That’s what I get for not being prompt in reading RSF press releases, for Garibaldy has scooped me. All this is, is the announcement that at the upcoming Ard Fheis, Ruairí Ó Brádaigh will be stepping down from the party presidency. He will however be allowing his name to go forward for the Ard Chomhairle (there’s a safe bet if you want one) and will remain a patron of the party. One assumes he’ll be as active as he’s able.
Ruairí’s stated reasons are age and health, and I see no reason to doubt this. He’ll be turning 77 next week, and his health hasn’t been the greatest – at times it seems that sheer cussedness has been the main thing keeping him going. That, by itself, tells you something about a man whose total adherence to the principles of traditionalist republicanism has been his distinguishing political feature. And such is the case with the small party that’s largely been formed in his image.
I’ll be honest, I have a lot of time for Ruairí, not only despite considerable political differences but in some respects because of them. I’m not a Second Dáil legitimist, and my views on the current justifiability of armed struggle are quite some way removed from RSF thinking, but I can still see that there is something inherently attractive about traditionalist republicanism of a sort that Mac Piarais might have recognised, and something quite splendid about upholding the absolutist banner in very difficult times. And having remained true to that cause for well over half a century is not to be sniffed at. We’re talking here about someone with a remarkable history – if you haven’t already read Bob White’s excellent biography, you really should, and the man himself is always willing to cooperate with historians – and whose personal integrity has never been questioned, at least not by anyone without major question marks over his own integrity. You know, I felt much the same about the late Mick O’Riordan, Mick’s lifelong dedication to Joe Stalin notwithstanding.
The question will be what this means for RSF, and it’s sensible for the irreplaceable leader to manage a change in the leadership while he’s able. You have to consider in the first instance that, shortly after its formation in 1986, RSF adopted the perspective of the holding operation – they knew there was always going to be a market for traditionalist republicanism, and that if they could only hold the faithful nucleus together, then in the long run they could attract a new generation of the discontented. It worked for republicans in previous tough times, and there was no good reason to suspect it wouldn’t happen again.
But there was a very long barren period, and you can see this in stark physical terms if you ever happen upon an RSF commemoration. Usually, there will be a lot of old age pensioners and a lot of teenagers, and not many people in between. This creates a conundrum if you’re looking for a new party president, because I’m assuming that Ruairí is not going to be succeeded by someone of his own generation – indeed, some of the more elderly leadership figures might be considering their own positions. The problem is that, if you’re looking for someone between the ages of, say, 35 to 55, there aren’t many people who fall into that bracket, and many of those who are in place are the children of senior cadres – they may be able people in their own right, but this situation, together with leadership figures combining several jobs (as is to be expected in a small party) makes the organisation look a little bit nepotistic. Then again, republicanism has always been a family business.
All of which should make the next RSF Ard Fheis more interesting than usual. Not just in terms of who takes on the presidency, but if there’s a wider reshuffle at Ard Chomhairle level – there may be younger people emerging, and more northern-based people, in a leadership that’s tended to be rather elderly and western in its complexion.
Meanwhile, as the traditionalists manage their leadership transition, and the SDLP leadership is thrown wide open, Conor Murphy – often tipped as the next PSF president – was on today’s Politics Show averring that Gerry was going to be the leader for the foreseeable future, and he was very happy about that. It seems that in certain strands of republicanism, the African concept of the life presidency retains its attractions.