Debate: anti-semitism and the split in the Irish Workers' Group.

Submitted by martin on 17 March, 2010 - 1:57 Author: Sean Matgamna


"Secret Zionists"?
How the IWG divided
Maria Duce
Not just logic
Aha! But now?
Farrell and McCann
McCann's politics
Lysaght in the IWG

Part two of a response to Rayner Lysaght on the history of revolutionary socialism in Ireland. It is a copy edited and expanded version of the text in Solidarity. It now includes relevant quotations from the record of the hearing of the Lawless Case by the European Court of Human Rights.

Rayner Lysaght's response to the charge that an anti-semitic witch-hunt took place in the Irish Workers' Group in 1967-8 is typical, and typically modest. He saw no anti-semitism, heard none; he read no anti-semitism, he remembers none He is infallible:

"The present author did not find any anti-semitism during his own brief period as member of the IWG in its last years. He remembers no “anti-semitic witch-hunt thinly disguised as “anti-Zionism” in that organisation in 1967-8. If there had been such a move, he would have been targeted, as, at that time, he was inclined to the Zionist side himself."

Yes, but would you let yourself see it even if it were pointed out to you?

As a matter of fact, you didn't. When I pointed it out in the Irish Workers' Group Internal Bulletin you chose to ignore it. And there was no good reason, in terms of facts accessible to everyone in the IWG, to reject what I wrote.

The infallible Lysaght doesn't notice it, but when he says that he was "inclined to the Zionist side" himself and yet was not targeted, he inadvertently backs up what I said (as I will demonstrate).

The "allegation of anti-Semitism" in the IWG was not about some incident in the then distant past, of which Liam Daltun wrote an account, but about current events in the IWG, in the course of the 1967-8 faction fight which broke it up. It concerned an attempt to heresy-hunt as “secret Zionists” people who had exactly the same politics as the rest of the group on the Middle East.

The only reason for considering them different on this question was that two of them, Rachel Lever and Phil Semp, were of Jewish background and the third – this writer – was married to Lever. The following are facts for which there is "documentary" evidence.

The IWG had had an Annual General Meeting in September 1967. There I'd moved the "Manifesto" stating the organisation's principles and a new constitution, and Gery Lawless had seconded it. No political differences had emerged between those who would soon divide into two warring groups. Immediately after the AGM, a six-month process of division opened up, culminating in a final split at a conference in Dublin on 17 March 1968.

That started with an attempt to simply cut off Rachel Lever and myself - we lived in Manchester - from the IWG by way of a refusal by the Treasurer - Gery Lawless's wife, Anne Murphy - to advance the finances for the next issue of the IWG magazine Workers' Republic, responsibility for which we had been given by the AGM.

This led to a confrontation between Lawless and me in the London branch in October, on the evening of one of the big anti-Vietnam war demonstrations, much of which turned into a head-bang about our attitude to Stalinism in general and to the East German uprising of 1953 in particular.

Faced with a de-facto split, I then produced a polemical overview of the IWG and its problems, Trotskyism or Chameleonism. Most of the Trotskyists in the IWG rallied around the politics of this document. It polarised the group, dividing it pretty much down the middle.

The decisive turning point was in December, when the three-person committee elected at the AGM to administer the IWG summarily and without any warning removed three people, Liam Daltun, Rachel Lever and myself, from membership on the grounds that we were in arrears with our subscription payments. The members of the committee were Lawless, Anne Murphy, and the politically very raw new IWG secretary, Liam Boyle [Boyle soon changed sides].

At that point Rachel Lever and I were owed money that we had paid out to finance the magazine for which we were responsible, Workers' Republic, and the IWG Internal Bulletin, for which we were also responsible. The committee's move was a factional coup. From that point onwards there were two organisations within the IWG, each one functioning separately.

In a reply to Trotskyism or Chameleonism Gery Lawless asserted that I, and others of his opponents, had a number of “hidden", secret political positions, amongst them that we were really, secretly, "Zionists".

"Secret Zionists"?

In the period up to the June war of 1967 and for quite a while afterwards, the entire British left was "pro-Israel" in the sense that we all rejected and despised the then slogan of the Palestine Liberation Organisation and its leader Ahmed Shukhairy, "Drive the Jews into the sea".

While desiring radical changes, we supported the continued existence of Israel as a Jewish state. We did not advocate - as far as I remember no one on the left did - the destruction of the Jewish state and its submergence in an Arab entity, however defined. The IWG and the left generally supported the programme of a unified Arab Federation of the Middle East, "with autonomy for national minorities such as Jews and Kurds". (That formula originated, I think, with the Mandel/Pablo Fourth International).

The IWG published two sizeable pieces in Workers' Republic on the Middle East, upwards of three thousand words each, one before and one in response to the June 1967 war.

The first, focusing on the guerrilla campaign against British rule in Aden, sketched in the background of the nationalist "Arab Revolution" and the conflict between the Arab nationalists and the traditionalist Arab kingdoms and sheikdoms. I wrote it, as Anthony Mahony. (Socialist Worker's forerunner, Labour Worker, reprinted it.)

