Bob Purdie (1940-2014) wrote several autobiographical essays on his Facebook page. In his last few months he also started publishing his lectures and essays. Several essays deal with Purdie’s days in the Revolutionary Marxist Group (IMG) in the 1960s & 1970s. In addition there are numerous essays on Irish politics.
I remember Géry Lawless. 21 April 2013.
To explain, Géry always spelled his first name this way, never as “Gerry”. It was an abbreviation of the Irish “Gearóid”, not of the English “Gerard”.
I was in Glasgow when I learned about the Irish Workers Group and its paper “Irish Militant”, which Géry edited. I was keen to find out more about them but by the time I got down there the Group, which was composed of Irish exiles in London, had broken up. It was an acrimonious split, Mike Martin was passing the house in which a number of them lived when two of them burst through the front door and rolled in the gutter punching each other. I once found a page from one of their internal documents. It complained that one comrade had called another comrade “a guitar strumming hobo.”
Géry was below average height, wiry and agile. One eye was misted over and the other was penetratingly blue. He spoke in a strong Dublin working class accent and wrote as he spoke, I realised later that he was probably dyslexic. He was an electrician, but he was piecing together a living from freelance journalism. He sold stories because he had a capacity for burrowing out information that no one else had thought to look for. He was also quite capable of making it up. At one time a Breton comrade ran a French language pro-Irish Republican newspaper. Géry would plant a story with him and then sell it as one that had appeared in a French newspaper.
He made history in 1957 as the first person to have a case adjudicated by the European Court of Human Rights. It was an appeal against his internment by the Dublin Government. He lost, because emergency powers had allowed a derogation from the Charter, but the effect was that he was released and the Irish state ceased to use the technique of internment. He had given undertakings that allowed him out to fight the case, this permanently alienated him from the Republican Movement, which interpreted it as acceptance of the authority of the “Free State”.
By that time, in any case, he had left the IRA and supported a breakaway group called “Saor Uladh” (Free Ulster). He had become an active Republican as a youngster, he told me he started by setting fire to litter bins in Dublin. I never got more than bits an pieces from him, but he did tell me that he and another Volunteer had been assigned to shoot a man who was leaving a building through revolving doors. They used Thompson sub-machine guns which are notoriously inaccurate, and the victim survived. He also told me that the IRA used to intervene to protect street corner Protestant evangelical meetings in O’Connell Street, which were being attacked by Catholic bigots. But he said that after he learned that I had been brought up as a Presbyterian – “Jasus Bob, I tought you were a Taig!”
He defended the use of political violence all his life, and he assured me that Scotland will never get independence without armed struggle (we agreed to differ on that), but when I worked closely with him he was involved in entirely legal activity. Near the end of his life he was brought up short by the 9/11 atrocity. He shook his head and seemed stunned as he told me, “we never imagined doing anything like that.”
Probably the basis for our partnership was that we were very different people, in background, in temperament, in skills. That meant we complemented one another. I often had reason to be annoyed with him, but we never seriously fell out. We collaborated and he never tried to dominate or intimidate me. But one of the problems about being Géry’s friend was that so many people regarded him with livid hostility. I first heard his name in the early ‘60s, staying in an SLL house in London. He was denounced as pernicious and evil, but then he had left the organisation, so that was to be expected. I have to admit that he generated a lot of the difficulties himself. He was a womaniser, he saw the world through the prism of conspiracy theories, he was an inveterate factionalist, he couldn’t smooth over disagreements, instead he returned attacks in searing multiples.
On the other hand he did, eventually, have a happy marriage and he had many warm friendships, some of them quite unexpected. I remember we were picketing a meeting and the right wing Telegraph journalist TE Utley came out. Utley was blind and wore two black eye patches, but he recognised Géry’s voice and smiled. “Is that you Géry?” he said, with obvious pleasure. Géry ran up the stairs to him and they talked in a friendly way for five or six minutes.
There was one occasion on which I think I was right to stand by him. When the Provisional IRA first set off bombs in London they issued their initial statement through Géry. Working as a journalist, he sold the story to the media. But then they backed off from claiming responsibility and he was left hanging. The SLL mounted a campaign against him, accusing him of “felon setting”, to use an Irish term. Other groups on the left joined in and the leadership of the IMG refused to defend him. I was convinced he was telling the truth and I was disgusted by the distortions and lies of the SLL, so I defended him. I still do.
Our friendship continued after I changed my mind about the Northern Ireland conflict. He had seen it coming anyway, three months after I started my studies at Ruskin College I went down to London to speak to a forum he was running. I spoke at about the “historiography” of Ireland and one comrade asked, “what’s this historygeography?”. Géry fixed me with his penetrating eye and said, “you’re turning into an academic Purdie”. We kept in touch over the years, mostly though telephone conversations, in which he would call me a “Scotch bastard” and try to needle me. He liked the fact that I refused to be provoked and could turn a barbed comment with humour.
He was becoming a more comfortable person anyway. He became London editor of the Sunday Tribune and his fourth marriage, to Annette, made them both happy. She is Danish and he told me, in a sort of dazed way, that they had got married in a Lutheran church. He was elected as a Labour Councillor in Hackney where he was contemptuous of the inanities of the GLC left, particularly when their refusal to comply with Thatcherite legislation nearly cost him his house. He was an old soldier and he wanted achieve practical results, not to make futile gestures.
I last saw him in the Autumn of 2010, when I stayed with Géry and Annette in London. I had known he was ill, but I was shocked by his appearance and his serious degree of immobility. At first I thought I had made a mistake, but then I realised he enjoyed seeing me and we swapped reminiscences and joshed each other. He was devouring books and when I got home I sent him a parcel, including one on Scottish participation in the Spanish Civil War. I got a warm note of thanks and information about some people he remembered in one of the photographs. I attended his funeral in January 2012, on a miserably cold London day. I met a lot of old comrades, but that only emphasised how far I had moved away from most of them.
Géry Lawless was one of the most fascinating people I have ever known. There are still many things I don’t know about him, still things I don’t understand and things I doubt about his truthfulness to me. If I had to pick friends on the basis of complete approval, he would be low down on the list. But that isn’t how friendship works. In this flawed, irrational, universe we have to get and keep friends when our lives make us collide with other people. I’m glad that Géry was my friend, and I’m proud that he regarded me as a friend.