(1936-2012) Gerry Lawless

ONE OF the most colourful figures in the history of Irish socialism, Gerry Lawless, who has died in London, made legal history by taking the first case heard at the European Court of Human Rights.

It was against his internment during the 1950s. He was the first citizen of any European country to take legal action against a government and, though he lost, he set an important precedent.

Gerald (usually known as Gerry, but also as Géry for a time) Lawless was born in Dublin’s North Strand in August 1936, the fifth of nine children to Edward Lawless, a helper on a delivery lorry, and his wife Theresa (née Bell).

As a boy he joined the Fianna, youth wing of the IRA, and moved on to the IRA. He first came to the attention of the authorities in 1953 when he was convicted of malicious damage to a plate glass window bearing an image of Queen Elizabeth II. In 1956, in the first of many splits in which he was involved, he joined most of the IRA’s Dublin brigade in leaving the organisation. The dissidents joined up with Saor Uladh, an earlier Northern-based split.

In 1957 he was jailed for a month for possessing documents and was then interned. The IRA in the Curragh did not accept him, so the military authorities were forced to give him a hut for himself. Then, making himself a heretic to orthodox republicans, he “signed himself out” (by promising to obey the Constitution) – having already breached another article of republican faith by challenging his internment in the courts.

Soon after release, his lawyer Seán MacBride gave him the fare to London where he spent the rest of his life, working mostly as an electrician’s mate. He had difficulties with literacy and a friend encouraged him to go to night classes. He then began an odyssey round the British Trotskyist left.

He was mischievous and in 1962 took part in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) march from Aldermaston to London. Along the way he decided that the inoffensive CND leader Peggy Duff was bureaucratically controlling the march. He set up a faction called “Let the March Decide”, which chanted, “Let Duff get stuffed, let the march decide!”

He was also involved in Irish exile politics. In 1965 he set up the Irish Workers Group (IWG), the first Irish Trotskyist group since the 1940s. The IWG was small, but politically formative for a number of people who subsequently played significant roles in the Irish left – in particular, the leaders of People’s Democracy in the North.

In 1968 the IWG split, then collapsed. Controversy over Lawless’s role was one of the main causes. Many of his comrades found him difficult to deal with. He frequently argued for the opposite of what he had supported the day before, insisting there was no contradiction.

In the late 1960s he was caught up in the fashion for urban guerrillaism. For a period, he had links to Saor Éire, a militant group split from the IRA. That was the period in the North of the civil rights movement, internment and Bloody Sunday. Lawless was deeply involved in campaigns centred on these events and was the public face of the Irish campaigns of the International Marxist Group. However, he clashed with the general secretary and was forced out.

Through his political involvement he developed writing skills. and the Sunday World took him on as its London editor. He showed a real flair for tabloid-style stories and was noted for his willingness to help younger journalists. His charm won him friends in unlikely places, including Bill Deedes, the former Tory cabinet minister and legendary Daily Telegraph editor.

In the 1980s he joined the British Labour Party and became a councillor in Hackney, where he showed flashes of his old rebelliousness.

He is survived by his wife, Anette, daughters Kerry and Siobhán, son Stephen, sisters Imelda and Eveline, and brothers Freddie, Kevin and Austin. He was predeceased by his son Seán, sister Claire, and brothers Albert and Eddie.

Gerry Lawless, born August 16th, 1936, died January 21st, 2012.

First published in The Irish Times 28/01/12 under the title Maverick socialist whose charm won him friends in unlikely places