Gerry Lawless 1936 - 2012

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

Memories of Gery Lawless

Gery Lawless died on Saturday, 21st January at 7.42 a.m. At least that was what this writer was told. He was not present. He had not seen Gery since 1994, when he received from him a generous donation for the Marian Keegan headstone. Before that, it had been nearly twenty years, just after his resignation from the British Section of the Fourth International, the International Marxist Group.

Gery Lawless could be considered a Jekyll and Hyde figure, though the parallel breaks down when it is remembered that there would be disagreement as to which of his roles was Jekyll and which, Hyde, whereas, with Stevenson’s original, there was never any doubt as to whether Hyde was the wrong’un.

The writer has written elsewhere about his first meeting with Gery in 1963, and how he was impressed initially by his business-like approach to political work in contrast to the left social democratic circles in which he moved. Later, he came across some publications of the Irish Communist Group (ICG), including Mellows’ Notes from Mountjoy, which was not the first version republished, but which was the only one readily available. However, he mistrusted the group’s Maoism, of which there were already signs of the ultra-Stalinism of ICO and BICO, welcomed its purging of the Maoites and joined the Irish Workers’ Group, seeing it as a political centre more serious than anything else in the Labour Party.

Small and short-lived (1966-1969), the Irish Workers Group contributed to Irish left-wing politics three valuable factors, and it can be said that two of them were contributed by Gery Lawless. The first which was definitely his own: the establishment of a genuinely Irish Bolshevik-Leninist organisation. Today, it is difficult for many on the left to realise what this meant. Since the demise of the Revolutionary Socialist Party in the late forties, there had been in Ireland only a few individuals, like Matt Merrigan, pledging allegiance to the principles, though decreasingly the practice of the Bureaucratic Collectivist Max Schachtman, John Byrne and other isolated supporters of the mainstream International Secretariat, and, the one group with any organised approach to struggle here, Gerry Healy’s British Socialist Labour League (SLL). The first two were not organised enough to launch a strategy for their country. The last had a strategy; it was that the real fight was in Britain and that Ireland could be only its source of demofodder as it had been the raj’s source of cannonfodder; its recruits tended to do three things: either drop out, follow the line, and the way to Britain or join the Stalinites.

Lawless sought to change this. He claimed to have broken with the SLL over its Irish non-policy and certainly his career subsequently backs his claim. His problem was that, in the early sixties, the SLL was the only British group able to give political guidance to a young man trying to build an Irish Trotskyism. This helps explain much of the vagaries of his career in the Trotskyist movement. For a start, his base was within the Irish diaspora, whose political sophistication he had to admit later he was inclined to idealise. Secondly, he began by trying to jump too far and, at a time of great political fluidity, to form an organisation (the ICG) with a group of Maoites who turned out to be not just Mao fans, but the most dedicated Stalinites of all. Finally, having broken with these, he joined with his fellow exile, Sean Matgamna, in starting to build a really tight Trotskyist grouping. In this task, two political defects came to the fore. He was trying to build a Trotskyist group that would, include, despite its tightness, supporters of all international tendencies. It was not all a mistaken attempt, but it involved far greater human and theoretical resources than the IWG possessed and, anyway, it was obvious that the SLL would never agree. 

This practical weakness on internationalism may have affected the IWG position on nationalism more in its emphasis than in its substance. Though the group had members on both sides of the Irish border, it never developed a position on Irish unity beyond that of "Nationalist and Unionist Workers Unite". More sophisticated understanding of these divisions would come after the attack on the ghettoes in August ‘69 Lawless should be given credit for helping in the diagnosis, though he played a minor role helping the writer work out the prescription.

The IWG seemed to have to compensate for its internationalist agnosticism by taking a hard line on the current issues affecting the national question. On entry into what was then the European Economic Community, Matgamna criticised opposition in the group paper, and Lawless defended him against his attackers, who included both the writer and a number of Matgamna's allies in the future split. More significant was the group's attitude towards the Republican movement. This has been criticised on the net recently, and such criticisms can have resonance at a time when [Provisional] Sinn Fein is masquerading as the chief socialist opposition to Labour's junior position as executioner of the thousand cuts. Matters were different in the '60s. Labour was in opposition and flaunting socialist credentials, albeit cynically, whereas, at least until '67, the then united, and far more active, Republican movement, concentrated its attention on the fag ends of bourgeois democratic demand. Even there, it stayed well away from issues of religious power, on which, on paper at least, Labour was rather more vocal.  The IWG worked from within the Labour Parties north and south; it did not expect to convert it, of course, but it did see that the promise of the seventies being socialist did provide a recruiting call for many potential socialist revolutionaries. By comparison, as yet fewer such cadres were joining the Republicans, and their development was hindered by the fact that they were in a revolutionary nationalist movement. It was Lawless who told the writer that Liam Daltun had been offered the post of Sinn Fein Education Officer before the CP fellow-traveller, Roy Johnston and that Daltun rejected the offer out of hand. Whether or not this happened, it is almost certain that Daltun would not have lasted half the time that Johnston did and problematic as to whether he could have recruited many to revolutionary socialism. Historically, the movement's revolutionism lies in its claim to be “the Republic virtually established” enforced through the gun. From '62 the guns were stashed away and the virtual state was having to find ways to make itself actual. In this task, nationalism had become an handicap. It left the movement all too open to the basic nostra of Stalinism: the stages schema (an initial programme posing national-democratic rather than socialistic demands) and, of course, the ultimate achievement of socialism in a single country. Such radicalisation had to be contested and the IWG contested it. It did go too far in its readiness to support all dissidents from the new course, not just those on the left, like Jim Lane, but those who attacked from a conscious right wing position like G.MaCarthaigh. This was due to lack of political sophistication, but probably, more particularly to the group's over-reaction to international isolation. Lawless was not solely responsible for this but he did not oppose it, perhaps because of the scars left by his own breech with the movement in the mid-fifties.

