The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

Soldier of the Legion of the Rearguard

Ruairi O Bradaigh: the life and politics of an Irish revolutionary, by Robert W. White
Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2006
ISBN 0-253-34708-4

Book Review

Liam O Ruairc • Weekly Worker, July 2006

The American sociologist Robert W. White has finally published his long-awaited biography of Ruairi O Bradaigh. Since the 1950s, O Bradaigh (b.1932) has played a key role within Irish Republicanism. He joined the IRA and Sinn Fein in the 1950s and became a major figure in each. He has been on the IRA Army Council for decades and until 1983 was the President of Provisional Sinn Fein. Today O Bradaigh is usually presented as the President of the small 'dissident' party Republican Sinn Fein; which is supposed to have 'split' from Provisional Sinn Fein in 1986. O Bradaigh is a traditional republican who is no more a 'dissident' than Cathal Brugha was an 'irregular' in 1922. He claims to be the President not of a 'splinter group' but of the same Sinn Fein formed by Arthur Griffith and subsequently abandoned by Griffith himself, de Valera, Mac Bride, Mac Giolla and Adams who all broke the party's Constitutions and rules.

To take the most recent example, according to section 1b of the Sinn Fein constitution in 1986, proposals supporting entry into Leinster House were banned. Before the Adams leadership put forward a motion to enter Leinster House, they needed to change section 1b by a majority vote. They did not do so, thus broke the existing Sinn Fein constitution and rules. Ruairi O Bradaigh claims that he did not split and form a new party - he kept the old one intact. (The word 'Republican' was added to emphasise the republican beliefs of the party.) It was Adams and the others who broke away from Sinn Fein, not him.

In 1969/1970 as in 1986, the constitutions of both the IRA and Sinn Fein had been breached; and O Bradaigh formed a Provisional Caretaker Executive upholding the existing Sinn Fein constitution. Most of those who served in the first Provisional Army Council and party executive followed O Bradaigh in 1986. For O Bradaigh, 'no splits or splinters - long may it remain so provided we stick to basic principles'. (293) But when it comes to rules and principles being ignored, 'the minority is going to expel the majority' as he puts it. (151) The treatyites in 1922, Fianna Fail in 1926 and Clann na Poblachta in 1946 had at least the decency to leave the movement, keep it intact, and form new constitutional parties whereas in 1969-1970 and 1986 the Adams leadership attempted to convert the organisation into something that was contrary to its nature.

More controversially, O Bradaigh does not simply claim to represent the authentic Republican Movement, his organisation also claims to be the actual legitimate government of Ireland, and that the 6 counties and 26 counties parliaments are 'illegal assemblies' of illegitimate states. To be a Republican is not simply to be for a British withdrawal or for Irish unity, at best that makes one an Irish nationalist. To be a traditional Republican is to declare one's allegiance to and recognise 'no other law' than that of the 32 county Irish Republic proclaimed in 1916, mandated by the democratic majority vote of the people in the 1918 elections, established by the First and Second Dail and overthrown by force of arms in 1922 and suppressed to this day by the 26 and 6 counties states. The Republic is not an aspiration, but a reality. In 1938, the remaining members of the First and Second Dail delegated their powers to the Army Council of the IRA, making it the de jure government of Ireland. For most people this will be very difficult to take. But it is gives O Bradaigh's position a coherence that most of his critics lack.

"The IRA had for years killed people in defence of the Republic. If it was the de jure government of the Republic, then it had the legal right to defend it. If it was not the de jure government, then in whose name did it kill? And at what point did that killing become murder?" (137) Critics such as Martin Mansergh who attack O Bradaigh for his 'legitimist' and 'legalist' positions will constantly run into contradictions and incoherences. If Leinster House is not an 'illegal assembly', at what point and why did it become legitimate?

This is a difficult question for O Bradaigh's critics to answer. De Valera, the founder of Mansergh's party led a war against Leinster House, and only joined its system with the intent to overthrow it. If Leinster House is legitimate because a majority accepts it, then why not Stormont as well? And why not accept the Treaty in the first place? If an all-Ireland referendum of the people acting as a unit is to be rejected as an act of 'coercitive majoritarianism' against Unionists, why do Mansergh not reject the 1918 elections? When do historical facts cease to become facts? If Mansergh's incoherences are the alternative, then O Bradaigh's 'betrayal of the living Dail' seems highly reasonable and far from ridiculous.

One of Ruairi O Bradaigh's core political principles is non-recognition of and abstention from participation in the partitionist parliaments of Leinster House, Stormont and Westminster.

"The central tension in the Republican Movement since 1921 has been whether or not the 'Republic' can be achieved through parliamentary politics. The issue split the movement in 1922, 1926, 1946, 1969/1970 and 1986. O Bradaigh consistently, firmly, places himself among those who believe that involvement in constitutional politics will divert the Irish Republican Movement into reform, not revolution." (337)

O Bradaigh argues that one cannot ride a horse going in two opposite directions. Revolutionary politics and constitutionalism are incompatible. White's treatment of abstentionism is slightly too theoretical. (289/290, 337/338, 341/342) O Bradaigh's fundamental point is this: 'How can we claim to be a revolutionary organisation if we take part in the institutions of the state which we oppose?' (298)

If one does take part, this will give rise to a deep inconsistencies. For example, when Official Sinn Fein registered as a political party in the 26 counties in April 1971, O Bradaigh commented: 'It is laughable that the MacGiolla group who are supposed to be opposed to the machinery of this state and want to tear it down are using the same machinery to get registration as a party.' (166)

There is a fundamental contradiction between accepting the legitimacy of a state, of its laws and institutions, the constitutional system and the rules of parliamentarism and agreeing to operate within their framework; and armed insurrectionary politics dedicated to overthrow them. One cannot accept that the state has the monopoly of legitimate force and at the same time have links to an illegal army refusing to recognise the legitimacy of two Governments and ready to kill the servants of both. This generates a problem of divided loyalty which will lead to tensions and inconsistencies; particularly so in regards to the armed forces of the state -notably illustrated in the case of the 1996 killing of Garda McCabe. It is inevitable that one will have to chose either one or the other.

In 1986 when dropping abstentionism, the Provisionals promised:

"If there is, by some unforeseen chance, a clash between them (gardai) and the IRA, our public position in Leinster House on such a clash would be the same public position had we never crossed the floor." (APRN, 6 November 1986, p.2)

At the same time the Provisional Army stated: 'IRA no threat to the 26cos' (APRN, 3 December 1987, p.4) However, in a 2002 television interview, Adams stated that the Irish army and the Gardai were the only legitimate armed forces:

"We are very, very clear in terms of our recognition and acceptance and support for the Garda Siochana as the only legitimate policing service in the State and also in terms of the legitimacy of the Defence Forces as the only legitimate force." (Gerry Adams, Interview with Kevin Rafter, This Week (RTE), 24 February 2002)

As to going into the state to overthrow the state, historical experience shows that it is the system that transforms revolutionaries rather than vice-versa. Michael Collins, Eamon de Valera, Sean Mac Bride, Cathal Goulding or Gerry Adams might not be insincere or corrupt individuals, but they all became part of the system they originally opposed. More seriously, former revolutionaries once in the state machine will not hesitate to turn on their former comrades who questioned their choices. The executions by the pro-Treaty government, Fianna Fail's willingness to intern, execute and let IRA members to die on hunger strikes, the Official Sinn Fein/Workers Party support for extradition and the supergrass system, the Provos' intimidation and occasional murder of opponents all prove this point.

The book shows that if Ruairi O Bradaigh is a republican traditionalist, that does not mean that he is a militarist extremist, hostile to peace and incapable of either pragmatism or compromise. Conor Cruise O Brien himself noted that O Bradaigh seemed 'more interested in preventing violence than on starting it'. (160)

He is not against ceasefires, he ended the 1956-1962 campaign for example. O Bradaigh was involved in peace negotiations since the early 1970s -'peace' was not an innovation of the Adams leadership. He was ready to offer honorable compromises to Unionists on a number of occasions. (179, 213-214, 260) Far from trying to bomb a million Protestants into a 'united Ireland', as early as 1972 he appealed to the Unionists:

''Let us repeat once more; we do not wish to submerge the Unionists of the North East in an All-Ireland state...We would never ask you to join the 26-County State - we are trying to escape from it ourselves!'' (194)

In O Bradaigh's analysis, a unitary state and rule from Dublin are part of the problem, not part of the solution. Ireland suffers from a triple minority problem: the Irish speaking minorities in the West of Ireland, the Nationalists in the North, and the Unionists in Ireland as a whole. O Bradaigh was instrumental in getting the Republican Movement to propose a federal solution to this triple minority problem to guarantee minority rights and prevent regional disparities. O Bradaigh highly regards the Swiss federal system for its ability to safeguard the rights of different national and linguistic groups.

The book reminds us that sections of Unionism and Loyalism in the 1970s gave serious consideration to federal proposals. If the British state was to withdraw and rule from Dublin is unacceptable and an independent Northern Ireland unviable, a federal Ireland with a new capital in Athlone could provide the basis of an acceptable compromise. The federal policy was later denounced by the Adams leadership as a 'sop to Loyalists'. They wanted a unitary state dominated by Nationalists. (284) O Bradaigh's democratic proposals now sound refreshing given the 'numberism' of those people who now claim that their united Ireland will be come about through 'outbreeding' the Protestants in the North.

The book challenges a number of commonly held mistaken ideas. It refutes the myth that the movement was headed by some 'Southern' leadership out of touch with northern realities. Throughout most of the 1970s, the IRA leadership was national in scope with representation from both sides of the border. It included people like Billy McKee, Leo Martin, Seamus Twomey, Joe Cahill, all from Belfast. Southern representatives such as Sean Mac Stiofain and Daithi O Conaill tried to tour and meet with northern units on a regular basis. (203-205) It is thus inaccurate to claim that it was a 'Southern' leadership that had negotiated the 1975 truce, given seven out of eight representatives of the 'political and military leadership of the Republican Movement' in the negotations came from the North. (222, 254-255)

The biography questions the perception that the 1975 truce had been 'disastrous'. The British were then talking about 'structures of disengagement' from Ireland. (235)

"Beginning in January 1975, the British sent signals that they were considering a withdrawal -whether or not the British representatives were purposely or accidentally sending those signals, they were real." (246)

O Bradaigh does not remember people back in 1975 expressing concerns either about the handling of the truce or an domination by people from the South. It is only from 1986 that history was rewritten and that the 1975 truce was officially labelled 'disastrous'. (307)

White also challenges the idea that there were no politics before Adams and that the movement was pursuing a 'monomilitary strategy' in the 1970s. In fact, under O Bradaigh the Republican Movement had always been more than 'just a Brits Out movement'. For example, commentators attach much significance to Jimmy Drumm's 1977 Bodenstown speech (written by Adams and Morrison) as signaling the 'politicisation' of the Republican Movement. Drumm stated that 'a successful war of liberation cannot be fought exclusively on the back of the oppressed in the Six Counties" and that the 'isolation' of Republicans around the 'armed struggle' was dangerous. The movement needed to develop 'a positive tie in with the mass of the Irish people', and to do so required taking a stand 'on economic issues and on the everyday struggles of the people'. To present this as some 'new departure' is deeply misleading.

As early as 1972, O Bradaigh was calling on Republicans to be active in social and economic issues 'so that Irish workers may experience at first hand our concern for their interests' and he warned that Sinn Fein was in danger of becoming only 'a support group for the struggle in the North'. (258-259) Similarly, the ideas expressed by Adams in his Brownie column were far from new. O Bradaigh had expressed similar ideas as far as 1970. (257-258)

As White concludes: "In the 1970s he had tried to keep politics relevant when almost everyone else, it seemed, focused on the IRA." (274) Under O Bradaigh, politics in the Republican Movement already existed: he was trying combine armed struggle with revolutionary politics long before there was any talk of 'Armalite and Ballot Box' strategy. What Adams introduced was not politics, but constitutional politics.

The same goes for elections, electoral tactics were nothing new. Elections had been used to advance the struggle for decades. O Bradaigh himself had been elected as an abstentionist TD in the 1950s. What Adams introduced was electoralism, that is the use of the struggle to advance electoral gains.

The book undermines the perception that O Bradaigh is conservative and right wing. O Bradaigh totally accepted the leftward politicisation of the Republican Movement by Cathal Goulding and others in the 1960s and by Adams and others in the late 1970s, but as long as it did not threaten abstentionism. He considers himself to be a socialist, but argues that socialism cannot be achieved by going into parliamentary institutions that maintain the capitalist system. Cathal Goulding himself noted that among the founders of the Provisionals were some 'good revolutionaries and good socialists' who disagreed with parliamentary participation (370), and Adams described O Bradaigh as 'quite liberal in his political outlook on social and economic matters'.

A downside of the book is that White does not try to assess the political weight of O Bradaigh or of the historical tradition he comes from; and whether or not they have any future. Republican Sinn Fein is a marginal organisation existing on the fringes of Irish politics. In 2004 it failed to get any local councillor elected in the south, and last year it lost its only (unofficial) seat in the North. But his organisation is more concerned about defending principles and upholding a historical tradition than in votes. Voters come and go; maintaining the continuity of tradition is what is essential for O Bradaigh. The other parties who have withdrawn from the high ground of the Republic towards the practical acceptance of partitionist institutions are just politicians looking for votes.

For political parties, the choice is between compromise and irrelevancy, principles and power. So where could the relevance of O Bradaigh's politics lie?

"It is not that he enjoys being a revolutionary or that he believes the road to the Republic is easiest through the use of physical force and non constitutional politics. It is a choice between guaranteed failure or the prospect that, at some point, a revolutionary situation -like the one that existed in the 1920s- will allow real transformation of political power in Ireland." (342)

It is in such a situation that O Bradaigh believes his organisation will become politically relevant. But de Valera's piecemal reforms gave the 26 counties a status that eventually reconciled the vast majority of its citizens to the state, and the Belfast Agreement adresses most of the material grievances which sustained Provisionalism, resulting in a growing social and political incorporation of the Catholic working class into the six counties.

On that basis it can be questionable whether there is any real space for a revolutionary situation or for O Bradaigh's politics. But that will not deter him. 'If but few are faithful found, they must be all the more steadfast for being a few.' (Terence MacSwiney) He will keep the flame alive as long as necessary.






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