A generous Gaelic spirit if Ireland ever had one (and it's occasionally been in clover with many), Sean MacBride left much behind. He dealt in durables. At his death in Dublin in mid-January, the 83-year-old Irish peacemaker had the original wiring of his youthful conscience.
A cofounder of Amnesty International in 1961, he lived to see it become a global force for the protection of imprisoned political dissenters. Years before the world noticed South Africa's war on blacks, MacBride had been campaigning there to win independence for Namibia. For that, as well as his lifework in nuclear and conventional disarmament, he shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1974.
To his own countrymen, his gift near the end was the MacBride Principles, a nine-point, fair employment-equal opportunity code of conduct for the 25 U.S. companies operating in Northern Ireland.
For a while in his early years, it appeared as if MacBride would end up just another sulking Irish rebel who could hate holes through prison walls. His father and brother had been executed by the British for their part in the Easter Rising of 1916. His mother, Maud Gonne MacBride, later to be the inspiration for the love poetry of William Butler Yeats, took up the cause of Irish independence after bolting from the thinking of her British colonel father. In 1920, MacBride, then 16 and as obedient to genes as battle plans, was a leader in the militant wing of the Irish Republican Army.
In time, he would sicken of guns. He turned to law. In his early forties, MacBride won election to the Irish parliament. He would work through channels, not back alleys. Ideas were a stronger force than bullets.
With Maud Gonne mothering and Yeats around the house like a tutor in language, MacBride should naturally have fallen into writing. He didn't. Speeches and organizing absorbed his energies. He served as the Irish minister for foreign affairs, the secretary general of the International Commission of Jurists and the assistant secretary general of the United Nations.
Through all the conferences and oratory, MacBride remained a radical. His one piece of prose -- a 35-page booklet published in 1971 -- that ensured his place on the far left was "The Right to Refuse to Kill: A New Guide to Conscientious Objection and Service Refusal."
Though lacking the fire and style that marked Sean O'Casey's writing on nonviolence, MacBride understood the codes of gore: "Governments in general, and those of the major military powers in particular, dislike the placing of any limitation on their absolute power to kill and destroy their enemy by any method. They do not like to be precluded from killing civilians, including women and children, either as an indirect incidence of their military operations or as a direct part of their policy to impose their will by acts of brutality and terror."
That booklet could have been called a prod to conscientious objection rather than a guide. If civilized behavior means anything, MacBride believed, then it ought to take precedence over the military, where barbarized behavior is the rule: "A soldier, whether conscripted or a volunteer who engages in an armed conflict may well be committing an offense under international law as defined by the U.N. Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, by the Humanitarian Conventions, the various Human Rights Conventions, by the Nuremburg Principles, by the Genocide Convention or under International Customary Laws. It will be no answer for him to plead that he was acting under orders of his state, government or superior."
That should be basic training in any school where the rights and consciences of children are valued. MacBride's lucid argument was that the lone dissenter stood only seemingly on the fringes. In fact, the conscientious objector is the conventional, law-abiding one. Laws, whether found in the Genocide Convention or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, matter.
MacBride finished his life where it began: carving dice from the iron of his will and rolling them in gambles that Northern Ireland can rid itself of the British occupation. The MacBride Principles, opposed by the British government and the Reagan administration but backed by the AFL-CIO, the Archdiocese of New York, the National Council of Churches and about 20 other groups, are meant to pressure the U.S. companies operating in Ulster to end anti-Catholic discrimination. Legislatures in 10 cities and five states, including Massachusetts and New York, have enacted laws requiring municipal and state pension funds to monitor the companies -- which employ 11 percent of Ulster's workers -- for fair employment.
For MacBride, the principles were a radical law needed for conventional justice.