There was one other contribution made more definitely by Gery Lawless to the political development of this writer, at least. He believed in asking questions. In this, at least, he was a true follower of Marx, more so than many of the know-alls with whom he clashed. Though he did get wrong answers, and, this writer would maintain he would be guided by one such to end his revolutionary career, in the decade when Lysaght and Lawless were comrades, Lawless was usually correct.

The trouble was that when he got political matters right, this was negated often by his personal failings. It was maintained that he would change his line (and that of the group) overnight without consultation. As an opponent put it: when he initiates something, you ask: what’s he up to now? That this could be said of Big Jim Larkin did not make it better leadership. This weakness was most notable in his tactical manoeuvres in his own London branch (grandiosely named the “Che Guevara Branch”. Strategically, it is difficult to think of any unilateral turnarounds in the IWG’s overall practice. The actual examples given by his opponents were of little consequence and might not have caused their dissatisfaction were it not for other weaknesses.

One such was his readiness to mythologise. The writer describes it as such, rather than simply lying because, in the cases he knows, there was no direct lie, only inference. For example, Lawless would remark in passing that he had been in Algeria, as, indeed, he had for a conference in the newly independent state. However, he would drop the information into a discussion on the Franco-Algerian War, implying that he had performed a role therein like that of John MacBride among the Boers. Similarly, he did himself no good by his assertion that his mother had kept company with Michael Price, then believed to have been the first Irish Trotskyist (He wasn’t; he was a left distributist, though on a number of practical matters he took the same positions as the few Irish Trotskyists of his time.) The innocent listener was left to assume Price was Gery Lawless natural father, establishing a Trotskyist dynasty, although there is no evidence that any relationship between Mr Price and the future Mrs Lawless continued after they married and well before Gery’s conception. Later on, he implied that the destruction of Roddy MacCorley’s statue in Toomebridge during the civil rights marches had been done by republicans (and how would he have known?) to raise nationalist consciousness; again no evidence has been produced for this. Such performances on minor matters encouraged his detractors to dismiss his honesty altogether on issues where his account of the substance of the matter was marred by errors of detail. For example, he described how he was won to Trotskyism in the Curragh when he read the Report of the 1957 World Congress of the International Secretariat of the Fourth International. Research has shown that he could not have done so, as the Report was only published after he left the prison. On the other hand, his first entrance to organised Bolshevik-Leninism was into the SLL, the bitter opponent of the International Secretariat, so it is possible that he did read a report of a Trotskyist Congress, only it was the report of the founding Congress of the International Committee to which the SLL affiliated.

A more serious problem was Lawless' aggressive personality. It was partly natural to him, but it may have been extended due to his training in the SLL, though by the time of the writers' association, with him, the physical violence practiced by that body against other left bodies tended to be used against him, rather than the other way around. What is definite is that he expressed his violence orally, attacking comrades verbally for errors far less important than justified the attacks. Even there, the only specific example of this known to the writer occurred on a Dublin march in solidarity with the northern civil rights agitation. Eamonn McCann had been lifted by the RUC, and the cry to release him was being raised. One marcher, whose relations with McCann were less than friendly remarked that he never thought he would be calling for his release. Lawless heard this and told him that he could either call "Release Eamonn McCann" or get a thick ear. The marcher chose the former. (In a further twist, five minutes later, McCann himself appeared, released and well.) Otherwise, in the writer's presence, Lawless kept his aggression in check. Indeed, on one occasion, he was far more conciliatory than the writer. A couple of student sympathisers produced a press release criticising pro-civil rights demonstrators who had clashed with the police. Having given it to the media, they showed it to Lawless and the writer. It was the latter who blew his top, subjecting the pair to a torrent of abuse that nearly got everybody involved barred from the pub. It was Lawless who presented a voice of sweet reason. The release was withdrawn, though whether this was due to the intervention of the writer or of Lawless or of both combined can only be answered by its authors. (One of these was the future Labour leader and current Minister for Education Cutbacks, Ruairi Quinn, foreshadowing his role as practitioner of neo-liberalism.)

Lawless' verbal aggression was made the less supportable because it was delivered often with a blistering wit. This seems to have been the factor that alienated Liam Daltun, a brilliant linguist who could have made a much greater contribution to the cause had he not seen himself as also a natural organiser and generally a born leader. Whatever his merits in that department, he was less effective than Lawless, who enjoyed telling him so. Unfortunately, the writer was only present at their cruder exchanges. He was present, however, at some of Lawless' other clashes.

There was, for example, his remark to Deputy Michael O'Leary in a session at the United Arts Club after the 1967 Labour Party Conference. O'Leary had just been beaten by Barry Desmond for the party chairmanship. In the contest, the vote of the organisation's Stalinite wing had gone heavily to Desmond, despite O'Leary's efforts to ingratiate himself with it, notably by inspiring Brendan Corish, the party leader to resist calls to commit to Connolly's Workers' Republic but to declare, rather, for the meaningless "New Republic". O'Leary believed that Lawless' anti-Stalinism would cause him to sympathise with him, perhaps even provide him with the basis for alternative support. So he all but wept on Lawless' shoulder and plied him with drink. Finally, the other spoke: "Yes, Mick, the Stalinists have done terrible things. But I'll say one thing for them. When they've used a shit like you, they throw him aside".

Again, there was a meeting with Daltun and Des Geraghty in similar surroundings in London. Geraghty had been considering joining the IWG. Daltun thought that it would help him if he were briefed on the many iniquities of international Stalinism, a subject on which he was an authority. His lecture took a considerable period and Geraghty became restive. Lawless saw this and remarked teasingly "Sometimes, Des, even I don't understand what he is on about".

In Gaj's restaurant, one lunchtime, a friend was complaining indignantly about how the vandalisation of phoneboxes had prevented him from making a call. Lawless smiled and presented statistics (from where is unknown) showing how phone vandalism had increased in Petrograd in the months prior to the October revolution and drawing the clear inference that such vandalism was not just natural but necessary to the revolutionary process.

The second case was more vintage Lawless. After the Loyalist attempt to impose a final solution to the Catholic question in August 1969, the writer was tempted by the emotion of the time to seek to defend the besieged areas militarily. Probably this piece of quixotry was doomed anyway, but it was Lawless who said: “If you have to take part in the armed struggle, you should join the Brits. Your gun will do far more harm to them if you're with them than if you're against them."

This does not mean that the writer does not remember a number of Lawless' acts of kindness towards him. When he had to do research for his thesis in London, Lawless bore with him as his houseguest for nearly two months. On one occasion, indeed, the host's tolerance was stretched to the limit. Lawless' flat proper was on one floor, but the bathroom was lower down. The writer left the premises one day with the key in his pocket while his host was in the bath. Lawless had to climb through the bathroom window and over the roof to get admission to his dwelling, dressed only in a towel. He remarked afterwards that had he fallen, there would have been no end of individuals ascribing this to his succumbing to his superman complex  ("He thought a Trot could fly."), and declaring it to be his natural and inevitable fate.

As it is, he has died in a different way, but, also, in a context that many of his revolutionary opponents would feel justified them. Was he still in the British Labour Party? Had he learnt to stop worrying and love Tony Blair?  If so, this writer's reaction must be "there, but for the grace of the dialectic..." When he knew Lawless, Lawless was usually correct: correct in wanting to organise a revolutionary socialism suited to Irish rather than British requirements, correct in his concept that the immediate means of achieving this necessitated a form of Irish Emancipation of Labour League (Matgamna's flip response, "Does Lawless think himself a Plekhanov?", ignores the fact that Plekhanov had to start somewhere, let alone the fact that his start among the Populists was considerably more honourable than his ending claiming, still, to be a Marxist.). Lawless was correct, too, in his appreciation of the Irish national question. This was backed by an unorthodox but effective use of tactics, as, for example, in Southampton; Fascists in a social club had beaten up Troops Out Movement leafleters and Lawless moved in a mass of their fellow members to hold an impromptu dance when the British National Anthem was being played. Given these qualities his breach with the British section of the International (and, effectively with revolutionary socialism) seems to have been less because of political disagreements than personal antipathies. Once separated, he had no international to give a boundary for his political actions, and the Irish scene was now too crowded for him to revive the IWG project particularly with his continuing residency in London. His lapse into British Labourism was all too natural. The writer heard of flashes of his old form as a Hackney borough councillor, but they seem to have been no more than flashes without any steady blaze. For all that, such a blaze had burnt brightly.

The writer has two other reasons for regarding him favourably. Had Gerry Lawless never existed, Irish Trotskyism, would have developed but it would be different, perhaps better, more probably not. What is more, without Lawless Lysaght would not have developed as he has done.

Of course, there are those who would see this as a further argument in Lawless’ disfavour. 

by D.R.O’Connor Lysaght

16 February 2012

Previously published at http://www.socialistdemocracy.org/