Ruairi O Bradaigh interview, 1997
The following interview was conducted with Ruairi O Bradaigh at the beginning of 1997. I can’t recall the exact date but it must have been some time in February as the interview appeared in March in Saoirse/NZ Irish Post, the journal of the NZ Information on Ireland group and in the very first issue of the NZ Marxist magazine revolution. Although I disagree with Ruairi O Bradaigh over the issue of abstentionism, in particular in the 26 counties, and on abortion (which I see as a woman’s right to choose), I have immense respect for the guy. He was treated very poorly by the Adams cabal who essentially plotted and conspired in a quite underhand way against him and presented him as part of some old fuddy-duddy conservative, southern, rural republicanism – in fact, he was well to the left of them in practice and far more principled and honest than them in how he conducted himself politically. There’s much to learn from him and socialist-republicans, in my view, should respect and honour him, even though we may well think the abstentionism he remains utterly committed to is not useful to taking the struggle forward.
Philip Ferguson: How and why did Republican Sinn Fein come into being?
Ruairi O Bradaigh (President, Republican Sinn Fein): Sinn Fein came into being in 1905 and became a definite Republican organisation in 1917. Therefore Republican Sinn Fein is 80 years old.
It was split many times by reformism and constitutionalism: in 1922 (Fine Gael), in 1926 (Fianna Fail), in 1946 (Clann na Poblachta) and 1970 (Workers Party/Democratic Left).
When the Provisionals broke the constitution at an unrepresentative ard-fheis (conference) in 1986, those who resisted this action continued the organisation as Republican Sinn Fein adhering to the existing Sinn Fein constitution.
PF: How big is RSF? What sort of people (in class terms) belong to it?
ROB: Republican Sinn Fein is organised throughout the 32 counties of Ireland. It also has cumainn (branches) in England, Scotland and Australia. There are active chapters of Cumann na Saoirse (Ireland Freedom Committee) throughout the USA and Canada.
Its membership is mainly working class in cities and towns and is drawn from the small farming community and trades people in rural areas of Ireland.
PF: Does RSF have a military wing / what is its relationship with the Continuity Army Council?
ROB: Republican Sinn Fein does not have a “military wing” nor is it the “political wing” of any other organisation. The Irish Republican Army under the control of the Continuity Army Council has – as is apparent from its statements and press interviews – the same objectives as Republican Sinn Fein: British withdrawal from Ireland and Irish national independence.
PF: Is the Continuity Army Council any more likely than the Provisionals to bring the struggle to a successful conclusion? How do you see the relationship between military and political forms of struggle?
ROB: The Provisionals have since the early 1990s ceased mentioning British withdrawal in their annual policy statement at the grave of Wolfe Tone in Bodenstown, Co. Kildare.
Their ceasefire in August 1994 was unilateral and unconditional. Now they say they will institute a new ceasefire if they are admitted to Stormont talks. These talks are based on a British agenda of restructuring English rule in Ireland. They are about a new Stormont, not about a new Ireland and British withdrawal.
Therefore the Provos have abandoned the national objective and are not likely to achieve it. They may talk about it as Fianna Fail has for 70 years.
It follows that the Continuity IRA, which is true to that objective, is far more likely to achieve it.
A BBC TV programme on February 2 last was entitled “People’s Century: War of the Flea”. It examined the guerrilla war aspect of the war against the Americans in Vietnam and against the Soviets in Afghanistan.
In both cases, of course, the guerrillas had considerable outside assistance. Four points were considered vital to success in both cases.
These were: (1) The strong motivation of the fighters; (2) The belief in victory; (3) the proper use of terrain; and (4) the mobilisation of the masses.
In the matter of points (1) and (2) the Provisional leadership stands indicted for damage done to the morale of its own Volunteers.
PF: Is it true that the Provo IRA was experiencing a loss of members to the Continuity Army Council during and after the ceasefire?
