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Ruairí Ó Brádaigh and Unionism… the Armstrong and Miller approach… November 29, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in The North, The other Sinn Féin, Unionism.
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It’s rubbish, it can’t work…

But if it did work…

It won’t…

It might do

But it can’t…

Yes but if it did, you’d have to admit it’d be brilliant…

Armstrong and Miller…

Watching comedy on cable is a surprisingly good way to unwind. Sure, I know Conor of Dublin Opinion and others of you prefer Big Brother. That’s fine. I’m a pluralistic kind of guy. To each their own poison. I’m getting reacquainted with the final seasons of Frasier, avoiding MASH at all costs, checking out the Fast Show and recently caught the oddly nostalgic Armstrong and Miller. This is timely, if only because they’ve decided to reform after six or seven years (interesting too since I’d forgotten there was a Smack the Pony crossover – now there was a show, bar for the grim comedy ‘pop’ interludes. Top tip: not everyone can become a pop star, nor should they even try).

Anyhow, in a recently rebroadcast episode of the so-so, but often quite funny, A&M there was a sketch based around the above exchange where a scientist a cosmetic company proposed a de-aging device that would suck ‘age’ out of people making them young again. When the obvious response was made the point was made…

‘… but if it did, you’d have to admit it’d be brilliant’. Indeed it would.

Which brings me to Ruirí Ó Brádaigh. I’d said I’d write a few more words about the biography, and so I will. First, I’d still recommend it. He comes across quite sympathetically – and this is in spite of as much as because of the authors own sympathy.

It’s a fascinating read and a genuine insight into a character that was there during much of the travails of Republicanism during the later half of the century. One can only wonder what the meetings of SF and other organisations that he attended were like. To have been there with Costello, Goulding, McGuinness and so on must have been remarkable, and R Ó B seems at least somewhat aware of that.

There are a number of issues which the book glides over. It’s not entirely clear that the issue of political violence is dealt with comprehensively enough – or the contradictions between the aspirational and the achievable in real terms (for example one of the more recent jibes from dissident Republicanism is the idea that the armed campaign wasted lives of volunteers and this is an indictment of Adams and McGuinness. If so then it is also a crushing indictment of Ó B and others who must have realised by the mid-1970s that there would be no unilateral British withdrawal).

I can’t help feeling that somehow he is politically a diminished figure and not merely in the sense that RSF are completely marginalised. The project which he infused so much genuine and sincere energy has moved on to pastures new. It’s not the same. Not at all the same really, yet I can’t help but feel that there is something of an old Fenian looking on with a degree of incomprehension as the IRA supplanted the Repubican ground after 1916. Things would never be quite as they were, and the principles might actually change somewhat. Never a happy proposition.

Ed Moloney’s preface, which I critiqued some time back enlarges upon, exaggerates perhaps, but also reflects a genuine thread in the book which is the palpable tension between the old guard of R Ó B and the younger Northern based leadership. Well Seamus Costello, indeed Cathal Goulding some time earlier, could have told him about those sort of tensions. And realistically, it’s curious to see the incomprehension that developed over that issue when Ó B and others had used precisely that dynamic in the late 1960s to split away a component element of SF. In a way this is the one failing of the book, Ó B is presented as almost a naif figure – steadfast in principle but permanently let down by those around him.

Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness come out – well, not exactly covered in glory (incidentally there are a few entertaining bits of writing … for example on p.257 it is stated that ‘Adams… in the late 1970s, with his full beard and shoulder-length hair… looked and acted more like a hip young college professor than a wild eyed terrorist’… truth is that many many young Irishmen at that point looked exactly the same and it had no connection at all with ‘hip’ academics). But in truth it’s hard not to see this as a reading based on a flawed analysis, one which supposes that the only valid or legitimate strand of Republicanism is one that holds an almost theological adherence to the tactics and strategies developed in the 1922 to 1990s period.

I find that a most unlikely reading. I also find the idea that Ó B was a naif unconvincing. Whatever else he is and was Ó B strikes me as a remarkably shrewd individual, clearly quite likable on a personal level, but very very astute on the political.

Although… there are one or two stories which point to a certain detachment borne of a deep rooted idealism. And in addition to that a certain lack of interest in Unionism as an entity and a wish to paint it as something quite distinct from its actuality. Indeed if there is one thing that comes through very loud and clear it is an almost total lack of engagement with actually existing Unionism. The federal arrangement of Éire Nua might well be logical – by some lights (although why Donegal, Monaghan and Cavan would elect to go into a regional parliament has never really been addressed satisfactorily) – but it seemed so adrift from the political reality as to be almost pointless. I don’t want to overstate that. There were serious efforts to establish parallel networks, not unlike those of the First Dáil, but despite considerable enthusiasm they never took deep root. And a sense of genuine ‘negotiation’ and engagement seems to have been entirely lacking. This was the plan, all would have to follow it, not merely within the party, but far beyond it.

That wasn’t a viewpoint restricted to Ó B by any means, but it was symptomatic of an inability to come to terms with Ireland as it was, rather than as he and others wanted it to be.

