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What happened in the IWG - Sean Matgamna gets in wrong again

25 November 2010

by D.R.O’Connor Lysaght

Seven months after the event, this writer has come across Sean Matgamna’s attempt to reply to his refutation of Matgamna’s original libel. It is truly an epic work: some fifteen A4 pages of printout, not including the logins. Yet, at the end of it the only two new pieces of evidence to support his case are the circumstantial fact that there was a lot of latent anti-Semitism in Ireland (and in Britain) in the sixties and the claim that Lawless made a false accusation of Zionism against Matgamna, his wife and another Jewish comrade. 

The Matgamna polemical method is exposed further in its author’s dealing with other points in this writer’s original contribution. On the matter of the use of oral history, he can do no more than repeat the charge that Lysaght is “a second-hand story spinner”, ignoring the fact that he is quite happy to repeat third hand information, like Bob Mitchell telling him that the writer boasted of his descent from that rather inadequate Irish High King, “Rory O’Connor’ (sic). 

On Permanent Revolution, he can do no better than dredge up a quarter-century-old platonic dialogue that he wrote involving someone pretending to be Lysaght wandering around Belfast in an overcoat in the hot summer of 1983, so that he could be debunked by Matgamna’s own comrades. He does not quote the article that the real Lysaght wrote replying to the charade; but then he may not have published it at the time; it was rather long, and he may not have received it. Nonetheless, the “dialogue’ was far from being Lysaght’s last word on the subject. Yes, he presents a scenario; so did Lenin so did Trotsky, so, too, did Plekhanov; there is nothing wrong with a scenario if it is correct, as was Trotsky’s. The danger comes when events show it to be mistaken, when it becomes a straightjacket. Lenin did not allow his scenario to develop thus, though too many of his supporters dressed themselves in it. (Plekhanov was too wrapped up in his straightjacket to change.) Matgamna has not presented any factual reason for the writer to change his opinion. The collapse of the Provo campaign is not evidence of anything other than the workers’ old nemesis, the crisis of leadership; the Provos were warned repeatedly that their inability to see revolution other than in military terms and politics other than as reformist would doom their aims, but they persisted.   Matgamna may have been misled by articles to the British workers that were necessarily less critical than those for their Irish comrades. 

At all events he can see his own, reformist, scenario of formal Protestant-Catholic reconciliation operating in the Robinson-MacGuiness executive. He can ignore the fact that the Protestant para-militaries are still armed openly, that there is no Bill of Rights, that the Irish language is downgraded vis-vis the Lallans-Scots dialect, that nationalist schools are threatened and, above all that the whole charade is maintained by massive British subventions that are to be cut drastically. Matgamna is stuck in his own negative scenario: no Permanent Revolution in Ireland. This is against the evidence that the Protestant workers will not rise against the Protestant statelet unless the majority of Irish workers show them a)that Protestant ascendancy is doomed and b) that smashing the ascendancy statelet will not mean domination by Catholic capitalism (which it would, still, did Matgamna’s nostrum of a devolved government under one of a united Ireland operate.).

Were that all there was, the writer would not bother to write this. However, there are two considerations that caused him to sit down again at his word processor. Firstly, the logins show that there are still people ready to read and accept the Matgamna version of the split in the Irish Workers’ Group. Secondly there is the fact that, presumably to improve his marble, Matgamna presented an account of Lysaght’s political career that is distinctly skewed. It is not that, as Mccullough suggests, Lysaght wishes to defend Gery Lawless; what caused him to intervene was, rather, the accusation that he was party to “an Anti-semitic witch-hunt’. Had that statement not been made, (even leaving the one libeling his historiographic methods) Lysaght would not have intervened.                                                                     

Accordingly, it is necessary to present an account correcting Matgamna’s accounts both of Lysaght’s career and of anti-semitism in Ireland. It is to be hoped that this will be shorter than Matgamna’s last effusion.

To begin with Lysaght. It is probable that, in his years up to the end of his Freshers’ years in Dublin University, he did mention, perhaps even boasted of his descent from Irish kings. What is certain is that, around 1961, he discovered far more prestigious, if collateral, ancestors than Rory O’Conor, namely Arthur O’Connor, the United Irishman and Feargus O’Connor the Chartist. He found out quickly enough that the O’Conors and the O’Connors were not related except in the way that, over the centuries, King Rory could be as much, or as little, related to Sean Matgamna as he is to O’Connor Lysaght. (The single letter “n’ makes a big difference) Lysaght pleads guilty to linking his real ancestors’ names to his own and to mentioning them, if slightly inaccurately (they were not direct ancestors) on the back cover of his book. Despite Matgamna’s assertion to the contrary, he did not claim any sort of descent from the bould Rory on that cover, as anyone who has a copy of the book with cover intact can see.