ROB: I cannot answer for the Continuity IRA but I do know that Republican Sinn Fein has been attracting former members of the Provisionals all over Ireland since the early 1990s and the dropping of the British withdrawal demand. Most have been accepted but some have not. We seek quality rather than quantity.
Incidentally the Belfast Irish language newspaper La reported on January 16 a Provisional source as saying that the ceasefire had ended a year ago in order to avoid a split in their ranks. This assertion was not denied and is generally accepted here in Ireland.
PF: What is the nature of any debate going on within the Provo IRA and how does RSF see this debate?
ROB: The Sunday Tribune of Dublin reported on February 2 that the two most aggressive Provisional military units, South Armagh and East Tyrone, had not been active at all since the ceasefire ended.
It surmised that these areas were not prepared to fight for mere admission to the Stormont talks. It also noted that more than half the 16 operations carried out recently in the Six Counties by the Provos had been in Belfast.
Further, it drew attention to the fact that only home-made equipment was being used and that there were hardly any shooting operations.
It said that the dumps sealed at the start of the ceasefire obviously remained in that condition and that such operations as were taking place were simply filling in measures until the British general election.
Republican Sinn Fein does not believe that military operations are justified for any lesser objective than British withdrawal. We have always upheld the right of the Irish people to engage in the use of controlled and disciplined force to secure such a withdrawal.
PF: If a military victory cannot be achieved over the British Army, and “pan-nationalist allies” like John Hume and John Bruton will always let you down, what is the way forward?
ROB: We do not agree that a military victory cannot be achieved over British forces. Certainly British government in much of the Six Counties – and nationalists are in the majority in most of it geographically – can be made impossible.
“Pan-nationalist allies” like the SDLP, the Dublin politicians and administrative and corporate America merely seek an absence of struggle. In the words of United Irishman Henry Joy McCracken “the rich always betray the poor”. They have a totally different agenda and any alliance with them is based on a lie.
The way forward is through a multi-faceted struggle based on the urban and rural working and small farming classes. In Britain, North America and the Antipodes the support for the Irish struggle has always been similarly based.
Cultural groupings in Celtic countries and national liberation and radical elements (anti-colonial and anti-imperialist) have always been supportive.
There may be honourable and individual exceptions to the elements listed, of course, and they too are most welcome to subscribe their talents and resources to Ireland’s centuries-old fight for freedom.
PF: How does the Protestant working class, with its traditional leadership fragmented, fit into the picture?
ROB: Republican Sinn Fein does not seek a centralised bureaucratic state. Neither does it seek an extension of the present 26-County state to all of Ireland. We parted company from the Provisionals in 1986 rather than accept that neo-colonial and collaborationist model. We want a totally New Ireland with the complete separation of church and state and the building of a pluralist society.
We urge Eire Nua, a new federation of all four provinces including a nine-county Ulster. Here, at provincial level, the people who now vote unionist would have a working majority with every power of government exercised within the province except foreign affairs, national defence and overall financing.
But the nationalists would be numerically within reach of power and strong regional and powerful district councils would, in a “patchwork” quilt of power-sharing according to local majorities, make domination by any one section over another an unhappy memory.
Common interests based on the distribution of wealth in the community would prevail.
PF: How does the south fit into the picture? How do you analyse the southern state? What can republicans offer working class people and small farmers in the south?
ROB: In the 26 Counties a tiered society exists. Up to 30% of the population are under the poverty line but are weak on organisation. Another section are struggling and barely manage to keep up while the top element are very comfortable.
Whole communities in the western half of Ireland and small farming families throughout the land are being pressurised out of existence.
Total economic restructuring is necessary with economic as well as political power vested as directly as possible in the hands of the people.
Our social and economic policy, Saol Nua – a New Way of Life – published in 1993, when unemployment in the 26 Counties topped 300,000, is based on Republican, Democratic Socialist, environmental and self-reliance principles.
PF: Where does RSF stand on social issues such as divorce, abortion, gay rights, contraception?
