|Joan Baez salute Sean MacBride on his retirement as International Chairman of Amnesty International.|
When Seán MacBride died in Dublin, Ireland in 1988 at the age of 84 he was the most honored human rights leader in the world. He had taken a leading role in almost every international initiative on human rights since World War II and had founded and led several important organizations, most notably Amnesty International. He was the only man to win both the both the Nobel and Lenin Peace Prizes. But his path to those honors went through revolution, civil war, prison, and politics.
Seán MacBride was bon the son of Major John MacBride and Maude Gonne on January 26, 1904. His father was an ardent Irish nationalist and a leading member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood who had raised an Irish commando to fight with the Boers against the British in South Africa. Maude Gonne, most famous as the muse and obsessive love object of William Butler Yeats, was a beautiful and equally ardent nationalist who was prominent in the Gaelic Revival movement. She had organized pro-Boer demonstrations in Dublin and encouraged enlistment it the far away war as way of “twisting the Lion’s tail.”
Gonne was living in Paris where MacBride visited her after the war. They wed in 1902 to Yeats’s deep anguish. Despite the birth of their son the next year, the marriage was not a happy one. Gonne would later confide in Yeats that there was abuse and that the soldier may have molester her 11 year old daughter Iseult. Sean’s parents were separated in 1905 and he was raised on the continent speaking French as a first language.
His father returned to Ireland was active in Republican circles. But he was too well known and closely watched by British authorities so that despite his military experience, he was not included in the leadership of those planning an uprising. When it broke out at Eastertide 1916, the Major was caught unawares. But he volunteered his services on the spot and was appointed by Thomas MacDonagh as second in command of a contingent defending the Jacobs biscuit factory. After his capture he was executed by the British.
Although young Sean had not seen his father since infancy, he was a flame with desire to join the cause for which he was a Martyr. He mother did little to dissuade him. She sent him in 1919 to school at Mount St. Benedic’s in Gorey, County Wexford. Although he was only 15, she must have known that he would join the new rebellion against British rule. He joined the new Irish Republican Army (IRA), the decedent of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the remnant of the Irish Volunteers of the Easter Rebellion, in the War for Independence.
He among those opposed to the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty ended the war, with the new Irish Free State still a part of the Empire and without the provinces of Ulster which remained under British rule. He joined forces IRA favoring total independence, and was jailed by Free State authorities during the Civil War.
Upon release in 1924 MacBride took up studies for the law at University College Dublin and resumed his IRA activities. He served briefly as Éamon de Valera’s personal aide.
In 1925 MacBride married Catalina “Kid” Bulfin, four years his senior and also an ardent Republican. Under close surveillance by the Free State government, the young couple went abroad where MacBride worked as a journalist in Paris and London—and likely as an IRA covert agent.
He returned to Ireland in 1927 but was arrested on charges of assassinating a Free State figure. Able to prove that he was non shipboard when the killing took place, he was none the less kept in custody and charged with subversive activities.
When finally released, MacBride became involved with an IRA faction that was becoming disillusioned by de Valera’s Fianna Fáil. They favored a more socialist agenda. MacBride founded the political grouping Saor Éire (Free Ireland) separate from the IRA command while remaining loyal to the army. It and nine other groups were declared unlawful alongside of the IRA. MacBride became the chief target of Free State security forces
Meanwhile MacBride rose in the IRA command structure. In 1936 he became Chief of Staff. He did not last long in that position, however. He was replaced by Tom Barry who was given permission to launch new operations against the British in Ulster and to explore possible support from Nazi Germany, both policies opposed by MacBride.
In 1937 after the passage of the new Constitution of Ireland he resigned his commission and membership in the IRA, although he remained politically close to many old comrades. He finally passed the Bar and began a career as a lawyer. The IRA, however kept up its low grade guerilla war in Ulster and despite his personal disapproval, Barry acted as a lawyer for many charged by the new government. Over the next few years, into the World War II era he would become increasingly known for defending the rights of political prisoners.
In 1946, MacBride founded the republican/socialist party Clann na Poblachta in the hopes that it would replace Fianna Fáil as Ireland’s major political party. In October 1947, he won a seat in Dáil Éireann at a by-election in the Dublin County constituency. Despite his high hopes, his new party won only 10 seats in the 1948 election, in which no party emerged with a majority. He brought the party into a coalition government under Fine Gael Taoiseach (prime minister) John A. Costello. MacBride entered the government as Minister of External Affairs. It was in this position that he brought his increasing passion for human rights to the international area.
