This past week saw the passing of Ruari O'Bradaigh; may he rest in peace.
He was one of the few remaining, if not the last, political giants to come out of the Border Campaign. He was the commander of the Teeling Column and in his honor I'm posting this interview with Saoirse in which he gives his thoughts regarding the Campaign. Standing out is his dispassionate analysis and keen attention to strategy, not often seen in republican leaders.
Revolt in the North 1956-62
On December 12, 1956 in due recurrent season a Campaign of Resistance to British rule in Ireland opened in the Six Occupied Counties. As some 20 attacks took place on that day throughout the British-occupied area, the IRA stated in a proclamation that the Resistance ". . . has now entered a decisive stage."
It went on: "This is the age-old struggle of the Irish people versus British aggression. In the final analysis it is the Irish people themselves – by their sacrifices, their endurance and their will to victory – who must free Ireland."
"Operation Harvest", defined as "a general directive for a guerrilla campaign" was the Operation Plan. It provided for the raising of four flying columns to assist local units North of the Border. These columns would be based in South Armagh, South Fermanagh (north of Upper Lough Erne), South Fermanagh (south of the same lake) and West Tyrone.
The Fermanagh columns were code-named Pearse and Teeling. Ruairí Ó Brádaigh was a GHQ staff-officer with a brief to raise and train the Teeling Column in the West of Ireland. In the event there was some change over of personnel between the columns operating in County Fermanagh.
In commemoration of the events of 40 years ago, we publish verbatim the questions put in recent times by a third-level student to Ruairí Ó Brádaigh and his replies to them.
Q. What do you consider to be the main reasons for the failure of the campaign?
RÓB. The ground was not sufficiently prepared in the Six Counties for the campaign. The only area which approached this was possibly the Mid-Ulster constituency. The impact of the Armagh and Omagh raids on the Army (IRA) was such as to force a quick entry into the decisive stage of the campaign on December 12, 1956. The campaign proper began with the raid on Gough Barracks, Armagh on June 12, 1954 – two-and-a-half years earlier.
Accordingly the provision for a civil disobedience and non-co-operation phase – which was spelled out in the original Overall Plan (and there was such a document drawn up by the Military Council, a sub-committee of the Army Council) was skipped over. This was a fatal error. Comparisons with the 1968-70 Civil Rights period was obvious.
Q. Why was the campaign led from Dublin and manned largely by southern volunteers? Surely the failure of the Brookeborough attack, for example, and the success of Pat McManus in south Fermanagh showed clearly the advantages of local men controlling operations in their area.
RÓB. The answer here arises out of the reply to Question One. Incidentally the failure of the mines at Brookborough was what triggered the over-all result while the lack of local roots accentuated this.
Q. What are your views on Liam Kelly's Saor Uladh organisation? Were their aims and political philosophy – recognition of the Dáil – not more realistic and therefore attainable?
RÓB. Kelly's Saor Uladh was an IRA splinter group which tied up with Clann na Poblachta in the 26 Counties and accepted the 26 County State. This was a fatal error on their part as basic Republican support was therefore denied to it in the 26 Counties apart from some immediate Border areas.
It also raised the question of pushing the confessional and neo-colonial southern state on Unionists who found it abhorrent and nationalists who felt it distasteful instead of a totally New Ireland built by all communities on this island. This was another short-cut in this case a political one and it availed the Kelly people nothing.
They were interned without trial in the Curragh just as were the Republican Movement people. Accepting the 26 County State did not gain them release until the Dublin Administration felt ready to release them. They lost three men, inflicted no fatalities on the enemy and folded in 1960 (after very few operations since 1955) when Liam Kelly went to the US.
Q. Can you briefly outline your impressions of Tony Magan (Chief-of-Staff 1948-57)?
RÓB. Tony Magan is well described in Bell. I thought highly of him. He had certainly learned from the mistakes of the 1940s – perhaps overmuch since protests on the streets were curtailed too much during the 1957-59 internment in the 26 Counties.
The quick development from June 1954 to December 1956 – and the emergence of the Christle splinter-group – separated him from the other two members of the Triumvirate described by Bell. These were Pádraig Mac Lógáin and Tomás Mac Curtáin. This brings us back to the reply to Question One. We keep coming back to it.
Q. What are your views about the timing of the start of the Campaign? Was it too soon, or were the IRA as well prepared as they could be?
RÓB. The choice was autumn-winter 1956 or autumn-winter 1958 with the ground better prepared. Dublin Head of Government Costello had issued an ultimatum following Kelly's raid on Roslea RUC barracks in November 1955.
This played into Dublin's hands: "We have seen Irishmen fighting Irishmen in the presence of a woman and her children". He then threatened "your next move is your last!"
IRA attacks, eg Armagh, Omagh and Arborfield in England had been against the British army and were acceptable to the broadest section of opinion. Not so Roslea and Dublin took advantage of this. Answer to second part of this question in contained in my first answer.
Q. Do you agree with Bell's assessment (Secret Army p284) that the campaign's most obvious weakness was that "two thirds of the population were Unionists, dedicated and determined enemies of Irish Republicanism."
RÓB. Of course Bell is correct but was it not so in Fenian times, 1916 and 1919-21? There were parallels with the Turkish population in Cyprus (EOKA struggle), the colons in Algeria (FLN) and Portuguese in Angola (MPLA). None of these are exact analogies of course but the situation did not deter the movements named.
