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category national | history and heritage | other press author Sunday May 21, 2006 20:48author by Anthony Coughlan Report this post to the editors

'Masterly Biography’

Anthony Coughlan is Senior Lecturer Emeritus in Social Policy at Trinity College Dublin and Secretary of the National Platform EU Research and Information Center

'Masterly Biography’


Robert W White, Ruairí Ó Brádaigh: The Life and Politics of an Irish Revolutionary; Indiana University Press; €27.00; ISBN 0-253-34708-4

THERE has been a library of books written on the Northern troubles over the past 35 years, of which fewer than a dozen are worth reading for the real insight they give into those events. This biography of Ruairi Ó Brádaigh is one of them. It will be an indispensable source for future historians seeking to understand modern Irish Republicanism.

Ruairí Ó Brádaigh is a quin­tessential Republican in the Fenian tradition. Born in Longford in 1932 of a strong nationalist family, his father had been active in the War of Independence. He joined the IRA and Sinn Fein as a young man in the 1950s and was co-opted to the IRA Army Council in 1956.

He played a leading role in the 1956-62 Border campaign, which initially had significant support in sections of Southern public opinion. This led to his election as one of four abstentionist Sinn Féin TDs in the1957 general election, in his case for his own Longford-Westmeath constituency. He became IRA Chief of Staff in 1958 and was later editor of the Sinn Fein paper, The United Irishman.

During the 1960s, as the Republican Movement shifted from military to political activ­ity, he broadly supported that development. He welcomed Republican involvement in the Northern Civil Rights Movement, which historically was the most significant of the political initiatives taken. Abandoning abstentionist was a step too far however. Ó Brádaigh saw this as a breach of fundamental Republican principle, which he believed, would lead inevitably to the absorption of those responsible in the political status-quo, how­ever strong their sense of per­sonal Republican commitment and however well-intentioned their motives.

When Cathal Goulding and the Republican politicisers unwisely pushed the abstentionist issue in 1969, it con­tributed significantly to the tragic split that then occurred, from which came the Provisional IRA and Provisional Sinn Féin. For Southerners like Ô Brádaigh the proposal to drop abstention­ism seems to have been the most important cause of the split - that and differences of view as to whether it was polit­ically sensible or not to seek the abolition of the Stormont Parliament.

Abstentionism seemed less of a key principle for those founders of the Provisional Movement who were living in the Six Counties. For them the decisive factor was the failure of the Cathal Goulding-led IRA to put up a credible defence in face of the attempted Loyalist pogrom on the Falls Road and Ardoyne in August 1969.

Historians may ponder whether the Goulding-led IRA could have remained politically on top of the situation if they had been able to "defend the people" better then. The view of the Gouldingites was that it was the job of the British Government to protect the lives and property of the people of Belfast and Derry that it claimed authority over, as long as they were kept, however unwilling­ly, as citizens of the United Kingdom — this being, in their view, the logic of the political, civil rights approach.

Goulding saw the Loyalist attacks as an opportunity for bringing about a confrontation between the British authorities and ultra-Unionism, which would dis­credit the latter further in the eyes of British and world pub­lic opinion. It was hard to expect the people having their houses burned down to appreci­ate such politically motivated considerations however. They said, understandably: if you claim to be or have an IRA, why are you not there to defend us? Hence the 1970 split, from which followed a shift from military defence to offence by the newly formed Provisionals in face of subsequent events, and all that stemmed from that.

In 1970 Ruairi Ó Brádaigh was elected president of Provisional Sinn Féin and a member of the Provisional IRA Army Council. He remained president of Provisional Sinn Féin until 1983, when he was replaced by Gerry Adams, who led the generation of younger Northern Republicans whose outlook had been largely formed by Northern events since 1970. For them, abstentionism and the continuity of Republican tradition back to the Second Dáil were not the core principles that they were for Ruairí Ó Brádaigh and his colleagues.

In the aftermath of the hunger strike and deaths of Bobby Sands and his comrades, the opportunities for political advance North and South, which they believed, could make national reunification a big issue again in both parts of the island and in Britain. Ó Brádaigh remained skeptical, pointing to how Fianna Fáil, Clann na Poblachta and Democratic Left, all of whom contained sincere Republican anti-imperialists in their day, ended up as pillars of the Irish Establishment, with Partition as firm as ever.

The book contains much interesting detail on the interac­tion between the older and younger Republican genera­tions, which to some extent corresponded to inevitable dif­ferences of outlook between those ruled from Dublin and those ruled from London. This culminated in the further split in 1986 that led to the founda­tion of Republican Sinn Fein, of which Ruairi 6 Bradaigh became President, a position he holds up to the present, as well as the establishment of the Continuity IRA.

Professor White, a distin­guished American sociologist, sets out the complex details of Ruairi Ó Brádaigh's half-century-long involvement in Irish politics dispassionately and objectively. He avoids moral­izing about the details of the IRA's campaigns as he sets down what happened, and con­centrates on explaining the motivation and world-view of those in the Republican leader­ship.

He clearly had the full coop­eration of his subject and the book is based on many hours of interviews with Ruairi Ó Brádaigh himself, his family and colleagues, supplemented by the author’s masterly knowledge of the internal politics of Republicanism from the 1950s to the present.

The latter will make his reference notes alone an invaluable source of materi­al for future historians of the period.

"Getting to the person beneath, the core of the human being, is the biographer's job," he quotes a literarv critic as saying. Professor White has

Certainly done this in relation to the subject of this masterly biography.

Anthony Coughlan

(Anthony Coughlan is Senior Lecturer Emeritus in Social Policy at Trinity College Dublin and Secretary of the National Platform EU Research and Information Center)

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