Eamonn McCann on Gery Lawless in the London Irish left

Submitted by Matthew on 29 February, 2012 - 12:54

Gery Lawless, once a prominent figure in the Irish émigré left in London, died in January at the age of 75.

[See 2012 footnote on Eamonn McCann's later views on Gery Lawless, below.]

Before the 1969 upheavals

A snapshot of his activity at the time when it was most important — when he was secretary of the Irish Workers' Group (IWG) in 1965-8 — is given by the document from the archives below: a letter written in mid-1967 by Eamonn McCann (since 1969-70 a well-known journalist and writer loosely linked to the SWP) to Sean Matgamna.

In the “histories”, the IWG is usually called Trotskyist — indeed, the first Irish Trotskyist group since the 1940s. But it wasn't. It was a conglomerate ranging from left-wing Irish nationalists through Deutscherites, soft Maoists or quasi-Maoists, Guevarists, and supporters of Ernest Mandel’s Fourth International, to “harder” orthodox Trotskyists.

McCann's exasperated attempt to displace Lawless was the forerunner to a faction-fight which broke up the IWG in 1967-8.

There was a six-month political battle, essentially between the hard Trotskyists (including Liam Daltun, Matgamna, and a nucleus which was the forerunner of AWL) and a loose alliance around Lawless which contained many sympathisers of the SWP (which then called itself IS, and prided itself on not being Trotskyist)... and McCann.

Lawless's rump IWG collapsed late in 1968. Ex-members would be prominent as individuals in the upheavals in Northern Ireland in 1969, but the concerted intervention that an organised Trotskyist group could have made in those events was not made.

Lawless became the IS/SWP's “Irish expert” in 1969, and subsequently the “Irish expert” of the then relatively high-profile “Mandelite” IMG. After parting ways with the IMG in the mid-70s, for a while he was impresario of a “Troops Out Movement” which claimed it was about to become a real mass mobilisation around the single demand for withdrawal of British troops from Ireland, but in fact was centrally a sort of surrogate “left group” for some activists round Lawless.

He became a Labour councillor in Hackney in the 1980s, and then faded out of politics.

• Irish Times obituary of Lawless here

Lawless and McCann in 1967

The history of the IWG (and of its forerunner, the Irish Communist Group) 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 also 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. At first, and until their enterprise was well under way, 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!

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 a fight over the formal post of secretary 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.

It didn't help that McCann's indictment of Lawless was obviously, subconsciously perhaps, patterned on Lenin advocating the removal of Stalin as secretary. In fact McCann understated things, though, living away from London, I didn't know it. Like someone who tries to stop a senseless fight in the pub, I antagonised both sides to some extent.

Within a few months Lawless would wreck the IWG by way of an organisational putsch.

Lawless in the Irish Workers Group: Letter from Eamonn McCann, 1967

You will be aware that there is a move among some members in London to replace Jerry as secretary at the AGM.

A few days ago a group us met to discuss the situation. It was agreed that we attempt to make you secretary. I was asked to write to you about this. Since then I have been told that, contrary to our expectations, you are with Jerry in any contest for the secretaryship and, moreover, willing to “to fight the matter to the point of expulsion”. Presumably the expulsion of Liam Dalton and myself.

If my information is correct (1) there would seem to be little point in pursuing that thing any further with you. Nonetheless I have decided to write as planned and to ask you to put our point of view to Rachel and Phil (and Graham if you are in contact. I will write to him myself anyway.)

It is obvious to anyone with half an eye that there are serious differences in the group. These are derived from organisation rather than perspective. (group perspectives is, so far, too vague to permit of precise objection anyway).

Gery is the organisational linchpin of the group. To outsiders the group is largely a reflection of him. This can be traced to the genesis of the group. When it consisted of a dozen or so left wing “loonies” in a fairly unprincipled alliance, meeting weekly in the Lucas Arms, without a single member in Ireland — perhaps a slight exaggeration; maybe one or two intermittently active ones — a dozen or so ill-defined “Marxists” without a perspective, a program, a press, then issues could be and were evolved according to a clash of personalities. There was no real contact with Ireland. It was, using your terminology, a “highland” as opposed to a “lowland” group.

After the split with the Cliffordites (2) and before the publication of the “Militant” (3) there existed, not a group in any real sense, but the possible embryo of a group. There exists the potential to forge a program and expand. Not all members would have called themselves “Trotskyists”, but all were committed to a non-Stalinist revolutionist socialism and willing to accept as leaders those who did evince Trotskyism. The group was still, however, isolated from the struggles — i e, in Ireland — which it existed to influence, direct and lead. In this situation Gery — admirably active and single-minded — was secretary, and Gery-as-Secretary became the group-in-action. It was this too to many members of the group itself. Indisputably this is the image of the group which was projected to anyone on the “fringe”. This was a dangerous situation.

