On the eve of his execution, James Connolly, mindful of how posterity would perceive him, said that ‘the Socialists will not understand why I am here; they forget I am an Irishman’.
The theme underlying those words also rings true in the case of the contested legacy of Traditional Republicanism and its personnel – perhaps none more so than with Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, former IRA chief-of-staff and Sinn Féin president. The purpose then, of this belated obituary on the eighth anniversary of Ó Brádaigh’s death, is to present a selection of some of his salient political opinions which may elevate the standing of this eminent man in circles that otherwise may not either appreciate him or encounter him at all.
I am of the opinion that we do our countrymen and ourselves a disservice in neglecting the words and the works of the man known as the last Republican. On utilitarian grounds alone it can also be argued that the dissidents of the present have much to learn from the dissidents of the past.
Great men are always subject to competing strands of interpretation and Ó Brádaigh is no exception. In his lifetime he embodied a quiet conservatism characterised by his continuous commitment to the ideals of Easter Week and the first Dáil. While his formal heirs are at pains to disassociate themselves with the right, intractably leftist elements wish to rehabilitate him with reference to his socialist credentials and international affinities. Their analysis however excludes his essential nationalism. An intransigent traditionalist, he was a rebel who fought for tradition and not against it. It is proper then to embark on an exploration of his ideas to find the real Ruairí Ó Brádaigh and in so doing it is therefore both appropriate and necessary to let the man speak in his own words.
In matters economic it is fair to call Ruairí a radical, and as a self-described ‘democratic socialist’, he envisioned a comprehensive reform of the Irish economy. Now, in the modern political vocabulary few words are as polysemous as socialism, so when he speaks of socialism it is imperative to understand exactly what he means. As historically in Irish Republicanism, the reckless use of this term d’art repels the right and attracts the wrong type of people to the cause. Differentiating himself from the classical Marxism of the Stickies, Ó Brádaigh explained that his brand of socialism is ‘based on the native Irish tradition of Comhar na gComharsan, which is founded on the right of worker-ownership and on our Irish and Christian values’. The purpose of which was to ‘restore the wealth of Ireland to the people of Ireland’. Indeed, the levelling that would occur through the operation of Comhar na gComharsan (co-operation of neighbours) would transform the agricultural and industrial ecosystems that have thus far dominated this island.
While obviously anti-capitalist, his recognition of private property and entrepreneurial initiative led him away from doctrinaire communism to a kind of proto-populism akin to third positionism. Echoing subsidiarity, this model has identifiably distributist influences as well as syndicalist overtones, as economic and political power was to be placed in the hands of the Irish people and not a conniving cabal centred in Dublin.
It is important here then to note how his economic programme dovetails with his political agenda as these economic ideas were not drafted in a vacuum but rather, they were conceived of as part of a wider strategy to truly liberate Ireland. If ever there was a lesson to be learnt from Marx it is that economic relationships either determine or have a hand in shaping subsequent social and political relationships. Ruairí knew this and so matched his economic policies with his social agenda, with the idea being that the former would bolster the latter. It was his hope that by democratising the economy ‘the stature and dignity of man in Ireland’ could be increased. Anything short of ownership was inadequate at best and wage slavery at worst as ‘every man must be an owner to be free’. Without real wealth the people would effectively be serfs, regardless of the political pretences of the system they lived under or whatever electoral rituals they partook in, after all ‘marking a ballot-paper once every five years is but a travesty of democracy’. In its application, Ruairí’s redistribution of wealth would involve a nationalisation of the monetary system, the development of natural resources, restrictions on the amount of land that can be owned by any one individual and to some extent central economic planning.
