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Irish Left History Project: Irish Militant Tendency, 1972 to c.1989 October 2, 2009

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Left Open History Project, Militant.



It’s remarkable how short the entry for Irish Militant Tendency is on wiki. Here it is…

Irish Militant Tendency was the Irish section of the Committee for a Workers International in the 1970s and 1980s when it practiced entryism in the Irish Labour Party. After being expelled from Labour the group formed Irish Militant Labour, which became what is now the Socialist Party.

Well, yes. But that hardly gets to the root of the matter. How big was it, how many members and so on and so forth. John Goodwillie, in Gralton detailed it as follows:

Militant – formed in 1972 with close links with the British Militant. It has provided a Trotskyist wing in the Labour Party in the republic,and in the North in the Northern Ireland Labour Party and more recently the Labour and Trade Union (co-ordinating) group.

The history is, of course, a bit more complex than that. Militant did not spring fully formed into the Irish left body politic. It had a pedigree all its own. Militant Tendency developed from the Revolutionary Socialist League which was founded in the UK by Ted Grant amongst others and was in part a successor of the original Militant Group of the late 1930s. The RSL organised within the British Labour Party on an avowedly Trotskyist platform, indeed it was initially a section of the Fourth International, but in the 1970s was one of those behind the Committee for a Workers’ International. This life within a larger party was to characterise it throughout its time as Militant Tendency, so-called due to the newspaper Militant first published by the RSL in the mid 1960s, until the ‘open turn’ in the early 1990s. As the newspaper achieved greater prominence the name RSL was superseded by Militant Tendency.

And perhaps it’s unsurprising that as in Britain so in Ireland where it was to be found, as noted by Goodwillie, as a coherent grouping within the Irish Labour Party from 1972. I’ve never been a member of that latter party so I can only imagine how exotic MT must have appeared within Labour (although on reflection any party which could encompass Conor Cruise O’Brien and Stephen Coughlan can reasonably be termed pretty exotic in its own right).

However this coherence brought its own problems as it marked it out as readily identifiable. And while it is true that the British Labour Party was no stranger to groups organising within it Militant Tendency was pretty explicit in its affiliation to overtly Marxist-Leninist forms… indeed there’s something wryly amusing about the wiki entry on the party which notes that:

At its mass rallies in the 1980s the Militant displayed two huge banners at each side of the stage, one showing Marx and Engels, and the other showing Lenin and Trotsky, and never disavowed the ideas of Lenin and Trotsky.[53]

These things are clues. As with the turn against Militant Tendency in Britain during the 1980s by a leadership (and in fairness large sections of a party membership) keen to exhibit its political machismo and impose greater control so a similar albeit lower key dynamic played out in Ireland. Dick Spring was lauded in some quarters for acting against Militant. Still, I was surprised to discover that Militant members were part of the Labour Party right into the early 1990s. My memory was that they’d mostly left by the late 1980s.

Following the explusions there was the relatively brief existence of Irish Militant Labour and then subsequently the formation of the Socialist Party – a path not dissimilar to that travelled by the Militant Tendency in the UK. I’m reposting the issue of Militant from the Left Archive where other copies can be found here and here.

So, the question arises, what precisely was the genesis of Militant within Irish Labour? How large was Militant during this period? Did its membership numbers ebb and flow? When was the final breach? Who were the leading lights and did they continue into the Socialist Party (the issue above has articles from Peter Hadden, Alex Wood of Coleraine Labour Party, Peter Taafe – National Secretary of MT UK, John Throne – also of ITGWU, and Finn Geaney – obviously many of these names are well known)? What would be the defining documents published by Irish Militant other than their newspaper? How influential was Militant within the Labour Party? And so on. All information gratefully received.


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3. Mark P - October 28, 2009

I can give answers to a few of those questions.

Firstly, you have to remember that Irish Militant was organised on both sides of the border. The origins of Militant in Ireland were in the North, not in the South. An Irish person or two who had been involved in Militant in Britain added to a group of young people who were involved in the Civil Rights movement basically. The first Southern branches of the organisation came later and came essentially through the work of the Northern members.

Militant grew slowly but steadily up until the mid 1980s and then gradually fell in membership until the mid-1990s and the water tax campaign. That campaign allowed it to start growing again. I don’t have membership figures to hand, but as I understand it, at its peak in the mid 1980s Militant was the second largest group on the revolutionary left, a lot smaller than the Workers Party, but quite a bit bigger than the next largest contender. We are talking an organisation of hundreds rather than thousands or tens.

Its influence within Labour ebbed and flowed. Its peak was a time when there was a very substantial Labour left, and Militant formed its left-most wing. The total collapse of the Labour left in the late 1980s and early 1990s left it much more isolated. This remember is the period when the likes of Stagg and Michael D once and for all made their peace with business as usual. Militant had controlled Labour Youth for a period, but it lost control to the reformist left in the late 1980s, just as that reformist left was starting its long journey to the right.

