Philip O’Connor writes: The papers by Frank Callanan and Niall Meehan in this issue of the drb were first presented to a meeting of the Howth Peninsula Heritage Society on April 23rd this year, entitled “An evaluation of the career of Conor Cruise O’Brien”, as part of its monthly lecture series, which I was honoured to chair. The very fact that we opted for this format instead of our usual single-lecturer approach speaks volumes about the controversy any presentation on that former distinguished long-time Howth resident is bound to provoke. About 120 people attended, and the papers were followed by an interesting discussion.
The chair commented that for all their divergent analyses both speakers accepted that Cruise O’Brien had undergone a remarkable transition over his lifetime, from a quite militantly left-liberal anti-imperialist position from the 1930s to the 1960s, to something wholly its opposite thereafter. But that was the extent of their meeting of minds, as Meehan argued that O’Brien’s later views contradicted and were a repudiation of his earlier guiding values, while Callanan rejected that the transition, from left to right, involved any such “dramatic inconsistency”. He pointed out that even in his younger years O’Brien had been “highly sceptical of republicanism” and argued that his left-wing views had been more straight-forwardly anti-colonialist than socialist.
Contributors commented on Cruise O’Brien’s intellectualism and how this, and his dramatic changes of position, impressed many, as it certainly contrasted with what people were used to hearing from politicians in 1960s Ireland. Several recalled him as an aloof, remote figure, brooding over the cares of the world while he gazed out over the Irish Sea from his eyrie at White Water on Howth Summit. Jack Gannon disputed the elevation of “intellectualism” which O’Brien personified, while Eugene McEldowney, a former Irish Times journalist, recalled that whenever he met O’Brien while out walking – they both lived in Howth – he was struck by him as an “intensely arrogant man” who exuded a sense of superiority over those around him, a mentality that perhaps explained his ready resort to censorship when a minister in the 1970s. The temptation to censor characterises many governments determined that people be kept from knowing certain things.
DR O’Connor-Lysaght said there was a “striking naivety” about O’Brien. As a student he delivered a brilliant speech to the 1937 Labour Party conference in support of a motion condemning Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia. But in a gratuitous display of cleverness, he added an attack on Franco. In the Ireland of the time a widespread and near hysterical pro-Francoism prevailed (not shared by de Valera it might be added), driven by the Church and fuelled by the Irish Independent, and this also infected much of the Labour Party. By tacking an aside on Franco onto his Abyssinian motion, O’Brien nearly doomed it to certain defeat as the “backwoodsmen” reared in revolt. The motion was only rescued by the chair intervening to stress that it referred only to the Ethiopian war, not to Spain or anywhere else. But the incident typified O’Brien’s aptitude for losing an audience. He later displayed a similar tactlessness when denouncing his former Labour Dáil colleagues as “dismal poltroons”. But ultimately it was they who proved more savvy in surviving the rough and tumble of electoral politics.
Des Peelo, a close friend of Haughey who also knew O’Brien, recalled how he “got off to an unpromising start by taking his daughter out, which he didn’t approve of at all”. Peelo said he could never “get to the bottom of the deep antipathy” that smouldered between Haughey and O’Brien, but believes it had nothing to do with competition in the constituency they shared but rather was down to Haughey who, being “very much into pragmatism … disliked intellectuals in politics … Haughey had two enemies whom he described as entirely without accomplishment, Des O’Malley and Conor Cruise O’Brien”. He was “especially vitriolic about O’Brien”, regarding him “as one of those people who, as he might put it, give out about everything but accomplish nothing”. When O’Brien became minister for posts and telegraphs, some Fianna Fáil TDs, “aided and abetted by Haughey”, according to Peelo, “set about wearing O’Brien down with questions on why the phone box in Ballydehob ‑ or wherever ‑ was out of order again … The idea was to grind down the intellectual aura …”
But Peelo was still taken aback by the vitriolic attacks by O’Brien on Haughey years later in the Irish Independent, “in column after column, after column”, especially on the issue of the Arms Trial. Peelo was not “anti-O’Brien”, but one of O’Brien’s attacks on Haughey utterly shocked even him. This was after Charlie and his wife Maureen, Lemass’s daugher, whose birthday fell within three weeks of Haughey’s, celebrated his 80th birthday with a party in Kinsealy (which Peelo attended). The following week O’Brien “wrote in his column that Seán Lemass had objected strongly to the marriage of his daughter to Charlie, which I know to be completely and utterly untrue”. Maureen was “hugely distressed about this, as was Charlie, so behind the scenes attempts were made to get [O’Brien] to withdraw the story and apologise, but he adamantly refused to, even though he knew it was untrue”. The enmity was truly deep.
