Discussion between Richard (Dick) Montague and Ciaran Crossey
Belfast, 21 November 1987
CC I was given your name as a socialist activist in the '40s by Vincent McDowell. What I'm trying to uncover is information about the minor socialist groupings in Ireland during the '30s and '50s.
RM Vincent McDowell had been interned in Belfast during WWII. He came out wiser but he was not prepared to publicly say so. He broke with the IRA but missed a chance to openly separate.
Myself, I had broken with the IRA before going to prison. I'd gone on the run, got caught and convicted. I was released in '45-'46. I imagined myself as a socialist, some vague unidentified idea.
In 1946 I was reading a lot and in town one day I attended a street meeting at Blitz Square. There were in fact two Blitz Squares, on either side of Bridge Street, at the corner with High Street. There were fantastic public meetings going on there. Well at this meeting there were a few people, the group had a banner, the Revolutionary Socialist Party. I later found out that they were a Trotskyist group. I'd a rather personal view of Trotsky as a rather ugly man with glasses who'd attacked Kronstadt. This view came from my opposition to the Communist Party and its position on Russia. I thought that socialism which did not involve individual freedom was untenable.
At this public meeting the speaker was Jim McCleen. The leader of the group was Bob Armstrong, a Scotsman who'd been wounded with the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War. Bob was a charismatic character, personally very nice. He took the view, consistent with Trotskyism that the revolution requires violence. This meant that they orientated towards the IRA members, and ex-members as a potential base for the armed revolution. The RSP looked for links with IRA people for when the revolutionary situation occurred from the crisis of capitalism. The task of the Party was cadre building to prepare the revolution and lead the masses in struggle.
At the meeting I asked a few questions of McCleen, I was perceptive but politically ignorant. As they did not disagree with anything I said I joined. I later found that was something they did with everyone. I became associated with them, sort of evolved into membership without being asked or being moved as a member. There was very little democracy in the movement, decisions were taken by the 'fuhrer', Bob Armstrong.
There was a paper, Workers' Republic which occasionally appeared. At this time the membership was at best 8-9. I remember Bob and Elsie, Betty Graham, J McCleen, the Hanna brothers, and Johnny Casey who was a member for a while.
Vincent McDowell was associated with the RSP but he never joined. He personally distanced himself, he'd be around for a few days, then disappear for weeks. He took Betty Graham away, he later married her. This was a bombshell to this little insular group. For alleged Marxist materialists they gave off a lot of personalised flak about this, as Betty had been another comrades friend.
In the Trotskyist movement there were several strains of thought. The primary group was JP Cannon's who argued that Russia was a degenerate workers' state. He was the one who sent a telegram to Stalin the day the Germans invaded Russia calling upon Stalin to release the Trotskyists from the camps so that they could take their place in the front against fascism. The other trend was the Shachtmanites, who believed Russia was a bureaucratic collectivist state. I'd only known the RSP for one or two weeks when I was asked to speak at one of the street meetings. After the meeting, my first public meeting, I was selling the Socialist Appeal, edited by Ted Grant, when I noticed the 'what we stand for' column on the back page. It said we stood for the defence of the Soviet Union. I disagreed with this, so stopped selling the paper until I got this sorted out. Bob Armstrong said he didn't accept it either, as the Belfast group was opposed.
The thing about selling the paper at the meeting was the idea that if people listened to the speaker, then they would be more likely to buy the paper from them, rather then from some other comrade.
I went away to London where I sorted out my ideas, and I was active in an non-constructive sort of way. While I was away there was the split in the Northern Ireland Labour Party over the border issue. Bob saw in this the opportunity to intervene and to channel this into building the revolutionary socialist movement.
The NILP had had a little bit of influence. Around this time there were a number of elements; Jack Beattie, a raving nationalist from a Protestant background who represented West Belfast in Stormont, Frank Hanna, a cute lawyer also in Stormont as was Harry Diamond of the Socialist Republican Party. He was one of the more honest of this bundle. There were various independent councillors, but essentially they were Irish Nationalists, anti-partition whose main plank was the abolition of the border. They knew nothing about capitalist economics or socialism as pioneered by the founders of socialism.
Because of the possibility of intervening in these developments Bob Armstrong, the tactician of the movement, called upon the comrades who'd gone to London to come back and help in the work, so I did.
I'm unsure of the machinations behind these events, but the breakaway elements created the Irish Labour Association. At best it had 200 members, it later had a strong group in Newry. None of the Beattie, Hanna, Diamond elements joined the ILA. This group met in rooms in Marquis Street, off Castle Street. Years later we (World Socialist Party) had it, we got the rooms into shape. Then the Catholic Church found out and it got the landlord to throw us out.
