Roberts, Ruaidhrí Butler (1917–86), trade unionist, was born 1 January 1917 at 40 Grosvenor Road, Rathmines, Co. Dublin, one of two sons of George Roberts (qv), publisher, of that address and of 3 Montalto, Sorrento Road, Dalkey, Co. Dublin, and Máire Roberts (née Garvey); both his parents had been Abbey Theatre players. Educated at Belvedere college and UCD, where he graduated B.Comm., in the early 1940s he worked in the accounts department of Bord na Mona. In October 1945 he was appointed secretary of the Irish Trade Union Congress (ITUC), several months after the defection of ten affiliated unions, which formed the rival Congress of Irish Unions (CIU). The truncated ITUC, retaining the British-based amalgamated unions and most Irish-based public-sector unions, represented some 145,000 trade unionists – two thirds of the total number in Ireland – evenly divided between north and south, and including half the trade unionists of the south. The most controversial but enduring achievement of Roberts's early tenure was his central contribution to the foundation and development of the People's College Adult Education Association, launched in October 1948 on foot of an ITUC initiative. Located in Dublin, the college offered a curriculum of broad liberal studies modelled on the ethos of the British-based Workers’ Educational Association. Despite its moderation relative to the overtly Marxist British labour colleges, the People's College endured withering attacks from right-wing catholic figures, critical of its independence, non-sectarianism, and perceived British influence; the very name of the People's College, in the early years of the cold war, provoked charges of communist sympathy. Roberts served the college as central council secretary (1948–56), chairman (1957–68), and president (1968–86), a lifelong connection that typified his vigorous championship of trade-union education and training services. A history of the People's College, edited by R. Dardis Clarke from a manuscript left unfinished by Roberts at his death, was published in 1986.
As ex officio member of ITUC's Northern Ireland committee, Roberts took a keen interest in relevant issues; of Ulster extraction and attuned to northern sensibilities, he kept a low profile, and allowed the committee considerable autonomy. He contributed to the lengthy campaign to secure recognition (finally achieved in 1964) by the Stormont government of the Northern Ireland committee as the representative trade union centre in Northern Ireland. Although his role in galvanising opposition to Stormont's 1951 employment and training act aroused controversy over perceived Dublin interference in Northern Ireland affairs and incursions on the independence of individual trade unions, the agreed policy of non-cooperation with the employment advisory committees established under the act was pursued with remarkable solidarity and consistency.
Roberts was prominent in the delicate but determined discussions of the 1950s that, surmounting personal dissensions and profound structural complications, resulted in reunification of the trade union movement. He served as joint secretary of the trade union unity committee (the forum for the early talks) (1953–6), and of the provisional united organisation of the trade union movement (1956–9), which coordinated the activities of the two congresses, and drafted a constitution for the new united congress. After adoption of the draft constitution by the two congresses at separate special conferences on 10 February 1959, and their subsequent merger as the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU), Roberts became joint secretary of the new body (1959–66) with Leo Crawford (qv), formerly secretary of the CIU. Roberts's talent for intellectual analysis of issues, and his devotion to redress of social and economic problems, complemented Crawford's background as a hard-nosed shop-floor negotiator and troubleshooter.
A paper read by Roberts to the Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland shortly after the merger (17 April 1959) remains a valuable, authoritative commentary on the principles underlying the recently adopted ICTU constitution. Securing the primary objective of a single trade-union centre that was Irish-based and Irish-controlled, and that represented the whole of Ireland, the constitution allowed the amalgamated unions to retain connection with their British offices; various devices assured that the Irish-based unions exercised their majority dominance, and that Irish residents had exclusive participation in decision-making at delegate conferences and on the executive council. The stated aspirations of the new congress represented a departure from the lingering syndicalism of the ITUC's 1930 constitution; the change from workers’ control to workers’ participation in the control of the industries and services in which they were engaged articulated a social-democratic perspective that would guide the mainstream of the movement through ensuing decades. At a serious early impasse in the unity talks (1954) Roberts had urged a comprehensive reorganisation of trade-union structures as the catalyst whereby unification might be achieved; his proposal, hinging on a concept of dual direct membership of each trade unionist of his own trade union and of a general confederation, proved too radically novel to command support. The final agreed constitution, by achieving unity substantially within the existing operative structures of the movement, thus represented a setback for his personal aspirations. He continued as a strenuous advocate of a thorough reorganisation of the trade-union movement along industrial lines, arguing the potential of the movement, properly organised and purposeful, as an agent of revolutionary social change. His hopes that the new congress would encourage and facilitate such reorganisation went unfulfilled.