I believe that the final decision to pull its remaining members out of Labour took place in 1992, but I’d have to check. By that stage a whole bunch of people had been expelled anyway. When the decision was finally taken to go, there was no substantial body of opinion in the organisation which still wanted to stay in the Labour Party, so unlike many of its sister organiations abroad in the same period, Irish Militant didn’t suffer a split. I’m told it left precisely one person behind in the Labour Party, but it could have been two or three.

Leading figures in the Militant days included Peter Hadden, Dermot Connolly, John Throne, Joe Higgins and Finn Geaney, amongst others. Hadden and Higgins are obviously still in the Socialist Party. Connolly was still in the Socialist Party until he resigned after the anti-bin tax campaign and is now with People Before Profit. Throne left the country in the mid 1980s and worked for Militant’s sister organisation in the USA before having a falling out with the majority of that group. Geaney, I believe, was the man who stayed with the Labour Party. All of them are still active on the left in one forum or another.


4. Irish Left Review · JOHN THRONE: IRISH MILITANT - November 7, 2009

[…] John Throne was heavily involved with the establishment of Militant Irish Monthly, the newspaper of the Militant Tendency in Ireland. It began publication in June 1973, and a copy of the first issue, as well as some information on the Militant Tendency, is available on cedarlounge here. […]


5. Robin Hanan - May 27, 2010

from your own interviews with John Throne, you should already have more than this info on Militant history.
As an outsider in close touch with Militant (I was involved in Labour Left and other loose alignments), I could comment on the broad trends but not the inside details.
The early leadership, when I knew them in the early 1970s, was centred on John Throne with a few close comrades – there was a man in RTE who had a low public profile but was an important early trainer of the comrades. in UCD, Joe Higgins and Tom Healy dominated, and went on to be very influential on the youth movement (Healy left after much soul searching around 1980 and now works for Dept Education on ‘social capital’. Healy was their lead in Labour Youth and trained members, including practice sessions before branch meetings).
Crumlin Branch was their main locus in Dublin – apart from UCD they had few other branches actually controlled. Paddy Smyth (now Irish Times) led in TCD and produced much of their paper.
They expanded when Labour Youth was set up around 1979, though did not win control until 1983 or 4. At this point their rapid expansion also led to lots of defections, which were treated harshly with bitter rows and some stalking of defectors. This was when the rest of us first learned about their extraordinary hierarchy – secret circles within circles, leading up to the leadership in Britain, with the tiop comrades numbered (I think it was 1. Throne; 2 Geaney; 3 Higgins; 4 Connolly; 5 Healy etc. but I could be wrong). Tghey were well known for their unusual accents – derived from the Liverpool accents of the founders of UK Militant – and strange hand gestures copying each other, which re-enforced the cultish feeling.
Relations with the broader labour left were on-and-off. They won party loyalty points for arguing a labour-only strategy (no talking to WP, CP etc., unlike most of the left centred round Noel Browne, Pat Carroll, Joan Burton, Matt Merrigan etc.) and they had good relations with many Labour left figures like Michael D Higgins. They filled a gap after Browne etc. left labour in 1977 and before the left re-grouped in the 1980s. The left defended them against leadership attacks and expulsions, but as Labour Youth grew they were seen more and more as divisive and cultish in their secrecy and internal dynamics. When the left won up to half of conference votes in the 1980s, Militant made up about 5% of this. Their second meber on the AC, alongside Throne, was Ted Gannon, a bus driver and later first script-writer fro Fair City.


Conor McCabe - May 27, 2010

That’s great Robin, thanks for that.


WorldbyStorm - May 28, 2010

Yes, is most interesting.


Mark P - March 1, 2011

Jesus, I hadn’t read this nonsense before. Concentric circles and numbered leaders? What vivid imaginations some people apparently have. I can only presume that Robin was mistaking Joe Higgins’ Kerry accent with imitation scouse.


robinhanan - November 2, 2011

two of the main full-time=rs from the Militant at the time have been on to me agreeing with this analysis since. It is not about imagination, but about memory. I mentioned the parroted accents and hand-gestures as an example of how closely [people sub-consciously copied each other, but anyone around at the time and not part of the group will remember this. I would recommend the article by former Irish Militant full-timer Dennis Tourish at http://www.rickross.com/reference/general/general434.html for a more academic analysis which includes useful insights.

This is all history now. I have no insights into the extent to which the modern Socialist Party has moved on except to the extent that Joe Higgins is always open to ideas and broader alliances now, not a characteristic of the 1970s and 1980s Militant.


