Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, Ed Moloney and the thorny problem of ‘principle’… August 28, 2007Posted by WorldbyStorm in Ireland, Irish Politics, Northern Ireland, Republicanism, Sinn Féin, The other Sinn Féin.
I’m reading Robert White’s book on Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, and I have to admit to finding it both an enjoyable read, a fascinating insight into the genesis (or perhaps more accurately the continuation) of a certain strand of Republicanism – one that would be very different to my own – and essentially a good appraisal of the man and his times. It’s difficult to entirely judge Ó Brádaigh’s character this early into the book, I’ll keep you posted. Certainly it is a book that I’d recommend to anyone interested in the area.
There’s a lot to think about. For instance – and Ó B does critique this in the text – the reification of abstentionism from the national parliament does appear to be at least connected on some level with the political career of his own father, Matt Brady, who was an Independent Republican councillor but never a TD, in his native Longford. I’ve never bought into abstentionism (bar Westminster). It has always seemed to me to be a massive strategic error and one which no principle can really explicate. Why county and not national? Both draw legitimacy from the same legal sources, but more importantly both draw a greater legitimacy from the tacit approbation of the Irish people. One can’t help suspecting that they represent a fetishistic touch stone rather than a considered position – except on one very significant level which is that once inside a national parliament the nature of the engagement by a political force does actually change. Any of us who went through parties who wrestled with attaining that level of representation know that process all too well. So if one wishes to retain integrity, best stay out. But… one can almost be guaranteed of political marginalisation.
One remarkable element that White notes is the incredibly good relations between Ó B’s father and former IRA man, later Fine Gael TD Seán Mac Eoin who delivered the oration at his funeral (and offered a Defence Forces bugler which was accepted by Ó B’s mother on condition that he was not in uniform, a condition that was complied with). Indeed there’s a whole history of how locally FG and Matt Brady voted together on council resolutions to oppose the Treason Bill and the Offences Against the State Act. The real enemy, whatever the rhetoric, was of course Fianna Fáil. Then there is the Border campaign. Now there was a failure, and one that was a failure almost from the off with columns picked up on the same day as incidents and the IRA leadership pulled in shortly thereafter. It kept going, but the lessons learned, or not as rumblings in South Armagh two and a half decades later about ‘flying columns’, seem to have merely added to the belief in an armed campaigns efficacy – any armed campaign. Anyhow, those are discussions for another day.
But, above and beyond this I want to mention the Foreward written by Ed Moloney [I should note that I've always liked Moloney's work, A Secret History of the IRA is a great read]. And what a Foreward it is, since rather than concentrating on the sterling qualities of R Ó B, we are instead treated to a compare and contrast between R Ó B and …er… Gerry Adams.
Moloney contrasts the way in which he was ‘manipulated’ by the Adams camp in 1980 in such a way as to lock him out of communications with the Ó Brádaigh camp. Poor old Danny Morrison is painted in dubious colours… as Moloney says after spending “…many hours together that Summer, often on the road…the article was writen and looking back on that episode it is difficult not to conclude, unhappily, that much of it reflected the direction I was steered towards’. That Kerouac-like interlude was clearly replaced by a Damascene conversion at some point… because as he notes:
“I was able quite easily to confirm the Provisionals were indeed riven at that time with divsion and tension and two camps now existed, one represented by Adams and his young, militantly left-wing northern supporters and the other led by Ruiarí Ó Brádaigh…the older southern-based veterens who had been at the forefront of the first leadership of the Provisionals… suffice it to say that my article oversimplified the dispute to the advantage of the northerners, portraying it as being about left versuis right, young and angry versus old and jaded, revolutionaries versus conservatives, the clever and imaginative versus the dull and gullible. I would not write the same article today…”
According to Moloney, Morrison led the charge to condemn his article at the next Ard Comhairle meeting, and this was evidence of a “classic Adams stratagem, one characterised by its multiple goals and a level of deceit in implementation”.
Now let me stop right here and note that the organisation which Moloney was dealing with was one of the most efficient and ruthless political/paramilitary organisations ever seen in Western Europe. Not the Scouts, not the Jehovah’s Witnesses, not even the Rotarians, but instead a grouping capable of appalling acts of political murder, enormously complex negotiation and political organisation of much of a community.
And the complaint is ‘deceit’?