This would work in tandem with the federal structures outlined in Éire Nua which would establish district councils under regional parliaments in each of Ireland’s historic provinces with a central authority located in Athlone which would reserve powers in areas like ‘foreign affairs, defence and over all financing’. Had it been successfully implemented; this political programme would have hopefully placated Protestants in the North while also working to disenfranchise the monied minorities that ruled Ireland from Dublin. That was the genius of Éire Nua, with an intertwining economic and political restructuring, real power could be returned to the people. Therefore, with these ideas taken altogether, it is not unfair to call Ruairí Ó Brádaigh a prototypical populist.
For Ó Brádaigh the struggle for national liberation in Ireland was not one dimensionally economic, instead it was for him, as it was for Pearse, inadequate that Ireland be free and not Gaelic. Ó Brádaigh understood that Sinn Féin meant ‘ourselves’ and in so doing preferred the familiar over the foreign and stood ‘for the small community against the mass-society’. He situated his critique within a post-colonial framework, as was fashionable during the mid-20th century, and took aim at the excesses of empire. Listing ‘the horrors of drug-abuse, urban decay, rural decline, [and the] commercial exploitation of spiritual and cultural values’ as reflections of a rapacious colonization process. As such he would call the 26-county state, on account of its stunted development, the ‘model of “Neo-Colonialism”’.
Lamenting the monolingual monoculture being established in Ireland, Ó Brádaigh would insistently remind others that according to the Bunreacht na hÉireann, English was officially Ireland’s second language and where the occasion would permit it, he would never fail mention the unjustifiable neglect the of the Gaeltachtaí. But discontent with mere words he married his economic agitation with missionary work for Gaelic revivalism.
As the nomenclature of ‘continuity’ would seem to imply, the threshold of tradition demarcated the domain of the possible. Like a Gaelic warrior under a geas there were some things he simply could not do; here perhaps it is appropriate to spare a few words on abstention. Twice in the last half of the previous century was the issue of abstention debated by Sinn Féin and twice would Ó Brádaigh walk out when the wrong result was delivered. He spoke of ‘those who say there are no principles’ but Ó Brádaigh was not of their company. For him the Republican Tradition was too sacred a thing to be defiled by the pragmatism of realpolitik. Hence Ó Brádaigh became alike a seanchaí for Sinn Féin, a custodian of a custom and a cause now neglected, who would rather die than see it sullied. Against the ‘ancient tyrannies’ Ó Brádaigh waged a war on two fronts one economic, the other cultural. At the levels of both base and superstructure, he worked tirelessly to realise an Ireland both free and Gaelic. His fidelity to traditions and his unwavering commitment to true democracy is enough to earn him the epithet the Pericles of the Provisionals.
Outside of internal party strife, Ó Brádaigh held opinions especially pertinent to today. Prior to Irexit and before Farage could even spell European Union, Ó Brádaigh opposed it. As a convinced Eurosceptic he condemned the capitalism that underlay the European Union which he thought would be utterly ruinous to Ireland and indeed, he chronicled the social cost of membership annually in his Ard-Fheis addresses. Where others capitulated, he vowed in the seventies to ‘resist the robbery of our mineral wealth, the plunder of our fishing grounds, the closure of factories and the squeezing out of small farmers and small businessmen’. In short, he refused to sell out the livelihoods of Irish people in exchange for whatever promises of investment that Brussels dangled. In fact, he remarked that the entrance of Ireland into the European Economic Community was the result of ‘the failure… to adopt the radical national, social and economic measures necessary to build an independent Ireland’. Noting implicitly that autarky is one often neglected facet of Irish independence, elsewhere he remarked that ‘the basis of the Republican position has always been that we do not recognise the right of any foreign people or government to legislate for Ireland’, explicitly excluding both Britain and Brussels. Ó Brádaigh’s castigation of the EU reminds one of a time when Sinn Féin was an outspoken opponent to imperialism where now it is its emissary.
