The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

Ruarí Ó Brádaigh: Robert White's biography of a Republican idealist

Book Review

Seaghán Ó Murchú • 9 May 2006

When 8-year-old Ruarí Ó Brádaigh was getting ready for school, February 7, 1940, his father pulled out his pocket watch. He commanded Rory and his sister, when the big hand hit nine: 'Kneel down and say your prayers. Two Irishmen now lie into quicklime graves in Birmingham.' (27) Peter Barnes and James McCormick had been hanged for the 1939 Coventry bombings-neither IRA man had been directly responsible for the premature detonation that killed innocents, but victims had to be found. Such drama often entered Rory Peter Casement Brady's days, told in Robert W. White's biography. (Chesham, Bucks.: Combined Academic Publishers/Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2006; £20/$30) Matt Brady, Rory's father, had been wounded in 1919; his life was saved by Seán Mac Eoin-no friend of the Irregulars in later years, but a loyal friend to one particular Volunteer, no matter his side in the Civil War. Matt died in 1942 from these slowly lethal wounds. This symbolizes the world into which Ballinamuck, Longford's Rory grew: one in which republican ideals were lived, even if and certainly until death-even if they killed you.

White, who has written a curiously difficult to find (at least in my experience; having long sought the book in vain, I finally was able to photocopy it after it finally had been retrieved after being 'on the run' long from a university library) 'oral and interpretative history' of the Provos (Westport CT: Greenwood P, 1993), here has the clout of Indiana UP and its British distributor to publicize what I hope will find its place on many shelves, public or private: as his subtitle claims, this is a comprehensive examination of 'the life and politics of an Irish revolutionary.' In 436 packed pages, White scours every scrap of information. He has excavated primary material, challenged previous claims in print with new evidence, and verified the claims documented from lengthy interviews with RÓB and many other Republicans-although Adams "and others" refused, Danny Morrison consented once--by secondary accounts and other witnesses whenever feasible. His extensive notes record his careful scholarship. His text flows without the impediments of many academics. His insights unfold easily, without bravado, sentiment, or editorializing. When White differs with RÓB, he lets his findings make the counter-argument rather than himself directly. Subtly and meticulously, what emerges is the clash of principles with pragmatism within the Republican movement over the past half-century and more.

While we have had lately solid biographies of Adams (Sharrock & Davenport), McGuinness (Clarke & Johnston), and Brendan Anderson's of Joe Cahill (also reviewed by me in The Blanket), we until now have lacked a substantial presentation of the supposedly more traditional Republican thinker and activist who, since 1986, has found himself and RSF on the fringes of the Movement after having been shunted aside in maneouvres that began at least a decade before. Many readers of this review surely recall how the Northern contingent, eager to carry on a more sectarian campaign that targeted Loyalists and therefore gained a tit-for-tat revenge against their enemies, undermined the power of Dáithí Ó Conaill (deserving of his own biography certainly!) and RÓB. Belfast and Derry defeated Dublin and the 26 County base that had sustained the Movement for most of the past century. White analyses how these tactics evolved, and fair-mindedly provides his account of how RÓB--in his advocacy of the Éire Nua programme that advocates co-operatives, small-scale and localised control of resources, and federalism allowing provincial autonomy and grassroots representation as much as possible within a united island under democratic socialism-proves himself contrary to stereotype the truly "revolutionary" socialist. Alongside future Sticks and IRSP and Workers' Party founders, RÓB laboured in the early 60s, after the collapse of the Border Campaign, to provide a political foundation for the military response to imperialism. He argued against the allure of a consumer-driven, EU-directed, market economy all too willing to weaken the Irish language and native culture to advance a specious Ameropean (to adapt a later term from his one-time advisor Desmond Fennell ) hegemony.

