Mattie Merrigan (1921-2000)

We have the sad duty to inform our readers of the death on 16 June of Mattie Merrigan, an authentic workers’ leader and an old friend of this magazine, one of the most jovial and attractive personalities ever to join the Trotskyist movement. His attempts to root it within the trade unions while he was a member during 1942-48 gave him real inside experience of working-class struggle, and after the collapse of the Irish section, Mattie devoted his life to building up the trade union movement in Ireland, becoming Secretary of the Amalgamated Transport and General Workers Union, whose history he wrote (Eagle or Cuckoo: The History of the ATTU in Ireland, 1989) and then President of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. To recall his activity as a revolutionary, we reprint some extracts from the manuscript he sent us of his memoirs, Eggs and Rashers — For the ‘Barn Dashers’: A Reminiscence (pp29-39).

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Y first contact with the Trotskyist movement was some time in the autumn of 1942, when I met Bob Armstrong and Jim McLean, who were part of the Belfast Group then operating. Armstrong had been a journalist in Glasgow, a staunch member of the Communist Party. He went to Spain in 1937, and like Trench[1] and others saw at first hand the double game the Stalinists were playing in the revolution implicit in the dynamic of the Civil War, memorably chronicled by Orwell in Homage to Catalonia and by Felix Morrow’s Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Spain.[2]

Myself and Johnny Byrne set about organising a complementary group in Dublin, I reckon around the end of 1943. The going was tough within a mere three years of Trotsky’s murder at the hands of a KGB assassin and within seven years of the 1936 show trials where Stalin butchered the Old Bolsheviks and their families as terrorists and agents of Hitler, with whom he negotiated a non-aggression pact, which did not preclude aggression against Poland…

In addition to John and myself, we attracted to our group Michael Martin, Austin Cox, Eugene O’Loughlin, Eamonn Morrisey from Cork, Georgina Brady, and finally Billy McDonald. Owen McNamee, the OC of the IRA Command in mid-Ulster, who was on the run in Dublin, attended our meetings, as did Paddy Gibbons. Stephen Daly, who was a member of the Trench group, fell away when Trench died of TB in the early 1940s. The group rented a tiny room in the Boilermakers Hall in Gardiner Street, where we stored our literature and papers, the Socialist Appeal and Militant. These were the respective journals of the Revolutionary Communist Party in Britain and the US Socialist Workers Party.

In addition to Bob Armstrong, the personnel of the Belfast Group were Jim McLean, Betty Graham, Jim and Maurice Hanna, Jack O’Kane, Joe Quinn and Sam McVicker. They had premises in Gresham Street, and engaged in the usual activities of meetings and paper-selling. Armstrong sold the Socialist Appeal at Castle Junction on most weekends. The group, like the Dublin Group, came in for a great deal of attention from the Special Branch, and in the case of very young comrades a visit to their parents tended to end their association with the group.

Early in 1944, the two groups came together in Dublin, and we decided to launch the Revolutionary Socialist Party, all 20 of us! Armstrong was to be the General Secretary, with myself as Dublin Secretary and Johnny Byrne as Chairman. We also decided to launch a monthly paper called the Workers Republic, which we did, but quickly ran out of cash after six issues. Thereafter, if we wanted to say something important, we issued cyclostyled or printed leaflets, or sought to get space in the press at large for statements and press releases, without much success.

We built up a rapport with the English and US movement, received all their publications, and relied on the sale of them to help finance our activities. Travel to wartime England was difficult, and we met our English comrades in Belfast, which even then was fairly accessible on slow-moving trains. When we decided to go public with our own party, those of us who were members of the Labour Party formally withdrew. I had misgivings about open work as a tiny group in circumstances where politically the Labour Party was abysmally weak, and any left sectarian group would find it impossible to make any gains in such a hostile climate. However, hope triumphed over rationality, and I accepted the majority decision to come out. As far as I understood, none of the Northern Group were attached to other parties.

The big debate in the International was the Shachtman ‘heresy’ over the question of the defence of the Soviet Union as some kind of a workers’ state against the attempts of the bourgeoisie to overthrow it. Shachtman and Burnham characterised the Soviet state as a ‘Bureaucratic Collectivism’, with the Communist Party having power and privileges tantamount to a ruling oligarchy. This was developed further by Milovan Djilas, the Yugoslav Communist leader, in his New Class. It rent the US movement, and Shachtman formed the Workers Party and produced a monthly theoretical magazine, the New International, and a weekly newspaper, Labor Action. The magazine was far and away the best of its kind circulating in the world movement at that time, and had an enormous influence in its analysis of the Stalinist phenomenon.

Some currents of Trotskyist orthodoxy were once described as ‘Stalinism without Stalin’! The methodology employed and the theologising in the name of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky had more to do with religion than historical materialism. Attempts to analyse contemporary events by quoting the Master’s assessments of events from a time-frame long past elevated them to the status of eternal truths — a most un-Marxian method! … Bob Armstrong and myself participated in the worldwide debate that ensued, defending the right of the Shachtman tendency to confront the neo-Stalinist cant about the inviolability of the concept of a ‘workers’ state’, although a degenerate one, the majority view in the international movement, which construed the Soviet Union as being worthy of unconditional defence…[3]

Cut off from the mainstream labour movement and in the uncongenial political climate of the period in the middle years of the 1940s, in which we published a couple of leaflets and about six issues of the Workers Republic, the group began to disintegrate due to a couple of factors — the emigration of several members, the Special Branch intimidation of other young comrades through visits to their parents, and the attentions of the parish priest, if you had Catholic affiliations. 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!

The British Section of the Fourth International began to decline after the landslide victory of the Labour Party in 1945, and disintegrated in 1949. Many of the cherished aims of the British and Irish left found a concrete response in the wide-ranging reforms of that Labour government, so much so that the parties to the left of the Labour Party questioned their relevance to the concrete political process, and the Irish group, like the British, offered their members the tactic of entry into their respective Labour Parties.

Bob Armstrong emigrated to Britain in 1948, and became involved with the anti-partition movement in Britain, becoming the Islington Branch Secretary of that body. Sean McStiofain was a contemporary of Armstrong in the movement at that time. That move effectively killed off the Trotskyist movement in Ireland for a number of years. It did not resurface until the late 1960s in any sizeable way. Of the Dublin group, Johnny Byrne and myself became active in the Labour Party in our respective areas, although we continued to receive material from other international groups, including the USA.

[1].      Paddy Trench, the first Irish Trotskyist, had been a member of the Marxist Group in the Independent Labour Party in Britain, and went to fight in the Lenin Battalion of the POUM in the Spanish Civil War. He returned to Ireland and joined the Labour Party, where he lectured on Marxism and wrote articles for Torch. Cf Ciaran Crossey and James Monaghan, ‘The Origins of Trotskyism in Ireland’, Revolutionary History, Volume 6, nos 2-3, Summer 1996, pp6-7; Robert J Alexander, International Trotskyism 1929-1985: A Documented Analysis of the Movement, Durham and London, 1991, pp568-9.

[2].      Cf Sam Bornstein and Al Richardson, War and the International, London, 1986, pp36-7, 49 n79.

[3].      RSP of Ireland, ‘Resolution on the Fusion Question in the USA’, Internal Bulletin of the SWP, Volume 8, no 4, 1946; R Armstrong and M Merrigan, ‘In Defence of Revisionism’, Internal Bulletin of the Revolutionary Communist Party, 4 September 1946, and the International Information Bulletin, March 1947; The Irish Section, ‘The Russian Question’, Internal Bulletin of the RCP, 10 March, 1948.