The second article was a response to the June war, written by Rachel Lever and myself, and drawing heavily on work by the Israeli Marxist organisation Matzpen. It appeared under Rachel Lever’s name in Workers' Republic. Unless you want to count an advertisement in Irish Militant for the pamphlet on the Middle East which Tony Cliff wrote at the time, the "Rachel Lever" piece constituted the only response of the IWG to the June war. (Rachel and I usually had a hand in each others' work, an arrangement from which I benefited far more than she did.)

The Rachel Lever piece put the common IWG position. No one at any time alleged that it did not, or criticised it politically, least of all for being "Zionist". The article - which now reads to me as a pretty vile piece of work - presented a very hostile account of Israel. It took a position for the defeat of Israel in the June war. It advocated the Arab Federation with autonomy for Jews, Kurds and other national minorities.

How the IWG divided

Politically the IWG was a Noah's Ark of leftists held together by the fact of being Irish, most of us Irish people in England. It included a spectrum of scarcely reconstructed Stalinists (such, for instance, as the chair of the London group, Sean Lynch, an elderly long-time member of the CPUSA), soft Maoists, Guevarists (some of whom would become involved in the Saor Eire Action Group), and various "Trotskyists", including the Workers' Fight group-in-formation (forerunner of AWL). There was also a group of supporters of the British IS (forerunner of the SWP), then still in its anti-Leninist phase. We had negotiated their entry into the IWG with IS/SWP leader Tony Cliff earlier that year.

All the Trotskyists, bar Lawless, Sean Morrissey and Eamonn McCann, rallied to our side in the faction fight. The other side was a variegated bloc of all the others, in which IS people were the biggest grouping. We called it "the Anti-Trotskyist Coalition".

When, after some delay, Gery Lawless produced a reply to Trotskyism or Chameleonism, a major element in the “reply” was the charge that I, and my close associates, had “hidden political positions”.

Mainly, these charges were stupid or simply ludicrous. For instance, I was a “secret state cap”[italist on Russia.] Why? Because I had recently read Max Shachtman’s The Struggle For The New Course. Shachtman was a "bureaucratic collectivist", not a “state capitalist”… In fact I had been openly sceptical about the “degenerated workers' state" account of Russia, but that was anything but a "secret".

That particular stupidity was an attempt at winning over some of the “degenerated workers statists” in our camp. It was all the more bizarre in that all the state capitalists - Lysaght then was one of them, I think - in the group were in Lawless’ bloc, kept there by the good offices of Tony Cliff and the knowledge that they would be the strongest group on that side after the split had been consummated.

Another of the allegations that we had “secret”, “hidden” politics was the charge that I and my close associates, the nucleus of what is now AWL, Rachel Lever and Phil Semp, were secret… "Zionists". But war is a pretty good test of where people actually stand on the issues it brutally pushes to the fore, and there had been no differences in the IWG on the recent Arab-Israeli war: we had all been for the defeat of Israel. And, to repeat: two of the “secret Zionists” had written the only IWG statement on the war! On the political face of it, this was as daft as the charge that I was a “secret state cap” because I’d been reading Max Shachtman.

Now, if someone publicly, in writing, in the Internal Bulletin (and , so we heard, in much stronger terms in talking about it), accuses people of being "Zionist" when they have exactly the same politics as the rest of the group on Israel and the Arabs, but two of them are Jews - what does that mean? What can it mean? What is being said?


The only basis on which such accusation of being "Zionist" could be grounded was that some people are - as I wrote in the IWG Internal Bulletin - "Zionist on a level deeper than politics". "Zionists" despite politics, irrespective of politics. Some people are "congenital Zionists". Some people are... Jews. And Jews are, irrespective of their politics, Zionists.

(And as well as "congenital Zionist", there was a category of "Zionist by marriage", a condition, a state of being, that also existed outside of and irrespective of politics on the Middle East, or on any other issue.)

It was a heresy hunt against Jews for "really" being "Zionist", despite politics. Just as the Spanish Inquisition after 1492 harried Marranos (Jews forcibly converted to Christianity, and their descendents) as false converts, so Rachel Lever, Phil Semp and I were harried as not genuine anti-Zionists. Given the fact - on the level of politics, we were exactly the same on the Israel-Arab issue as the rest of the group - there is no getting away from it. It was a Jew-hunt.

And you, comrade Lysaght, went along with it; chose to ignore it when it was pointed out to you; and joined the bloc whose organiser and spokesman was conducting the Jew-hunt.

I have no idea what Rayner Lysaght's politics on the Middle East were then. But when he says "If there had been [an anti-Zionist" heresy-hunt] he "would have been targeted, as, at that time, he was inclined to the Zionist side himself", it adds point to what I've said.

The issue was not posed as Lever, Semp or me holding some mere dissenting opinion on the Middle East conflict. If it had been that, then Lysaght too - I'll take his word about his opinions then - might have been targeted. He wasn't. The two Jews and I - who, politically did not in the least "incline to the Zionist side", were. That is the point, comrade Lysaght!

