Interview with Ruairi O Bradaigh
Interview with Ruairi O Bradaigh

The President of Republican Sinn Fein, who recently announced he is stepping down from the position, in an interview with Allison Morris.

Ruairi O Bradaigh has no misgivings about talking publicly of his militaristic past.

Having joined the IRA in 1951, he was elected to the ‘army council’ five years later and became chief of staff soon after that, a role he maintained for many years.

With his melodic Irish midlands accent and dressed in Donegal tweed, the public perception of O Bradaigh has been that of a man detached from the modern world, unable to accept change.

Putting this to him in the sitting room of his modest home on the outskirts of Roscommon town, he pauses and laughs before pointing at the book-lined walls in front on him.

“Do you see all those books? If you read your history you will see that verything comes in cycles,” he said.

“You have to know about the past to understand the future.”

The home the leader of Republican Sinn Fein now shares with Patsy, his wife of 50 years, contains no trappings of wealth.

Wolfe Tone looks down from above the fireplace and pictures of his six children and 16 grandchildren are scattered around the room.

Tea comes in china mugs and O Bradaigh at home is open and relaxed.

Things were different during the Troubles when O Bradaigh was leader of Sinn Fein and the IRA was at its most active.

From the split with the Officials in 1970 until 1983, he articulated republican views publicly as president of the party.

This period included the bombing of Belfast on Bloody Friday, the firebombing of the La Mon hotel, the British army’s worst single loss of life at Warrenpoint, the Abercorn and Claudy bombings and the Kingsmill massacre.

In his 77th year he’s now showing physical signs of age but mentally he has an astounding recall of facts, dates and historic events he played a personal role in.

O Bradaigh - born Peter Roger Casement Brady in Longford in 1932 - has been president of Republican Sinn Fein since leading a dramatic walk-out of supporters during the 1986 Sinn Fein Ard Fheis after its historic decision to drop its policy of abstentionism in Dail elections.

The party became linked with the Continuity IRA from the 1990s and its leader has remained a vociferous opponent of the Good Friday Agreement and Sinn Fein’s decision to share power at Stormont.

However, less than a month from now he will officially step down from his post.

“I’ll be putting my name forward for patron at the Ard Fheis. Its a matter of lightening my work load,” he says.

“Instead of having to travel to Dublin once a week I’ll probably only have to make the journey once a month.”

Denying that he is being pushed from the party to make room for new blood, he said: “I was pushed from my last two jobs, but no, this time I’m going of my own accord.”

In 1984, a year after resigning as president of Sinn Fein, O Bradaigh was involved in a serious car accident.

Both he and his wife spent several weeks in hospital and two of their children were also injured. It took months to make a full recovery.

At the time the internal battle within Sinn Fein was raging.

As in the late 1960s, veteran republicans, based mainly in the south, had come into conflict with a new breed of young republicans.

O Bradaigh recalls Martin McGuinness making the journey from Derry to the hospital in Dublin where he was being treated but none of the young Belfast leadership did.

Following his recovery and with time on his hands and a family to keep O Bradaigh returned in 1985 to his former career as a teacher.

As a veteran IRA man and one of Ireland’s most recognisable political figures he admitted his reputation probably helped with class control.

“I’d been out of teaching for 14 years and the discipline question had got more difficult in those years,’’ he said.

“I found I was teaching the sons, nephews and nieces of people I’d taught before.

“So I would say ‘so you’re the son of such and such’. The next day I would get perfect cooperation. Something must have went on at home.

“The push from both directions worked a treat.”

Pushing from both directions was a tactic familiar to O Bradaigh.

The ‘ballot box and Armalite’ strategy had been used by Sinn Fein to maximum effect during the 1981 Hunger Strike.

“When the second hunger strike started I had a discussion with Daithi O Conaill,” O Bradaigh said.

“The first hunger strike had lasted 53 days. We both agreed it would be very difficult to maximise public support past that and so what was needed was a new factor.

“Then [Fermanagh and South Tyrone MP] Frank Maguire died suddenly. O Conaill had been an election organiser and was on very good terms with the Maguire family.

“The idea to fight elections was mooted from that conversation.

“Originally there was talk of Bernadette Devlin standing and then it moved on to Bobby [Sands].

“We called a convention in Clones and it went against an election contest.

“When it broke up we all just sat there and talked in groups. No-one wanted to go home, if you can imagine that, and eventually some people approached us and said they thought the idea should be reviewed.

“Another convention was called and it was agreed that Bobby would stand. I personally was very much in favour of using the election as a tactic.”

However, while Sinn Fein has gone on to make massive electoral gains, O Bradaigh’s party has limped along on the fringes of the political landscape.

Asked if he ever regretted walking out of Dublin’s Mansion House 23 years ago, the answer remains the same.

“I would no longer have been a republican then, would I?” he says.

“I could see where it was all going. Its history repeating itself and it gives me no pleasure to say that.”

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