Niall Meehan, in answer to a question, said that in 1972 even the SDLP despaired of O’Brien, Hume commenting that, just as Northern Catholics were most hard-pressed, O’Brien’s States of Ireland delivered a better defence of unionism than any unionist could produce, a comment which O’Brien in a 1998 memoir described as “very perceptive”. A former Labour Party member who canvassed with O’Brien in the 1960s/70s said he could never fathom why he “refused to support constitutional nationalism, either the civil rights movement or the SDLP, when it was bringing the different strands of nationalism together to seek reform in the North”. O’Brien wasn’t alone in this and was to be followed by others, notably John Bruton, who “wasn’t exactly much support either”. But in the end this resulted only in the “downing of the SDLP and rise of Sinn Féin”. O’Connor-Lysaght said the Southern establishment had always disliked having to bargain with Northern nationalists, preferring a deal with unionists: “It was an appeasement approach, to the point of abandoning civil rights and surrendering the ground to the armed struggle.”
Meehan believes that O’Brien’s main fear was that Northern violence would “spill over” into the South, a fear he repeatedly expressed in public, which might well “have informed British Intelligence’s decision to enable loyalists bomb Dublin”. The 1972 bombings panicked Fine Gael into supporting repressive legislation introduced by Lynch which it had originally opposed. The 1974 bombings ensured the passing of further draconian legislation by the subsequent Cosgrave coalition. While Labour, including O’Brien, voted against the Lynch legislation, it was something he admitted he later regretted.
Callanan agreed that Southern politicians were concerned not to be dictated to by Northern nationalists, but one of the great achievements of Hume was to break that taboo. There was a comparable tendency in British attitudes to Northern unionists. When Heath arrived for the Sunningdale talks, he “asserted a pseudo-overlordship over them, treating Brian Faulkner in particular as a mere local baron”, and “sidelining” him altogether when the talks moved to Dublin. This was a disastrous mistake, and what “partly allowed the Council of Ireland agenda to be imposed, something Conor was very sceptical about”.
Several contributors saw Cruise O’Brien as having opened Irish minds to other views on history. His States of Ireland gave a reasoned unionist perspective people had not heard before. On the other hand his book The Siege presented a very one-sided account of the Arab-Israel conflict that was very disturbing. But today Brexit was enabling people look at new possibilities, such as a “civic nationalism” O’Brien might have approved of, based not on “myths and old animosities”, but plain economic interest, and that could inaugurate a united Ireland, or at least a unity among the people of Ireland. O’Connor-Lysaght reminded the meeting that O’Brien’s views had a longer pedigree than people realised. In his 1955 introduction to the Thomas Davis lectures he described Ireland around 1900 as “scarcely oppressed”, a strange term by any standard. What did it mean, or he? It is interesting to ponder.
Much of the debate centred on O’Brien’s use of Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act ‑ and support for suppressing republicanism. Dermot Quinn defended Section 31, which banned RTÉ from interviewing or even reporting interviews with Sinn Féin/IRA members, on the basis that it was necessary to prevent the IRA “justifying on Irish television to an overwhelmingly Catholic population” atrocities it committed, giving them what Thatcher termed the “oxygen of publicity”. Callanan concurred, saying that O’Brien had been “absolutely correct in relation to Section 31 and absolutely correct in keeping the Provisional IRA and its apologists off the air”. He disagreed with the proposition that O’Brien “ever thought or wrote that Ireland was a failed state”, as one contributor said. He was “in fact intensely proud of the Irish state” and never showed “contempt for mainstream politics”. He was “even guardedly respectful of the Fianna Fáil tradition of de Valera and Frank Aiken … His whole critique was directed at ambivalence towards violence.”