Certainly it is true that for most of the sixties he was a left social democrat, following Noel Browne and supporting Browne’s entry into the Irish Labour Party. It was at one of the meetings of Browne’s party that he first met Lawless, and was impressed (as Matgamna would be) by Lawless’ efficiency and energy. (It should be said, that though Browne headed a party of the heterogeneity that made the future Irish Workers Group look positively Bolshevik, including Trotskyists, Anarchists, Stalinists, social democrats and a few liberals, nobody denounced Lawless as an anti-semite.)  He met Lawless again when, still a reformist, he was in London in the summer of 1965, when he hobnobbed also with the Connolly Association, but regarded himself as closest to Tony Cliff’s International Socialists, as they then were.

Lysaght’s confusion was not unique. In the sixties, the far left was much more open than it became subsequently, an exception being the fortress that was Gerry Healy’s Socialist Labour League. The trouble was that this openness was the product of a very low level of political consciousness. For example, people found it difficult to understand after the China-Russia split just what the difference was between Maoism and Trotskyism: didn’t both their inspirers want something called “Permanent Revolution’?  This confusion may have created the circumstances for the Lawless-Clifford combination, the Irish Communist group.

The author bought some pamphlets from that group and was impressed by them. Then he returned to Dublin in September 1965 and joined the Labour Party, working in Noel Browne’s constituency of Dublin South-East. For about a year, his position was as described by Matgamna as described by Bob Mitchell (thirdhand history again, Matgamna): that socialism, seen ignorantly in social democratic/Labourite terms could be achieved in Ireland by Irish Labour under Brendan Corish. There is a very partial excuse for this in that Irish Labour, being out of office was rather more radical at that time than Harold Wilson’s British Labour, but this does not excuse the incredible conceptual confusion involved.

By the time Bob Mitchell had to emigrate, Lysaght’s illusions about Irish Labour were evaporating. He met Lawless at the Labour Party conference, read the Irish Militant and Workers’ Republic and was impressed.  In the new year, he stayed with Lawless in London and was inspired by him to buy  Trotsky’s Permanent Revolution.  This was not the first work of Trotsky that he had read; that had been The New Course which he had found interesting and with which he had sympathised, but which he did not find relevant to contemporary Ireland.

To one who was writing the history of the twenty-six county state and trying to make sense of it, Permanent Revolution was a revelation. As he read it, Lysaght realised “this was how it was’ and then “this was how it could have been in Ireland’ and, finally, “why was it not like this in Ireland?’ It would be much later that he would work out how it could be in Ireland. On top of this, came the colonels’ coup in Greece, where a group of militarists acted to pre-empt the election of a liberal populist government; this brought home to him the fact that he should have recognised before: that the democracy of the ruling classes goes so far only as the moderation of the dispossessed. As yet he could not be described as a Trotskyist, but his education was proceeding.

He joined the Irish Workers’Group in May 1967. As it was just over eighteen months since it had split with the Maoites and it would be exactly two years later that the plug was pulled on the group’s rump, it is true to say that he was a member not just for its last years but for most of its official existence. At all events, through the summer, he acted according to the quite loose group norms, trying to put across the message. He wrote the article that Matgamna (and a younger comrade who would abandon revolution soon afterwards) denounced as social democratic; in fact, its formal moderation was geared to persuading other Labour Party members to be less moderate rather than frightening them. That he did not attend the September conference was because he was just out of hospital and advised not to travel. No doubt this shows his lack of Bolshevism; perhaps he should have gone, expired on the spot and have Lawless and Matgamna give his funeral orations. However, this did not happen. What Lysaght understood did occur, and Matgamna may refute it if he wishes, was that Lysaght was elected an alternate member of the governing body of the group, so he assumes he must have been doing something useful. It was from alternate member that he became a fulltime member as the split developed the next year.