Slightly before the emergence of the ILA there were elections in the North. These elections were accompanied by considerable violence from the Unionists. This was in response to the actions of the Anti-Partition League. That group organised church gate collections throughout the South to support anyone prepared to oppose the Unionists. They financed some real shysters; an honest rogue like Jimmy Donnelly, a non-practising lawyer. Another trade union leader and aspiring politician, Joe Keen from the aircraft factory. Watson, I think he was from the Post Office. I was asked to fight Cromac but refused. Donnelly fought it. These elections just predated the establishment of the Irish Labour Association.
The ILA used a lot of left shibboleths to define policy, meaningless and contradictory concepts, i.e. public ownership of the means of production and exchange. It had no cohesive policy, politically rudderless except for its detestation of Unionism, and especially the British Ulsterism' of the NILP.
Michael Callaghan was chairman for a while, I was briefly general secretary. Essentially it was Catholic, Reformist and Republican. There were four Protestant members, one of them was Sammy Armstrong, and a few atheists including myself and Michael Callaghan.
The idea developed in the movement that the ILA should affiliate to the Irish Labour Party. MC, RM and a few non-Catholics were totally opposed to this as the lLP was a completely reactionary organisation, currently in coalition with Fine Gael and Clann na Poblachta. Given that the opposition to the idea was so small the question should have been quickly sorted out, but as a reflection of the political weakness of the organisation the issue dragged on for months.
RM and MC got a resolution agreed that the group should look at the proposed mechanism of the extension of the Irish Labour Party into the North, but also that group should question the leaderships' policies on the North. A committee was elected to go to Dublin, meet the ILP and then report back to a meeting of the ILA. The committee which was elected consisted of RM, MC, Joe Keen, and Jimmy Donnelly. Arthur Doherty accompanied them on the trip to Dublin.
They arrived in Norton's office, An Tánaiste's office in the Dáil. He was the vice prime minister, Minister of Labour, leader of the parliamentary Labour Party. The delegation from the Irish Labour Party was Norton, Senator Duffy, Roddy Connolly and Jim Larkin Jnr. He kept standing at the window looking out, at no time did he sit in on the meeting. He seemed embarrassed at being there.
At the start Joe Keen addressed us and tried to present us with a fait-accompli by saying that we were making history. RM protested at this saying that the committee was only down to ask questions, to then report back and only then would any decision be made.
RM asked Norton about statements during the recent general election campaign, when Norton and other ILP speakers claimed that party policy was compatible with the papal encyclicals, that it conformed with Catholic social policies. Would any Belfast members have to go into Sandy Row and deliver this message? Norton's reply was that Montague was young, bright, good looking but that his problem was that he was an idealist, and that he needed to learn that, in politics, you need to confirm to the axiom 'when in Rome do as the Romans do'.
RM then asked how Norton reconciled his recent statements as a cabinet minister about the workers needing to make sacrifices with the statement from 10 years earlier when he said; 'under our present social system greater productivity means a lower wage for the worker, higher profit for the owner of industry'. Labour News 29.??.1938. Norton got irritated and refused to answer. He said I was an idealist and as a Marxist I resented that.
After the trip we reported back to a meeting of the Irish Labour Association. MC and RM made a joint report opposing association with the ILP. Keen, Donnelly and Doherty, he was not a member of the delegation, gave a verbal report saying that they'd been impressed by the visit and that they favoured the link.
Two weeks later there was a meeting in St Mary's Hall to establish the Irish Labour Party. There was confusion over who was organising it, but the ILA membership had been unofficially canvassed to attend in good numbers. Some people, RM, MC and a few others who were opposed to the link were not officially invited to the meeting. RM only found out about it through press reports.
At the meeting the platform consisted of Harry Diamond, Jack Beattie, Frank Hanna, Jack Macgougan and a few others, none of them members of the ILA. The bulk of the meeting consisted of members of the ILA.
On a point of order RM rose and inquired about who was responsible for organising the meeting. He was given conflicting replies. RM asked who elected the platform and the chair. Diamond's reply was that he was 'trying to provoke trouble'. Eventually Mrs Diamond, who was at the front of the room said; 'As a Catholic from Dundalk I am delighted to be here to see a Catholic Labour Party established in Northern Ireland'. At this point RM and a number of others left the meeting.
The development of the Irish Labour Party is publicly available. It won a few seats in elections, there was a lot of in-fighting as it consisted of a lot of petty people looking for petty office, eventually it collapsed.
