasted until the mid-1980s).

Peter returned to Ireland in the late summer of 1971. On the 25 October he was found in the flat he shared with Lysaght, shot dead by other Saor Eire members. Lysaght found his body.

Peter Graham's death left the small faction, and Lysaght, politically orphaned, quickly to become an Irish clone of the British Mandelite organisation.

Peter had been a very critical supporter of the International. They believed that the Provisional IRA war could or would somehow "grow over" into an Irish working-class socialist revolution - "the permanent revolution in Ireland". Peter Graham rejected that proposition.

I spent an afternoon with him, ten days, perhaps, before he was killed, in a heated dispute over his continuing involvement with Saor Eire, and he never took refuge in the easy rationalisation that what he was doing was all, somehow, part of the Irish socialist revolution, as, according to the "perspective" of "permanent revolution", it was. He knew better. There were many things he did not live long enough to learn, but he knew that for the palpable nonsense that it was.

After Peter Graham's death, Rayner soon forgot the critical part of support for the Mandel international. If Peter Graham had not died, things most likely would have gone differently.

— 7 —

My detailed knowledge of the Irish Mandelite organisation, and of Rayner Lysaght's activity, ceased with Peter's death. Lysaght remained a Mandelite, going through the many political shifts that entailed. When his early mentor Gery Lawless dropped out of revolutionary socialist politics, in 1976, and went over to the Labour Party left (he would become a Hackney local councillor) Lysaght stayed, resisting Lawless' attempt to pull him down with him.

A couple of years ago, Rayner and I debated Ireland and the theory of permanent revolution, in London. A recording of that encounter is on this website. On the same weekend, Lysaght and I discussed some of the events we were involved in, in the late 60s and early 70s. A recording of that, too, will be online.

Postscript, 28 July 2021

I found this picture of Rayner Lysaght in a carbon copy of a note I wrote to a comrade after my first encounter with him in 1968.



Dear Cian,


Lysaght came to visit a couple of evenings ago. Much less of a caricature [social democrat] than I would have thought, much more knowledgeable than a centrist should be - but nonetheless Labourite, with a conception of taking it [the Irish Labour Party] over. (You know his line, that Corish will sway with the wind in the Party - he thinks this will extend as far as Corish supporting a workers' revolution! Just like the left socialists after World War 1 in Italy and places, no doubt.)

He appears also to see himself as the real, certainly the future, centre of the IWG. And there are certainly disputes between himself and Lawless to come. I persuaded him, I think, from from following the course of supporting Lawless on the USFI affiliation question.

In general I found him sympathetic, much to my surprise! And felt vaguely guilty towards him for being politically nasty to him. But he is a centrist.

[By "a centrist" I meant one who oscillates between reform and revolution].

• Ireland: theory, debate, history - more on this website

See also parts five and six of an "imaginary dialogue": a teasing-out of the issues on Ireland and permanent revolution based on the debate in Socialist Organiser in 1983, to which Rayner Lysaght contributed, with Lysaght's argument presented in the name of a fictional character but largely in his own words.

Rayner Lysaght (second from the left, at back) at Peter Graham's funeral in 1971. On the right is Tariq Ali, and to Tariq Ali's left is Charlie Bird, who was in the Young Socialists group led by Peter Graham, and went on to become a major tele-journalist.

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