His interests in anti-colonial and national liberation campaigns displayed his eagerness to learn from like-minded radicals all over the world. His ecumenical approach also inspired more local ties: the mid-60s Wolfe Tone Society, White reminds us, had Belfast's Protestants as its target audience. Despite the damage it ultimately caused to his career by more narrow-minded activists intent on revenge and not only community defense, RÓB refused to pigeonhole himself any more with Catholics than with Communists. While his open-minded willingness to listen to Loyalists and to invite them into his model of a Dáil Uladh met with antagonism from both sides of the sectarian divide in the 1970s, RÓB had long preached against, as he had discussed in 1959 with Seán Cronin, the dangers of the IRA turning into a 'self-perpetuating religious sect' rather than an 'instrument of freedom in Ireland.' (88)

He reminds us of RÓB's early creation, in the mid-1970s, of what would become SF's foreign policy, and of his subject's careful diplomacy that established ties with other European and Third World liberation struggles. He was an early proponent of outreach to women's interests, and of an alternative government-through a provincial Dáil that was attempted to accompany the advocacy of Éire Nua as the official policy of SF from about 1972 on until its abandonment was forced by Morrison. SF's publicist famously belittled ÉN as 'a sop to loyalism' in the same 1981 Ard Fheis speech that boasted of the armalite and the ballot box's two-handed ascendancy as the iconography of a Northern-controlled Movement. As White quotes Ed Maloney's phrase for this rejection of federalism that sought to protect Loyalist self-government at the devolved level within a democratic Republic, the scorn heaped upon RÓB and his supporters revealed the Northerners' weakness: they stooped to destroy federalism through 'the ultimate sectarian analysis'. (284) Maloney also provides a forward (dated April 2005) to this biography in which he summarises that 'while Adams and his people were prepared to break the rules to advance their agenda, Ó Brádaigh believed in playing by the rules, even though they might damage his interests.' (xv) White diligently examines the accusations that RÓB and Ó Conaill had weakened the IRA in their handling of the 1975 truce. This supposed ineptitude, the Northerners have long preached, had damaged the Movement and thus justified the demotion or removal of the Dublin and rural-based leaders. White finds that contrary to claims-only in hindsight by Cahill, McGuinness, and Adams-that none of these Northerners circa 1975 had expressed any of the doubts that they recalled in 1985.

When politics beckoned in the next decade, only then did the Northerners manipulate votes at the 1986 Ard Fheis-which added 250 voters not attending the 1985 session who had defeated the call for the removal of the doctrine of abstentionism from the collaborationist Dáil in Leinster House. Packing Mansion House with their new SF recruits and manipulating the rules of who could vote so as to inflate voting clout from many a newly-born, one-person cumann, the majority who had aimed their rifles at the forces of the South now dwindled as had every faction earlier that century. The 1985 majority of 161 opposed, 141 in favour of ending abstention from the Dáil turned into a rout: 429 for, 161 against in 1986. Gerrymandering, intimidation, and a driver failing to pick up a delegate likely to oppose the ballot box policy: these all added up to defeat for those determined to defy entry into the Dáil. The holdouts by the media and their Provo victors portrayed those who would begin RSF as a stubborn rosary-swaying, gun-toting geriatrics--foolishly naïve followers who preferred to parade their Fenian dead rather than accept realpolitik. This fundamental IRA Green Book policy of refusal to enter constitutional politics had also for years been backed by the Northerners--until entry into government in the wake of the H-Block campaigns and the hope of wider electoral success understandably swayed Provos to cooperate with Dublin's government by sharing in its partitioned and British-backed rule. Tempted by offers of power, promised jail release if he informed, enduring hunger strike, threatened by injury, cajoled by the sly, RÓB does not back down from his principles, even at the cost of losing any chance of success to advance his heartfelt if idealistic vision of a truly revolutionary socialism.