MacBride stepped out in the world, and particularly the European stage, in a big way. First, he was delighted to play a leading role in the Repeal of the External Relations Act and the Declaration of the Republic of Ireland which severed the last tenuous ties to Britain by exiting the Commonwealth of Nations on Easter Monday, April 18, 1949.
The same year he was elected as President of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, which could only be considered a stinging rebuke to the British. In that role he helped draft the European Convention on Human Rights and pressed for its adoption at Rome in 1950. That year he was elevated to President of the Council of Foreign Ministers of the Council of Europe, and he was vice-president of the Organization for European Economic Co-operation (OEEC.) Although a supporter of greater European cooperation, he did not want it to come at the expense of being dragged into a military alliance with the West against the East. He kept Ireland out of NATO.
Despite his personal popularity and the esteem in which he was regarded internationally, however, there was trouble at home. His political party was falling apart, particularly after he forced the resignation from the cabinet of the only other Clann na Poblachta member, Health Minister and former close ally Dr. Noël Browne who was promoting the controversial Mother and Child Scheme of public health coverage for mothers and children under 16 over the voracious opposition of the Catholic Hierarchy.
In the 1951 elections, due in no small measure to the health care controversy, MacBride’s party was reduced to two seats although he won re-election. The Multi-Party Government fell and Éamon de Valera’s increasingly conservative Fianna Fáil was swept back to power. MacBride was reduced to a virtual back bencher, although he won re-election in 1954.
After the IRA Cross Border Campaign in Ulster began in 1956, MacBride spoke out against internment of Republican suspects by the Irish government. He campaigned on the issue in 1957 and ’61 but was defeated both times by an electorate tired of never ending conflict and willing to back de Valera’s harsh policy.
MacBride retired from active politics after the second defeat, and concentrated on his legal practice. Yet his attention was once again drawn to the world stage. He was served as Secretary-General of the International Commission of Jurists from 1963 to 1971then was elected Chair (1968–1974) and later President (1974–1985) of the International Peace Bureau in Geneva.
As a lawyer, he became interested in Anti-colonialism, especially in Africa. He was called upon to help draft the constitution of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) and also the first constitution of Ghana, the first of Britain’s African colonies to gain independence.
MacBride also became deeply involved in the United Nations which he served in many capacities including, President of the General Assembly, High Commissioner for Refugees, and High Commissioner for Human Rights. As High Commissioner for Namibia he was also named Assistant Secretary-General. He was President of UNESCO's International Commission for the Study of Communications Problems, which produced the controversial 1980 MacBride Report which recommended democratization of communication.
But MacBride is best remembered for his work with Amnesty International. He was a close ally of British lawyer Peter Benenson in founding the organization in 1971 and served as its International Chairman and most visible public face from 1965 to’74.
MacBride’s work was recognized with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1974, the Lenin Peace Prize for 1975–76, and the UNESCO Silver Medal for Service in 1980.
His additional work for peace included the Appeal by Lawyers against Nuclear War which eventually resulted in an Advisory Opinion by the International Court of Justice on the Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear in 1996/
He was Chairman of the International Convention to investigate violations of International Law by Israel during its invasion of the Lebanon. The commission reported numerous violations and was harshly criticized by Israel and in America by a vocal Jewish lobby.
In the MacBride Principles he laid out a serious of standards of behavior for fair employment by American corporations doing business in Northern Ireland for Catholics who were the traditional victims of discriminated in Ulster. The nine point plan was rejected flatly by the British government and ruling Ulster Protestants and was even criticized as “counterproductive” by the Irish government. None-the-less the Principles were endorsed by 18 state governments and over 40 cities. They are now considered a model for American action in support of oppressed populations around the world.
Active almost to his last days, MacBride spent his later years dividing his time between his mother’s famous estate, Roebuck House and the Paris arrondissement where he grew up with his mother.
He died in Dublin on January 15, 1988 just days shy of his 84h birthday and was laid to rest next to his mother and wife at Glasnevin Cemetery where many Irish patriots were buried.