Meehan agreed with earlier contributors that O’Brien’s “intellectual arrogance” lay at the root of his resort to censorship. But Section 31 was more insidious than comparable measures in Britain, where voice-overs by actors on interviews with republicans so obviously betrayed the censorship. Here there was simply an outright ban on any interviews, the audience never being aware that censorship was in effect. RTÉ became an arm of government, afraid even to cover reports of Garda brutality appearing daily on the front page of The Irish Times. The national broadcaster produced not a single investigation into the Birmingham Six, Guildford Four or other similar issues. The result was that many in the South “were simply ignorant of what was really going on”. RTÉ’s Primetime was “particularly culpable”. The effect of Section 31 was “not just to prevent the broadcasting of the IRA’s views” but to suppress any “discussion whatsoever of the dysfunctions of Northern Ireland”. RTÉ “bought into the mentality of censorship and reneged on its duty to inform the public”.
Malachi Lawless said the worst legacy of Section 31 was that it stifled thinking in the South, creating an atmosphere in which knowing anything about the North or reflecting on history was seen as suspect. It deepened Southern ignorance, encouraging people to avoid having to know. O’Brien believed Irish history had produced a kind of failed state, or at least one founded on a dangerous myth, that of 1916, which he perversely said was to blame even for the Northern violence, rather than having anything to do with the Northern system itself. In Ghosts of Irish History O’Brien claimed that in Ireland the dead, especially those of 1916, were “malign ghosts” tyrannising the living, and needed to be exorcised. The way to do so was by suppressing public discussion of them and even the teaching of history. Some of today’s intellectuals follow in his path, Fintan O’Toole regularly decrying Ireland’s lurking ghosts and historical myths, and Ruairí Quinn initiating the radical downgrading of history-teaching in schools
Tony Brown, a former senior Labour Party official and government adviser, was a friend and worked closely with Cruise O’Brien, and his wife was his secretary for many years. While agreeing that there were “issues about his role in introducing censorship, and other matters in relation to himself and Paddy Cooney” – a reference to the Garda “heavy gang” unleashed during the coalition years ‑ it was essential to remember what the times were like, with ministers’ children being ferried to school with armed Special Branch escorts amid constant threats of kidnap. O’Brien’s speech to the 1972 Labour Party conference in Wexford was a turning point in the state’s history, where he argued for democracy and against terrorism, and forced the party to choose between them:
Cruise O’Brien in that speech succeeded in destroying tendencies in the Labour Party which would have turned it into a dangerous party in the emerging situation; he took on the republican wing, then led by Seán Tracey, later Ceann Comhairle, in an eight-hour debate; any of us who were there will never forget it … It ended with a single-phrase interjection with which we have since become familiar, by Frank Cluskey, “not in my name”. O’Brien created the basis on which the following year Labour could enter government. To my mind he played a critical role in ensuring that democracy prevailed.
Niall Meehan concluded in response by saying that in 1969 Labour won more votes than ever before but lost seats due to poor vote management. The party, however, only saw defeat, and was demoralised. Ireland was rapidly industrialising, and if Labour had stayed out of compromising coalitions with Fine Gael – with those compromises based especially on the North ‑ it would probably be the largest party in the state today. The 1973 coalition was formed in reaction to the Northern conflict, and under O’Brien’s influence Labour in 1972 had adopted a position on the North enabling it enter government with Fine Gael. Labour’s change of position puzzled many voters, as they generally accepted the traditional narrative of Irish history, which in substance was largely correct. They saw O’Brien’s version as involving “an economy of truth”. Labour foundered thereafter: it never really recovered from those years.
Needless to say, the meeting, while animated but courteous, did not come to any agreement on the legacy of this famous former Howth resident. It would be strange indeed if it had been otherwise.
Information on past and forthcoming lectures at Howth Peninsula Heritage Society can be found on www.howthheritage.com
Frank Callanan writes: I was born in October 1956, so I was twelve when Conor Cruise O’Brien was elected to the Dáil in June 1969 for Dublin North East, 5,000 votes or so behind Charles J Haughey. I don’t remember anything about it. It was a dismal general election if you were of a Fine Gael allegiance, as I was by heredity. I do remember in Clonskeagh the pious mother of a classmate around this time telling me gravely that Cruise O’Brien was the Antichrist. I remember because I hadn’t previously heard the word. It seemed rather impressive. What really predisposed me in his favour was my grandmother, who was the niece of Joseph McGuinness, who won South Longford in May 1917, the second big Sinn Féin by-election win, and who was a friend of Griffith and pro-Treaty. She, as I think of it now with deliberate elaboration, told me she had observed closely Cruise O’Brien purchasing a tweed jacket in Switzers or Arnotts. What she was conveying to me was that even though Conor was a deplorably godless person, and possibly of Bolshevik disposition, he had the articulacy to put the case against DeValeresque nationalism. People of my grandmother’s generation and politics felt that they had seemed to end up on the wrong side of history, and saw Conor as a person who might put them back on the right side of history. Educated by long deprivation of office, and the miracles of proportional representation, she was perfectly willing to overlook her philosophical disagreements with Conor in favour of what was truly important.
