The Fenians were not to be found putting forward spurious arguments for peace processes that would perpetuate rule by Britain. It is impossible to imagine any of them parading around Stormont today feigning a relevance to the republicanism that so motivated the volunteers of the IRA. Ruairí Ó Brádaigh would have felt at ease in the company of Fenians. He was not at all comfortable with today’s Stormontistas, accurately summed up as a reformist clique during one of the orations delivered at his funeral.
It was a sweltering summer's day which saw many from across Ireland drawn to a cemetery where they would lay the Fenian chieftain to rest. The serenity of the occasion was ruptured by a menacing phalanx of cops willing to trample over family grief in pursuit of imposing their own form of silence at the graveside.
The inert passivity of Ruairí Ó Brádaigh in death sat in stark contrast to the activism and energy that characterised his life. He was an author and writer who had served as an elected representative. His activist life had seen him interned and imprisoned. He once escaped from the Curragh and went on to serve as both IRA chief of staff and President of Sinn Fein. He was an arch dissenter who had endured the rigours of hunger strike in a bid to esteem the cause he cherished.
The brightness of the afternoon brought to mind a mild sunny autumnal day from the 1990s in Roscommon when I sat with Ruairí Ó Brádaigh in his home interviewing him as part of research for some work at Queens. On the bus journey down from Belfast and on the subsequent train ride from Dublin to Roscommon I had read a sizeable chunk of MLR Smith’s book, Fighting For Ireland.
Smith usefully brought to the fore some of the bamboozling tactics that Cathal Goulding, the Official IRA chief of staff, had employed as a means to move republicanism away from armed struggle. Many leaders seemingly can only move if they do so crookedly. It struck me at the time that the similarities between what Gerry Adams was doing through the peace process and what Goulding had earlier done were remarkably similar. A desire to avoid armed conflict was not the problem, the new politics were. The writing was on the wall for all to see and it spelt RIP Republicanism. Yet, as so often happens, all were not for seeing, and those who could or would see risked being poked in the eye so that they too would end up as myopic as those who simply opted not to focus.
I left Ruairí in a rush to get back to Belfast only to make the return journey to Dublin early the following morning and onto the RDS from where I critiqued the logic of the peace process. It was, I felt not being debated as openly as it needed to be. Dissent was quickly coming to be viewed as a nail, something to be hit with a hammer.
O’Bradaigh’s long service did not shield him from the threats of a fate that might await him were he to give support to any alternative to the President of Sinn Fein’s IRA. The Roscommon man’s nerve did not fail him and his opposition to the planned obsolescence of republicanism being put in place by the reformists continued unabated.
I had a lot of time for Ruairi O’Bradaigh although I could no longer abide by his commitment to the physical force tradition. Even at its best the tradition is host to a defective gene which leads to republican energy and commitment being channelled into the pockets and careers of powerful figures who have ridden to success on the backs of the tradition. It is a vehicle, hijacked and used not to reach any republican destination but, fueled by career ambition, is remorselessly driven along the twin tracks of partition and British rule.
Moreover, republicanism has to be rights-driven rather than power-fixated. The suggestion by Cilian McGrattan that peace is a right not a privilege is a hard one to evade in any sense that could be described as authentic. The physical force tradition despite the nefarious and brutal nature of what it traditionally opposes, by its very existence and methodological application, denies people any right to decide whether they want war waged in their name. The notion that the Irish people have that right against republicanism is regrettably something that insufficient reflection has been given to.
Although once described by Kevin Toolis in Rebel Hearts as the bloodthirsty high priest of republicanism, O’Bradaigh was not addicted to political violence. I think he knew the strategic limitations of its application but being of the Fenian tradition he tended to see it as a cementing agent: an ideological motivation, a toe hold that when all else had failed would stop the project disappearing down the plug hole. He did not subscribe to the notion of political violence for the sheer hell of it. I sat with him in his room as he wistfully pointed to the window through which he saw Brendan Duddy approach his home on Christmas Day 1974 with a message down the 'pipeline', as he put it, from the British. An opportunity wasted was how I think he ultimately viewed it.
He was part of a leadership that explored avenues for peace at various points from September 1971. While lambasted by the ‘reformist clique’ referred to at his graveside, the ceasefire that he helped negotiate in 1975 was unavoidable given the gravely weak position of the IRA, its strength sapped not only by the relentless attrition of the British state but also by the deviousness of the caudillo and his satraps who eventually came to usurp the Roscommon Fenian. A well placed associate of one of the imprisoned architects of the 'long war' strategy refused to make available to the then leadership the considerable cache of weapons he had control over. They were held in secure dumps until his key ally was free and in a position to control their distribution and move ahead with an internal coup and ultimate takeover of the Provisional Movement: something which ultimately led O’Bradaigh and his long term comrade Dave O'Conaill to jump ship from a vessel destined only to end up beached on the rocks of Stormont.
Everybody knows that the boat is leaking
Everybody knows that the captain lied
- Leonard Cohen
I met him infrequently over the years, once at a launch of his biography Ruairí Ó Brádaigh: The Life and Politics of an Irish Revolutionary, written by Professor Robert White. When we chatted at the Bundoran hunger strike commemoration shortly after the publication of Blanketmen by Richard O’Rawe, he was not yet convinced that his fellow leaders back in 1981 had fatally pulled the trapdoor on six of the hunger strikers. As they hurtled down, political and literary careers hurtled in the opposite direction. By the time he had died he was in no doubt that the ‘Committee for Prisoner Safety’ had, behind the back of the army council of which he was a member, wilfully withheld life saving information from six men slowly dying in a prison hospital.
It is instructive to point out that the importance of Ruairi O’Bradaigh to post-1969 republicanism has been understated rather than simply not understood. As Robert White has strongly contended, any reading of the formation and subsequent trajectory of the Provisional Movement that excludes him will be seriously deficient. It is not that Ruairí Ó Brádaigh was irrelevant but rather that his relevance has been deliberately marginalised by some who knew only too well, and because of that knowledge were determined to understate so that no one else would understand.
Attempts to traduce him will flounder. He was laid to rest in the full understanding that his legacy will not be tarnished or falsified by either poisoned pens or weasel words.