Matt Merrigan (1921-2000) was a socialist, trade unionist and one of very few Third Camp Trotskyists in Ireland.
Born into poverty in Dolphin’s Barn, Dublin, Merrigan left school at 13 and worked for twenty years at the Rowntree-Mackintosh chocolate factory. He became a shop steward with the Amalgamated Transport and General Workers Union (ATGWU), rising to be its national secretary in 1960, a post he held until 1986.
Merrigan’s first contact with the Trotskyist movement came in 1942, when he met Jim McClean and Bob Armstrong, members of the Revolutionary Communist Party [the British Trotskyist group], who were operating in Belfast. Armstrong was a former Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) member and Spanish Civil War veteran who had witnessed first-hand the Stalinist betrayal of the Spanish working-class.
Merrigan, along with Johnny Byrne, organised a small complementary group in Dublin. Though both the Belfast and Dublin groups were small, they attracted the attention of Special Branch, and the clergy, who visited the houses of the younger members to scare them off involvement.
In early 1944, both groups came together to form and Irish group, the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP), with about 20 members. Upon going public, existing members of the Labour Party resigned their membership, though Merrigan had reservations about the efficacy of open work with such small forces.
The RSP published a weekly newspaper, the Workers’ Republic, though it ran out of money after six issues, and the group financed its activities through the sale of literature from the British and US sections.
It maintained contact with the British Trotskyists through meetings in Belfast because travel to wartime England was difficult. As Merrigan later recalled, the most heated debate among Trotskyists was over Shachtman’s position that the USSR was “bureaucratic collectivism” and that the bureaucracy represented a new exploiting class. Armstrong and Merrigan defended the Shachtmanites in the debates in the Fourth International. In a discussion article, “In Defence of Revisionism” (1947), the pair called for the British section to circulate the documents of Shachtman’s Workers Party to facilitate a proper discussion, citing the one-sidedness of the SWP’s collection In Defence of Marxism and James P. Cannon’s The Struggle for the Proletarian Party.
In the article, the RSP members denied that acceptance of Shachtman’s theory led towards abandoning Marxism. Their political conclusions were focused on independent working-class politics: “Today in the struggle waged between the major powers, wars of conquest, followed by the suppression of productive forces, are unavoidable. The victory of either Stalinist imperialism or finance-capital imperialism in a future war would lead to industrial suppression and political enslavement. Should the proletariat be too weak to prevent the outbreak of a third world war then the task of the workers on both sides of the military frontiers will be the revolutionary overthrow of their own immediate oppressors.”
In Ireland at the end of the 40s the RSP argued to win the Irish labour movement, North and South, to a democratic programme for a united, secular, and republican Ireland, with a “wide degree of Protestant autonomy in Northern Ireland”, and linking the national question to the overthrow of capitalism.
Around this time that Armstrong returned to Britain, becoming active in the anti-partition movement. The British RCP, floundering in its response to the 1945 Labour Government, fell apart, and Merrigan recalled the mood: “The entrenchment of Stalinism throughout Eastern and Central Europe on the bayonets of the Red Army and the development and dropping of the atom bomb on Japan created a mood of despair, as the long political night fell on what was to have been a brave new world!”
In the 1950s, Merrigan joined Labour and remained a persistent left-wing critic of its leadership. He opposed the formation of the Fine Gael-Labour government in 1973, and was expelled from the party in 1977. Along with another left-wing critic and former Minister of Health, Noel Browne, Merrigan formed the short-lived Socialist Labour Party, which allowed factions including the Socialist Workers’ Movement (now the Irish SWP), the Irish Workers’ Group and People’s Democracy.
Throughout the so-called “Border Campaign” (1956-62), Merrigan had no truck for the physical force republicanism of the IRA, whose leadership was “petty bourgeois and fringed with fascists”, and the movement “a conspiratorial cloak and dagger sect [whose] basic approach to national unity is emotional and hysterical.” (Labor Action, 19 September 1955).
He recognised, however, that “labour unity is sorely hampered by the national question” and denounced the Irish Labour Party and the Irish TUC for failing to adopt a principled position on the issue.
In these years Merrigan’s influence was mostly felt as a trade unionist, and as President of the Irish Congress of Trades Union (ICTU) from 1986. He was often opposed to the social partnership agenda of many other union leaders, insisting that: “Economic and social consensus is not possible in a society riven by property and class differences.”
When Merrigan died in June 2000 he was still a principled socialist and a fighter for our class.