It was not really until Cruise O’Brien took office in the Cosgrave coalition in 1973 that I had suddenly a sense of him ‑ more or less simultaneously – as a politician and a writer. I remember picking up the Penguin paperback Writers and Politics, probably in that strange square basement of Hodges Figgis which I think Anglo-Irish later occupied. I realised the extraordinary range and spirit of his writing. I also realised that he had a considerable international reputation, something all undergraduates find highly seductive. Then there was the politics. He managed to make a lot of his role as minister for posts and telegraphs. I know no one will believe me if I say that he was responsible for a significant capital investment in the telephone system, which is the case. Conor as a publicist, to use a word he was enamoured of for a period, led the charge against the Provisional IRA, the rending of the veil of ambivalence in which violent republicanism had cloaked itself. He was of course not alone. Lynch and Cosgrave were both committed constitutionalists, though Lynch’s position was politically more difficult. But Cruise O’Brien gave what was a national disavowal of the Provisional IRA its cutting edge. It was a time of political peril, but also of immense excitement. It was about Northern Ireland, but it was also a central phase in the political modernisation of Ireland. In certain respects it bears comparison to the repeal of the Eighth amendment and the approval of marriage equality, though it was probably more historically significant and paved the way for the ensuing accelerating liberalisation of Irish politics, at almost exactly the moment where the historic comparator, the United Kingdom, seemed to recede into an impenetrable fog of insularity.
There ensued the catastrophe of the 1977 election. Cruise O’Brien was edged out in Dublin Clontarf by the uninspiring Michael Joe Cosgrave of Fine Gael. Some, indeed many, rejoiced at his defeat. A friend of the Fianna Fáil persuasion told me he had conceived a telegraphic letter to The Irish Times which bears retelling on the north of the bay. It was to read: “Sir, Clontarf: 1014, 1977, Yours, etc.”
It was a heavy blow for Cruise O’Brien. He was elected to the Seanad for Trinity but his heart wasn’t in it, and he resigned in 1979. There was a sour valediction from Douglas Gageby’s Irish Times, which wrote that with his departure “a searing sometimes malevolent, yet cleansing element is removed from Irish politics. He is a great egoist.”
He took up the role of editor-in-chief of the Observer, still at that time an immensely distinguished paper under David Astor’s ownership, though it had been overtaken by the rival Sunday Times over its opposition to Suez and was thereafter embarked on a slow decline. He resigned in 1981 under a degree of duress to do with the acquisition of the once great title by Tiny Rowland of Lonhro.
His career thereafter was as a writer and as a journalist for The Irish Times, the Irish Independent (for which his father had written), and finally for the Sunday Independent. It was writing for The Irish Times that he coined the playful but potent acronym GUBU in 1982.
His later political life was dominated by his resolute opposition to the course of mainstream policy on Northern Ireland from the Hume-Adams talks through the 1985 Anglo Irish agreement to the Belfast or Good Friday agreement of 1998, which he saw as the appeasement and validation of the IRA. A turning point was his acceptance of an invitation from Ian Gow, a close associate of Margaret Thatcher, to address the Friends of the Union on January 19th, 1988 at Westminster. On this solitary journey for an Irish ex-parliamentarian he went so far as to proclaim himself a unionist, canvassed for Robert McCartney’s United Kingdom Unionist Party, and was nominated on the party’s regional list. There was a final twist. In the concluding chapter to his 1998 Memoir: My Life and Themes he expressed the view that the connivance of the British government with the IRA meant that a deal with constitutional nationalism was the obvious means to thwart the IRA’s purpose. That was an embarrassment to McCartney and led to Conor’s resignation from his party.
