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Obituary: Ruairi O'Bradiagh, 1932-2013 

15 June 2013

The mobilisation of the state forces at the funeral of Ruairi O'Bradaigh, the intimidation of mourners by Garda in riot gear indicates that, no matter what is said about the triumph of the Northern peace process in public, privately the Irish bourgeoisie have not lost their fear of “subversives” and of the potential danger posed by the remnants of republicanism. At the same time the life of Ruairi O'Bradaigh, in which republicanism remerged from obscurity to engage in a struggle more intense than the war of independence and then go on to political collapse, shows the incapacity of the physical force tradition to achieve the goal of liberation to which so many dedicated their lives. Below D.R.O'Connor Lysaght reflects on O'Bradaigh’s life.

The chief quality possessed by the late Ruairi O'Bradaigh was dedication. His tragedy was that his dedication was inadequate to repair the inadequacies of its object.

His background was traditional Republican, committed to the unity of  Ireland as the independent  republic "virtually established" to be given material form through armed struggle. As a programme of action these were almost sufficient for him. 

He showed this in his opposition to the social interventionist policies pursued by Sinn Fein from 1962 after the ceasefire to the 1950s border campaign (Operation Harvest). He was partially correct in that the inspiration for them was that of the Popular Front rather than of any revolution. He was accurate, too, that the strategy involved was based on a minimalist programme and that its most successful campaign, that for northern civil rights in Northern Ireland, was essentially partitionist and provided little resonance outside the six counties. Above all, because of these facts, the whole trajectory of the new course was towards a reformist strategy like those followed previously by Clann na Poblachta (which O'Bradaigh remembered) and by Fianna Fail (before his time).  What he neglected was the fact that the strategy was a confused attempt to mobilise components of a mass movement without which any armed struggle is doomed to failure. Nor was he accurate in describing it as "socialist", his word for Marxist, when it owed more to Stalin and Dimitrov than to Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky. Above all, he could oppose to the new perspective only calls for traditional republican practices at a time when the relative prosperity of Lemass' open economy initiative was narrowing, even, the catchment area possessed by Operation Harvest.

He remained a leader of the movement, however, with influence as having been an unusually young IRA Chief of Staff. He and his allies rallied behind a unifying compromise programme. This was Eire Nua, a utopian set of demands which contained his particular contribution to republican political thought: provision for an Ireland as a federation of its four traditional  provinces to reassure the Ulster Unionists that home rule would not be Rome rule and that they would be able to indulge in the Protestant practices of divorce, contraception and, perhaps even abortion, whilst the Catholicism of the rest of Ireland remained undisturbed. Eire Nua's rejection by O'Bradaigh's comrades was a major factor in the 1970 split, if not as central as the question of maintaining Abstention from Oireachtas and Parliaments. 

O'Bradaigh became President of Provisional Sinn Fein, with Eire Nua as its programme. Significantly, the one part of it on which the party tried consistently to mobilise public opinion in the early 1970s was Federalism. Outside the Provos the cause inspired little enthusiasm. In any case, after 1974, the expected year of victory which proved to be a year of fiasco, the needs of the armed struggle increasingly handicapped any republican political action. Federalism was junked in 1979 in advance of Sinn Fein's takeover by the northerners headed by Gerry Adams, who replaced O'Bradaigh as the party's President in 1983. 

The new leadership presented its strategy as one of "the armalite and the ballot box". Then, finding there was no support at the ballot box for principled abstentionism, it abandoned it, as the then united republican movement had done fifteen years before. Once again O'Bradaigh headed a split.

It is doubtful whether he expected his new Republican Sinn Fein, with its support for the armed struggle of the Continuity IRA, to benefit from the recession that was afflicting Ireland in the mid-eighties. More likely, he would have rejected such an approach as being "socialist", or Marxist, though many who denounce that method tend to turn to a crude form of economic determinism. Probably he relied on the inherent republicanism of the Irish to give his movement the same support that the Provos had won in the seventies. 

Whatever the cause of his optimism, it was misplaced. Recession was followed by recovery helped by a frenetic wooing of finance capital. In any case, the majority of Irish nationalists were war weary. Adams and his military allies took advantage of this, accepting John Hume's assurance that Britain could act as an honest broker in Northern Ireland and jettisoned the armed struggle in favour of a power-sharing agreement about which even John Redmond would have had doubts. Ruairi O'Bradaigh remained increasingly isolated, his movement unable to benefit even from the combination of new slump and the increasingly obvious weaknesses of the '98 agreement. He retired as Republican Sinn Fein President in 2009. At one of the last meetings of his life, he addressed an audience of seven or eight, pleading with it not to let his tradition die.

His hopes may be realised. In the forties, it was claimed that the IRA had been killed, yet it revived in the next decade. The recuperative powers of traditional republicanism should not be under-estimated, A collapse of the "peace process", continuing economic crisis and the failure of socialists to benefit from either may yet leave a gap which physical force abstentionism could look like filling. It can be said only that it will take such external conditions to revive it and, however much it may revive, it will not unite Ireland.

Ruairi O'Bradaigh's heart was in the proper place. May he rest in peace. If only one could trust the same likelihood for his political strategy. 


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