It's a phenomenon which some of our student organisers encountered in the colleges in the 1980s, when there were quite a few attempts to ban Jewish societies for being "Zionists and racists." It was always the young Jews who were denounced and targeted, while such people as Tony Benn, who was then a supporter of "Labour Friends of Israel", were not...

Think, before you write, Rayner. Or at least pause to think about it afterwards.

The logic of the "secret Zionists" nonsense is unmistakably anti-Semitic. That logic would have been bad enough, and an indictment of those like Rayner Lysaght who chose to ignore it when they should at the least have disavowed it and told lawless to shut up. And then, on top of the "logic", it came out that the IWG's chief Zionist-hunter had in his Dublin days been an especially bigoted Catholic - a member or supporter of Maria Duce, a right-wing ultra-Catholic and anti-Semitic group, led by Fr. Denis Fahy, a Redemptorist priest and academic, one of whose political aims was to make the Catholic Church the only church recognised as legitimately part of the Irish state. (The De Valera constitution of 1937, while recognising the "special place" of the Catholic Church in the state, also mentioned others - Protestants, Jews - as a legitimate part of the state). Fahy and Maria Duce had a historical link with the pogromist movement that drove Jewish residents out of Limerick in 1904/5: the Limerick affair too was fomented by a Redemptorist priest, Creagh.

Maria Duce

I had never heard of Maria Duce. As far as I can remember, when Daltun and others said that Gery Lawless had been Maria Duce, I formed the impression that Maria Duce was something like a more aggressive Legion of Mary. I don't remember that Maria Duce's anti-semitism was brought into it, but I suppose it must have been. Dalton and others raised it in response to Lawless' "secret Zionists" heresy-hunting. In any case, little was made of Lawless's past by our side.

I don't think I properly registered what Maria Duce was until, decades later, I looked up Fr Fahey in the catalogue of the British Library. Fahey was a full-blown clerical-fascist anti-semite. He had published a version of the notorious Tsarist police forgery and handbook of 20th century anti-semitism, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, under the title Waters Flowing Eastward. He believe that communism, including Trotskyism, was part of a world Jewish conspiracy. (Trotskyism and the Fourth International, he wrote, were no more than a division of labour between Trotsky and Stalin, under the ultimate control of Stalin and the Russian state...)

Fahy had connections with the clerical Fascist organisation in the USA whose anti-Jewish chief demagogue had also been a Catholic priest, Father Coughlin, the "Radio Priest" of the 1930s. (Coughlin was "silenced" by the church authorities when the USA entered World War Two).

When Denis Fahey died in 1954 the church authorities forced Maria Duce to change its name. My understanding is that its paper, Fiat, did not cease publication until the early 1960s. The coteries of Maria Duce in and around Sinn Fein-IRA in the fifties included - so Manus O'Riordan, who researched the subject, says - Sean South, a famous Republican martyr who died on a raid into Northern Ireland at the start of 1957.

Where the second-hand tale-spinner Lysaght has Lawless being converted to Trotskyism during his five months internment in 1957, the records of Gery Lawless's court hearing in 1959 have him explaining his politics in terms of the influence of Father Fahey, and depositing a copy of the Maria Duce paper Fiat to explain his position (ECHR Series B 1960-1 p.165 and p.167-8).

Appearing before the sub-committee in April 1959, Lawless, denying membership in the IRA or a splinter group in 1957, said: "....His membership of the IRA had been for idealistic and patriotic reasons...he had ceased to be a member [because] it was not getting sufficient support from the Irish people in order to achieve its aim and also that the ending of Partition was first and foremost a job for the government..." (ECHR Series B 1960-61 p.164)

He gave the following account of himself in response to questions put to him by the 26 County Attorney General, appearing for the Government: " (a) That he first objected to the Irish Constitution on religious grounds in the spring of 1954. This was the result of lectures by Professor Father Fahy which criticised Article 44 of the Constitution..." (ECHR Series B 1960-61 p.165)

(Fahy's, and Lawless', objection to Article 44, which recognised the special position of the Catholic Church in Irish society, is summed up thus by John Maguire in the Journal of the Oxford University History Society (Michaelmas 2004: "Internment, the IRA and the Lawless Case in Ireland: 1957-61"): was that " [it] also recognised the position of other churches, including the Protestant denominations and the Jewish faith. Lawless' objection stemmed from the fact that this article did not put the Catholic Church in a state of pre-eminence over all the other religions present in Ireland.")

At the end of a session in which Lawless answered questions put to him by his own representative, Sean MacBride, the court record says: "He handed in a copy of a periodical called FIAT which was the journal of a Catholic organisation called 'Maria Duce' and which set out the objections of Catholic social policy to Article 44 of the Constitution." (ECHR Series B 1960-61 p.168)

A strange aspect of this strange story, and one of the things that confused the issue, was that Gery Lawless presented himself to be... a Jew! His mother was Jewish, he told people.