Contrary to the canards peddled as fact by the Northern contingent that defeated RÓB, White explains how RÓB despite his suits and Pioneer badge and generally mild manner-he worked as a vocational schoolteacher in Roscommon town teaching Irish and business courses when not directly serving as an activist, in hiding, or seeking to advance the Movement abroad as well as across Ireland-exemplifies radicalism. He explains RÓB through what Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward in Poor People's Movements: How They Succeed, Why They Fail reveal: weaker parties gain from disrupting the political process. Elites may respond with repression and destruction of protest. Or, they may make concessions if they cannot easily defuse the disruption. But the key for success is that the weaker party remains weaker! White paraphrases that 'short of a revolutionary situation, protesters may force a government to respond but they cannot dictate the nature of the response.' (290) Concessions by the elite seek to lure the protesters into 'normal political channels' so its leaders are absorbed 'into stable institutional roles.' White shows how this trapped the SDLP on this route once they abandoned absentionism and entered Stormont in 1974. They endorsed the statelet's collection of overdue rents and rates. They consented to their co-option. Meanwhile, internment continued. This example may seem tangential in a biography. Only one other time does White bring in comparative political scholarship. But this also clarifies RÓB. Adams and McGuinness and Morrison laughed at the 'suits' who represented the stuffy geezers and Fenian worshippers rather than the denim-clad fist-raising proles. White carefully contends that RÓB would and has proved to be the more committed, uncompromising, radical. As far back as the mid-1960s, RÓB foresaw that the Marxists could cause a split. But, in the meantime, hoping that this division could be resisted, he decided to work with his comrades, no matter their allegiance, to further the militant along with the political cause. When the breaks came in 1970 as in 1986, RÓB considered himself the truer radical. So convinced is RÓB of his ideals that he would rather wait for a wider revolution one day that could transform Ireland rather than enable constitutional efforts that only prop up an unjust, capitalist, and voracious status quo.

White cites Rosa Luxemburg and Richard Michels. Michels presents the 'Iron Law of Oligarchy' that crushed socialist leaders of the early twentieth century. These radicals, (White notes how Adams and his defenders had in their earlier Marxist phase demanded abolition of all Irish private property--against RÓB's reminder that even in Eastern Europe some privatisation was still allowed and defensible within a humane and compassionate socialism that refused the class-based, and demonstrably sectarian in its application, rigidity of his Northern working-class opponents) once they had organised and attained power, could not give it up. The radicals became respectable. Their positions had to be maintained, their perks sustained. Power never returned to the people in whose name the socialists had gained their votes and earned their party's victory.

Rosa Luxemburg in Revolution or Reform criticised reformers who promised to destroy the legislatures they entered vowing to defeat: 'Instead of taking a stand for the establishment of a new society they take a stand for the modification of the old society.' (342) Such sparing citations are chosen well. They demonstrate how RÓB's refusal on principle to enter not only Westminster and Stormont but Leinster House, during his time as SF leader and IRA chief-of-staff as well as in his decades of service in many other capacities, did not bring success as measured conventionally by politicians, but has exemplified the necessity for fidelity-dílseacht being the revealing title of RÓB's biography of Second Dáil survivor Tom Maguire-who granted the legitimacy of the All-Ireland 1919 Republic to the Provos in 1970 and RSF in 1986. Why is this important? The IRA claimed to be defending the Republic of 1916 proclaimed and established by the First Dáil in 1919, reaffirmed by the Second of 1921, and never dismantled by all the voters in Ireland--despite the anti-Treaty vote of 1922 and the defeat of 1923, no other grounds for legitimacy existed de jure according to which the IRA could assert its legitimacy against not only the British but the garda and the 'Free State' army. This claim of a sort of 'apostolic succession' has often been derided by Marxists, Provos, Sticks, and all other factions outside of RSF, even by other dissidents from the current Provo accommodation. But White, while not discounting its fringe mentality and the costs that it has wrested from its investors, does convincingly present how a rejection of reformism becomes the only choice for this brand of revolutionary.

If the system is to be overthrown, RSF and RÓB ask as once the Provos asked of the Officials in 1970 at their split, how can entry into the enemy's camp and promotion as the enemy's servants be any victory for those committed to radical Republicanism, in the spirit of Peadar Ó Donnell-a role model for RÓB-and those who sought nothing less than a total 32-county democratic and socialist republic? Against the Northern-led reformers, in 1982 RÓB defended his tenacity: to implement 'Irish people in control of their own affairs', SF could not expect to merely shuffle the personnel in charge of the government's institutions. Admitting SF would not achieve the triumph of their platform. 'A big and successful heave to topple and replace is what is needed rather than tinkering with the existing system.' (289) Reformism could never be disguised as revolution.

