Debate: The Irish Workers Group: the "national question" and the test of the Provo war

Submitted by Matthew on 16 April, 2010 - 4:18 Author: Sean Matgamna

I want to make an addendum to my article on the “Irish national question” in the last issue of Solidarity (3/170).

Statement of Workers' Fight, a forerunner of the AWL, after our offices were raided by the Special Branch in 1973.

One implication of Rayner Lysaght’s story that “the national question” was a major, remote or immediate, cause or precipitant of the break-up of the Irish Workers’ Group is that our side in the final dispute — the one for which I acted as spokesman — was somehow remiss in its commitment to the cause of Irish freedom. Not so!

We were, or at least some of us were, indeed “remiss” in the sort of a-historical nationalism which Lysaght embodies. We were internationalists and communists for whom the rights of nations — our own nation, or any other nation — were important, an irreplaceable part of our democratic programme, but not all-shaping, all-overshadowing, or all-else-eclipsing. And, of course, I found chauvinism of any sort loathsome. So did Liam Daltun and, no doubt, others.

As with the nonsense about the “secret Zionists”, here too AWL’s current policy on Ireland — we advocate a federal united Ireland, with autonomy for the Protestant-majority area — can be crudified, misapprehended, read back, and taken to shed light on the IWG.

Here too it is false rationalisation. Here too it begs the question of who, in their current politics on Ireland, has moved from the IWG positions. And here too the politics of AWL (then called Workers’ Fight) in the 1970s are illuminating.

Faced with the development of the IRA war out of the revolt of the Catholics after 1968, how did the Workers’ Fight component of the old IWG Trotskyist Faction respond?

We “explained” and defended and publicised the rationale of those Republicans fighting the British state. And, as a matter of fact, we didn’t mumble or do it shamefacedly either.

One measure of this is that Workers’ Fight was the only one of those political organisations in Britain who defended the Provisional IRA against the British Army, to have its headquarters raided and searched by the police when IRA bombs started going off in England. (Two or three years later a WRP college was raided after a young woman complained that she had been held there against her will, but that was another matter).

In those days the police didn’t come to you at dawn, screaming and smashing the door with sledge hammers, as they did recently to my next-door neighbour in Peckham, looking for “illegal immigrants”. But in September 1973 a gang of armed policemen came early in the morning to the house in Gifford Street, Islington, where Workers’ Fight had its headquarters.

When I opened the door to loud knocking, they rushed past me, “secured” the house, and then systematically searched it.

Nothing like that happened to any of the other Trotskyist groups; and certainly not to the Mandelite organisation (the IMG) of which Gery Lawless was by then a member and Lysaght a fraternal associate.

Indeed, by coincidence, at more or less exactly the same time as we were being raided, the British Left’s leading “professional Irish nationalist”, Gery Lawless, was in the news too, but for a different sort of reason altogether.

While functioning as one of the two IMG spokesmen on Ireland (the other was Bob Purdie), Lawless earned his living selling information about Ireland and the Republican movement to journalists and newspapers. In September 1973, when bombs began to explode in London, Lawless claimed that he had received a formal Republican acknowledgement of responsibility for the bombing. The Provisional IRA itself was not ready to acknowledge the bombings and denied that Lawless had received the acknowledgment he claimed to have had. He continued, to the British press to insist that he had received a republican admission of responsibility, even when the Provisional IRA insisted he hadn’t.

Whether Lawless really had received an acknowledgement and the Provisional IRA then thought better of it and withdrew it, or, in pursuit of money and to boost his credentials, importance and journalistic market value, Lawless had dressed up his knowledge or deductions as an IRA statement, I don’t know. The second possibility is far and away the most probable explanation.

But in that period of confused signals and information Lawless let his “professional” concern for journalistic credibility and income push him into the role of a political fingerman against the Republicans in the British press. For a short while he was centre stage.

For example, he appeared in the Daily Mail as an authority — complete with the tall-tale version of his biography — who knew and valiantly insisted that the Republicans had, despite their denials, set off the bombs in London; and he won’t have done that gratis, either.

There was a great deal of coverage of that business in the Healyite daily, Workers’ Press, denouncing Lawless in so many words as a police agent and anti-Republican provocateur.

Lawless admitted going to Scotland Yard, but it is highly improbable that he gave the police any information about the bombings which they didn’t already have, or, indeed, that he had such information to give. In Workers’ Fight I criticised Lawless’s behaviour and the confusion caused by his dual role as a seller of information to journalists and simultaneously the IMG’s public expert on Ireland. But my piece was mainly devoted to defending him from the Healyite charge that he was a “police agent”.

In tandem with Bob Purdie, Lawless in the early 1970s wrote very pretentious and usually very silly analysis of Northern Ireland in the Mandelite press. The analysis was based on false analogies with the impact of the Vietnam war on the USA and the Algerian war (1954-62) on France. It ignored the massive difference between a conscript army fighting a full-scale colonial war against the overwhelming majority of a population, with big casualties on both sides, and Britain’s Northern Ireland war, waged by a professional army, with small casualties, and actively backed by the majority in Northern Ireland.

Realising that he had been writing nonsense on this and other “Fourth International” political positions, Purdie soon dropped out of revolutionary politics.

As for Workers’ Fight, certainly our “support” for the Provisional IRA war was reluctant and, for me, troubled. What the Provisionals did made little sense to me, and none at all after the 1973 Sunningdale Agreement. I could not follow after those like Rayner Lysaght who saw in what the Provisionals were doing the early stages of a “process of permanent revolution” leading to an Irish socialist revolution.

I did however accept, and try to discharge, the responsibility formulated by the Communist International in 1920 to back “revolutionary nationalists” fighting the government of the state I lived in. And, as I’ve said, I did not do it mealy-mouthedly. I now think that I let the “generic” Communist Internationalist attitude override my awareness of the complexities of Northern Ireland and, to a serious extent, the politics on the Irish national question which the IWG had — or seemed to have — developed in 1966-7.

As early as 1969 I advocated a federal solution as the only possible united Ireland. In the “small print” of the articles defending the Republicans in Workers’ Fight I tried to present a truthful account of the realities of Northern Ireland.

At the beginning of the 1980s the organisation, on my initiative, began to reconsider its role and, in relation to Ireland, took on more of the role of Marxist analyst and propagandist and less that of being “militant” shouter of support to the Republicans.

We criticised the Republicans publicly in a way we had felt obliged not to in the earlier period. We became highly critical of the military campaign, and advocated that the Provisionals end it.

We drew the necessary conclusions from the fact that you could not explain partition in terms of British imperialism alone, though the actual form of partition, with an artificially large Catholic minority in the Northern state, was indeed an imperialist imposition: see

As a political tendency we made quite a few mistakes in the 1970s, essentially because our political values were one-sided and wrong in emphasis, being shaped by a view that our primary role was that of militant agitators against imperialism.

There are, I think, worse mistakes than to side militantly against “your own” government and with those fighting it in a just (albeit complicated) cause, the removal of the national and social oppression of the Six Counties Catholics. The one-sidedness was a grievous mistake, and we had to rectify it as part of a general political “revaluation of values” in later years.

But Workers’ Fight in the 1970s is the answer to any attempt to explain the break-up of the IWG by some lack of commitment or lack of militancy on Ireland’s national rights by our side.

The allegation that we were deficient in our support for Irish national rights, like the charge that we were secret Zionists, disguises what is actually being said — in this case, it disguises the adoptive Irish fetish-nationalism of Rayner Lysaght.

As shown in Workers' Fight: Gerry Lawless posing for the Daily Mail

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