Now, when someone tells you something like that, you might say "that's interesting", but you accept it without question. Why not? What does it matter? If the light-haired and pale-skinned Lawless had told me that he was a Nigerian Ibo, the gap between what that would lead me to expect and his appearance might have triggered the question: "Yes, but exactly what sort of an Ibo are you, Gery?" But Jews come in all shapes, sizes, and shades of hair and skin.

The "secret Zionist" witch-hunt led people on our side who had known him since the early mid 1950s in Dublin - mainly Liam Daltun, I think - to point out that the Jewish mother story was one of his many tall tales that made its first appearance when Lawless got to London.

Lawless thought in terms of national typologies. He had learned from Fahy and his supporters that communism, and of course, Trotskyism, were Jewish... As Liam Daltun said in the Internal Bulletin, others can become Marxists without the need to "discover a Jewish grandmother". Not Gery Lawless. Was he Jewish? I have no idea. It's possible but improbable, and of no consequence either way (other than what it would tell us about the troubled psyche of the Maria Duce man with the Jewish mother). It was just another piece of tall-tale-telling by "Paddy MĂĽnchhausen", as Daltun called Lawless.

Not just logic

If the logic of the "secret Zionists" nonsense - of the one-time supporter of Maria Duce - was unmistakably anti-Semitic, there was yet more to it than that.

Three years later, I moved to London, went around the Irish pubs with Liam Daltun, and encountered some of the people who had been in and around the London IWG. It slowly dawned on me that there was a low-level philistine-Catholic anti-Jewish prejudice. I stress low-level, and I don't want to exaggerate it: but it was there. That made me realise that Lawless's nonsense charge - one of many crazy, half-demented, things in the faction fight - had not been quite as "innocent" as at the time I had chosen to think it was.

One of the people I encountered was called either Tom O'Leary or Michael Moran (one of those names was, I think, a pen-name). He had been in the Communist Party, the Irish Communist Group, and then the IWG. He wasn't a member, I think, in late 1967 or 1968, but he was one of the cronies who hung around downstairs at the IWG meeting place, the Lucas Arms, on Sunday nights,to mix, before and after the meetings, with their friends who were members.

In 1970 or 1971 I heard him make an outburst - possibly drunken - at a meeting of the Irish Solidarity Campaign denouncing Marxists as "rootless cosmopolitans". He may have denounced Marx as a Jew: my memory is unclear. It was a sizeable meeting, and there may be others who remember the incident.

I eventually came to the conclusion that one of the most important aspects of the story was my own uncomprehending response to the real anti-semitism in the "Zionist"-hunt. I had seen the political implications and the anti-Semitic logic of the "secret Zionist" , "congenital Zionist" nonsense, and I had pointed them out in the Internal Bulletin. But I had not seen it as "functional", actual, anti-semitism - as a deliberate pandering to and fomentation of anti-Jewish attitudes in the IWG. I had warned of the "dangerous implications" of Lawless's charges, but I hadn't accused him of active anti-semitism.

If I had thought there was "active" anti-semitism in the episode, I would not have let fear of ridicule or unpopularity deter me from indicting it. I hadn't thought that. I simply hadn't been able to conceive of that - hadn't been able to take it in.

What did I think was going on with Lawless' "secret Zionists" nonsense? As far as I can recall (half-remember/reconstruct), I thought he was playing up to Tony Cliff of the International Socialism Group, who influenced a sizable segment of the IWG and on whose support in the faction fight Lawless depended.

I.S. had gone through a minor crisis over the June War. A number of I.S. people had objected to Cliff's Israeli defeatism line. They accused Cliff of being self-blindingly hostile to Israel, because the Zionists had given him a very hard time in Palestine in the 1940s. One vocal member of this grouping and perhaps its organiser was Rachel Lever's sister, Constance. Rachel and Constance, children of one-time Communist Party members alienated by the Hitler-Stalin Pact, had spent part of their childhood in Israel, had been five and eight respectively in Jerusalem during the Arab siege of 1948. Constance rejected Israeli defeatism. Rachel and I were vehemently on Cliff's side. Afterwards, apart from exchanges of rude letters, Rachel was not on speaking terms with her sister or her father for 18 months or more... (I now think Constance Lever was 315% right against us.)

Lawless knew all about that when he started the "secret Zionists" Jew-hunt; it added an extra degree of jeering jackeen personal nastiness to it and underlined the anti-Semitic logic of his denounciations. Never mind her politics, Rachel was Jewish, therefore she was a "Zionist"; so was Phil Semp: and I was contaminated, could not but be. That's what it added up to. That's what was being said.

I had had a fairly low political opinion of most members of the IWG. But their politics and their understanding of politics could be changed. That's what you wrote articles and polemics and made speeches to do. Anti-semitism was a different matter - moron stuff. Whatever about their political underdevelopment, the IWG members were pretty good people, the older ones people like my parents. Uprooted people, victims of Ireland's wretched education system, people for whom I had a strong sympathy and empathy. That inhibited me in thinking badly of them. I'd have been hurt to think that they were anti-semitic.

I decided that I had been too "nice-minded" to let myself think that there could be people in the IWG capable of anything like that, twenty years after the Holocaust. It had a profound influence on me for the future.