Moloney though, considers that this is a ‘metaphor’ for the difference between R Ó B and GA and their ‘brands of Irish Republicanism’. And hence why Adams is now leader of a party represented in ‘four parliaments’ while Ó Brádaigh ‘heads a small group…on the margins of Irish politics’.
Adams is characterised as ‘deceiving’, ‘pretending’, ‘breaking the rules’, ‘lying’ ‘lying grotesquely’ and ‘lying routinely’, whereas the ‘ethical difference’ with Ó Brádaigh is one where the latter ‘simply refuses to answer (a question on membership of the IRA)’, ‘played by the rules’, ‘felt obliged to obey AC edicts’, ‘would not tell the full story or would dodge the matter if it suited him’, and these paragons of ethical virtue ‘were the yin and yang of the Provisional movement’.
Yin and yang if one’s definition stretches to some distinction between evasive and deceitful, or sins of ommission and commission.
And the differences are because?
Well, according to Moloney it is because of… location, location, location. Ó Brádaigh ‘could trace ideological roots all the way back to the 1916 Rising…’. Whereas ‘Collins and de Valera were willing to exchange principle for power’ R Ó B ‘came from the uncompromising wing of Republicanism for whom principles were sacred because Republicans had died and suffered for them, in Ó B’s case, his father…’.
Compare and contrast. Compare and contrast.
‘Adams had family ties to all this, but his roots were in the northern IRA, and the northern IRA was always different from the IRA…’. An instance he offers us is the way in which the northern IRA supported (the hated – wbs) Collins during partition because Collins ‘waved a big stick at the Unionist and Protestant establishment in the north and stood up for Catholic Rights’.
Well fancy that.
Northern ‘activists’ are charged with supporting the northern IRA which took the opportunity to ‘strike back violently at the state and people which had for so long discriminated and oppressed their fellow Catholics’.
This thesis is developed further by noting that the Provisionals came in large part from “Defenderism” and sectarian traditions of Irish Republicanism, so unlike those of R Ó B. So this ‘defence’ led to pragmatism, and ultimately the original sin of the ‘peace process’ after which further pragmatism led to accepting the ‘consent principle’ and eventually – although this predates Stormont – government with the DUP.
After which all one can say is, well, perhaps – just perhaps – if one was in Belfast dealing with all that that environment might throw at one in political terms standing up to Unionism and attacking those who had discriminated and oppressed one might just take a bit higher priority than the ‘principle’ of the Republic.
Perhaps too the reality of having to deal with Unionists on a day to day basis gave a certain breadth of vision.
Moloney’s charge is massively contradictory. Those in the north, who the situation most impacted upon, are the very ones who are criticised because they’re from the North. And therefore anything that they were involved in is immediately suspect. It’s a circular argument of breath-taking audacity.
No mention of the shambolic campaign throughout the 1970s or what of the internecine warfare with the Officials on the watch of the southern leadership. No mention of cessations in the 1970s either. No sense that those who had led had some pretty profound failings in the eyes of those they led, particularly those involved at the hard end.
Now, I’m happy to critique the 1980s leadership as I would PIRA, probably in much the same way as I would critique the 1970s leadership. I can understand how violence erupted, but to sustain and expand that level of that violence throughout the 1970s into the 1980s and then on to the 1990s is less understandable. I could condemn out of hand, and it wouldn’t be difficult, but I don’t think that would be useful, nor would it be entirely honest. I don’t want to retreat to a defence centred on my not being there at the time, but… the dynamics within organisations and environments is such that choices are often made and paths taken that in other circumstances wouldn’t have been. That they are often self-sustaining is often not hugely pertinent. They exist.
And here I think is the enormous contradiction at the heart of Moloney’s thesis. Because in a sense it is irrelevant what sort of people R Ó Brádaigh and Adams were. It is what they did that is important. If one took Ó Brádaighs line then there was no compromise, no messy deals, no ‘acceptance’ of the principle of consent. Instead there would be nothing but steadfast allegiance to a tradition that had delivered almost nothing in the years since partition. If one took Adams line then there was compromise, pragmatism, realpolitik and a fundamental reshaping of what it meant to be Republican.
Is principled resistance any less cynical when it assists young men and women to go out to die in a cause that cannot be won than unprincipled pragmatism that eventually stops the killing for an unsatisfactory compromise?
And even if Adams were completely wrong, which he and his might well be, there is nothing in the historical record to suggest that Ó Brádaigh was right, nothing indeed other than the comforts of resistance, abstentionism and an increasing isolation from the Irish people who above all should be central to any Republican project.