Within weeks, the faction fight had begun. To understand the barely walk-on role played by Anti-semitism in it, it is as well to understand that in Ireland, much like everywhere else, that sickness had been latent rather than open since the second World War. The Irish equivalent of Nazi-ism, Ailtiri na hAiseirigh, which had appeared a major threat before 1945, though it never won a Dail seat, was unable even to fight elections, its paper boring but keeping anti-semitism to a minimum. Fahey’s group was increasingly a talking shop. The Dail’s former Anti-semite, Oliver Flanagan, a shrewd political manouverer, had joined with the Dail’s leading Atlantic Alliance supporter and would end his career on the same benches as a leading Irish Jew and Zionist.

The Limerick situation was different because the city was scarred by the notorious boycott. Even here, most of those who defended it seem to have been quite genuine in their motives of defending less it’s Anti-semitism than the alleged motives of the Redemptorist Priest who inspired it, Fr John Creagh. For his defenders, he was defending the people of Limerick against moneylenders. Frog’s contribution to this discussion is instructive. He remarks that a crowd who had come to defend Fr Creagh on these lines was disarmed when they heard the exact words used by the priest (and Hitler would have been delighted with his sermons). Genuine Nazis would be made of sterner stuff.

Similarly, it is doubtful whether Lord Mayor Steve Coughlan had read a word of Fr.Creagh when he defended his memory in 1970. His anti-semitism was a maneuver against a strong left wing in his local party, some of whom the writer has been proud to call “comrades’. His aim was twofold: to secure his seat with right-wing votes and to embarrass his opponents into leaving Labour. Accordingly, he embarked on a campaign of provocation of which his defence of Creagh was only one episode. Besides this, he denounced strikes, welcomed the (Apartheid) South African Rugby team to his city, and attacked the Maoites who tried to sell their literature in his city. This time round, it was the Maoites, not the Jews who suffered.

So what was Lawless trying to do when he named Matgamna and two Jewish comrades as secret Zionists? As Matgamna admits, it was just one of a series of accusations against members of his faction. The context was not that they be expelled but a reply to Matgamna’s charge that Lawless was presiding over a combination. This was true enough, though Lawless was countering the charge with one that Matgamna and his allies were combining too, which was also true, if not to the extent that Lawless stated, and he seems to have been wrong in including the accusation of covert Zionism.

It remains true that in a factional polemic covering tens of pages, only, at most, three or four paragraphs were devoted to the said alleged Zionist question. Lysaght “saw no anti-semitism, heard none; he read no anti-semitism, he remembers none” nor did anyone else, on either side in the faction fight. It should be added that the alleged initiator of the so-called witch-hunt, G. Lawless is known to have had a tempestuous political career, with many accusations being thrown at him, but it is only now when he seems to be in retirement that he is accused of anti-semitism. Above all, if a leading member of an organisation makes what may or may not be an anti-semitic point and neither his supporters nor his opponents notice it but see quite clearly that other matters are paramount, how can that member be accused of running “an anti-semitic witch-hunt”?

But what were the paramount issues? The political, as distinct from the personal issues were as has been stated, nationalism and the way to build a Leninist organisation. They merged in the original dispute that started the struggle. Lawless claimed that the Matgamnas were holding back dues to subsidise their own British group (not to subsidise Israel). The two comrades of Jewish extraction were in the British body, as was Matgamna and another comrade who was, as far as the writer knows, also a gentile. (But then the writer didn’t know Phil Semp was Jewish until Matgamna’s last screed.)  Matgamna countered with the proposal to set up an organisation of two sections for each of the islands in this archipelago, on a much stricter political base: two homogenous parties in what amounted to an Anglo-Irish International. 

This gives only the framework of the divisions. Broadly speaking, the factions were divided between those (the majority) who feared Matgamna more than Lawless and those who feared Lawless more than Matgamna. The minority maintained that Lawless’ maneuvering made it impossible for Irish Trotskyism to develop. The majority did not like what they saw of the said maneuvering, but they considered that Matgamna’s remedy would be worse than the disease. They knew Matgamna to be better read in Trotskyist lore than any one else in the I.W.G., and believed that an international limited, if only initially, to these islands would be likely to be over-dependent on him.

This mistrust was increased by his faction’s formulation of the demand for  political homogeneity. How homogenous was homogenous? To many, this looked like a demand for two monolithic organisations ideologically directed by Matgamna, in a manner resembling that of Gerry Healy. Such fears were reinforced by the fact that members of the minority faction (not Matgamna, here) were inclined to admire Healy’s organisation as being clearly politically defined and immune to such strokes as were identified with Gerry Lawless. (As can be seen the majority did not have the monopoly of naivety.)

