Saor Éire and Peter Graham: the Life and Death of an Irish Trotskyist (1996)

Submitted by dalcassian on 6 June, 2008 - 9:22 Author: Sean Matgamna

On October 25th, 1971, Peter Graham died in Dublin at the hands of semi-gangster members of the "Republican" urban-guerrilla organisation, "Saor Eire", of which he was a member. (Its nearest equivalent today would be the INLA and IPLO). He had been beaten with a hammer, subjected to other indignities, and then shot in the neck and left to choke on his own blood. He was 25 years old.

An electrician from the Coombe district of Dublin, Peter had joined the Stalinist "Connolly Youth Movement" at 20 and become a Trotskyist a year later.

I knew Peter Graham well, and cared about him. He was marked by high dedication and subordination of everything narrowly personal to his socialist politics. He was one of the most determined militants I have known. He does not deserve to be forgotten.

How did a Trotskyist come to that end? In the late 1960s, guerrilla warfare, as depicted in the experience of the Cuban revolution and the writings of Che Guevara and Regis Debray, had great prestige on the left. Ireland was a place of shadowy—and soon to be all too substantial—secret armies; much of Irish revolutionary politics was the memory of such "armies".

The main Irish Trotskyist organisation, the League for a Workers' Republic, which Peter joined, was a passive and rather sectarian group. But Ireland's own endemic guerrillaist tradition was so pervasive that it found reflection among Peter's sectarian-Trotskyist comrades, even while they ritually crossed themselves and mumbled what they thought were the standard Marxist caveats about "terrorism".

The middle-class (and very young) leaders of the group repelled him with their dry paint-by-numbers "Orthodox-Trotskyist" passivity, while simultaneously shunting him towards "the anti-imperialist militants" of Saor Eire by their open moral awe before them.

The thrilling physical-force-now Saor Éire revolutionaries, Ireland's own "Guevarists", were seen by them not only as part of a division of labour in Irish revolutionary politics, but as an advanced, heroic and serious part of a developing movement.

Trotsky wrote somewhere that the pre-revolutionary Russian Socialist Revolutionary terrorists operated in an atmosphere of sustaining moral approbation from the middle-class liberals of the Cadet party. So it was with Peter and his "Orthodox Trotskyist" comrades.

For the LWR leaders all this was not allowed to interfere unduly with middle-class career building. Peter was in earnest

He began with the reasonable idea that it was necessary to learn to use guns where there were hostile private political armies. The desire not to be among the laggards, to be with the vanguard — the same desire that leads luckier young people to mere extremes of sloganising — soon pulled Peter into Saor Éire and then into its "actions".

Saor Éire was a group of dissident Republicans, a few of whom were ex-Trotskyists. They robbed many banks in the South between 1967 and 1971, and shot Richard Fallon, an unarmed Dublin policeman who tried to stop a robbery. In 1970 Taoiseach Jack Lynch went so far as to announce that to deal with Saor Eire he had activated the law allowing internment without trial. Then, amidst political uproar, he drew back.

But Saor Éire's ideas made no political sense, and their activities even less.

Even according to Guevarist theory, urban guerrilla warfare in a stable parliamentary democracy — and the 26 Cos. was surely that — was not recommended.

This group came to be as tightly sealed off from Irish society and the Irish working class as an air-bubble in the bloodstream. Some members were on the run.

Politically, as Peter discovered, nothing could be done with such a group, selected on the basis of "action" and not political ideas.

Some members, like Sean Morrissey, an ex-Trotskyist (he would, I think, still have called himself a Trotskyist) who would be acquitted of murdering Guard Fallon and jailed for robbery, were patently sincere, politically honest, and uncommonly selfless people. Others were indistinguishable, despite their "republicanism", from gangsters.

It is not for nothing that Marxists have rejected the form of "politics" represented by Saor Eire.

Peter came to London when, after the shooting of Guard Fallon, the hunt for Saor Eire was intensified in Ireland.

There, some time in mid-1970, he joined the "International Marxist Group", the British Section of the Mandel "Fourth International" (the so-named "United Secretariat" of the Fourth International, to distinguish it from rival "Fourth Internationals").

He had had no previous connection with the Mandelites. Contrary to later assertions, the USFI had nothing to do with his "Guevarist" activities. When he printed a "Saor Eire Manifesto" on the IMG press, he felt obliged to do it surreptitiously, late at night. He profoundly distrusted the IMG's most prominent Irish "militant", Gery Lawless, a man whose fringe-journalism profession involved the selling of information to mainstream journalists.

Peter remained in London for perhaps 15 months, working first with Liam Dalton, an ex-IRA Trotskyist who was a jobbing builder, and then as an offset litho printer for the IMG.

Because we were linked by ties of personal friendship as well as old ties of politics — not all of which, despite our by then large political differences, were, by any means, severed — he worked at maintaining links with Workers' Fight (a forerunner of the AWL). Peter was something of a romantic ecumenicist! He offered to provide us with a printing press, but politically that would have made no sense, so we rejected the offer.

Remarkably cool, Peter, in his own way, was also tragically clear-headed. Making and stubbornly holding to the enormous and all-defining political misjudgment which cost him his life, he kept his head clear of the mystifications which led so many "Trotskyists" to weave inappropriate "socialist" fantasies around the activities of the Catholic-chauvinist Provisional IRA. (He did, of course, "back" the Provisionals against the British state, as others of us too felt obliged to do in the 1970s.)

The last time I saw him, about ten days before his death, Peter and I spent a long afternoon in a fierce and furious political row: never once in the course of it did he resort, in political self-defence, to such all purpose left-wing abracadabra notions as the idea that Ireland is going through, or can be made to go through a "process" of "permanent revolution", in which bourgeois nationalist activity will at some point turn into the socialist revolution. Peter had too much self-respect to take refuge in what he knew to be nonsense.

It would, perhaps, be easier to account for him, had he shared such notions or fitted tidily into the standard "Trotskyist-populist" left, but he did not.

Had he survived physically, Peter Graham would have survived politically, and grown. So I choose to believe.

Peter Graham was an honest and brave revolutionary socialist who met a premature and politically useless death in a sordid and meaningless skirmish. Two worlds, at least, separated the Coombe electrician from Robert Gregory, the son of Galway landowners and colonial administrators, about whom Yeats wrote the famous poem "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death", but for me Yeats' poem sums up Peter's willfulness and his strange detachment:

I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above.
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kilcartan Cross,
My countrymen Kilcartan's poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind,
In balance with this life, this death.

Workers Liberty 1/36
November 1996

Sean Matgamna