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Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, Ed Moloney and the thorny problem of ‘principle’… August 28, 2007

Posted 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.


1. Mickhall - August 28, 2007

I found this piece a very enjoyable read, I wouldn’t be to hard on Ed Moloney for having a Damascene conversion as far as Mr Adams is concerned, as many of us have experienced this. It is as if all the trust and faith you once had in the man simply disappears over night and everything falls into place.

I also really enjoyed this book, on reading it it is almost impossibly not to compare Mr Adams with Rory and the former to my mind comes out of the comparison in a poor light as a human being. Adams political position is perfectly acceptable from a nationalist standpoint, but from a republican one it is simply not on, for what he has made SF do is collaborate with the UK State and this is not a collaboration of partners but that of master and servant.

For Rory republicanism is simple, if the British are still in Ireland, Irish men and women have every right to take up arms against them. It does not mean they have to, but they have a right to. By signing the GFA Adams has attempted to delegitimize that universal right and to a degree he has managed to.

Adams is a mystery and a worry to me, take his nonsensical denials about IRA membership, he has no need to say anything beyond that which you wrote about Rory on this question, that he does raises many unanswered questions.

Although I agree that abstention in the south and to a lesser degree in Stormont are counter productive, not least as both assemblies need a left republican opposition within them. [that is as far as it goes in Stormont] However Rory understands the history of republicanism better than most and knows only to well that once republicans go into these assemblies, they are no different to any other politicos when it comes to being enticed by the trappings of power. Hence his fear and his steadfast abstentionism.

Of course the British also understands the temptations and have played Adams and co like the experts in two trick ponying that they have been for centuries. I believe history will take an extremely poor view of both the GFA and Adams part in negotiating it and signing it.


2. WorldbyStorm - August 28, 2007

Well, as they say, it’s too soon too tell. Although, while I’d disagree with you probably in many respects, I think you take a fairly constructive approach to these things – but the logic of your position is one that ultimately would have to lead to some engagement with the state as it is in both the north and south, even in an oppositional way because the state, as you rightly say is very very different to Stormont Mk I where effectively they didn’t give a toss about Nationalist or Republican opinion. Thirty years changed that which tells us something about how entrenched certain patterns of belief and behaviour were in Unionism.

It’s not just an issue for Republicans, socialists of all stripes have to generally go into assemblies and parliaments. Otherwise the other side wins by default. And indeed some of the most pertinent stuff I ever read on that side was written (or spoken) by Seamus Costello. Another person who wrestled with these issues.


3. Paddy Matthews - August 28, 2007

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.

As a matter of interest (haven’t read the book so I’m not sure if it’s mentioned in it or not) Ó Brádaigh’s aunt (Mary Ellen Brady) was a Fine Gael councillor in north Longford for many years, and until the last local elections, two of the three county councillors for that particular electoral area were first cousins of his – one a Republican Sinn Féin councillor and the other a Fine Gaeler.

Not all Fine Gaelers are of the Brian Hayes variety.


4. WorldbyStorm - August 28, 2007

That’s remarkable Paddy. I didn’t know that about the FG connection. And indeed you’re absolutely right, FG is a broader church than many give it credit, actually when I think of it it epitomises the big tent perhaps as much as, if not more broadly than, FF in some respects.


5. splinteredsunrise - August 29, 2007

A great book about a fascinating character. One of my big What Ifs is about what sort of Sinn Féin we would have had without the 69/70 split, although with Mac Stíofáin on one side of the argument and Costello on the other it’s hard to see how a split could have been avoided. As it was, I think the two movements ended up mirroring each other’s faults.

I’ll admit that Sinn Féin Eile are a frustrating bunch – they’re the most substantial anti-process republicans, but they put a lot of people off with their dogmatism and elitism, but then again, that dogmatic trad-republicanism is their USP. Oddly, I’ve found Ruairí himself to be quite open and flexible apart from the two or three points where he is immovable. But then, he does have the reputation to allow that.

Re Moloney, I think he does overegg the pudding. My view of Adams is that he’s a bit like an old-time Labour politician – you’re tempted to throw some ideological ballast overboard so you can better achieve your goals, then the next thing you know there’s none left, and you’re locked into a system you wanted to change. It’s one of the big problems of this period, really – how do you marry making some practical progress with being true to a radical set of politics?