On Crawford's retirement Roberts assumed the office of ICTU general secretary (1966–81). Thus heading congress for thirty-six years – the longest tenure by a chief official of a national trade-union centre in the world – he was among the most influential trade-union leaders in Irish history. Attending thirty-five annual congresses and many special conferences, he customarily presented the executive council's position on major policy matters, and outlined the main developments of concern to the trade union movement. During the 1960s he entered a number of bodies associated with the new era of economic planning and consultation. Closely involved in the establishment in 1959 of the Irish National Productivity Committee (latterly the Irish Productivity Centre), he was several times chairman of the body. He sat on the National Industrial and Economic Council, the planning advisory body established in 1963 under the second programme for economic development. He was a director of Irish Sugar, an early instance of trade-union representation on the board of a state company.
Amid an upsurge of industrial unrest, culminating in the bitter maintenance strike of 1969, Roberts spearheaded efforts by moderate trade unionism to secure industrial peace. He was chief architect of a new policy on picketing that, distinguishing between a picket line intended to enforce an all-out strike, and thus to be respected by all trade unionists, and an informational picket meant to be observed only by the workers directly concerned, stipulated that notice for an all-out strike and picket must be granted by congress, not by the individual trade union. Adopted at the 1970 annual conference, the new policy coincided with the first centralised national wage agreement, which limited the areas within which industrial dispute could legitimately occur, and represented the primacy of a ‘new unionism’ of tripartite collaboration with employers and government over the traditional unionism of adversarial confrontation. Joint secretary of the Employer Labour Conference on its reconstitution in 1970, Roberts was intimately involved in negotiating the successive national wage agreements of the 1970s, and the two more comprehensive national understandings on social and economic development (1979–80). The latter brought the collaborative approach to a new level, involving the trade unions in formulation of policy over a wide range of economic and social affairs, encompassing employment, investment, taxation, social insurance, health, pensions, education, and housing. At his last annual conference as general secretary (1981), Roberts signalled that the hardening attitudes of employers and the accession of the Fine Gael–Labour coalition government presaged the imminent collapse of tripartite collaboration, and warned against determination of economic and social policy by ‘a flock of economists’ (Nevin, 385).
Roberts thus presided over the definitive transformation of the Irish trade union movement from one embracing an ideology and praxis of class conflict, into a ‘social partner’, collaborating in the management of a capitalist economy. Yet he retained his vision of a socialist future, regarding the collaborative model as a vehicle for revolutionary change, by involving workers’ representatives in the formulation of social policy, while protecting weaker elements of the movement and other vulnerable social groups. ‘Stoic in his acceptance of the vagaries of democracy’ (McCarthy (1973), 93), he counselled patience in educating workers to share his vision of their potential.
Roberts sat on numerous government commissions, including the commission on emigration and other population problems (1948–54), the commission on workmen's compensation, and the Barra Ó Briain committee on ill treatment by gardaí. He served on the Capital Investment Advisory Committee and the National Economic and Social Council. For over twenty years he was Irish workers’ delegate to the international labour conference in Geneva. Awarded an honorary doctorate of laws by TCD (1977), he delivered many papers to scholarly and general audiences on statistical, economic, and social issues. On his retirement as congress general secretary at the end of 1981, he served as a rights commissioner (1982–6). He and his wife Nora had no children. He died 5 February 1986 at St Joseph's, Kilcroney, Bray, Co. Wicklow, and was buried two days later at a private funeral in Glencree, Co. Wicklow; a requiem mass was celebrated at St Michael's church, Dún Laoghaire, on 12 February.