There was in later years a darkening in Cruise O’Brien’s international views: expressed most notably on Israel, and more generally in an acquiescence in the course the presidency of the George W Bush (in spite of an instinctive suspicion of neoconservative thinking) which contrasted starkly with the anticolonialism and opposition to the Vietnam war he had articulated in his forties. He continued to live by his pen, and had never renounced the hope that he might have some influence on events.
The high political adventure of his life is easily caricatured. For his more ideologically driven opponents there is an incentive to challenge his intellectual integrity in the hope of discrediting historical revisionism by assailing its most prominent exponent. In an intriguing recrudescence of the almost forgotten art of Leninist polemics, Cruise O’Brien is the lackey (the actual word is now proscribed) of something that is never quite defined but which is patently sinister (the Irish state, the post-independence Irish middle class, his pro-Irish party ancestry, the British state, the United States of America, international capitalism, or whatever). Part of what is lost in those personalised attacks is any recognition of his intellectual fearlessness. What is also lost in these ideologically inspired personalised attacks is any sense of Cruise O’Brien’s intellectual fearlessness; and the sheer elan of his attack on the entrenched shibboleths of nationalist politics. The thesis that his life, his writing and his public utterances from 1973 when he assumed cabinet office was a renunciation of what had gone before does not withstand sustained scrutiny. States of Ireland was published in early October 1972, before he became a minister. He had always been pretty sceptical of republicanism and exorbitant nationalism. He was passionately anti-colonial, both before and after Katanga, and certainly gave a few notable hostages to fortune in some of what he said and wrote in the 1960s, but he was never of the hard left. He did not renounce his anti-colonialism, but came to insist with great vehemence that in its application to Northern Ireland it was a false paradigm that served to validate atavistic tribal and confessional hatreds. One can agree or disagree, or perhaps recalibrate the proposition in some degree, but there was nothing personally discreditable about it.
His thematic biography of Edmund Burke, The Great Melody: A Thematic Biography and Commented Anthology of Edmund Burk, was published in 1992. He had written an outstanding introduction in 1969, the year of his return from New York to enter the Dáil, to the Penguin edition of the Reflections on the Revolution in France. He abandoned an attempt to write a full biography, but returned to his subject through contemplating Yeats’s lines in “The Seven Sages”:
American colonies, Ireland, France and India
Harried, and Burke’s great melody against it.
It was a very Conor proceeding. He constantly drew on Yeats, about whom he had written his magnificent “Passion and Cunning” essay, at once politically scathing and imaginatively sympathetic, in Ghana in 1965. Here he wondered what exactly was the “it”. He loved Edmund Burke, with whom he imaginatively communed, and whom he strove to emulate. He said that he wished his epitaph to be that he had given Burke back to Ireland.
Conor Cruise O’Brien died at the age of 91 on December 18th, 2008.
I have had to leave out Cruise O’Brien’s pre-1969 career. I will only say that in relation to Katanga, recent historical disclosures have tended in a fairly significant degree to vindicate the course he pursued in extremely constrained circumstances. Michael Ignatieff is fortunate that the person whom he recently, as if en passant, asserted in the New York Review of Books to have ruined humanitarian interventionism is not alive to frame a retort. Nor have I dealt with his family background, nor his professional involvement in the all-party campaign against partition and Sean MacBride’s surreal Irish News Agency.
What to make of him? He was by a wide margin the most important Irish intellectual of the twentieth century, though no doubt even that will be disputed for some time to come. What made him so significant as an intellectual was what he called “the suspecting glance”, the absence of which he decried in the students he taught as Albert Schweitzer professor of humanities at New York University from 1965 to 1969. He both practised the art of the intellectual and was pitilessly sceptical of the relationship of most intellectuals to political actuality. His sense of politics was the reverse of frivolous. He got many things wrong, some of them in the pursuit of consistency. He remained an acute observer of politics, and committed to the idea and practice of politics, as it was always understood in Ireland in a way that he fully respected, the mordancy of his commentary notwithstanding. He would never have relented in the face of an identitarian surrogacy for the political, any more than he would have failed to pit himself against the current populist wave.
He made a very considerable intellectual and political contribution to the Irish state. I would say he was a patriot, but it was a word he was suspicious of, intellectually because of its French revolutionary connotations, but more viscerally because of his thin tolerance of what he suspected to be nationalist humbug. How we modern Irish think and talk and write of ourselves, our history and the state we have made, owes something – perhaps it is a little, but it is not a small statement – to Conor Cruise O’Brien.