This stance--parodied by the communists as naïve and lacking in the deviousness that Lenin counseled if rebels were to poison the beast from within, and denigrated by the pragmatists as doomed to failure within a nation that has long relegated the mandate of the Second Dáil to the margins of Republican histories--deserves the attention given here. White keeps his academic distance from his subject. He balances his interviews with citations, reflections, and a detailed grasp of the minutiae surrounding many diplomatic, tactical, and personal agendas that have convulsed the Movement. I might add that on pp. 340-1 he places the refusal of a vocal group of ex-prisoners to accept the strategy of the Provos within the context of their crackdowns against anti-GFA dissidents. White also records violence perpetrated by those aligned with the Provos against Derry and Belfast activists; White refers in his notes on pg. 404 to The Blanket's coverage of repression.

In conclusion, he depicts why and how RÓB has chosen a similarly unpopular stance that exiles him from the comforts of power, the better to repel its enticements and to seek realization of his dreams of a socialism deepened by an ecological, non-sectarian vision of gaining a fairer control by all of Ireland over its resources, its products, and its peoples' destiny. Inspired perhaps by the canton system of Switzerland as a model for a union of independent entities-his mother's mother was a Swiss Protestant émigré-and by his own family rooted partially in Belfast and Donegal, RÓB never let his idealism become tainted by sectarianism. This lost him the leadership of his party after a decade or so of back-room deals and bitter backbiting by the Northern contingent, but he kept his dignity. RSF thus claims itself the only Republican party true to its legacy. While this echoes the slogans of Fianna Fáil, Clann na Poblachta, Workers' Party, and Provisionals, each of these predecessors has in turn entered into the government that they once had vowed to destroy. Yet, as an idealist, RÓB claims to speak for many silent faithful. Before the 1970 split, he observed correctly: 'the minority is going to expel the majority.' While nobody can make the same claim for RSF, rather than give in to the majority, this time a minority still refuses to surrender and to 'repeat the mistake of the past.' (150) While avowedly Republican parties earned seats, none have regained the island-wide Republic as declared by their heirs and former comrades in 1916 and 1919.

White shows that RÓB must live where he has chosen by such idealistic intransigence to reside: on the outside of the castle and out of range from the camera. Unlike Anderson's biography of Cahill, White does offer us glimpses into domestic life, his marriage, and the continuation of the struggle as fought by his children. You do wonder how his family survived without him for so much of his career. At least, unlike as in Cahill's story, the children receive names and assume recognisable identities. Too often, no matter who's under examination, the Republican leader analysed leaves spouse, parents, and children outside the spotlight. While understandable for privacy and protection, this often makes the activist appear as if floating, his daily duties somehow rolling on effortlessly as the kids keep coming between his stints in prison or under a hedge. White takes time to place RÓB within his community, his heritage, and his legacy to show how the deeply rooted ideals planted at an early age-such as in an eight-year-old in 1940-blossom and renew.

His local advocates in Roscommon town, no matter their differences politically, held on to RÓB's right to his post in absentia and proved in court that his pension had been paid into. He kept the respect of his neighbours in Roscommon and Longford for decades. While his softer, more humorous side was necessarily eclipsed by his bold resistance and darkened by media eager to rank him among the world's worst terrorists, RÓB does in these pages emerge as a man who respected even those who would betray his principles. He does not attribute, for instance, Adams' long rise to power to any inherent character flaw, but to Adams' choice to work within a constitutional system that could only doom its adherents to compromise. While the Provos succeeded in entering the same Dáil as their earlier opponents, giving in to pragmatism to advance in the name of republicanism, RÓB finally steps aside and watches them pass. His commitment to the same fidelity that inspired his own forebears and continues in his children wins out over his ambition.

Early on, in 1966 against the communism of Goulding, Johnston, and MacGiolla that would impel the Officials, RÓB defended his brand of less au courant but equally, if not more, relevant social agitation. This popular front of civil rights and Enlightenment direction had, however, to be welded to political activism, and this strategy need not always stay peaceful if violence against the State was deemed necessary for revolution. Those faithful to tradition could be just as radical. White speaks for RÓB as he contended-immediately against the Marxists in the late 60s Movement, but also consistently ever since: 'Everyone agreed that the Dublin Parliament was a neocolonial apologist for British imperialism. How was the person who was willing to cooperate with that Parliament more revolutionary than the person who refused such cooperation?' (137) A question all the more relevant today as the Parliaments, Assemblies, and Ministries multiply that require vowed Republicans to sign 'test case' oaths not to promote physical-force, unconstitutional methods as their ticket of admittance into the corridors of power.