Aha! But now?

But, it will be said, my present-day "Zionism" shows clearly that Lawless did not
misunderstand or misrepresent me in 1967-8! That argument would at best be a case of false rationalisation, deducing backwards from later developments.

For the sake of argument - for the sake of argument - let us agree that politically, as well as being a miserable "apostate knave" and "traitor slave" undeserving - as Lysaght tries to insist - of an Irish national identity or of the Irish passport that I hold, I am "pro-imperialist", a running-dog of "Zionist imperialism" and everything else politically despicable. That sheds no light on the IWG business.

From the position which we in the IWG all held at the time of the Six Day War, where did the politics of Rachel Lever, Phil Semp, and myself evolve to? Where, politically, did we evolve to?Towards "Zionism"? The stark opposite of any sort of Zionism. We came to be supporters of the destruction of Israel.

In 1967 no-one on the left that I ever heard of advocated the destruction of Israel. We expressed our politics in the too-vague phrase, "autonomy for national minorities like Jews and Kurds" in a Middle East Federation. Everyone, as I've already said, regarded the slogan of the then Egypt-controlled Palestine Liberation Organisation and its leader Ahmed Shukhairy, "drive the Jews into the sea", as demented and repulsive chauvinism, as a political embarrassment.

Between 1967 and the Yom Kippur war of October 1973, the left evolved, in a moving consensus, towards "absolute anti-Zionism". "Autonomy for the Israeli Jews" gave way to support for the new PLO proposal for a "secular democratic state" in all of pre-1948 Palestine that would absorb and subsume Israel. Though much better-sounding, the new PLO line was in fact the old PLO position - conquer the Jews, destroy Israel - but now it was mystified and disguised. The realisation of a single state in all of pre-1948 Palestine, with an assumed Arab majority, presupposed the conquest of Israel and the forcible suppression of the national rights of the Israel Jews. The idea that, after such a war and conquest, the surviving Jews could be equal citizens in a victorious Arab state was delusory, serving only to make the proposal palatable for those who believed that the Israeli Jews had rights such as those expressed in the old, too-vague, slogan "autonomy".

We evolved to that position too. Though we opposed the persecution of "Zionists" in the colleges in the 1970s and 80s, we were part of the "moving consensus". Our paper, Workers' Fight second series, was vehemently anti-Israeli and for Israel's defeat in the 1973 war. All three "secret Zionists" of 1967, Rachel Lever, Phil Semp, and I, held to those attitudes. For the rest of their political lives as revolutionary socialists, Phil Semp and Rachel Lever never shifted from that "absolute anti-Zionism". I did, but only a decade and more after 1967.

Like the proverbial man in the nightmare, I woke up in our organisation and realised that we'd set the political house on fire, but couldn't at first and for a very long time wake up the rest of the inhabitants. When I started a discussion on it in our organisation (then called International-Communist League), Rachel Lever was one of my implacable opponents. She left revolutionary socialist politics in 1982 without ever changing her mind. So the idea that "really", we really might have been "secret Zionists", would be simple ignorance. Our evolution after 1967 demonstrates that.

In fact, who was it whose 1980s views on the Middle East had changed radically from the 1960s? It wasn't me! After 1978, when I realised that "secular democratic state", which our whole organisation understood to include defence of the right of the Israeli Jews to be equal citizens in that "secular democratic state", was plain nonsense, having no meaning but to prettily wrap up support for the military conquest of Israel, I returned to a variant of "autonomy for national minorities like the Jews and the Kurds". To "secular democratic state" I counterposed "two states" - a Palestinian state alongside Israel, the policy which the PLO would adopt in 1988 and which the UN partition resolution of 1947 had stipulated. (The territory of the UN-designated Palestinian Arab state was then annexed by Jordan and Egypt in 1948-9, and a small part of it by Israel. Israel conquered the Jordanian and Egyptian territories in the 1967 war).

Apart from questions of right and wrong, nothing other than "two states" is practically possible. Nothing else would do justice to both peoples. Nothing else offered any way forward for the Palestinian people.

Again, leaving the rights and wrongs of the issue aside, perhaps the worst result of the unrealisable project of conquering Israel was the long political paralysis of the Palestinian people - their use by Arab states (and now, vicariously, by the "anti-imperialist" would-be left) as pawns against Israel, and pawns who could, when they got out of hand, be massacred by Arab armies, as in Jordan in September 1970 and in Lebanon a dozen years later.

In adopting the "two states" position, I did not change radically from the "autonomy" position which the IWG held, but came back to it, after a foolish and politically senseless detour - following the PLO and driven by "anti-imperialist" indignation at Israel's treatment of the Palestinians - into vicarious Arab chauvinism.

Farrell and McCann

How, asks Rayner Lysaght, could "great revolutionaries" like Michael Farrell and Eamonn McCann - and let us not forget Rayner Lysaght himself - have been involved, or remained silent during the anti-semitic episode in the IWG?