Interesting too are his opinions on freedom of speech which are all the more prescient as the Free State’s contemporary campaign of censorship intensifies. In his lifetime Ó Brádaigh was no stranger to the censor and in order to silence him the powers that be tried every method short of violence to stop the spread of his message, including jailing party members and occupying the Sinn Féin head office. In the past it was under Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act 1960 that the dissemination of dissident materials was prohibitable on the command of Minister for Posts and Telegraphs. Ó Brádaigh was aware of the fact that ‘access to the media… is vital in order to build a real practical alternative to the present Establishment’ and accordingly railed against this tyrannical overreach of power. At one point he proclaimed that:
“It is a basic human right to have freedom of association, freedom to organise politically, freedom to exchange ideas and to have access to the media.… in the last quarter of the 20th century, to deny access to any political interest to the state monopoly of radio and T.V. is tantamount to banning their right to hold public meetings and mass meetings 50 years ago.“
All that said, it will be sickeningly ironic indeed when Provisional Sinn Fein begins to repress the political speech of the nationalist parties now.
There however remains a number of issues insufficiently salient in his own time to merit full consideration which alas have in the interim become all the more pressing. It is consequently quite difficult to ascribe to Ó Brádaigh definite positions on such. Abortion for instance is one such issue, though it is inferential from his affection for the ‘generations yet unborn’ that he would have inclined to the pro-life position and moreover, he could not on principle accept as binding an act of law introduced in England’s Parliament affecting any portion of Ireland. Another issue concerns his understanding of what constitutes the Irish people in light of mass migration. Today we are reminded that it is racist to insist that there is an essential difference between Irishmen and Englishmen, we are equally evil as white, or that a Nigerian anchor baby, with no tie to Ireland outside of the incidence of his birth here, is just as Irish as Tom Maguire whose forebears fought for the Jacobite’s, the United Irishmen and the Fenians and who himself was a Commandant-General in the IRA.
Revisionist political factions will fervently engage in a semantic struggle over the exact meaning of certain possessive pronouns in attempts to obfuscate the obvious. However if we disambiguate Ó Brádaigh’s language it is clear that when he speaks of something like the ‘historic right of the Irish people’ he plainly means something definite and not a deracinated mesh of individuals united only by the caprice of capital. He was vocally against the incremental deindividualization of nations, sponsored by centralised authorities and made possible by the mass media machine, saying in his 1980 presidential address that ‘we also have to consciously oppose the international pressures which are squeezing the life out of the independent Irish identity as well’. He had of course international sympathies with the struggles of other Celtic, Gallic and Iberian nations and supported the anti-colonial aspirations of Africans and Palestinians, but it would be absurd to further assume that this extends to making Ireland available for everyone. Ó Brádaigh once summarily expressed his ambition thusly, ‘we want Ireland to belong to the Irish, to the people of Ireland; and that embraces all aspects of Irish life; including the wealth of Ireland and her culture’.
Furthermore, on this matter, he would proclaim in his 1972 presidential address that: “We are spiritually, at least, part of a world-wide movement to increase the dignity of man now threatened with being submerged by the consumer society. Our struggle is for weak and oppressed nations and peoples – but in the first instance for our own people now enduring all that imperialism can inflict.”
Therefore, it is simply disingenuous to say that Ó Brádaigh was some sort of internationalist with no particular attachment to the people of Ireland. No, it was for the love of his countrymen in their particularity which led him to willingly suffer the slings and arrows of slander. Therefore, he is more accurately described as an ethno-pluralist than as an internationalist.
Few men are in perfect conformity with each other in all matters, as such there is of course room for disagreement. It is not only unbecoming of the author but unfair to Ruairí to conceal those opinions which the present author may find unsavoury. Therefore, it is good practise to outline some of the prominent areas of disagreement. The religious right may have misgivings over his opposition to Article 44 of the Irish constitution, which hitherto granted a non-descript special status to the Catholic Church, though this is perhaps best understood as part of his plan to accommodate Ulster Protestants in a new Ireland.
