Roy Johnston reviews An Irish Statesman and Revolutionary: the nationalist and internationalist politics of Sean MacBride by Elizabeth Keane, I B Tauris, ISBN 1 84511 125 7; £47.50 hbk
SEAN MACBRIDE was a complex and elusive character, a biographer's challenge. Anthony Jordan's 1993 biography concentrated on his early IRA period and subsequent evolution into the Irish political scene, giving some coverage of his subsequent international career as an afterthought.
Catriona Lawlor's 2005 edited memoir, while being a useful source, is somewhat selective. The current book does justice to his later period, and makes a creditable attempt to analyse the factors governing his earlier political failure in Ireland, and how they influenced his transition to the international scene, where his achievements were significant and deserve to be celebrated.
It is a pity the Lawlor publication did not arrive in time to get into the Keane sources, as she might have gained some additional insights from it.
Keane begins in the 1940s with the development of Clann na Poblachta, of which she suggests the policies were rooted in those of the European Christian Democrats, without MacBride admitting it.
His first foray into foreign policy was the organisation of church-gate collections in 1948 to prevent a Communist landslide in Italy. MacBride's first acts on being elected to the Dail, and later when in government, was to pay his respects to the archbishop and place himself at his disposal. These letters are in the McQuaid archive and on Roebuck House rather than official notepaper.
Once in government from 1948, MacBride in foreign affairs became somewhat decoupled from Clann policies, and he did not display effective Clann leadership, alienating many of his leading supporters. Keane argues that his attempts to internationalise the partition issue were mostly counter-productive, especially in the context of the External Relations Act repeal, and subsequent Ireland Act. India shortly afterwards became a republic within the Commonwealth.
Referring to the partition of India, Keane suggests it was inevitable, glossing over the role of the British in actively supporting Jinnah and the Muslim League, and the arming both sides for the ensuing civil war.
On the partition of Ireland she tends to defer to Cruise O'Brien and the 'two nation' concept, playing down the deliberate Tory-Orange armed conspiracy background. She does however criticise MacBride for projecting a somewhat catholic-nationalist irridentist image for the anti-partition movement, building up the 'Rome Rule' threat, though he did take up the plight of the northern Catholics from a human rights angle, anticipating the 1960s developments.
She is also critical of MacBride's role in the US, and linking NATO with the anti-partition issue. Using CIA records she concludes that MacBride had grossly overestimated the importance of NATO, a global construct, in the context of the partition issue, seen globally as minor and local. MacBride later came around to unconditional opposition to NATO, based on his subsequent experience.
The European dimension initally took the form of the Council of Europe, to which MacBride as minister for foreign affairs sent a delegation in 1948 (Senator James Douglas, Michael Tierney of UCD and Senator Eleanor Butler), which reported back to him positively. Irish participation followed, as did the European Court of Human Rights, which MacBride championed.
There emerged also the Organisation for European Economic Co-operation, which evolved later into the EEC. Much of this early international experience however remained dominated unproductively by the partition issue.
The latter part of MacBride's spell in government was dominated by Noel Browne and the 'Mother and Child Scheme' issue. Keane covers this in a chapter of some complexity, which exposes the mutual relationships between MacBride, taoiseach Costello and Noel Browne in such a way as to give little credit to anyone. MacBride had lost touch with his party, Browne underestimated the importance of key cabinet meetings, while the taoiseach cultivated the archbishop.
Keane gives tentative support to Peadar Cowan's suggestion that MacBride 'set up' Browne because he felt he was being overtaken in popularity. The net result was a triumph for McQuaid and a disaster in the partition context, as it confirmed the 'Rome Rule' image.
MacBride's period in foreign affairs however gave him the standing and the contacts which he cultivated in his subsequent career. The Makarios case in the European Court was a good start, and he went on to found Amnesty International. He later served as secretary of the International Committee of Jurists, and then as UN commissioner for Namibia; he chaired the International Peace Bureau which was dedicated to non-violent conflict resolution, winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1974, and the in 1977 the Lenin Peace Prize for his Namibia work.
The MacBride Principles were influential in the establishment of non-discrimation in employment by US firms investing in Northern Ireland. Controversial to the end, his enemies accused him of 'slippery political manoeuvrings', and working to please ghosts, including that of his formidable mother Maud Gonne.
Not a book for the general reader, given the price, but essential to any collection relating to the UN, Irish foreign affairs, the world peace movement and related matters.
Connolly Publications Ltd, 244 Gray's Inn Road, London, WC1X 8JR
Copyright © 2006 Roy Johnston