And hence my reference to Armstrong and Miller at the start of this post.

Take this anecdote…

“In Boston, on a second trip in April (1972), Ó Brádaigh met William Craig. They were participants in a televised debate on Northern Ireland. At a reception afterward, John Hume, introduced Ó B to Craig, who offered his hand. Ó B shook it and the crowded room went quiet. After some small talk the discussion moved to politics. Ó B asked Craig what would happen if the British suddenly withdrew from the North. “Unilateral Declaration of Independence is on,” replied Craig. It was not a surprise; Craig, Paisley and others had been threatening UDI for months. What, Ó B asked, would happen if that was not feasible, if the Six Counties could not make it alone? Craig then brought up a system of regional governments ‘with the richer areas helping the poorer ones’. Although Craig saw things in a British context and Ó B saw them in an Irish context, they agreed that regional governments might work. They also agreed that there was too much violence in the north and that a civil war would be a disaster for everyone”

It continues…

“The conversation with Craig was satisfying because it suggested that some Unionists might take the Republican political initiatives seriously including Dáil Uladh”.

But how seriously? If one was seeing things in a British context and the other in an Irish context realistically they weren’t seeing anything similar at all. And there is an element of … what if this happens, and then what if that happens, and then what if the other? Each step moving to an ever more unlikely point simply in order to arrive at the pre-arranged destination.

The next sentence after the Dáil Uladh reference is even more telling. It continues…

“Unfortunately, IRA activities made continuing the dialogue highly unlikely as conditions deteriorated and some volunteers engaged in attacks that were contrary to Republican ideology”…

What is strange is the way in which Ó B can seemingly – from the evidence of the book – detach himself from the ramifications and effects of what was happening on the ground and appear oblivious to how these events impacted on his theoretical structure, a structure which was based on a frankly hypothetical series of events…

…you’d have to admit it’d be brilliant…

…it can’t work…


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Comments»

1. Wednesday - November 29, 2007

This is quite timely; I only finished the book yesterday. I would generally agree with your comments on it. One thing that I found interesting was the painstaking attempt to show that RÓB’s opposition to the current SF strategy is not based merely on principle but also on a genuine belief that such an approach cannot succeed – which is fair enough – but alongside it the utter absence of any explanation as to how the RSF strategy can. I wonder did it not occur to the author to ask?

I was speaking about it today to a friend of mine who interviewed Ó Bradaigh once and did ask that question. Apparently his response basically boiled down to a view that these things happen in cycles and it’s just a matter of waiting for the next generation to take up arms again.

2. Garibaldy - November 29, 2007

Whenever we think about Ó B as a man of principle, we would do well to remember some of the things that occurred on his watch.

3. WorldbyStorm - November 29, 2007

Wednesday, I find the cycles argument infuriating. I agree with you completely, what is the alternative? The PSF strategy is at least a strategy and has some hope of engaging with Unionism as it is…

Garibaldy, can’t but agree with you. That’s the thing about the book, it dances over such things. Still I’d very much recommend it – particularly for those of us who have a rather different view of Republicanism.

I will say that Ó B is entirely sincere, and actually comes out as quite a pleasant person… despite other issues…

4. Garibaldy - November 29, 2007

The thing is anyone who knows anything about the Continuity in Belfast knows exactly the type of people he is aligning himself with once again. Once would be unfortunate; twice is not carelessness, but proof he is a liar and hypocrite.

The cylical thing is incredible. Especially when this is the guy who wanted to call things off in 1975. He of course was right to want to do that, but how he ends up 30 years later seeking the continuation of violence in current circumstances is astounding.

5. WorldbyStorm - November 29, 2007

That’s far from the only contradiction… albeit one of the most obvious! But I think he’s so wedded to the ‘principle’ that he’s ignoring what it’s all about…

6. yourcousin - November 29, 2007

Argh, finally someone blogs on a book that I’ve read and highlighted extensively only to to discover that I’m getting married in two days and am balls to the wall busy (though I’m still stealing my hour blog roll time). I would echo Wednesday on this one. The book tries to draw the reader by stating that it’s essential to understand O’B if one is to understand the current process and thens goes on to gloss over his actual critique of things. The fact that Moloney did the intro to me hints that this is more an arrow in the anti-Gerry quiver than anything else.

7. WorldbyStorm - November 30, 2007

First up yourcousin. Congratulations – I’d crash the party but that would involve air tickets, so perhaps not. Ignore the net… bigger fish to fry. Secondly, yes, you’re right… Still, an interesting figure in Irish history…

8. Garibaldy - November 30, 2007

I think it’s also an attempt by Ó B to leave a sustained legacy for the future generations as well. Justify himself too, particularly against the allegations that he and O’Connell let themselves be led up the garden path in 75.

9. Tom Griffin - November 30, 2007

“(for example one of the more recent jibes from dissident Republicanism is the idea that the armed campaign wasted lives of volunteers and this is an indictment of Adams and McGuinness. If so then it is also a crushing indictment of Ó B and others who must have realised by the mid-1970s that there would be no unilateral British withdrawal).”

