Rising from a domestic Irish political career, he founded or participated in many international as well as non-governmental organizations of the early 20th century, including the United Nations, the Council of Europe, and Amnesty International. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1974, the Lenin Peace Prize for 1975–76, and the UNESCO Silver Medal for Service in 1980.
MacBride was born in Paris in 1904, the son of Major John MacBride and Maud Gonne. His first language was French and he remained in Paris until after his father's execution after the Easter Rising of 1916. He was sent to school at Mount St. Benedict's, Gorey, County Wexford in Ireland. He joined the Irish Volunteers in 1919 when aged 15, and was an active member during the Irish War of Independence. He opposed the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty and was imprisoned by the Irish Free State during the Civil War.
He was imprisoned several times. On his release in 1924, he studied law at University College Dublin and resumed his IRA activities. He worked for Éamon de Valera for a short time as his personal secretary; early in 1925 they travelled to Rome together to meet various dignitaries.
On MacBride's twenty-first birthday, in January 1925, he married Kid Bulfin, a stylish woman four years older, who shared his political views. He worked as a journalist in Paris and London before returning to Dublin in 1927, when he became Director of Intelligence of the IRA. In 1927, Kevin O'Higgins was assassinated near his home in Booterstown, County Dublin. There was a huge round-up of IRA members, including MacBride, who was charged with the murder. However, he could prove that he was on his way back to Ireland at the time; he was able to call Bryan Cooper, whom he met on the boat, as a witness. However, he was still charged with being a subversive and interned in Mountjoy Prison.
Towards the end of the 1920s, some members of the IRA started pushing for a left-wing agenda, after most supporters had left to join Fianna Fáil. After the IRA Army Council voted down the idea, MacBride launched a new movement, Saor Éire ("An Organisation of Workers and Working Farmers") in Dublin in 1931. Although it was a non-military organisation, Saor Éire was declared unlawful, along with the IRA, Cumann na mBan and nine other bodies, while MacBride became public enemy number one of the State security services.
In 1936, the Chief of staff of the IRA, Moss Twomey was sent to prison for three years, and MacBride became chief of staff, at a time when the movement was in a state of disarray, with several factions and personalities conflicting. Tom Barry was appointed chief of staff to head up a military operation against the British, which MacBride did not agree with. He was called to the bar in 1937.
He resigned from the IRA when the Constitution of Ireland was enacted later that year. As a barrister, he frequently defended IRA political prisoners. He was unsuccessful in stopping the 1944 execution of Charlie Kerins who was convicted of killing Garda Detective Dennis O'Brien in 1942. In 1946, during the inquest into the death of Seán McCaughey, MacBride embarrassed the authorities by forcing them to admit that the conditions in Portlaoise prison were inhumane.
In 1946, MacBride founded the republican/socialist party Clann na Poblachta. He hoped 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. On the same day, Patrick Kinane also won the Tipperary by-election for Clann na Poblachta.
However, at the 1948 general election, Clann na Poblachta won only ten seats. The party joined with Fine Gael, Labour Party, National Labour Party, Clann na Talmhan and independents to form the First Inter-Party Government with Fine Gael TD John A. Costello as Taoiseach. Richard Mulcahy was the leader of Fine Gael, but MacBride and many other Irish Republicans had never forgiven Mulcahy for his role in carrying out 77 executions under the government of the Irish Free State in the 1920s during the Irish Civil War. In order to gain the support of Clann na Poblachta, Mulcahy stepped aside in favour of Costello. Two Clann na Poblachta TDs joined the cabinet; MacBride became Minister for External Affairs, while Noel Browne became Minister for Health.
MacBride was Minister of External Affairs when the Council of Europe was drafting the European Convention on Human Rights. He served as President of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe from 1949 to 1950 and is credited with being a key force in securing the acceptance of this convention, which was finally signed in Rome on 4 November 1950. In 1950, he was president of the Council of Foreign Ministers of the Council of Europe, and he was vice-president of the Organisation for European Economic Co-operation in 1948–51. He was responsible for Ireland not joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).
He was instrumental in the implementation of the Repeal of the External Relations Act and the Declaration of the Republic of Ireland in 1949. On Easter Monday, 18 April 1949, the state left the Commonwealth of Nations and became known as the Republic of Ireland.
In 1951, MacBride controversially ordered Noel Browne to resign as a minister over the Mother and Child Scheme after it was attacked by the Irish Catholic hierarchy and the Irish medical establishment. Whatever the merits of the scheme, or of Dr. Browne, MacBride concluded in a Cabinet memorandum:
In 1951, Clann na Poblachta was reduced to two seats after the general election. MacBride kept his seat and was re-elected again in 1954. Opposing the internment of IRA suspects during the Border Campaign (1956–62), he contested both the 1957 and 1961 general elections but failed to be elected both times. He then retired from politics and continued practising as a barrister. He expressed an interest in running as an independent candidate for the 1983 Irish presidential election, but he did not receive sufficient backing and ultimately did not contest.