6. Redking - August 29, 2007

I think that there were many on both sides of the Provo/Official split who would have felt comfortable on either Ard Comhlaire-Mac Stiofain actually stated he got on better with Cathal Goulding than with some on his own side, although Goulding didn’t evidently feel the same way about Sean (“That bloody English-Irishman” he remarked once).

Maybe its just because there were a variety of regional and political factors behind the split not purely, as has been claimed, the Northern crisis in 1969. Also ideologiocal battle lines were not really firmed up until after 1970-71-some Official units in rural areas and places like Derry had members going back and forth from both organisations at one point.

And still, in rural areas you may find a few who refused to split at all-as this was viewed as the cardinal sin of Republicanism, so you had fairly conservative traditional republicans who would have been more politically at home in PSF/RSF staying with the Officials/WP. Given the trajectory of subseqent events, hard to credit I know, but true…


7. splinteredsunrise - August 29, 2007

There’s a lot to that. One of the less understood groups being the little grouping of ex-Sticks in Derry around the late Johnny White. Those guys got themselves in trouble with the Official leadership for killing Ranger Best (basically to prove themselves as hard as the Provos) then went with Costello, then fell out with him. They still surface from time to time to sound off about Blaney and Captain Kelly.

Although I must say, out of the Derry republicans, I always liked Fionnbarra. One of the best vituperative speakers I’ve ever heard.


8. Redking - August 29, 2007

I met Johnny White at a family function 2 years ago and he was fairly unrepentant about the Best killing-as far as they saw it they were following orders. The Officials GHQ in Dublin after Bloody Sunday issued orders to extend offensive operations to kill as many Brits as possible-they drew no distinction about killing local men who were in British regiments. Goulding was furious -the thinking being that if the Derry Brigade had shot a Brit from say Liverpool it would have had no local political repercussions, so would have been ok. There you go.
The Derry Officials were always in competition with McGuinness and co.
As for Finbarr Doherty-you’re right -he really is in a class all of his own!


9. splinteredsunrise - August 30, 2007

There’s also a lot of guff talked about “Defenderism”. Yes, it is a real tendency and the Northern republicans have always been less ideological, but there was never in the first place a neat dividing line between the UI and Defenders. Not least elements of the Defenders having developed some rural radicalism.

Matt Brady is actually interesting in his own right, because even though he was on the anti-socialist wing of the movement, he still got stuck into anti-landlord agitation and took it for granted that the IRA had a strong-arm role to play in those sort of struggles. I don’t think the rightists around Russell ever totally stopped this.

The FG connection though does raise the question of a future FG-SF coalition. There are already arrangements on some councils, but I would guess that in five years PSF will probably be as respectable as DL were in ’94. Besides, “Blueshirtism” is only really a problem if you’re an ideological socialist, an ideological republican or old enough to remember the 1977 FG Ard Fheis. Hey, it worked in ’48…


10. Idris of Dungiven - August 30, 2007

What’s the significance of the 1977 FG Ard Fheis, then?


11. splinteredsunrise - August 30, 2007

It was a spine-chilling spectacle of rampant Blueshirtism. Just managing to encapsulate why people were so glad Jack won that year.


12. WorldbyStorm - August 30, 2007

It sure was. In a way that hard edged FG approach in the mid-1970s has always dogged their subsequent actions. Many who might even be slightly sympathetic to their social democratic tendencies (of which there was a small but quite sincere element until relatively recently – actually a bit like their green nationalist element) couldn’t get over that. Not unreasonably in my opinion.


13. The next President of Ireland, if only SF had had 20 Oireachtas members, if only they had the support of Independents, and small parties, and the Easter Bunny and the Fine Gael Ard Fheis *… or the improbable secret history of the Peace Process. &laq - October 10, 2007

[…] another article by Ed Moloney about Sinn Féin. I hate to take him to task – particularly after noting some curious ideas of his as regards the insincerity of G. Adams as contrasted with the blinding […]


14. Ruairí Ó Brádaigh and Unionism… the Armstrong and Miller approach… « The Cedar Lounge Revolution - November 29, 2007

[…] 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 […]


15. The Cedar Lounge Revolution - November 29, 2007

[…] Comments Ruairí Ó Brádaigh… on Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, Ed Molon…WorldbyStorm on The Fianna Fáil mudguard on t…Wednesday on The Left Archive: The Cork […]


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