Michael Farrell was a member of the IWG and, I assume, active in the Belfast group set up in mid-1967 after a number of sympathisers of the British IS (forerunner of the SWP) joined us. Before the split he never played any part in the internal life of the IWG. He wasn't at the "re-founding" AGM of September 1967 in London, or at the March 1968 final split conference in Dublin, and he took no part in the written exchanges over the six months in between.

In the course of researching a series of articles on the left and the Northern Ireland crisis of 1969, what struck me most about Farrell, for whom in the 1970s I had come to have considerable respect, was how eclectic his politics were in the late 1960s.

Eamonn McCann? He was heavily involved in the IWG. In the IWG files in my possession I found a letter from him telling me that he had edited Gery Lawless's document in reply to Trotskyism or Chameleonism, that he'd given it what connection it had with grammar and the English language, that he had eliminated some bits of extreme nonsense, but that he took no responsibility for the nonsense left in, or for any of it.

He had edited the document. He had made it more plausible than Lawless had, by removing some lunacies, and thus made it more difficult for the reader to form an accurate picture of the mind and credibility of the author. But he took no "responsibility". That was Eamonn. One of the bits of lunacy he spared was the charge that we were secretly "Zionists".

The history of the IWG, and the ICG before it, was a history of perpetual personal squabbling, never-ending, never-resolved, and usually only by implication political.

Some time in early mid 1967, McCann resigned as editor of the IWG paper Irish Militant. (He would never return to that post). He and Liam Daltun organised an opposition to Lawless, demanding his removal as IWG Secretary.

A considerable part of Lawless's time was always given over to lining people up and keeping people outside London posted on the vagaries, irresponsibilities, and multifarious villainies of whomever he was in conflict with or feared or expected to be in conflict with or thought his correspondent held in too high an esteem.

There is a chunk of letters in the IWG files, from mid-1967 in which Lawless bombarded me with accounts of his critics. Last Sunday evening Liam Daltun had sat downstairs in the Lucas Arms talking with the "has-beens" and "the lump", and didn't come up to the branch meeting. Eamonn McCann had been seen (so Lawless had been told) in Hyde Park with a flower in his hair and possibly another in his mouth during a "hippy" "flower-people" gathering, he had been seen wearing a Mao badge. That sort of thing. A lot of it.

I had good relations with both Daltun and McCann, and routinely made efforts to get Daltun - whom Lawless wanted to exclude - to write things. I heard nothing from either of them about what was going on in London. This was remarkable because I eventually learned that I was their candidate to replace Lawless as IWG secretary! Lawless didn't tell me that. I had no knowledge of what Daltun and McCann were doing.

I thought at the time that Lawless's role in the Group was, overall, positive and necessary. He was a far better Secretary, with his energetic, thick-skinned, hustling approach, than I'd be. I was heavily involved in the British labour movement, in trade union work in the Port of Manchester and in the work of attempting to create a national port-workers' rank and file committee, in preparation for the big upcoming showdown with the bosses and the government over the decasualisation of dock labour to the advantage of the employers (it led to strikes in London, Liverpool, and Manchester between September and November). And I wanted also to concentrate on the educational work I thought could best be done through producing the IWG magazine Workers' Republic.

I thought the politics, and turning the group into an adequate Trotskyist organisation by means of education, was the most important work, as well as the most congenial to me. At the time I saw Lawless as an ally in that. Even if all that had been different, I would still have seen the proposal to convulse the group in such a fight as disruptive and unnecessary, a distraction.

I tried to conciliate, urging Lawless to listen to what was just in the criticisms of McCann and Daltun, and McCann and Daltun to take the work of the organisation more seriously. I suggested that the whole group should read and discuss James P Cannon's The Struggle for a Proletarian Party as a manual of proper behaviour in a revolutionary socialist group, and Lawless arranged that. It would be a central reference point in the polemics after October 1967.

Like someone who tries to stop a senseless fight in the pub, I antagonised both sides to some extent.

And when the faction-fight erupted in October 1967? When I and, soon, Liam Daltun, took up much of what Daltun and McCann had said, and tried to provide a political analysis of the IWG's organisational problems as well? McCann backed Lawless! From McCann there was a lot of humming and hawing, but he finally took a position that all the group's troubles could be resolved if we affiliated to the Mandelite "Fourth International" (the "United Secretariat").

It was a cynical ploy against our side, most of us highly critical of the Mandelites. Personally I was not so fixedly unfriendly to the USEC, and after 1969, when the Mandelites came out for a "political revolution" in China - twenty years after Mao had taken power! - I would for a while consider myself a "critical supporter". But in 1967 I was not going to support affiliation to the Mandelite United Secretariat of the Fourth International. Neither was the biggest group in the "anti-Trotskyist coalition" within the IWG - the supporters of IS/ SWP. The "proposal" to affiliate to the Mandelites functioned only as a reason why people shouldn't join our side in the faction fight. I can't remember if it had any effect.

And Eamonn? A mere few months later, he would start writing for Socialist Worker, and enter into a long-term association - politically speaking, a very "open" marriage - with that tendency. His links seem to have survived even the near-decade of the SWP tendency's alliance with Islamist clerical fascism.