A lot of people do seem to argue that Adams and McGuinness could have somehow delivered the equivalent of the GFA in 74, ignoring the role not only of Ó Bradaigh, but also that of Paisley, Trimble, Empey et al, who were all involved with the Ulster Workers Council, and of the British establishment which was busily undermining Harold Wilson at the time.

10. WorldbyStorm - November 30, 2007

And to add to that Adams and McGuinness were hardly the key figures in PSF at the time, albeit they were influential. It took decades to build up their power bases and even in the late 1980s there was still resistance to them, indeed right through to the RIRA split.

The flip side of this is one of the more annoying myths to emerge from the last 30 years, the idea that if only everyone had been reasonable at Sunningdale then all would have been well. It’s so pernicious because it seems on the face of it to be logical. But as you say Tom, only the SDLP and Alliance were wholeheartedly in favour. The DUP was entirely against (and as you rightly say Trimble Empey etc, which makes the “Sunningdale for Slow Learners” quip a lot more ambivalent than the usual anti-PSF usage). The OUP effectively split with only a minority faction in favour and OSF (still something of a power in the land) made noises off which could hardly be construed as being supportive in any meaningful way.

Without serious British government pressure – and even with it – Sunningdale hadn’t a hope… And then there is the narrative that forgets that while violence helped undermine Sunningdale, it was actually the UWC which brought it down.

11. Garibaldy - November 30, 2007

Clearly it was unionism that brought Sunningdale down, aided by the cowardice of the British Army in refusing to confront the strikers at the power stations in particular. Although they might have been right that a bloodbath would have resulted. It was the UWC strike that decided Hume permanently against an internal settlement and to get Dublin and the yanks more involved.

Having said that, the British White Paper from 1973 contained all the essential details of the eventual settlement. In that sense, had people on both sides wised up earlier, a lot of deaths could have been avoided.

12. Tom Griffin - November 30, 2007

The whole 74-76 period is very murky , in Britain as much as in Ireland.

In Britain, you have the various plots against Harold Wilson, substantiated by a number of sources other than Peter Wright.
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/4789060.stm

In Ireland this was the period covered by the allegations of Colin Wallace, Fred Holroyd and John Weir.

At the end of that period, Britain had Callaghan, the IMF, monetarism, and the rise of Thatcherism, and the North got Roy Mason.

I do wonder whether that dynamic within British politics didn’t do as much as anything to perpetuate the Troubles for so long.

13. WorldbyStorm - November 30, 2007

I’ve never really thought about it in those terms, but you’re absolutely right, there’s a strong argument that British democracy, and the British polity, was in quite serious trouble during that period. That 1973/4 is held up as some sort of idyll and ‘our last best hope’ is an irony beyond belief…

14. Garibaldy - November 30, 2007

I think one of the main reasons the Troubles continued for as long as they did had a whole lot to do with the change in Provo leadership in 75-6 to reflect the situation in the north. Let’s not forget what age the people beginning to dominate were. In their late 20s, many younger, with a desire to push on and on and on. Partly because they thought they could win having got rid of the old leadership, having reorganised, being in the process of rearming and partly to validate the sacrifices and deaths they had endured. Of course let’s not forget the desire to strike back at loyalist killings.

1973-4 was not going to see the end of the Troubles due to unionism’s refusal to accept power sharing as much as the desire of people to continue an armed campaign, but without this shift in leadership allied to the hunger strike and the rearming from Gadaffi the end might well have come say 10 years sooner than it did as powersharing would have looked much more attractive to all sides.

15. WorldbyStorm - November 30, 2007

Hmmm… that’s three separate and largely unlinked events, leadership, Gaddaffi and hunger strike to remove before we can see a cessation in 1984. Something that while potentially possible was highly unlikely in the context of Thatcher.

I don’t disagree with you that it might have happened, but I can’t see how it could have happened given the nature of all that was going on. And that’s before we examine the Unionist aversion to powersharing…

I do agree that the leadership change was a factor in prolonging the violence. But… such a change also seems to me to be near inevitable at that time if only because of the concentration of armed struggle in the North.

16. Garibaldy - November 30, 2007

Yeah I can understand what you’re saying. But in conscience I couldn’t just say without the change in leadership because by the late 70s the Provos were in serious difficulties, and without the hunger strike and the extra weapons then thing would have come to a halt much sooner regardless of who was in charge.

I said around a decade for the simple reason that it’s clear Adams and the leadership were thinking of trying to bring things to an end (even if the ordinary volunteers weren’t) from the late 80s.

I agree a change to a more northern leadership was inevitable. But it could have taken place in very different circumstances.

17. Garibaldy - November 30, 2007

Yeah I can understand what you’re saying. But in conscience I couldn’t just say without the change in leadership because by the late 70s the Provos were in serious difficulties, and without the hunger strike and the extra weapons then thing would have come to a halt much sooner regardless of who was in charge.

I said around a decade for the simple reason that it’s clear Adams and the leadership were thinking of trying to bring things to an end (even if the ordinary volunteers weren’t) from the late 80s.

I agree a change to a more northern leadership was inevitable. But it could have taken place in very different circumstances.


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