Perhaps more alarming however to the general readership was his opposition to the 27th amendment which basically proscribed birth right citizenship in Ireland. As I am not the man himself, I can scarcely muster a sufficient defence for the position Ó Brádaigh took nor can I adequately account for the reasoning which motivated him in taking it. At best, the author can offer the train of thought that this amendment would contravene the right of Irishmen and women born in the occupied six counties from claiming full Irish citizenship, otherwise he may simply have been oblivious to the perils posed by multiculturalism.
For the author at least, alignment with Ó Brádaigh’s political philosophy as he left it is not unanimous, however it does not need to be. For populists, Ó Brádaigh politics are broadly agreeable and there is still worth in his writings for all those that dare to call themselves an Irish Nationalists.
How then is Ruairí relevant to today? Aside from his prophetic predictions on the EU hollowing out Irish industry and his laudable emphasis on the necessity of freedom of speech and media access for political outsiders, his democratic designs are all the more attractive as Ireland becomes increasingly oligarchical. His synthesis of socialist economics and social conservatism transcended the false Cold War dialectic during a time when most thinkers were simply incapable of reaching that conclusion.
Recently it was announced that Sudocrem is set to be offshored from Dublin to Bulgaria by Israeli Pharmaceutical company Teva, in the wake of which Ó Brádaigh’s economic ideas will continue to resonate as he also wrote that ‘foreign speculation would be curtailed and the flow of capital into and out of the country controlled’ in the interest of the people. Whether one prima facie agrees with or diverges from Ó Brádaigh’s economic model, it is advised that judgement be withheld as the science of economics is subordinate to higher good of national wellbeing. It is therefore recommended that such matters be investigated impartially, free from ideological biases, thence these things can be discussed pragmatically such that the aforementioned telos can be achieved.
Moreover, in an interview with An Phoblacht, Ruairí remarked that “as British power shrinks throughout the world, they often turn to America to fill the power vacuums left”. In so acknowledging the role America plays in imperialism, he tacitly warns us to be weary of those ideological exportations coming from across the Atlantic. Are we then to assume that such an astute critic of imperialism would be beguiled by a neo-colonialism disguised in the language of oppression? The author answers in the negative, it is totally counterintuitive to insist that such a sagacious critic of capitalism would fail to see its beating black heart, though it concealed itself in a rainbow-coloured cloak. Rather it is better to construe his decentralisation of democracy — granting the most power practicable to the lowest possible level — as an attempt to frustrate the hegemonic mission of international plutocrats at transforming the people of Ireland into a single amorphous mass, disconnected from their national being.
If his politics were to be summed up in a single maxim it would be: Salus populi est suprema lex.
This brief article has not been a panoramic presentation of Ó Brádaigh’s political opinions but only a sliver of his most salient observations, there remains much more to discover if the reader should so choose to search for it. It is nonetheless the hope of the author to see some small revival of interest in Ruairí Ó Brádaigh specifically and traditional Republicanism more generally. As, if we on the Right fail to look upon our patriot dead, then they run the risk of being misremembered, just as Connolly feared.
Even in his old age he was considered dangerous to the end. Barred from entering America, the FBI described him as “a national security threat… undeterred by threat or personal risk“. For Ruairí Ó Brádaigh compromise was unconscionable and he was a man immovable in matters of principle. Where others succumbed, he resisted with the chastity of Saint Caoimhín the seduction of power that seats in the Saorstát proffered. He was incorruptible.
On principle, Terence MacSwiney once wrote that: “In a physical contest on the field of battle it is allowable to use tactics and strategy, to retreat as well as advance, to have recourse to a ruse as well as open attack; but in matters of principle there can be no tactics, there is one straightforward course to follow, and that course must be found and followed without swerving to the end.”
Through the Troubles and treachery Ó Brádaigh never strayed from the narrow path of principle he set for himself and even if one disagrees with his politics for that alone he deserves our respect.
Óglach Ruairí Ó Brádaigh
(2 October 1932 – 5 June 2013)