Conor Cruise O’Brien, a protean figure

John Horgan
22 December 2008

When I first met Conor Cruise O'Brien some four decades ago, he already had a full career behind him. Yet it is a mark of the sheer richness of his life that most of the obituaries following his death on 18 December 2008 at the age of 91 have tended to focused on the equally full one that at the time lay ahead: as an Irish parliamentarian and government minister whose passionate and articulate opposition to the Irish Republican Army (IRA) helped to tilt the axis of Irish political discourse, perhaps permanently.

John Horgan is Ireland's first ever Press Ombudsman, appointed to the position in August 2007 by the Press Council of Ireland . He has been professor of journalism at Dublin City University since 1989

Also by John Horgan in openDemocracy:

"Northern Ireland: a view from the south" (7 March 2007)

A single achievement of this kind would be enough for most mortals. But long before that Conor Cruise O'Brien had performed distinguished service in numerous other roles: civil servant, diplomat, United Nations envoy, literary critic, and university pro-vice-chancellor among them. 

Intellectually he was a child of the Enlightenment; but he combined that intensely rational and logical outlook on life and on public affairs, and a verbal dexterity, with a depth of passion that had in itself something almost pre-Enlightenment about it. All of this was enhanced in turn by a courage that was more than merely political. As an Irish cabinet minister in 1973-77, during some of the violent years of the troubles in Northern Ireland, the physical threat to him and his family from paramilitaries was constant, real, and would have seriously intimidated a lesser spirit.

A life in argument

Many of Conor Cruise O'Brien's fiercest contemporary critics from that period know little or nothing of the life he led before he entered the Dáil in 1969. Much of it deserves honour: his service to Ireland at the United Nations and to that organisation itself, even as it was defeated by the colonial powers in the Congo; his lapidary scholarship; his teaching and protesting in New York; and his sure-footed duel with Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana. 

He occupies a small but significant position in geopolitical history as the first man to authorise UN troops to open fire, during the Congo crisis of 1961. He was criticised, at the time, for exceeding his mandate; but three years later UN troops were again engaged in similar action, which provided a retrospective, if by then useless, validation of his actions. Dag Hammarskjöld's support for him had unfortunately been less than unwavering; and his role as scapegoat was amplified by the dirty propaganda war waged against him by British and Belgian interests at that time.

Also in openDemocracy:

Neal Ascherson, "Conor Cruise O'Brien, the irascible angel" (22 December 2008)His views on Northern Ireland, which led him to being accused as a crypto-Unionist, or as an apologist for British imperialism, were actually in a sense a throwback to those of Eamon de Valera, who protected O'Brien when his civil service overlords in the 1940s excitedly - and inaccurately - accused him of being a communist. Although de Valera's strategy was deeply flawed, he recognised, as Conor did, that the establishment of better relations between north and south in Ireland depended fundamentally on a recognition of the special position of Unionists - a recognition which, in de Valera's view, involved the continuing recognition of the Northern Ireland parliament in any all-Ireland arrangement. This, in effect, is what the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 has encapsulated.

Perhaps the bookends of his political career can best be illustrated by the two contrasting statements in his autobiographical Memoir (1998). Here, his opposition to "an Irish Catholic imperialist enterprise" can be contrasted (to put it mildly) with his argument at the end of the book that in certain circumstances a united Ireland may be the only way "to safeguard the vital interests of the Protestant community in Northern Ireland." Regrettably, he never gave us details of his thinking about what these "circumstances" might be.

Not that Conor was an enthusiast for the 1998 agreement. He saw it as admitting the paramilitary forces of Sinn Féin to democratic politics through the back door, and believed that they had won their place at the negotiating table illegitimately, through the power of the gun. As I write, the chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) has declared that in his opinion, the day of the IRA is now over. Despite Conor's probable disagreement with this analysis, it is unarguable that his political critique of the IRA over the years was a potent factor in undermining popular support for their para-military campaign in ways that encouraged its leadership to seek democratic legitimacy for its political objectives.

Other aspects of his career were more problematic. His sacking of Mary Holland from the Observer, when he was editor-in-chief of that publication in the late 1970s, was a classic example of overkill. He was involved in a near-schism in on the Anti-Apartheid Movement in Ireland on the issue of Sinn Fein membership of that organisation. His implicit defence of Israeli state terrorism in Lebanon stretched political logic to its limits, and then beyond.  His flouting of the academic embargo on pre-Mandela South Africa was quixotic at best. And, in the twilight of his years, he was given to uttering increasingly unrealistic political prophecies - usually prophecies of doom - which were fanciful in the extreme. There were times, indeed, during this period, when he appeared like a Cassandra in reverse - his predictions, though unfulfilled, fated to be believed.

An ennobling figure

But people who allowed their passionate opposition to some or all of his political views to spill over into personal spleen and invective missed out on many aspects of Conor's character and personality which other opponents learned to enjoy, even as they joined battle with him. He was a model of constancy in friendship; generous to a fault with his time and attention; deeply embedded in a rich and satisfying family life (his wife, Maire MacEntee, is a poet of the first water in her native Irish language); a gifted mimic, with a wicked sense of humour; and a scholar and author who couldn't write an inelegant sentence if he tried.

Above and beyond all of that, however, he was a towering intellectual. Some of the obituaries that have greeted his passing have implied, quite mistakenly, that he was ill-suited to the rough and tumble of politics, and indeed the grubbier aspects of these activities sometimes amused him. But in bringing his intellectual gifts and his extraordinary energy to a profession that is often conspicuously short of either, he ennobled it. In politics and journalism alike, he changed the landscape he traversed. He leaves a great debt of gratitude.


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