It was noticed that Matgamna was inclined to rely on his book learning as a substitute for, rather than an aid to recognising actual material conditions particularly in Ireland. An example was an article he wrote on what was then the European Common Market; after much debate, he concluded “In or out of the Common Market, the struggle goes on”, true enough but scarcely a guide to action in the current  debate on whether these countries should join. ( It must be said, that, some years later, he admitted that he made an howler.) He has continued this sort of excuse for inaction. In his “Platonic Dialogue’ he has caused his character “Jackie’, whom he admits serves as one of his spokespersons, to give a share of the blame for the northern troubles to the demand for civil rights, with the clear implication that those who demanded them would have done better to wait for Terence O’Neill to grant reforms, perhaps on the plea of the uninterested twenty-six county Government. Later, in his pamphlet on Afghanistan, which is, at least better researched than anything he has done on Ireland, he comes to a similar abstentionist view of the internal struggle there.
It may be difficult for Matgamna to recognise that he was a major factor in creating opposition to his own politics. It is certainly easier to blame such opposition on anti-semitism. Nonetheless, the position was as has been stated above.

Matgamna and his allies demanded the expulsion of Lawless and his “clique’, namely his then wife, Anne Murphy and Pat Donovan. The majority was less demanding. It recognised Matgamna’s talents and wanted to keep him, but not in the position to which he seemed to aspire. A solution to the problem was offered by Eamon McCann. (It should be noted that Matgamna misquotes this writer when he ascribes to him as a quote that he described McCann and Michael Farrell as “great revolutionaries’.  Anyone who reads his last contribution will see that he described them as “incipient revolutionary socialist leaders’, which they were, as was he.) McCann made his proposal that the two groups in Britain and Ireland should apply to join the Fourth International (United Secretariat). This was not unthinkable even for the many members of the majority (like the present writer, then) who regarded the Soviet Union as state capitalist. Cliff’s International Socialism group was seen, despite its name, as too Anglo-centric. Moreover it was difficult to understand why in itself a term descriptive of Soviet Russia should justify a worldwide schism. Again, naive, of course; the original divisions had created strategic differences that have proved impossible to overcome. Yet the instinct was valid. Many of the splits in the International had been objectively unnecessary and a united International might have been more effective in opposing the world regression after the Soviet Union imploded. At all events, at the time Matgamna’s objection was far more hostile in principle to the idea than he describes it. He listed the International’s mistakes, real and imagined, with the implication that he could never have made them.

The struggle ended on St Patrick’s Day, 1968. Matgamna’s description of Lysaght’s behaviour there is accurate compared to some of his other statements. The writer does not remember claiming to be the “only one.. who has any theoretical ability” in the IWG; he did claim, and it was a fair comment that he had written the one document (albeit one full of what he recognises, now as wrong formulations) that tried to stay political. As Matgamna admits, he takes his politics seriously. His explanation (not excuse) for his actions was that he was over-emotional about the group splitting and making a last ditch attempt to prevent it. He might add that nobody on either side tried to stop him seizing the chair and, no, they were not intimidated by the Grande Armee.

There is little to add. The writer became the group’s secretary and tried to hold matters together. It managed to produce two issues of the Irish Militant before the Belfast comrades’ recognition of it as practically a walking corpse fuelled in part by the view that People’s Democracy could achieve their revolutionary aims gave it its mortal wound. In May 1969, Lysaght proposed ending the Group’s life and urging all members to join the former Irish-based members of the minority faction in the League for a Workers’ Republic. No one dissented. Lysaght is grateful to Matgamna for pleading his case with that organisation, but he could not bring himself to finance its strategy. He joined the Fourth International which absorbed the financial resources mentioned long ago.

The document has taken longer than he expected, but it is shorter than Matgamna’s nonetheless. The writer concludes it, and, hopefully the whole debate with this offer. He will not produce any further work in this discussion if Matgamna will a) admit that Lysaght is not and was not an anti-semite and b) admit that the 1967-8 faction fight in the Irish Workers’ Group was not about anti-semitism. Alternatively he should refer the matter to the parties’ peers.

If he cannot take either course, he should keep a dignified silence.



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