Of course Partition since 1921 had made a minority in Ireland into a local majority. This aggravated the situation but what the Movement of the ‘50s and early ‘60s had to face was this daunting reality. Bell admits elsewhere (On Revolt: a book published in 1976 where he makes world-wide comparisons) that the situation in the Six north-eastern Counties of Ireland was valid for revolt although "flawed" by reason of the Unionist majority there.
Q. As leader of the "Teeling" Flying Column, do you in retrospect feel that it was an outdated operational method by 1956, particularly where there was no ‘green sea' of support?
RÓB. I was Second in Command Teeling Column not OC. Fifteen-man Border columns were based on the Operation Harvest operational plan and were unsuitable.
Later it was a battle-team of two sometimes joined to another with a Section-Leader in charge making up five Volunteers. Other battle-teams could be added in extraordinary situations. This was Mac Lógáin's view early on and was accepted by Seán Cronin and the Army generally. Mac Lógáin was an Armagh man who had operated in North Antrim in 1919-21. He knew his people and his situation.
Q. What are your recollections of Pat McManus and his part in the campaign?
RÓB. Pat was a "natural" and it showed. He operated with Pearse Column first (Lisnaskea RUC barracks) and was later with Teeling (Derrylin barracks). A multiplication of Pat McManus and a "green sea" of support was what was needed. He had my utmost respect as a Republican soldier.
Q. Do you feel in retrospect that it may have been possible successfully to mobilise public opinion behind the campaign (at least in the Republic) following the deaths of Seán South and Feargal O'Hanlon, as previously happened following the Easter Rising and its aftermath?
RÓB. This was done in the 26 Counties for the March 1957 election when four of us became Deputies to an All-Ireland Parliament. But Fianna Fáil received a big over-all majority and, viewing the situation in 1940 terms, imposed internment by early July. This majority left no political openings and internment came much too soon. The Six-County situation is covered by the reply to Question One.
Q. In view of the vote which Sinn Féin received in the Republic's General Election of March 1957, do you feel that more emphasis on political organisation might have helped at that stage, ie a "ballot box and Lee Enfield" strategy?
RÓB. The Movement was almost completely beheaded in the swoops of January 1957. Local election successes in 1955 helped but again the situation needed much greater political development. The ready-made armoury of repression and the closeness in time to the all-out coercion of the 1940s combined with the same personnel in office (de Valera and co) narrowed the ground here considerably.
Q. "Control from the top had been lost and with it the direction of the 1958-59 season." (Bell p327). Could the leadership dissension which brought this about have been avoided?
RÓB. The Army leadership was almost entirely seized in late September 1958. Dáithí Ó Conaill and I – newly escaped from internment – were handed the situation. After close on two years imprisonment we had to familiarise ourselves with a new situation on the ground and do our best, he as Director of Operations and I as Chief-of-Staff.
The position had deteriorated and Pat McManus had been killed in July. His contribution was sorely missed.
It was not leadership dissension in the Curragh which was the cause. They were all unavailable for service and the dissension hurt morale outside gradually. The dissension was due to differing priorities in an obviously deteriorating situation. All leadership material felt a tremendous responsibility for this position. I doubt if it could have been avoided in the claustrophobic conditions of the internment camp, but it was not the cause.
Q. What was morale like in the IRA when you became Chief of Staff in the autumn of 1958?
RÓB. Answer to previous question covers this in part. Morale was reasonable but the time taken in reorganising by HQ and getting used to operating "on the run" and underground and getting new personnel for active service delayed matters. This did not help and the rumours from the Curragh increasingly caused questioning which was unwelcome.
Q. Can you confirm that you were mainly responsible for drafting the IRA's public statement ending the campaign in 26 February 1962?
RÓB. The definitive statement of February 26, 1962 was an Army Council pronouncement. It reflected their views and was endorsed by the members who went through it with a "fine tooth comb". As such it was a leadership declaration and not the property of any one individual.
Q. What does the statement mean when it says in the penultimate paragraph that the IRA realised "that the situation obtaining in the earlier stages of the Campaign has altered radically . . . ?
RÓB. The Army was no longer able to operate in areas away from the Border. This was the case perhaps since February 1959 and certainly since November of the same year.
The last two years had operations confined to the Border areas only.
Politically it was being bruited about that membership of the EEC – Dublin and London had applied in July 1961 – would cause "the Border to wither away".
Republicans countered that it would not remove the British garrison from the Six Counties but in the absence of an effective campaign the "soft option" while obviously fallacious had gained ground.
Q. In your view, would you say the average IRA volunteer who took part in the Border Campaign was in the mould of Seán South – a devoted and pious Catholic – or how big a part did religion play in the lives of Volunteers?
RÓB. Moving from the particular to the general is wrong as you know well and using Seán South as a prototype is misleading. Seán was an inspiration to his generation as was Feargal Ó hAnluain. But Seán was not typical. Volunteers were ordinary young men who were idealistic and prepared for service and sacrifice.
A small number of Protestants were in the IRA on both sides of the Border. This was always the case as Catholics have no monopoly on Irish Republicanism or on idealism and self-sacrifice.
The Volunteers were typical young men of their time. Brendan Behan was not a typical IRA Volunteer of the 1940s; neither was Se&225;n Sabhat of the 1950s.