2nd October 2009

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 As the newspaper achieved greater prominence the name RSL was superseded by Militant Tendency.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.

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 here 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.


  • Mark Marx

    Militant in the North of Ireland in the 1980s

    By: Mark Marx | 15th February 2017, 5:47am

    Some info from when I was in Militant in the 1980s in the North.

    At its peak in the mid-1980s the group had about 150 members in the North, mostly in Belfast (where four branches operated). It had full-time organisers in Belfast, Omagh, Derry and Ballymena/Coleraine.

    Of these 150 members I would guess that around 60 could be counted as regularly active during the 1980s.

    Its main membership and industrial base was in the public sector, mainly white collar public servants, social workers and health workers employed by city councils, the NHS and the Northern Ireland civil service. The main concentration of union members was in NIPSA.

    While it had student members, mainly at Queens and Coleraine, it rarely exerted much consistent influence in student politics. Many student members tended to be drawn into branch activity and an orientation to agitation and propaganda work in the working class areas covered by each branch.

    It had offices in Belfast city centre where about 6 full-time organisers would generate articles for the Militant Irish Monthly paper and co-ordinate the work of branches and union activists.

    In terms of leadership, Peter Hadden was the dominant figure. He wrote all the main political documents. In the South the main leaders were Joe Higgins and Dermot Connolly.

    In terms of public activity, as with most small propaganda groups, this revolved around weekly sales of the monthly paper, street stalls (usually in city and town centres on a Saturday) and occasional public meetings. The public meetings usually were on domestic economic issues such as jobs, privatisation, union rights and so on. Sometimes they would be on events in Britain (Derek Hatton spoke at a very well attended public meeting in Belfast in 1986) or major international events such as the protests in China in 1989.

    The most sustained political influence exerted by the Militant group was in the South, where two full-time organisers based in Dublin held national leadership positions in the youth section of the Irish Labour Party.

    In the North, it was via NIPSA that the group was sometimes able to mobilize union members against threats made by paramilitary groups. For example, in the aftermath of the Anglo Irish Agreement in 1985, some loyalist groups said that Catholic workers who traveled to work in Social Security offices located in loyalist areas would be regarded as targets. Militant activists in NIPSA played a key role in organizing strike action against these threats.

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  • By: EamonnCork Wed, 02 Mar 2011 10:34:39

    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.

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  • By: Mark P Wed, 02 Mar 2011 10:35:22

    In reply to Jim Monaghan.

    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.

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  • By: EamonnCork Wed, 02 Mar 2011 10:35:30

    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.

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  • By: Mark P Wed, 02 Mar 2011 10:39:18

    In reply to Mark P.

    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.

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  • By: EamonnCork Wed, 02 Mar 2011 10:41:04

    In reply to Mark P.

    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.

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  • By: Mark P Wed, 02 Mar 2011 10:42:21

    In reply to EamonnCork.

    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.

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  • By: Budapestkick Wed, 02 Mar 2011 11:05:18

    In reply to EamonnCork.

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

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  • By: EamonnCork Wed, 02 Mar 2011 11:20:34

    In reply to Budapestkick.

    It’s aged better than GBH has.

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  • By: Budapestkick Wed, 02 Mar 2011 11:21:14

    In reply to EamonnCork.


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  • By: Terry McDermott Wed, 02 Mar 2011 11:30:24

    And all of them Everton supporters…

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  • By: Earl Williams Wed, 02 Mar 2011 11:38:19

    In reply to Mark P.

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

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  • By: NollaigO Wed, 02 Mar 2011 12:18:27

    In reply to Budapestkick.

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


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  • By: irishelectionliterature Wed, 02 Mar 2011 12:30:15

    In reply to Budapestkick.

    Thats mad! Hatton turned into Eddie Hobbs!

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  • By: EamonnCork Wed, 02 Mar 2011 13:31:32

    In reply to Budapestkick.

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

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  • By: NollaigO Wed, 02 Mar 2011 14:05:46

    In reply to Budapestkick.

    Maybe he’s doing entry work for NAMA !

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  • By: neilcaff Wed, 02 Mar 2011 14:18:21

    In reply to Terry McDermott.

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

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  • By: Terry McDermott Wed, 02 Mar 2011 16:46:53

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

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  • By: robinhanan Wed, 02 Nov 2011 10:48:18

    In reply to Mark P.

    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.

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  • By: Mark P Wed, 02 Nov 2011 14:10:12

    In reply to Mark P.

    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.

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  • By: An Sionnach Fionn Fri, 16 Nov 2012 14:42:55

    […] 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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