Mark P - November 2, 2011

Robin, you are a complete fantasist. Militant did not have “secret circles within secret circles”, it sure as hell didn’t refer to leading figures by numbers, it made up substantially more than 2.5% of the vote at Labour conferences, and it’s members did not imitate scouse accents. This and much else is a product of your imagination.

I’m not surprised that you enjoyed Tourish’s dishonest smears.


6. Michael Mc Loughlin - March 1, 2011

I could take it up from Robin in the late 80’s. In concert with Labour letft many labour youth members decided to try and take back control of Labour Youth. The New Direction conference (1988)saw a broad left slate winning all the officer positions and a majority of the National Youth Committee.

Prominent and still involved today would be Joanna Tuffy and Sean O’Hargain. Pat Galagher later TD and senator was involved and elected to the AC with one militant.

Prominent in militant were many of todays leaders, Clare Daly, Ruth Coppinger, Mick Barry, Mick Murphy

Labour Youth and Labour Left did not support the expulsions as a methodology but didn’t shed to many tears. The first expulsions were in 1990 I think and could be appealed to the conference in Killarney. This effectively saw the dimise of the milis in the Labour PaArty


Jolly Red Giant - March 1, 2011

Michael – it is interesting how time clouds the memories.

New Direction and Labour Left worked directly in cahoots with the LP leadership and head office to manipulate the vote at the Labour Youth Conference in 1988. My own Labour Youth section that had been in existance for several years and had been very active all during this period – yet had its eight delegates ruled out of order and the eight were replaced by one individual who was not from the constituency and had been a member for less than two months (and could not be a delegate according to the rules – but backdating membership wasn’t a problem when you wanted to subvert democracy). The same thing happened with two other LY sections depriving Militant supporters of 24 delegates and securing a slim majority for the right-wing/new direction faction.

Not surprisingly this paved the way for the future expulsion of the Militant and the covertion to coalitionism of people like Michael D and Stagg (the mercs and perks go a long way to smoothing the guilt of lost principles).

Labour Youth, Labour Left and New Direction consistantly supported moves to expel socialists from 1987 onwards when Joe Higgins was nominated to run in Dublin West (occasionally making token verbal protests but never directly opposing the expulsions). Both Pat Montague and Emmet Stagg played prominent roles in shutting down LP branches in Dublin West that had a majority Militant support.

Indeed by supporting the closing down of those branches Stagg succeeded in losing himself the LP Vice-Chariperson position in 1988 having lost sufficient votes to win the election by supporting the removal of 12 delegates at the LP conference from those branches.

Joe Higgins was actually expelled in 1989 along with many other members of the LP and it is nonsense to suggest that the expulsions could be appealled to annual conference – by 1990 the conferences were rigged with anyone remotely associated with Militant being rejected as a delegate (as I was in 1990).

The right-wing adopted all sorts of methods to attempt to undermine Militant – In the mid-1980’s a still prominent member of the LP personally offered me £2,000 every year for five years to build up an election profile if I spilled the dirt on the Militant – money I was told by him was being funnelled through the Swedish Social Democrats (one wonders from where). How many of the ‘Labour Lefts / New Direction’ received similar offers?

As for the so-called history lesson from Robin – John Throne was no longer a member of the LP Administrative Council from 1981 onwards having been replaced by Joe Higgins. Ted Gannon was for a short period the Labour Youth representative on the AC again in 1980/81. In 1985 the Militant had two members of the AC Joe Higgins and Niall Kelly from Galway directly elected by LP conference (somthing that required 180-190 delegates at the LP conference – about 15% of the delegates). At one time there were five Militant members on the AC out of a membership of 29(if my memory serves me right).

The Militant played a prominent role at Labour Party Conferences during the 1980’s regularly getting conference backing for motions opposing the actions of the right-wing then in coalition – right up until Labour Left joined in the attacks and expulsions in 1988 and 1989.


WorldbyStorm - March 2, 2011

That’s no doubt true enough. But the way I look at it is that on and off during much of the period you discuss Labour was in government with a ferociously conservative Fine Gael, arguably much more conservative than FF.

All the shifting around inside the LP used to puzzle me given that outside the LP it was entirely possible to take a principled stand against those coalitions and indeed against right wing parties in general.

A stand that one can thankfully see the SP take in more recent times.


7. Jim Monaghan - March 2, 2011

I would wonder what difference the SP see between Labour of their time inside and now. I see little difference. Both leaderships would sell their mothers for a merc.When did it cease to be a “workers party” and what were the changes.


Mark P - March 2, 2011

The Irish Labour Party in the 1970s and the 1980s had a substantial left wing. That left wing was highly organised, it had large numbers of activists, its own publications, policies, groups and nationally known leaders. The left controlled many branches and was a real contender for control of the party. From the end of the 1980s to the mid-1990s this left collapsed entirely. Its main public leaders ended up as Ministers in right wing governments (Stagg, Taylor, Michael D Higgins), the organisations disappeared, the rank and file left disappeared.