But, if Republicanism in its endangered purity demands no seduction, then a few true adherents can still be found in every generation who refuse these blandishments of power. They may be ignored as fanatics, cast out as terrorists, or condemned as infidels or excommunicants or cranks--depending on the accuser's own ideology. But the diehards' defiant recital of Republican catechism learned, as Rory's was at his father's request to kneel in honor of another pair of Fenian dead, rolls on through decades. You may reject this purity. Yet, you close White's study understanding its dogma and why its appeal still beckons to a few stalwart activists. White's book enables us to comprehend, if not necessarily to share or applaud, the costs and the rewards of such an embattled faith.

i White names Fennell as an 'important non-Republican resource' for RÓB. (172) Fennell apparently never joined a Republican body; his articulation of regionalism, Cearta Sibhealta activism in Conamara, and Irish federalism found its counterpart in Éire Nua, advocated by Fennell, Ó Conaill, and RÓB along with many others, not only Republicans but even, as White notes, a stray Loyalist at least on occasion. I might add that according to Richard Davies' Mirror Hate: the convergent ideologies of Northern Ireland paramilitaries, 1966-1992 (Aldershot, Hants & Brookfield VT: Dartmouth UP, 1994), Fennell wrote for An Phoblacht as 'Freeman' around this time, promoting ideas to be elaborated in his own publications as well as congruent with those arrived at by RÓB through the 1960s along with and perhaps detouring from those propagated by the Wolfe Tone Society. Since I am personally interested in this period and possible links between these players, I admit my digression proudly-and extra credit for White's reminders of such disparate figures as the fate of Ivor Bell, the sadly vilified Christine Elias, and (the awful disclosures of) Maria McGuire. He has researched the period well, and knows when to bring in the many minor as well as the major players to illustrate his account-necessarily it revisits much detail from Republican chronicles along RÓB's quest.


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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



There is no such thing as a dirty word. Nor is there a word so powerful, that it's going to send the listener to the lake of fire upon hearing it.
- Frank Zappa

Index: Current Articles

11 May 2006

Other Articles From This Issue:

The Incorruptible
Anthony McIntyre

Ruarí Ó Brádaigh: Robert White's biography of a Republican idealist
Seaghán Ó Murchú

Can of Worms
John Kennedy

The Wrong Man
Martin Ingram

Gotta Be Cruel to be Kind
Dr John Coulter

Revising the Rising?
Forum Magazine Editorial

Solving the Irish Problem
Michael Gillespie

Geoffrey Cooling

Thank You, Bobby Sands
Fred A. Wilcox

Welcome Back, David. Now, Go Away Again!
Eamon Sweeney

Give Them That Auld Tyme Religion
Dr John Coulter

Meal Ticket
John Kennedy

Examples of Dialogue
Conn Corrigan

Two-State Solution
Mick Hall

Peter King - Still Irish America's Champion
Patrick Hurley

Statements on the Murder of Michael McIlveen
RSF; 32 County Sovereignty Movement

Profile: Chahla Chafiq
Anthony McIntyre

Freedom of Speech index

18 April 2006

Grave Secrets
Anthony McIntyre

Spoiled Rotten
David Adams

Let Bygones be Bygones
Mick Hall

Urgent Memo — Judas Was One of the Bad Guys!
Dr John Coulter

Cluedo in Donegal
Anthony McIntyre

Easter Message
John Kennedy

Óglaigh na hÉireann Easter Statement
The Sovereign Nation

IFC Easter Statement, 2006
Joe Dillon

Lincoln's Despair
John Kennedy

Fred A. Wilcox

Hamas Being Forced to Collapse
Sam Bahour

Profile: Philippe Val
Anthony McIntyre

Freedom of Speech index



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