- "Even if, as Catholics, we were prepared to take the responsibility of disregarding [the Hierarchy's] views, which I do not think we can do, it would be politically impossible to do so . . . We are dealing with the considered views of the leaders of the Catholic Church to which the vast majority of our people belong; these views cannot be ignored."
MacBride was a founding member of Amnesty International and served as its International Chairman. He was Secretary-General of the International Committee of Jurists from 1963 to 1971.
Following this, he was also elected Chair (1968–1974) and later President (1974–1985) of the International Peace Bureau in Geneva. He was Vice-President of the Organisation for European Economic Co-operation (OEEC, later OECD) and President of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe.
He drafted the constitution of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU); and also the first constitution of Ghana (the first UK African colony to achieve independence) which lasted for nine years until the coup of 1966.
Some of MacBride's appointments to the United Nations System included:
- Assistant Secretary-General
- President of the General Assembly
- High Commissioner for Refugees
- High Commissioner for Human Rights
- High Commissioner for Namibia
- President of UNESCO's International Commission for the Study of Communications Problems, which produced the controversial 1980 MacBride Report.
In 1973, he was elected by the General Assembly to the post of High Commissioner for Namibia, with the rank of Assistant Secretary-General. The actions of his father John MacBride in leading the Irish Transvaal Brigade (known as MacBride's Brigade) for the Boers against the British Army, in the Boer War, gave Seán MacBride a unique access to South Africa's apartheid government. In 1977, he was appointed president of the International Commission for the Study of Communication Problems, set up by UNESCO. In 1980, he was appointed Chairman of UNESCO.
MacBride's work was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (1974) as a man who "mobilised the conscience of the world in the fight against injustice". He later received the Lenin Peace Prize (1975–76) and the UNESCO Silver Medal for Service (1980).
During the 1980s, he initiated the Appeal by Lawyers against Nuclear War which was jointly sponsored by the International Peace Bureau and the International Progress Organization. In close cooperation with Francis Boyle and Hans Köchler of the International Progress Organization, he lobbied the General Assembly for a resolution demanding an Advisory Opinion from the International Court of Justice on the legality of nuclear arms. The Advisory Opinion on the Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons was eventually handed down by the ICJ in 1996.
In 1982, MacBride was chairman of the International Commission to enquire into reported violations of International Law by Israel during its invasion of the Lebanon. The other members were Richard Falk, Kader Asmal, Brian Bercusson, Géraud de la Pradelle, and Stefan Wild. The commission's report, which concluded that "the government of Israel has committed acts of aggression contrary to international law", was published under the title Israel in Lebanon.
He proposed a plan in 1984, known as the MacBride Principles, which he argued would eliminate discrimination against Roman Catholics by employers in Northern Ireland and received widespread support for it in the United States and from Sinn Féin. However, the MacBride Principles were criticised by the Irish and British Governments and most Northern Ireland parties, including the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), as unworkable and counterproductive.
He was also a keen pan-Celticist.
In his later years, MacBride lived in his mother's home, Roebuck House, that served as a meeting place for many years for Irish nationalists, as well as in the Parisian arrondissement where he grew up with his mother, and enjoyed strolling along boyhood paths. He maintained a soft-spoken, unassuming demeanor despite his fame. While strolling through the Centre Pompidou Museum in 1979, and happening upon an exhibit for Amnesty International, he whispered to a colleague "Amnesty, you know, was one of my children."
Seán MacBride died in Dublin on 15 January 1988, at the age of 83 (11 days before his 84th birthday). MacBride is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery among Irish patriots in a simple grave with his mother, wife, and son.
- 1946–1965 Leader of Clann na Poblachta
- 1947–1958 Member of Dáil Éireann
- 1948–1951 Minister for External Affairs of Ireland in Inter-Party Government
- 1948–1951 Vice-President of the Organization for European Economic Cooperation (OEEC)
- 1950 President, Committee of Ministers of Council of Europe
- 1954 Offered but declined, Ministerial office in Irish Government
- 1963–1971 Secretary-General, International Commission of Jurists
- 1966 Consultant to the Pontifical Commission on Justice and Peace
- 1961–1975 Chairman Amnesty International Executive
- 1968–1974 Chairman of the Executive International Peace Bureau
- 1975–1985 President of the Executive International Peace Bureau
- 1968–1974 Chairman Special Committee of International NGOs on Human Rights (Geneva)
- 1973 Vice-Chairman, Congress of World Peace Forces (Moscow, October 1973)
- 1973 Vice-President, World Federation of United Nations Associations
- 1973–1977 Elected by the General Assembly of the United Nations to the post of United Nations Commissioner for Namibia with rank of Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations
- 1977–1980 Chairman, Commission on International Communication for UNESCO
- 1982 Chairman of the International Commission to enquire into reported violations of International Law by Israel during its invasion of the Lebanon