Garibaldy over at the always interesting Cedar Lounge Revolution blog brings news that marks the end of an era. Ruairí O’Brádaigh, viewed by many as the living incarnation of unbending, unyielding and unchanging traditionalist Irish Republicanism has announced that he is to retire as President of Republican Sinn Fein at the next RSF Ard-Fheis. O’Brádaigh is the last living central leader of the Provisional wing of the split in the Irish Republican movement in 1969. He apparently plans to stay on the RSF Ard Comhairle (leadership committee), but symbolically this represents the final passing of a generational torch.
After the original leaders of the Provisional Republican Movement, including O’Brádaigh and Daithi O’Connaill, were replaced by the young turks around Adams and McGuinness in the early 1980s they went on to lead a further split in 1986, with the issue of abstention again serving as the catalyst (Seán MacStíofáin, the third of the three most prominent leaders of the early Provisional movement had already left in 1981 and didn’t go on to RSF) . O’Brádaigh has been the chief public face of dissident Republicanism ever since. For a long time RSF, and its associated armed group, the Continuity IRA, had a sort of “Dad’s Army” image. In the Belfast Agreement era however they have managed to recruit a small but steady stream of disaffected youngsters. They remain politically marginal but they also remain an irritant to Provisional Sinn Fein, serving as they do as a living reminder of all of the Republican principles the larger organisation has abandoned. Crucially, along with the other dissident groupings, they force Sinn Fein to make arguments against them which are utterly incompatible with a defence of the Provisional’s own past.
O’Brádaigh is, self-evidently, a man of extreme dedication to his principles. Those principles, however, are neither popular nor attractive. The idea that the Army Council of your IRA of choice is the legitimate government of Ireland, for instance, bears more resemblance to the thinking of certain strands of French Monarchism than it does to democratic political thinking. Abstentionism as a permanent strategy is a form of political dementia, without the strategic coherence of full participation in the electoral process or for that matter of boycotting elections. Worst of all is the traditonal Republicans firm belief in the inherent right of Republicans to blow people up on behalf of the Irish nation regardless of the actual views of most of the people who make up that nation. O’Brádaigh throughout his political life stood for those views, against the British and against anyone who would compromise on them within the Republican movement, against the socialists of the Officials and then against the pragmatists of the later Provisionals.
It will be interesting to see how RSF, the repositories of Republican dogmatism, fare without their totem. They don’t have any other figures of O’Brádaigh’s stature. It will be equally interesting, as Splintered Sunrise notes, and quite a bit more politically significant, to see when or if the Provisional leadership step aside, something they show little sign of doing in the forseeable future.