I would date the existence of the group as a viable political entity from the publication of the “Militant”. Since then it has expanded in terms of numbers and, more important, in terms of effective activity. And it is now that we see the contradiction between agitation or methods of operation and group methods.

Gery still operated as always. Group approval for a particular idea or action is often sought almost as an afterthought. Gery writes to contacts about the “Militant” as if he were the “Militant” Every questioning of his activities ot the way he carries out his job is interpreted as a personal assault on his honesty, integrity and sincerity.

Any “indiscipline” invites a screaming — I mean that — and often slanderous diatribe. Group members are dismissed as “charlatans”, “cunts”, “wankers”, etc. Gery openly admits attempting, unsuccessfully, to goad a group member into striking him “so that I could do him”. Absolutely insane “criticisms” are made:

“Walter Rainey joined the group so that he could learn to be a writer from Eamonn McCann”. “Nobody understands proper procedure except me”. He is unconsciously but insultingly arrogant to every other member. Gery offering Tony Cliff some Maoist tracts after an education class: “take them away. I don't want this gang to get at them”, with a nod towards about 12 group members in the room. Can you imagine the reaction of the members involved to that?

Gery however is completely insensitive to group opinion in such things, so he wouldn't be able to conceive of offence having been given. (If this sounds like a list of sins, well, I suppose it is. Lest there be any doubt, I am trying to turn you against Lawless, in the sense that I want you to oppose him as secretary.)

A few weeks ago Jerry visited Derby and talked to a group of dissident republicans. No report on this has been given to the group. No permission was sought from the group beforehand. Rumour hath it that the possibility of this dissident element joining the Group and turning over to it a considerable sum which they have in a “political fund”, with a view to bringing out the “Militant” weekly was discussed. I say “rumour” because Gery has not yet seen fit to tell the group anything about it.

The group is all centralism and no democracy and this cannot be changed while Gery remains as secretary. He has thro' force of circumstances and his own personality, reached such an unchallengeable “supremo” position that given his attitudes and temperament, he is a real political danger if he is not reined in. And anyone who thinks he could be reigned in while remaining as secretary doesn't know their Gery Lawless.

Extreme sensitivity and volatile emotions are, when found in a “rank-and-filer” quite tolerable. When they are found in someone are central to the group as Gery they are in no way tolerable. When they become detrimental to group organisation they must be expunged and no messing.

I have no patience with those in London who say: “all this is true but Jerry is basically a good fellow. He has done a lot for the group. We just couldn't take the secretaryship away from him now.” This is slobbering nonsense. I understand that at Easter Liam, yourself and a few others talked in the Lucas Arms. The resultant opinion was that “on balance, Jerry should be kept on as at present”. I have never understood this concept of balance.

I am 100% in political solidarity with Gery. But I know on a political level that the group must have a different secretary. We cannot have discipline while the only — or the main — sanction is the loud mouth of Gery Lawless. We cannot have effective diffusion of responsibility while the group secretary is incapable of seeing the group is other than co-extensive with himself. And we cannot have a group consciousness among members as long as their sincerity is questioned, their “failings” berated, their intelligence contemned, their motives questioned.

This is not a liberal plea for an anarchic indiscipline, altho' Jerry chooses to interpret it as such when I speak along these lines. Quite the opposite. Discipline must spring from inner conviction, from a group consciousness, a commitment to the group.

Howling rages, threats of physical assault, slender, hysterical denunciations are productive of quite the opposite. Someone said a while ago that the SLL (4) “is an organisation for the maiming of militants”. I have seen militants maimed by this organisation. One such is too many.

I'd welcome your reactions, also those of Rachel and Phil.

Fraternally, Eamonn.

Emphases in original. Some paragraphing has been added. Spellings (e.g. variations in the spelling of names) are also in original.

Notes: (1) He was a victim of factional misinformation. I attempted to act as conciliator (www.workersliberty.org/node/13853). (2) The IWG emerged in September 1965 from a common organisation, the Irish Communist Group, with the Maoists who then became the BICO (“Cliffordites”) (3) Irish Militant, paper of the IWG. (4) Socialist Labour League, Gerry Healy’s group.


Eamonn McCann, while confirming the authenticity of this letter, wants it made clear:

1.That the decision to publish this document in the immediate aftermath of Lawless' death seems to him mean-minded and sectarian.

2. That the letter does not represent his settled opinion of Gery Lawless.

3. That in the following years he worked amicably and sometimes closely with him.

4. That though Lawless and himself had fallings-outs – in the anti-internment campaign, in the NUJ, in prisoners’ campaigns in the ‘80s - he thinks they had developed or restored a respect for each other which outweighed and was to outlast whatever personal or political resentments either of them continued to harbour.

5. That he was deeply saddened at his death and remembers him now with respect and affection.

6. That he is not going to be drawn into any discussion of the politics of the period.

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.