Illuminations: Seán MacBride, Father of the MacBride Principles
By: J. Michael Finn
Seán MacBride was born in Paris on January 26, 1904. His father was John MacBride, an Irish nationalist who vehemently opposed British rule in Ireland. John MacBride was a Major in the Irish Transvaal Brigade that fought in South Africa against England during the Boer War in 1899.
Son of Maud
MacBride’s mother was Maud Gonne, daughter of a British Army Colonel, a noted beauty, an actress and also a staunch Irish nationalist. She inspired some of the poetry of William Butler Yeats. Maud Gonne and John MacBride were divorced in 1905.
In Paris, Seán MacBride attended the Jesuit School, where he became fluent in the French language. In 1916, MacBride’s father took part in the Easter Rebellion and was captured by the British. Despite the fact that John MacBride played only a small part in the rebellion, he was executed with the other leaders.
It was, unfortunately, John’s fondness for strong drink that kept him excluded from much of the planning process for the rebellion. His execution was belated British retaliation for his military activities in South Africa more than for his activities in 1916.
After his father’s death, Seán and his mother moved to Dublin, where she was a popular speaker on nationalist and women’s issues. She was arrested and jailed several times for her nationalist political activities.
One of his mother’s most vivid memories was that of little Seán running after the British police wagon that carried her to prison. On two occasions young Seán helped his mother escape from British prisons and he himself was twice arrested for his own revolutionary activities.
Irish Republican Army
In 1917, at the age of thirteen, MacBride joined the Irish Republican Army. Despite his youth, he served as an officer in the IRA during the Anglo-Irish War from 1919-1921. During the bitter civil war that followed, MacBride was on the side of the Anti-Treaty forces and was arrested several times by the Irish Free State, but he always managed to escape.
In 1929, MacBride traveled to the United States, seeking support for the IRA. He became Chief of Staff of the IRA in 1936 but resigned in 1939 after objecting to a bombing campaign that was proposed for England.
His resignation was also prompted by the establishment of the Irish Constitution in 1937, which he felt satisfied republican demands. MacBride then completed his law studies at Mount St. Benedict College in Dublin, and he was admitted to the Irish bar in 1937.
Clan na Poblachta
After World War II, MacBride formed the Clan na Poblachta (pron: klan naa po-blac-ta), the political party that successfully challenged DeValera’s Fianna Fáil Party. He forced the formation of a coalition government in October 1947 when he won a seat in Dáil Éireann in the Dublin County constituency. MacBride was appointed as Minister of External Affairs in the new government.
MacBride supported the Republic of Ireland Act. With its passage on April 18, 1949, the twenty-six counties of Ireland became a republic, withdrew from the British Commonwealth, and reasserted its jurisdictional claims over Northern Ireland. MacBride served as Minister of External Affairs until 1951, and was reelected to the Dáil in 1951, 1954 and 1955.
At the Council of Europe in 1950, MacBride played an important role in the adoption of the European Convention on Human Rights, the first international recognition of individual rights. From this point in his life, MacBride turned his considerable energies toward promoting the cause of human rights around the world.
He was a founding member of Amnesty International and served as its International chairman from 1961 until 1975. MacBride was also Secretary-General of the International Commission of Jurists from 1963 to 1971.
Because of his groundbreaking work in the area of human rights, in 1974 Dr. Seán MacBride was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. He was recognized as a man who “mobilized the conscience of the world in the fight against injustice.”
Nobel Prize for Peace
In his Nobel acceptance speech MacBride said, “… it is only too obvious that it is often those in authority who set the bad example. If those vested with authority and power practice injustice, resort to torture and killing is it not inevitable that those who are the victims will react with similar methods?”
In addition to the Nobel Prize, MacBride was awarded the Lenin Peace Price (1977), the American Medal of Justice (1978) and the UNESCO Silver Medal (1980). He was one of only two persons to win both the Nobel and Lenin peace prizes, the other being Linus Pauling. He also served for a time as Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations.
In 1987, MacBride launched the historic Lawyers Appeal, calling for prohibition of nuclear weapons. It was signed by 11,000 lawyers from fifty-six countries. This appeal declared that the use of nuclear weapons would constitute a violation of international law and human rights as well as a crime against humanity.
Seán MacBride is widely known for his formulation of the “MacBride Principles,” aimed at eliminating discrimination against Catholics by employers in Northern Ireland. The nine principles were basic tenants of fair employment practices which he sought to have established in Northern Ireland.
His goal was to achieve equal employment to ensure that both Catholics and Protestants were treated the same, both in consideration of employment and in the workplace. US Irish organizations, in particular, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, picked up the campaign and diligently worked to establish support for the principles.
Many state and local governments adopted laws requiring U.S. firms doing business in the north of Ireland to agree to follow them in the daily conduct of their business. Many also enacted laws preventing the government unit from investing in companies that did not agree to establish the MacBride Principles.
The British government and many Northern Ireland companies actively opposed the principles, as did some US based businesses operating in Northern Ireland. Despite this opposition, the contribution of the MacBride Principles legislation to the eventual establishment of the current Peace Process in the north of Ireland cannot be overlooked.
On January 15, 1988, after years of service to his country and the world, Seán MacBride died of pneumonia at his home, Roebuck House, in Dublin, at the age of 83. He is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery in a grave with his mother, and wife who died in 1976.
In July 1988, the Ancient Order of Hibernians established the Seán MacBride Humanitarian Award, “To memorialize the human rights contributions made by Nobel Peace Laureate Dr. Seán MacBride and to recognize the efforts of others who make similar contributions in the cause of peace, justice, and the economic well-being of the Irish people.”
*J. Michael Finn is the Ohio State Historian for the Ancient Order of Hibernians and Division Historian for the Patrick Pearse Division in Columbus, Ohio. He is also Chairman of the Catholic Record Society for the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio. He writes on Irish and Irish-American history; Ohio history and Ohio Catholic history. You may contact him at FCoolavin@aol.com.