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Submitted by dalcassian on Wed, 19/03/2014 - 00:10

David, I “glossed over” nothing. I chose what I thought essential and dealt with that. Evidently you have a different opinion on what is essential. I don't buy into Benn's romancing accounts of himself and how he became radicalised. What is significant to me about his period in office after '74 is the role he played in helping the Labour government demobilise the working class, and the blind alley into which he led the left in the chauvinist Popular Front campaign against the Common Market (now the EU). These prepared all the defeats that followed. I confess: I'm seriously deficient in feelings of hero worship for Benn.

Suppose your idea is correct that at one time, three decades ago, we had ideas similar to Benn's latter-day positions on Ireland and the IRA. There is no shortage of A W L self-criticism of our history on this question. Quite a few articles doing that are on the internet. You think every article in which the IRA or their supporters or apologists are criticised is obliged to repeat that self-reassessment? Why?

But in fact, your account of our political history on Ireland is seriously mistaken. You are wrong that we ever had anything like Benn's later politics on Ireland. We never gave “pretty uncritical” support to the IRA. We never gave them political support. Far from it.

We did publicly defend the IRA through the 70s, and, more selectively, in the 1980s. We proclaimed ourselves to be “in solidarity with the revolutionary nationalists fighting imperialism”. We campaigned for “troops out”. We campaigned against the Prevention of Terrorism Act that quickly followed the Birmingham pub bombings in 1974 (in the atmosphere of heavy intimidation and uncertainty after the passing of the the Prevention of Terrorism Act, together with the London branch of the People's Democracy we organised the first public demonstration against it). We did some necessary Marxist housecleaning by refuting idiotic kitsch-Marxist attempts to classify what the IRA was doing as mere “individual terrorism”.

You could say that thereby we supported the I R A. Provided you didn't take that to mean that we gave them political support, I'd have no quarrel with it. Certainly that is how we were perceived on the left, in the Labour movement and by the cops, who raided our office.

But we combined that with publishing independent analyses of what was what socially and politically in Northern Ireland and in Ireland as a whole. In the “small print” texts underneath the headlines and the sloganising we made conscientious efforts to give a true picture of the Northern Ireland reality at every turning point. We never had any time for the fantasies of so much of the left that northern Ireland was in a phase of “Permanent Revolution” and that the IRA war would lead to a socialist revolution, or, anyway, something like Castro's Cuba.

We criticised the Republicans and differentiated politically from them. (Not enough, in my opinion.) In the early 70s when there were socialist critics of the IRA on the left in Ireland we republished some of their comments, for example those of P D in the North and the League For A Workers Republic in the South. We thought criticism of their activities came better from people living in Ireland than from people like ourselves in Britain.

The earliest controversy on Ireland in and around our independent organisation after we were expelled from IS in 1971 concerned the public criticism – all too mild criticism, agreed – we made of the provisional IRA's no-warning bombs in Belfast on “Bloody Friday”. That was as far back as mid-1972. We denounced the Birmingham pub bombings of late 1974. etc, etc, etc

Yes, Socialist Organiser played a central role in organising the left in the early 80s (as the introductory blurb at the top of the obituary tells readers who might not know that), but at every point you will find in the pages of our paper clear statements of our own politics and where necessary criticism of Benn and others of our allies.

To the point, we criticised Tony Benn on everything from the Common Market to the preposterous friendly open letter which, with his support, his Constituency Party sent to the Stalinist dictator Leonid Brezhnev. We were in that broad Bennite movement but politically not of it. We never pretended to be. We were in a sort of United Front in which we kept our own politics clean and clearly distinct.

You will find debates with Benn in SO in the form of interviews on such questions as the Common Market. Politically were relating to the broader left by drawing them into dialogue and debate. Have a look at the files of Socialist Organiser.

Of course things would have gone differently for the Labour movement and for the left if the miners had won! Our political conflicts with people like Benn would still have been in place, even in the best conditions – as they were at the height of the left upsurge after '79.

But many years have passed since then. The left rotted and decayed. And Tony Benn has played the role in that terrible process which I portrayed him as playing.

David, there really is nothing for socialists of our persuasion to romanticise in Tony Benn! The public adulation of the dead Tony Benn was as ridiculous as it was insincere. We should not join in such farces!

Have a look at the record of the interview-debate which Mark Osborn and I did with him in 1994 on Ireland, where you will find as accurate a portrait of Benn's mind and politics as the tape recorder could provide.

In preparing that article for the paper in fact I did “gloss over”, tone down, some of what Benn had said – the nonsense about the Maharajah he met in 1931 being as British as the Northern Ireland Protestants, and his emotional “this is my side” reflex defence of Gerry Adams and the IRA (followed by the catching-himself-on politician's proclamation that of course he believed in non-violence).

Sean Matgamna

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