In 1949 we established a group, the Belfast Socialist Group. This was unique in Irish politics as we precisely defined what we stood for, what our socialist policies were. We then linked up with a Dublin group to set up the Socialist Party of Ireland in May 1949. In 1959 we changed our name to the World Socialist Party.
Supplementary Discussion between Richard Montague and Ciaran Crossey
Belfast, 28 November 1987
On page three of the typescript of the discussion of 21 November, CC typed 'Cunningham' as an associate of R Montague. This should read 'Callaghan'.
Montague stated that he first got politically involved, with the Republican Movement, when he was about 15, so that was in 1941 to 42. He was arrested for possession of arms, although he was never caught with them, and was jailed for five years.
The first street meeting of the RSP which he attended was with Jim McCleen speaking on 'What we stand for'.
The first meeting he spoke at was denouncing Unionism and Nationalism. Although it's difficult to say how many exactly were listening, because it was a street meeting, there was at least 100. This was, of course, on a Sunday afternoon and there was no television so people wanted something to do. During the war there'd been large pipes on the surface of the street holding water for fighting fires. These were about 12 inches wide and at the end of the war lots of them were dumped around Blitz Square. These were piled up and provided a type of grandstand for people to listen from. So normally every Sunday there'd be lots of people about.
CC asked about the 'fantastic meetings' Montague referred to in the earlier discussion. He explained that one example was that after the establishment of the Belfast Socialist Group and [which had] started holding meetings in the Square, the Irish Labour Party was pressurised into holding their own meeting. The leaders did not want to get involved but the rank and file were unhappy with the BSG being seen as the only group doing things. So the ILP turned up at 2.30pm one Sunday at our pitch, half an hour before we normally started. We didn't normally use a loudspeaker, but as we knew the ILP would use one, we got a lorry and a loud PA system. We went to the other side of Blitz Square and started our meeting.
Obviously the two loudspeaker systems clashed disrupting both meetings. We proposed that we merge the meetings and hold a debate from the one platform. The Irish Labour Party rank and file agreed but the leadership just closed their meeting down. I remember there were literally thousands of people there. Blitz Square was a sort of low grade Hyde Park. The BSG held meetings, years earlier the Revolutionary Socialist Party, the CP occasionally held meetings as well as the various independent Christians, one of them was Eric Gallagher. On one occasion I attended a CP meeting on my own, I was selling the Socialist Standard, the paper of the SPGB. They'd a vast crowd at this meeting. Betty Sinclair told me to go away and organise my own meeting if I wanted to sell the paper. She told the crowd that I was a 'social fascist', and called upon the crowd to beat me up. Two people did approach me but the crowd stopped them from touching me. Even though this was after the war the CP still had a fairly big membership.
I went over to London in 1948. While I was there I met the Socialist Party of Great Britain on one occasion. I argued against Tony Turner, he was a very aggressive speaker. I wasn't involved with them.
While I was over there Bob and Elsie moved to Highgate, they bought a house near where I lived. I came back to Belfast in early 1949. When I came back the RSP group had disintegrated. Coming back did not involve me in making a 'break' with Trotskyism as I never was a member. The RSP was a refreshing group, an interesting group.
The people involved with the setting up of the Belfast Socialist Group were myself, Jack Kane, Michael Callaghan, Desmond Bill, Bill Churchlow, Joe Porter and two or three others. Of course there was also an element of a membership turnover. The background to the BSG is that one Sunday afternoon DB, MC, JK, RM and others were out walking and DB was pushing me for arguments, to clarify things. Eventually I said that 'problems will persist until money is abolished'. Kane said that this was the policy of the SPGB. After the walk I went home and read the SPGB pamphlets I had, Question of the Day, Socialism. I was very angry that I'd never heard these ideas before. Once you break the credibility gap with people, it's possible to recruit and build support for socialism. The BSG quickly linked up with the SPGB.
After I got back from England there was an election for Stormont. I got a telegram asking me to attend a meeting in the Royal Avenue Hotel, a big room on the first floor with a lot of people. There was a lawyer called Skinner, a CPer called Chris Ferguson from the Workers Union of Ireland, and a number of LP people. On my way into the meeting I met Joe Keen who said he'd been nominated for the Clifton ward. He then said he'd volunteered and that he'd put Montague's name up for the Cromac area. I refused as this was not democratic, the whole operation was merely to get anyone to stand against the Unionists.
Jack Macgougan is wrong to say that the founding conference of the Irish Labour Party was in Wellington Place, it was definitely in St Mary's Hall. He is right that the ILA was would up prior to the setting, up of the ILP.
Brian Murray got involved with socialism in the 1950s, not in 1949 as Macgougan says.
30 November 1987
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