To me he was friend, mentor and an inspiration. He was intellectually generous to me and to many other younger scholars. He had a more sceptical view of Parnell in his still arresting and magisterial 1957 Parnell and his Party than I took in my Parnell Split, but he encouraged me throughout and wrote a handsome introduction. In company he was unforgettable. He was formidable and incisive, but not pompous in the least degree. He was the most charismatic person I have known, and whatever charisma may be, it is not a willed effect. He was extremely witty in an Irish version of the Enlightenment manner, with a high whinnying and strangely persisting laugh that seemed to float across two centuries from Voltaire. He was also exceedingly funny, which is something different: this included the perfection of a form of stylised mimicry that was unique to him. Those two modes exhilaratingly merged.
Niall Meehan writes: One of the difficulties with assessing Conor Cruise O’Brien is that there were one, two, many Conor Cruise O’Briens. I hope to talk about a couple of them. Frank [Callanan] mentioned being born in 1956 and his excitement as a young teenager when Conor Cruise O’Brien was elected to the Dáil in 1969. I was born in October 1955 and also was excited by the same event. The difference between us is that I was equally enthusiastic when O’Brien lost his seat in 1977.
After United Nations admission in December 1955, the Republic of Ireland opposed partition proposals from colonial powers under attack and in retreat. This was the era of the colonial revolution. In 1958, an Irish UN delegate criticised Britain’s intention to partition Cyprus. It was, he said,
… a frustration of the aspirations of the majority of the Cypriot people … [I]t inflates the [Turkish-Cypriot] minority’s sense of what is due to it and makes it less willing to play its proper part as a minority.
The speaker, Conor Cruise O’Brien, even suggested,
… that Turkish-Cypriots who did not wish to live under a government dominated by the Greek majority might migrate and be compensated.
O’Brien said “his country would support [a] Greek resolution urging independence for the island as a whole”. He received “a burst of applause from the public gallery”.
O’Brien’s remarks invited comparison with the partition of Ireland between the nationalist majority and a pro-British unionist minority. He also spoke in favour of Algerian independence from France and recognition of its rebel government. Unless Algeria “was free to choose independence then she was not free at all”, he said. The French minority, like the Turkish Cypriots, did not figure much in O’Brien’s calculations.
O’Brien introduced the UN Special Political Committee’s denunciation of apartheid in South Africa in November 1957. Australia, Belgium, Britain, France and Portugal voted against because, they said, the resolution interfered with South Africa’s “domestic jurisdiction”. In November 1958 O’Brien stated that Palestinian “refugees [from Israel] are the victims of a wrong” and that Ireland “did not participate in the UN decisions which created the refugees”.
In December of that year he referred to Southern Ireland’s “moral authority which she deserves from her history” and
… certain marked and enduring characteristics [that] arise from the fact that Ireland is a profoundly Christian country, is an independent nation, a republican nation, and a country that is both European and a former object of colonialisation.
After civil conflict erupted in Northern Ireland in 1969-70 and after European Economic Community (EEC) entry in 1973, O’Brien’s rhetoric and that of official Ireland shifted.
The Irish as white Europeans eclipsed their depiction as objects of European, in particular British, colonisation. As the late Professor Ronan Fanning put it, “the British and Irish political establishments” sought to gain control of “the presentation of history”. Nationalist emphasis became suspect because, it was argued, that was where the IRA drew support. This attempt to influence southern Irish people was combined during the 1970s with repression and censorship.
Conor Cruise O’Brien was to the fore in that effort. He produced the first sustained attempt to revise the state’s raison d’être in his States of Ireland in 1972. It was astutely described by one reviewer as “a mess, where the mess, so to speak, is the message”. Instead of struggling for self-determination against a sectarian overlord, the Catholic Irish, specifically, were portrayed as fighting for religious supremacy. After election to the Dáil in 1969, but especially after the 1970 Arms Crisis, O’Brien obscured his earlier positions. His perfection of censorship and support of repression during the 1970s, as minister for posts and telegraphs in a 1973-77 Fine Gael-Labour government, was at odds with often overlooked left-wing, anti-imperialist observations and activities during the 1960s.