McCann's politics

McCann, a small-city proletarian with, I think, a labour-movement family background, "came around" the Irish Communist Group in its last period, mid-1965, as a recent ex-student (expelled, I think, for some prank).

A conversation with him about Patrick Pearse sometime in the summer of 1965 sticks in my mind. He had just read something of Pearse's, and excitedly told me his discovery: "Pearse was a right nutcase". I thought that was far from the full truth, and far from just, but you could see the way the idea liberated him from what he had previously though unquestionable. Politically speaking he was still a baby whose eyes were just opening.

He received his basic political education in the very ambivalent politics of the IWG from Daltun more than Lawless, but from both: an internally unstable and ever-shifting mix of Republicanism and advocacy of the Workers' Republic.

Despite the enormous differences between the two, McCann, like Lawless, was politically capricious, "subjective", and individualist. His role in the IWG, certainly after mid-1967, was typically irresponsible.

I was agreeably surprised in 1969 when, back in Derry, McCann stood out against a lot of the nonsense that People's Democracy peddled, steadily advocating socialist politics. My attitude to him thereafter was to be glad when his positive political sides were in the ascendant, but not to rely on that happening.

But even in 1969, he was typically quirky and unstable. Together with Bernadette Devlin, whom he influenced heavily, he called for the deployment of British troops right at the start of the fighting in Derry in August 1969. What was wrong with that was not the observation that British troops were necessary to control the sectarian fighting, nor a feeling of relief when they came, but the taking of political responsibility for what the British state did, and the delusion that such calls as McCann's and Devlin's influenced what the British government did - above all, the failure to make maintaining independent working-class politics, and independence from the bourgeois state, a key consideration.

On my observation, in the autumn of 1969, McCann played the role in Derry of "responsible" home-town boy. The best illustration of that is his role in the final meeting of the Derry Citizens' Defence Committee, which ran the Catholic areas barricaded off from the RUC and the newly-on-the-streets British soldiers between August and October 1969.

The committee was a federal body, with representatives from different groups and political "constituencies". I represented the "outsiders", the people who had come to defend the area, a couple of dozen of us billeted on mattresses in the huts at Celtic Park. The incipient SDLPers seemed to be in control. The chair, a veteran Republican, Sean Keenan, an old internee who would be a founding Provisional in December 1969, was obviously perplexed during the proceedings - a "non-political" Republican in strange territory.

To sway the meeting in favour of taking down the barricades, the SDLPers-to-be brought in what seems in my mind's eye to be a very old man, another Republican veteran, Neil Gillespie. He was about 70. In my mind's eye he is quavering-voiced and has a walking stick.

He made the keynote speech, the gist of which was: "This is not the time to free Ireland". So we should take down the barricades and let the soldiers occupy Derry, a predominantly Catholic-nationalist city two miles from the border with Donegal and the 26 Counties...

He too would be a founding Provisional a few weeks later. He was named as the secretary, I guess nominal, of the Derry Provisional Sinn Fein branch.

A motion was produced in favour of taking down the barricades, and with fulsome thanks to the British Army. There was a lot of opposition to the proposal, especially from the younger people there, of whom McCann was normally the de facto political leader and spokesman.

McCann made a sonorous speech, full of rolling rrrevolutionary rrrs, contemptuously rejecting the resolution's praise for the British Army. After listening to him for a bit it dawned on me, with astonishment, that McCann, while denouncing the inessential bits, was supporting the gist of the resolution! When the vote was taken - between taking down the barricades and an alternative, which I proposed as the best I could think of to stop the stampede in the committee, that the committee did not have the right to take such a decision, and should instead call a mass meeting of the people in the barricaded areas - McCann voted for the "let-the-Army-in" resolution!

I didn't and don't think that McCann's position was treachery, or anything like that. What was wrong was to take political responsibility for the new "settlement", after the rushing-through of radical electoral and police reforms by the British government, of the issues that had convulsed Northern Ireland, and positively to support the British state and its army's reoccupation of all of Derry.

Politically, McCann was seriously disoriented. My acquaintance with Eamonn McCann's journalistic work in the last decades is too small to base an opinion on. Some of it suggests that he has not progressed politically from the nonsense-end of the IWG forty years ago.

Lysaght in the IWG

Lysaght is here a second-hand story-spinner. He admits it in his article, saying that his sources for his history of Irish Trotskyism before 1967 were "statements from surviving participants". He talks of what he did in the IWG in its last "years", but in fact Lysaght did not become active in the IWG until near the end of 1967, when it was already effectively split in two. For sure the earliest he became even a nominal member - membership norms were very loose - was mid-1967. My impression is that it was later than that.

He was on the fringes of the group from mid-1967, a contact in the Dublin Labour Party, referred to in some surviving letters from Lawless to me as one of "our centrists".

