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Peter Hadden

Irish Labour Party Conference

Witch-hunt of Militant

(April 1989)

From Militant Irish Monthly, April 1989.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.
Proofread by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL). (July 2012)

The Irish Labour Party conference, held last month in Tralee, was dominated by a proposal that supporters of Militant should be expelled from the party. A witch hunting motion was eventually carried – but by a small majority and only on the basis of blatant rigging of the conference by the party’s right-wing leadership.

Delegates to the conference should have been elected on the basis of the 1988 membership. But, uncertain that they would have a majority, the leadership simply set the rules to the side and continued signing up members into January of this year. This new membership was used as the basis for delegations.

No socialist would object to recruitment to the party. However this was recruitment of a different type! The new members were signed up in areas dominated by the right wing, mainly in party leader Dick Spring’s home base of North Kerry. Suspicions that these new names were not bona fide members were added to when the right went to extreme lengths to block attempts by leading left-wing members, including the vice-chairman Emmet Stagg, to gain access to the membership records. The conference hall seated about 1,000. Yet about 1,600 delegates were registered.

During the course of the conference there were generally plenty of empty seats but on the Sunday morning three key issues were to be decided. One was the election of the party officers and executive. Another was the appeal by three branches in Dublin West against their dissolution. These branches had been unceremoniously stood down simply because they dared to nominate Militant supporter Joe Higgins as a Dail candidate. The third key issue was the motion to expel Militant supporters.

Not only was every seat filled for the voting on these issues – so were the aisles and virtually every conceivable space around the hall. At least 300–400 extra delegates were packed in by the right to act as the executioners of branches and party activists.

Leaving aside this mass of people, cynically brought in as voting fodder for the right, the majority of genuine delegates were against expulsions. Not a single union voted for the witch-hunt, although the two biggest unions, the ITGWU and the Federated Workers Union of Ireland, both played the role of Pontius Pilate and abstained. The real reason for this attempted purge, as with similar attacks on Marxists in Britain and internationally, is the growing support for Militant’s ideas in the party and in the unions.

When Militant was small and its influence limited its supporters were tolerated by the right who were grateful for extra door knockers in their areas. But when Militant’s support grew to the extent that Joe Higgins was democratically elected as a Dail candidate this was a different matter. Because they can not answer our ideas the right are resorting to purges and expulsions in order to suppress them.

Since this paper was founded its supporters in the South have fought in the Irish Labour Party and in the trade union movement against the policy of coalitionism and for independent socialist policies, putting in front of the movement the objective of a majority Labour government on a socialist programme.

In 1969 the Party, standing on an independent position, won 28 per cent of the vote in Dublin and 17 per cent across the country. Since then the right wing have dragged the Party into three separate coalition governments where Labour ministers have sat in partnership with the right wing Fine Gael. During the most recent such government, from 1982–87, they presided over drastic cutbacks. In 1985 food subsidies were halved. This government used both the police and the army to try to break strikes.

The result has been disastrous for Labour. The Party’s current rating in the opinion polls is a miserable six to seven per cent. Two years ago the ranks had had enough and the Party was forced to adopt an independent position. However the parliamentary leadership of the Party have failed to mount a challenge to the present Fianna Fail government. The lack of an effective opposition from either the Labour Party or the trade union leaders, plus the development of a limited boom in the economy had served to benefit Fianna Fail who now stand at around 50 per cent in the opinion polls.

Instead of advocating socialist policies the Labour leadership has drawn the opposite conclusion from its period of opposition. The decision to try to expel Militant supporters is part of a general effort to push the Party to the right. The Tralee Conference also adopted an economic policy document which merely advocates better management of capitalism, and completely abandons the idea of nationalisation.

Like the advocates of “market force” of British Labour leadership. Dick Spring, Barry Desmond and company have been swept off their feet by the brief and, soon to be, short-lived mini-boom of capitalism since 1982.

The boom of the last couple of years has not relieved the misery of the poorer sections of Irish society. Unemployment stands at 18 per cent. One third of the population live below the poverty line. Emigration is returning to the horrific levels of the 1950s with 30 to 40,000 mainly young people leaving the country every year.

This poverty and the general weakness and crisis of Irish capitalism should have been the basis for the growth of Labour to become the biggest party in the state. Instead the Party’s right wing are trying to push the Party to the right, crushing dissent in the process, hoping thereby to reopen the way to ministerial positions for themselves in a new coalition.

The right wing successes at Tralee would not have been possible, even given the vote-rigging and manoeuvres, but for the generally baleful role played by the non-Marxist left, especially supporters of Labour Left. In 1987 Labour Left used exactly the same type of manoeuvres as now used by, the right to overturn the majority support for Militant in Labour Youth. Youth sections which supported Militant were barred from attending the Youth Conference in order to ensure a majority for Labour Left supporters.

Labour Left leader, Emmet Stagg, was instrumental in starting the process which led to the suspension of the three branches in Dublin West. The main witch-hunting motion at Tralee was actually moved by members of Labour Left. The majority of Labour Left backed a different motion, calling for an inquiry into Militant, in other words not for a witch-hunt now but for a witch-hunt in the future.

On policy Labour Left have put up no resistance to the shift to the right. Emmet Stagg gave the right-wing’s economic policy document his stamp of approval by speaking to the debate on behalf of the executive.

The last Conference in 1987 adopted a motion requiring the executive to come back to the next Conference with a recommended procedure for the election of the Party leader. The clear intent was that there would be regular elections, by the Party Conference. Yet the lefts acceded to the pressure of the right and agreed to jointly recommend a procedure whereby the leader would be elected by a ballot of the entire membership once every six years.

The Party leadership will discover that turning the Party to the right is not as simple a matter as packing halls and passing resolutions. Militant supporters will resist every attempt to expel a single person because of their ideas. In the constituencies and in the trade unions there will be huge anger if expulsions are now attempted. A measure of the support which Militant supporters will gain was shown at the Conference. Joe Higgins, one of this paper’s most prominent supporters, was re-elected onto the Administrative Council (Executive Committee). The Militant fringe meeting was the largest ever held attracting 150 mainly young delegates. Among the left there are serious concerns about the lack of fight of the Labour Left leadership. If these leaders continue to buckle under the pressure of the right they will face a growing challenge from their supporters.

It is not possible to witch-hunt ideas. Even if some of our supporters are expelled the right wing will never succeed in driving Marxist ideas, the ideas of Militant, out of the Party.

Quite the contrary! It is the ideas of the right, of reforming capitalism, of coalitionism, which will increasingly lose their appeal as the parlous state of Irish capitalism becomes more clear. Militant will not make the mistakes of others, and turn its back on the Labour Party. Even with its right wing leadership and despite the weakness of the ‘Lefts’ the Party will grow as the crisis deepens.

It is only because the Party is now a shell that the right have managed to launch this witch hunt. An influx of workers and youth will push the Party to the left and strengthen support for the ideas of Militant.


This is the music of the future. It will be the right wing and their ideas which will be discredited in the course of future class battles. Despite all their witch-hunting tactics the ideas of Militant will grow in strength in the Party and in the unions. Any Militant supporters expelled today because of their ideas will be reinstated with honour tomorrow.

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