O’Brien’s ministry included responsibility for the Radió Teilefís Éireann (RTÉ), southern Ireland’s then only TV and radio station. In 1971 Fianna Fáil had politically censored RTÉ under Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act by, a measure O’Brien had then, and also later, strenuously opposed.
Instead of rescinding broadcasting censorship, O’Brien perfected it, initially covertly, eventually by way of amendment in 1976. He began by doing something no Fianna Fail minister attempted. Soon after appointment he called unannounced on RTÉ’s director general Tom Hardiman. O’Brien insisted that television producer Eoghan Harris be dismissed. As editor-in-chief, Hardiman refused to entertain O’Brien and directed him, as protocol dictated, to the chairperson of the government-appointed RTÉ Authority.
Instead, O’Brien bided his time. At the 1974 Labour Party conference he suggested that the IRA benefited from internment without trial in the North and that, by a strange twist of logic, criticism of internment constituted IRA propaganda. RTÉ afterwards broadcast a programme critical of internment. O’Brien then entered RTÉ and directed management to watch the programme with him. Afterwards, he stated that if the IRA was not in physical occupation of RTÉ the organisation had effected a “spiritual occupation”. Those deemed responsible for the programme were disciplined, Eoghan Harris most severely: moved from RTÉ’s current affairs division into, he later observed, being “marginalised” and making “ridiculous, rubbishy programmes”. It was noted that, for the first time, RTÉ management failed to stand by its broadcasters. The mould was broken and stayed that way.
It is an abiding irony that Eoghan Harris emerged from his years of internal RTÉ exile as a firm supporter of O’Brien’s analysis. Other broadcasters became convinced, while operating within RTÉ’s censorship regime, of a need to portray the IRA as virtually the only aggressors in Northern Ireland, to under-report stories like the 1980-81 H-Block hunger strikes, and to promote propaganda about IRA genocide against eldest sons of Protestant-unionist farmers in border areas.
Former president Mary McAleese, an RTÉ reporter in 1981, explained at length the full force of RTÉ ignorance of what was happening on the ground in Northern Ireland. This was, according to McAleese’s biography, The Road from Ardoyne (by Ray Mac Manais), through a studied refusal to report it. She instanced the current affairs Today Tonight programme not sending a team to cover the 1981 Fermanagh South Tyrone by-election count when hunger striker Bobby Sands won. The decision was based on confident predictions that Sands would lose badly. When Sands was on course to win, a helicopter was hired at great expense for a reporter and producer. They then borrowed the equipment and allocated time of an Irish language RTÉ crew. The same predictions affected non-coverage of Sands’s funeral, on the basis that more cameras than mourners would be present. It is estimated that over 100,000 people attended the funeral. Those responsible for such a “desperate professional gaffe”, as an Irish language RTÉ broadcaster at the Sands count put it, were sympathetic to Conor Cruise O’Brien’s analysis.
Since O’Brien had opposed it, he had a problem with Section 31. He focused on Fianna Fáil’s so-called “brutal replacement” of a defiant RTÉ Authority in 1972. O’Brien avoided this problem by engineering eventually, no defiance. He appointed Sheila Conroy to chair the RTÉ Authority in 1976, having first appointed her to the authority in 1973. Conroy found RTÉ director general TP Hardiman’s “very correct” conduct “frustrating”. Until retirement in 1975, Hardiman “spent half his time keeping the Authority off the backs of the programme makers”. Conroy noted O’Brien’s “desire to avoid defiance … which might lead to a repeat of the 1972 scenario”. Therefore, she said, “I had to be more alert to any attempt to break the [Section 31] ban”.
TP Hardiman’s more compliant and conservative post-1975 successor, Oliver Maloney, observed sympathetically that Conroy, “stamped on boardroom politics quite firmly”. O’Brien observed, smugly, “to [Conroy’s] credit there was no crisis”. This combination of O’Brien’s personal interventions, legislation, and newly contrived internal leadership, enabled significant inroads to be made into RTÉ’s autonomy. In 1976 the NUJ broadcasting branch reported that government policies and actions on security were broadcast without analysis or counterpoint. In 1977, RTÉ reporter Eddie Barret admitted that the news division was “afraid”, as he put it, to carry reports of Irish Times articles on garda brutality.