ROB: Our attitude on these questions has been very clear for many years. Contraception is a matter for the couple concerned. Homosexuality should be decriminalised and gays must not be discriminated against.
Civil divorce should be available. While we are opposed to abortion we are also opposed to the forces in society which impel women to seek abortion.
Incidentally, we support a full role for women in all aspects of life. We seek to have them realise their full potential and make maximum contribution to the building of the New Ireland. Too often in the past women’s role in revolutionary movements was highly valued during the actual struggle but was downgraded in the post-revolutionary phase.
This occurred both following success, eg Algeria, and after counter-revolution as in the Free State from 1922 on. In Republican Sinn Fein seven of the 23-member ard chomhairle are women. Three are officers. All are elected without any “positive discrimination”.
The first woman president of a political party in Ireland was Margaret Buckley of the Irish Women Workers Union who was president of Republican Sinn Fein from 1937-1950.
PF: While the “pan-nationalist” strategy does not seem to have produced much other than confusion and demoralisation, SF/IRA appear still committed to it. Why do you think this strategy was adopted in the first place, given that it seems to fly in the face of all the lessons of history for republicans? What is your view of where SF/IRA are going today (and tomorrow)?
ROB: The “pan-nationalist” reformist strategy of the Hume-Adams agreement in 1993 and the ceasefire of 1994 was the logical extension of the decision in 1986 to accept the 26-County state.
It was the further development of the constitutionalism entered into then and has indeed produced nothing other than confusion and demoralisation for the Provisional Movement and has impaired its capacity for struggle.
The Provisionals are being slowly but surely absorbed into the status quo, into the system, while on the other hand their revolutionary capacity is being steadily eroded.
All this is a further example of what we have seen down the years since 1922 – the “inevitability of gradualness” at work. There have been examples of former Young Irelanders and former Fenians meeting the same fate in the last century.
PF: RSF says it is committed to a “democratic socialist republic”. Can you give a short outline of what you mean by this term?
ROB: By a Democratic Socialist Republic we mean that the key industries would come into public ownership and control, whether at national, provincial or even lower level, and be administered democratically.
There would be an upper limit on the amount of land any one individual may own. A wide range of worker-owner co-operatives is visualised in agriculture, industry and the distributive trade. Indigenous industry based on local and sustainable raw materials would be favoured. Credit Unions would play an important part in this type of development.
Private enterprise would still have a role to play in the economy but it would be much smaller than today. It would have no place in key industries and state incentives would favour co-operative projects as the most socially desirable.
An independent stand will be taken in foreign policy and power blocs will be avoided. Neutrality will be essential and the Non-Aligned Movement comprising mainly former colonised peoples will be supported.
PF: How do you relate to ordinary working class people in Britain as opposed to their government?
ROB: Ordinary working class people in England, Scotland and Wales favour British government disengagement from Ireland as successive opinion polls and surveys show clearly. It is the English Establishment or ruling class which wants Ireland divided and weak and under British control.
We relate to the ordinary people on the neighbouring island by supporting genuine working class organisations and groups. This would include trade unions and especially general unions, and the immigrants’ and women’s organisations.
We seek to influence these in favour of a free, democratic and independent Ireland as well as seek their own liberation in the fullest sense.
PF: How do you see the prospects for Irish freedom as we approach the 200th anniversary of 1798? How can people in other countries best assist the cause of Irish freedom?
ROB: The bicentenary of 1798 is most important because the United Irishmen brought together “Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter under the common name of Irishman”.
The foundation of Irish Republicanism which took place in the 1790s was the modernisation of the Irish revolutionary movement in support of the democratic ideals of the American and French revolutions. No such development took place among the Scottish people – to their loss.
People in other countries – both those of Irish birth or descent and those with no ties of blood but who subscribe to the ideals of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity – can parallel the Irish struggle by supporting it in all its aspects, principally through publicity and finance.
The battle for the minds and hearts of people in support of all-Ireland democracy has a world-wide dimension, just as had the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa.