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
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.
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.
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
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?
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
et.al. not reject the 1918 elections? When do historical
facts cease to become facts? If Mansergh et.al's
incoherences are the alternative, then O Bradaigh's
'betrayal of the living Dail' seems highly reasonable
and far from ridiculous.
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.
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."
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)
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)
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.
1986 when dropping abstentionism, the Provisionals
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)
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:
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)
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.
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
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
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!''
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
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.
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)
biography questions the perception that the 1975
truce had been 'disastrous'. The British were then
talking about 'structures of disengagement' from
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."
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'.
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.
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)
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
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.
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
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.
political parties, the choice is between compromise
and irrelevancy, principles and power. So where
could the relevance of O Bradaigh's politics lie?
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)
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.
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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