Coalition with Fine Gael and Fianna Fail was the touchstone issue in left/right battles in Labour and from a party split almost down the middle on the the issue in the 1970s and 1980s, we have now ended up at a situation where the last time the issue was debated at Labour conference, the debate took place entirely between pro-FG and pro-FF wings and not one single delegate expressed opposition to propping up FF or FG governments in principle.

The Irish Labour Party has no potential leader to the left of Gilmore, Rabbitte or Quinn, no front bench member to their left, not one TD with a profile to their left. There isn’t even a solitary left branch at local level.

Its worth noting that its programme in earlier times was miles to the left of the current set of policy positions (go take a look at the 1980 party programme in the archive here). However the formal programme isn’t the main issue. The main issue is that Labour has close to zero rank and file opposition to its more right wing programme. It isn’t even like the British Labour Party were sheer size means that the shattered and bewildered left still has a few MPs and a few publications and organisations and can still turn out four hundred activists or so to its main institution’s conferences. There is nothing left at all, bar scattered individuals and at best a few clumps of individuals. And not even that many individuals – the paper membership claim of the Labour Party is in or around 5,000, the active membership much less.

The Irish Labour Party in the 1970s and 1980s was a very different beast to the current Irish Labour Party. It had a more left wing programme, it had a larger activist base (a smaller vote though), a strong and sometimes radical left which made up about half the rank and file, prominent left leaders, alternative left policies and branches and organisations and a closer link with the day to day life of the trade union movement.

It’s also worth noting that Militant Labour didn’t immediately take the view that Labour was no longer a “capitalist workers party” to use the jargon on the day it left the party. The processes which destroyed any progressive content in the LP were long ones.


Mark P - March 2, 2011

I forgot to say that I broadly agree with Jim about the LP leadership, then and now. From Militant’s perspective it was never about having any time for the leadership however.


EamonnCork - March 2, 2011

That is true. There was always a certain amount of suspense about whether Labour would actually go into coalition or not. For example they rrefused to do so after the election following the collapse of the first Fitzgerald government in 1982. And the less than wholehearted support for coalition from the party rank and file led to Michael O’Leary resigning as leader and joining FG later that year.
It shows how much things have changed that the eighties Labour Party, regarded as having betrayed the radicalism of the late sixties ‘seventies will be socialist’ party, was immeasurably more left wing than the current variety. Actually sections of Fine Gael, which combined with Labour to bring in a wealth tax in the mid seventies, were probably to the left of present day Labour.
Then again, there are a lot of new faces in the Dail for Labour now. Maybe Derek Nolan is going to be a new Michael D.


8. EamonnCork - March 2, 2011

I remember when Kinnock was purging Militant from the Labour Party arguing with people that it was all a witch hunt and that Militant were actually, as they said, merely a bunch of people who read the same newspaper. I now suspect that I may have been the only person in the world who believed this.
In my defence I was young at the time. And it was a good newspaper. Liverpool The City That Dared To Fight made a big impression on me at the time as well.


Budapestkick - March 2, 2011

‘City that dared to fight’ has aged surprisingly well. Still an excellent read.


EamonnCork - March 2, 2011

It’s aged better than GBH has.


NollaigO - March 2, 2011

How would you describe the way Derek Hatton has aged, Eamon?



irishelectionliterature - March 2, 2011

Thats mad! Hatton turned into Eddie Hobbs!


Budapestkick - March 2, 2011



EamonnCork - March 2, 2011

Militant were always big on entryism. So presumably Hatton is trying to undermine capitalism from within. Isn’t he?


NollaigO - March 2, 2011

Maybe he’s doing entry work for NAMA !


9. EamonnCork - March 2, 2011

Oh, and that thing about the fake Liverpool accent and the hand gestures is in John Horgan’s, very good, book about Labour in the eighties. I can’t say I’ve ever noticed it.


Mark P - March 2, 2011

It’s an urban myth, initially spread by opponents of Militant and given very slight credibility by the fact that there were hundreds of actual Liverpudlians in the British Militant, many of whom ended up spread around the place.


Earl Williams - March 2, 2011

I never heard the scouse blas, but I have seen the hand gesture. . .


10. Terry McDermott - March 2, 2011

And all of them Everton supporters…


neilcaff - March 2, 2011

That’s just black propaganda put about by Peter Taaffe.


11. Terry McDermott - March 2, 2011

Degsy still reckons he’s a socialist though. He was on celebrety come dine with me for the British elections.


12. An Sionnach Fionn - November 16, 2012

[…] one time rivals infiltrated from within in classic Communist style (anyone remember the days of the Militant Tendency? The irony!). Of course these guys (and gals) had no more interest in Marx (or Trotsky) than they […]


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