If ever there was a man who stuck to his principles from birth to death, no matter what the cost, it was Ruairí Ó Brádaigh. He was born and raised as a hard-line Republican and he died a hard-line Republican as well, a little over eighty years later.
Ó Brádaigh joined the IRA and Sinn Fein at a young age. He quickly rose to power within the organizations, even when he was interned or on the run. In fact, he was the first Sinn Fein politician who had to go on the run since the 1920s. He was dedicated to ridding Ireland of English rule in any way, except for one. He did not believe in doing it through diplomacy, the ballot box, or politics. He got his hands dirty, and was unashamed and open about it. He was eventually banned from traveling abroad due to his paramilitary activities. He was described as a “dedicated revolutionary undeterred by threat or personal risk” by the FBI. To this end, he planned one of the largest weapons heists in British history, he was the IRA’s chief of staff for many years, and eventually he became the President of Sinn Fein.
Sinn Fein was a different sort of animal in Ruairí Ó Brádaigh’s day. The members refused to take their seats once elected and they had a very symbiotic relationship with paramilitary fighters, if they weren’t the fighters themselves. Many were, and felt no conflict of interest when it came to their political position. Ó Brádaigh’s life-long republicanism and his solid belief in using any means necessary served him well in both the political and the paramilitary arenas. That is, until two young upstarts by the names of Adams and McGuinness entered the picture.
The younger, burgeoning politicians came in when Sinn Fein was talking about ending their policy of abstentionism. They clashed in other ways as well and they had the perfect opportunity to undermine Ó Brádaigh’s authority when he surprisingly supported an IRA ceasefire in 1975. This was really the only deviation from the militant, hard-line, violent path he had always walked before, but it was big enough to cost him dearly. By the end of the ceasefire, the Irish Republican Army was severely weakened and almost extinct. Adams and McGuinness used this to convince others that it was time to find new leadership with different ideas. By 1983, the coup was complete and Adams replaced Ruairí Ó Brádaigh as the President of Sinn Fein.
Ruairi did not go gently into the night. He continued to butt heads with Adams and he stormed out when Sinn Fein announced an end to abstentionism. He is quoted as saying that “armed struggle and sitting in parliament are mutually exclusive,” and he believed that the new policies would keep Ireland partitioned and would eventually be the end of the IRA. He also thought this new path was no longer in line with the long history of armed uprising and rebellion that began again in 1916. He quickly formed Republican Sinn Fein as a militant alternative to the more mainstream direction that Adams was heading toward. He also formed a solid relationship between his new organization and the Continuity IRA, returning again to his paramilitary ties. He was loudly opposed to the Good Friday Agreement and he once called the IRA’s decision to willingly disarm an “act of treachery that is punishable by death.”
Ruairí Ó Brádaigh passed away at the age of 80 in 2013. Throughout his life, he had planned heists and other darker crimes, he’d been the Chief of Staff for the IRA twice, he was a prisoner more than once – and an escaped one too for that matter – and he had led two large political factions for many, many years. He was a battle-hardened, stubborn man – but his predictions were right when it came to the end result of Adams’ leadership. He had said that easing abstentionism would lead to mainstreaming and it has. He predicted that mainstreaming would lead to an upswell in sectarianism and a resurgence of paramilitary activities and that has happened too. He said their version of Sinn Fein would be the end of the IRA, and he was correct about that as well….so they claim.
For some reason, on his birthday today, I envision him hopping around his afterlife, yelling “I told you so” from wherever you want to believe he is, while he plots his next move. After all, it’s probably exactly what he’d be doing if he were still alive.