This was a contribution from the floor by Dr RHW Johnston during public discussion at the 17th Greaves Weekend Summer School in Dublin in 2005, following a symposium on Desmond Greaves in which Gerard Curran, Bernard Morgan, Helga MacLiam and Sean Redmond were speakers from the platform. Their contributions are given above.
I don’t want to be hagiographical, for I was always critical of Desmond. I came in touch with him in the mid-1940s, about 1946 or 1947, in Trinity College. We were the student Left in Trinity, organsisd in what we called the Promethean Society, and he came to see us. He was the Irish expert in the Communist Party of Great Britain at the time and he had the idea that it would be possible to inject some kind of understanding of the Marxist view of the Irish question into the student Left in Trinity, and we interacted with him in that group.
He was very helpful and he certainly taught us a few things. At the same time he was very embedded in the orthodox Marxism of the time. He was interested in Lysenko for example, and he seemed to accept the whole Lysenko thing. I was a bit sceptical of that at the time myself, but looking at it in retrospect it suggests to me that at that time he was very much in orthodox communist mode. But at the end of the 1940s and into the 1950s he had this concept of strategic thinking and the importance of the independence of the Irish movement in Britain, and he got the Connolly Association to develop into an organisation in its own right and not just into merely a left-wing thing. He gave the Connolly Association its new constitution in the mid-1950s and in that form it has survived the CPGB. That is something.
But when he came over in our time, in 1946-7, he had a hand in attempting to initiate the Irish Workers League, as it was then, and I think he realised after that that he had gone off on a wrong tack slightly and that the Northern thing, Partition, was more important. He evolved an understanding of the importance of civil rights in the North in the course of the nineteen-fifties and he observed the failure of the Irish Workers League to have any impact on the Labour Movement in Ireland. Or at least it did not have very much. It had some, but not very much though.
His understanding of the importance of the need to encourage the NICRA in the 1960s was the key thing, and the attempt, successful in his case, to extract the movement for democracy in Ireland from what one might call the dead hand of the Left that was dominated by the USSR.
I went though his Journal to some extent in recent years and got the impression that towards the end of his days he was attempting to analyse what was going on in the USSR in the mid-1980s. He had high hopes that there would be internal reform and he certainly looked to democratic reforms there under the leadership of Gorbachev. He did not live to see how things turned out and those hopes were not fulfilled. One of the last entries in his notebooks was a query: Was Gorbachev going too far to the right? I found it slightly moving to see that.
In our time as the Dublin student Left in the late 1940s he certainly was influential on us, and a number of people from that epoch have remained involved in progressive movements since.