In fact he was then not a centrist - someone havering between reform and revolutionary socialism - but a reformist. I first heard of Lysaght in mid 1967 from a mutual friend, Bob Mitchell. Lysaght, a Welshman in Dublin, so his friend Mitchell told me, believed that the Irish Labour Party leader, Brendan Corish TD, would "lead us" - the Labour Party, the labour movement - "as far as we wanted to go", even to the socialist transformation of society; Lysaght was, too, someone who, though a socialist, was proud of a supposed descent from the last High King of Ireland, Rory O'Connor, in the middle of the 12th century. (Lysaght put that genealogy on the back cover of his 1970 book, The Republic of Ireland).

Lawless wanted us to flatter Lysaght by publishing what I thought was a confused reformist piece of his in the IWG magazine, Workers' Republic. I objected to that.

Lysaght has the virtue of taking his politics seriously. Yet he was not at the September IWG conference, which was a sort of "re-founding" conference. I first met Lysaght when he came to Manchester to see Rachel Lever and myself in January 1968. I wrote an account of the meeting for our side, which is in the IWG files.

He struck me as honest and sincere, but clueless about what was going on and what the issues in the IWG quarrel were, and too full of himself to resist Lawless's flattery.

The IWG was already effectively split. Lysaght got drawn into the "anti-Trotskyist coalition", where he was made to feel much appreciated. They made him, one of "our centrists", "National Secretary" of what little there was, by then, to be "national secretary" of. He rose to the role. There are a couple of Internal Bulletins in the files signed no longer with a mere name but by "The National Secretary".

He was at the final conference in March 1968, where the two sides spent a day head-banging and then separated for good. Late on that day, I saw something that I thought summed Lysaght up. The petulant McCann, for some reason or other, left the chair in a huff. At that point Lysaght stood up, almost speechless with rage, angry hands clenched by his side, shaking,

He shouted at the meeting: "I am the only one here who has any theoretical ability". Glaring challengingly at a meeting united in astonishment if by nothing else, he raised himself as high as he could, and added with great dignity: "I will now assume the chair". And, like Napoleon taking the crown out of the hands of the Pope and crowning himself, he did.

When the rump IWG died, sometime in the Autumn of 1968, Lysaght tried to join the League for a Workers' Republic (the continuation in Ireland of the IWG Trotskyist Faction), but there was an old antagonism and they bore grudges. They made accepting him conditional on his handing over his stocks and shares to the organisation. I couldn't persuade them to let him in anyway. Maybe I should have tried harder.

Within a couple of years, the reformist of 1967-8 had become a platonic support of Guevarist guerrilla action in the stable, bourgeois-democratic 26 Counties. He hasn't looked back since.

As a romantic adoptive Irish nationalist, nothing was more natural than that Lysaght would buy into Gery Lawless's fantasy world. In any case, he has been a second-hand tale-spinner on behalf of Lawless for a very long time now.

Links to other articles on this site


Submitted by jane ashworth on Sat, 24/04/2010 - 11:26

I have no idea if Lawless was or is an antisemite. His personal flaws are not the interesting part of this discussion. If Lawless wasn't trading in antisemitism by giving a pyschic wink to the antisemitism which says that Jews are not to be be trusted because they lie about their position (especially on Israel) and their motivations and their intentions then what was he doing?

Submitted by frog on Wed, 28/04/2010 - 19:00

In 1965, apparently, a symposium on Limerick's 1904 anti-Jewish pogrom was announced. According to "The Jews of Ireland", by Robert Tracy (of which I know through a review), "there was vociferous local opposition [in Limerick]. There were efforts to intimidate the organizers and threats to disrupt the meeting. But when it began with a reading of Father Creagh's first sermon, there was an appalled silence, and the would-be disrupters slunk away quietly, one by one".

So in the mid-60s there was anti-semitism still active in Ireland, though not sure of itself. Or was the "vociferous local opposition" a freak?

Submitted by dalcassian on Thu, 29/04/2010 - 00:07

In reply to by frog

Jews have lived in Ireland since the seventeenth century, but the majority arrived, mainly from Lithuania, in the 1880s. By the early twentieth century, the Jewish community in Ireland numbered some 4,000-in Dublin, Cork and Limerick. Many subsequently emigrated to the UK, Israel and the USA.

In 1904, in Limerick, Father John Creagh, a priest of the Redemptorist order, incited the local population against "blood-sucking" Jewish money-lenders and travelling pedlars. His sermons brought about a two-year trade boycott of Jewish businesses, which was accompanied by intimidation, abuse, harassment and beatings (although there were no fatalities) and resulted in the almost total departure of the 150-strong Limerick Jewish community.

The issue of the Limerick "pogrom" resurfaced three times in more recent years, when various individuals sought to justify it. In 1965 there was correspondence following a television programme on the incident by Radio Telefis Éirean (RTE), the national broadcasting agency. In 1970, there was a further controversy when the then lord mayor of Limerick, the Labour Party's Stephen Coughlan, declared his support for Father Creagh's "defending the impoverished Limerick population against the exploitative Jews". The issue flared up again in 1984, with the Jews being defended mainly by left-wing politicians. Only in 1990 did Limerick seek to make amends to its Jews by restoring the city's Jewish cemetery.

[I take this from the website "Anti-Semitism and Zenophobia Today"]

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