Sean MacBride

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Sean MacBride

Sean MacBride (1904-1988), who began his career with forerunners of the Irish Republican Army, later earned fame as a diplomat who worked 70 years for peace. His efforts focused on working toward a united Ireland, nuclear disarmament, and human rights.

Sean MacBride was born in Paris to Irish exile parents on January 26, 1904. His father was Major John MacBride, who fought against the British in South Africa's Boer War of 1899-1902, struggling to free the country from British colonialism. MacBride grew up among his parents' intellectual friends until returning to Ireland in 1916, shortly after his father was executed by the British. Both were leaders of the 1916 Easter Uprising in Dublin, a week-long battle sparked on Easter Monday, in which Irish rebels hoped to defeat British troops to establish home rule for Ireland.

MacBride's mother was Maud Gonne, the daughter of a British army colonel. Gonne was a "beautiful Irish actress and revolutionary" wrote William G. Blair in the New York Times. "She was called the Joan of Arc of Ireland and was celebrated in the poetry of William Butler Yeats, who at one time was in love with her." Like her husband and later her son, Gonne fought for Irish nationalism, spending time in jail for her activities on behalf of Irish independence.

Shortly after returning to Ireland, MacBride began to follow in his parents' revolutionary footsteps. He lied about his age in order to join the Irish Volunteers, an underground army fighting to drive British colonizers out of the country. In 1918, at the age of 13, MacBride was arrested by the British. Before the end of his career with the Volunteers, and later the Irish Republican Army, he would be sent to prison twice again, in 1922 and 1930.

Ireland has been a colony of Britain since being conquered in the 1600s. The Government of Ireland Act, passed in 1920, turned Ireland into two states, Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland. Southern Ireland, largely populated by Catholics, became a self-governing country but Northern Ireland remained a British colony. Many Irish citizens wanted to reunite the entire country and become independent from Britain, although some Irish citizens, especially Northern Ireland Protestants, prefer alliance with Britain.

Despite arrests and imprisonment, MacBride stayed with the IRA, and at 24 years of age became its chief of staff. He also worked as a journalist and studied law at the National University in Dublin. He was admitted to the Irish bar in 1937, at which point he left the IRA. Even though he denounced the group's increasingly violent tactics, he continued to defend IRA members in order to show the world how horrible and harsh Irish jails were. He became a successful trial lawyer in Dublin, becoming a senior counsel in only seven years.

Stepped into Politics

From his vantage point as a lawyer, MacBride saw opportunities to further the notion of national independence from Britain by becoming a politician. He formed a radical nationalist party, called the Republican Party, or Clann na Poblachta, and challenged the party of Prime Minister Eamon de Valera, which was called Fianna Fail. Together with several other opposition parties, MacBride's Republican Party ousted Fianna Fail. He served in parliament from 1947 to 1958, and held an appointment to the Foreign Ministry from 1948 to 1951. The Republican Party itself faded by 1965.

As part of the Marshall Plan, a U.S.-sponsored effort to help rebuild Europe after the destruction of World War II, MacBride served as vice president of the Organization for European Economic Cooperation, which later evolved into the European Economic Community. At the same time, he was tapped in 1950 as the president of the Council of Foreign Ministers of the Council of Europe.

Path to Peace

MacBride's interests evolved to embrace the notion of peace in other countries and worldwide. He became assistant secretary general to the United Nations, and served as the United Nations commissioner for Namibia from 1973 to 1976. Experienced because of his work in Ireland, MacBride worked to help Namibia become free. As stated in Sechaba, at MacBride's funeral, President Tambo of the African National Congress called him "a great beacon, guiding and assisting oppressed people to the path of national liberation and self-determination." Tambo said, "Sean MacBride will also be remembered for the concrete leadership he provided to the liberation movements and peoples of Namibia and South Africa, driven by personal and political insight, arising out of the cause of national freedom in Ireland. We recall our debt to him in the brilliant way in which he focused the attention of the world on the grim process of colonialism and exploitation in Africa in particular. Our debt to him can never be repaid."

MacBride worked as president of the International Peace Bureau in Geneva, Switzerland from 1972 to 1985. The IPB works to attain worldwide nuclear disarmament. After MacBride died, the group established the Sean MacBride Peace Prize, to honor others who have "done outstanding work for peace, disarmament or human rights." Recipients have included The Committee of Soldiers' Mothers of Russia, a group opposed to the civil war in Chechnya; Selim Beslagic, a proponent of a multi-ethnic solution to the Bosnian crisis; and a British group that disarmed an aircraft going to Indonesia.

In 1961, MacBride helped found Amnesty International, a worldwide human rights monitoring organization. He served as the group's chairman until 1975. He was also secretary general of the International Commission of Jurists, another human rights group, from 1963 until 1970, and a member until he died.

MacBride's tireless work for human rights were recognized in 1974 when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with Prime Minister Eisaku Sato of Japan. In 1977, MacBride became one of the few Westerners to win the International Lenin Prize for Peace Among Nations for his work in Namibia. He was only the second person to win both.

Tireless Fighter for Justice

Still going strong at the age of 80, MacBride in 1984 helped draft and sponsor a code of behavior known as the MacBride Principles, aimed at forcing American companies who work in Northern Ireland to hire Roman Catholics and Protestants in equal numbers. The U.S. publication National Catholic Reporter noted that Catholics make up "about 42 percent of Northern Ireland's population but suffer unemployment at twice the rate of Protestants, according to the Washington-based Irish National Caucus."

The MacBride Principles were an effort to make American companies take responsibility for the employment practices of its factories in Northern Ireland. American companies such as American Brands, Du Pont, General Motors and Ford employ huge numbers of people in Northern Ireland. Companies that signed onto the principles would agree to make "every reasonable lawful effort to increase the representation of underrepresented religious groups at all levels of its operations in Northern Ireland," reported Steve Lohr of the New York Times. Tacked onto a budget bill, the MacBride Principles became part of U.S. policy when they were signed by President Bill Clinton on October 21, 1998. Clinton's budget also included $19.6 million in aid to the International Fund for Ireland.

MacBride died from pneumonia at the age of 83, January 15, 1988, at his home in Dublin, Ireland. His wife of 50 years, Catalina Bulfin, had died in 1976. MacBride is survived by his two children, Tiernan and Anna.

Further Reading

Contemporary Authors, Volume 124, Gale, 1988.

Facts on File World News Digest, Facts on File, Inc., 1988.

Boston Globe, January 16, 1988.

Irish Times, July 9, 1994.

National Catholic Reporter, November 6, 1998.

New York Times, September 4, 1986; January 16, 1988.

Peace & Change, January 1999.

Sechaba, May 1988.

Sewanee Review, Summer 1994.

African National Congress, (March 19, 1999).

International Peace Bureau, (March 28, 1999). □

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Sean MacBride

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