O’Brien perfected Section 31 in 1976. Essentially, he dispensed with a Fianna Fáil censorship order containing a degree of ambiguity that RTÉ used in order to occasionally interview Sinn Féin representatives with one admitting of none. RTÉ nevertheless expanded its scope by banning from the airwaves all Sinn Féin members, irrespective of who they might represent or what they might say on any imaginable subject, no matter how innocuous. That silence, all the more effective since RTÉ did not advertise it, was O’Brien’s lasting legacy.
Though electorally and in other ways unpopular by 1977, O’Brien’s intellectual and ministerial legacy remained both politically and institutionally significant. After appointment in 1979 as editor-in-chief of the London Observer newspaper, O’Brien continued as he had left off. He censored and then sacked Ireland correspondent Mary Holland. In 1978 he disapproved of an Observer magazine article Holland wrote on Mary Nelis from Derry, two of whose sons served sentences for IRA activity. O’Brien explained that “the killing strain of [Irish republicanism] has a very high propensity to run in families, and … the mother is most often the carrier”.
He said of Holland, who pioneered reporting on sectarianism in Northern Ireland: “It is a serious weakness in your coverage of Irish affairs that you are a very poor judge of Irish Catholics. That gifted and talkative community includes some of the most expert conmen and conwomen in the world.”
O’Brien went on, also in 1979, to assert that some “fellow travellers of the IRA … are in the media and some are in the SDLP”. The SDLP was then Northern Ireland’s leading nationalist party. John Hume, its best-known leader, remarked that O’Brien was “a deeply prejudiced man”. O’Brien saw republicanism as a pathological subculture and remarked, “one should not underestimate the capacity of those infected to transmit the infection to the next generation”. It was a view that was close to, but obviously does not quite match, fascist concepts of Judaism as a bacillus within Western civic culture. His censorship of Mary Holland indicated that O’Brien viewed republicanism, like the Jewish faith, as carried on by matrilineal descent. It possibly indicated also a problem with independent-minded women, a point to which I shall return (if I have time).
O’Brien’s interventions in RTÉ and in the Observer are key to understanding the methods he employed to defeat his opponents. His intolerant ire was directed at those who did not accept his new view of Irish republicanism. The SDLP was alarmed. The SDLP’s Ivan Cooper (a Protestant) and Paddy Devlin (formerly of the Northern Ireland Labour Party) pleaded with the Labour Party in 1972 to disown O’Brien and his analysis. So also did fellow Labour TDs, who failed to dislodge him as Northern Ireland spokesperson.
It is important to understand how O’Brien flip-flopped. His initially cogent, often objective, understanding in 1969 of Southern Irish conservatism and Northern Irish unionism was transformed into asserting, incoherently, that opposing unionist sectarianism was a form of Catholic imperialism. It is often assumed that O’Brien suppressed support for republicanism by force of intellectual argument. O’Brien’s authoritarian use of force after 1973 was decisive, as was the fact that his methods were in tune with the perceived needs of the Southern Irish state.
To illustrate O’Brien’s sharp change of direction, we should start in 1961. Seconded from the Irish diplomatic service, he was appointed UN high commissioner of Katanga, a province in the newly independent, formerly Belgian, Congo, where Irish troops were on their first tour of UN duty. O’Brien’s appointment fell smack in the middle of Western and white-ruled Rhodesian attempts to subvert Congolese independence, partly by partitioning off Katanga. Prior to O’Brien’s arrival, left-wing Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba was beaten to death by Western-backed secessionists, under the gaze of UN forces. Time magazine depicted O’Brien as a “stripe-shirted Castro”. The British foreign office said he was a “wild anti-colonial boy”. As far as they were concerned, he had gone off script.
O’Brien had launched a military strike in Katanga against Western mercenaries and indigenous forces. A UN compound, housing O’Brien, came under attack. After a semblance of order was restored, O’Brien was recalled to Dublin. His claim to be acting on UN orders was weakened in September 1961, by UN secretary-general Dag Hammarskjöld’s death in strange circumstances. Hammarskjöld was killed in a plane crash in Northern Rhodesia, near Katanga. O’Brien became convinced he was destined for bureaucratic exile. He therefore resigned his position so as to restore his freedom of speech. Breaking a diplomatic taboo, he wrote a two-part article in the Observer and The New York Times. Part one began: “My resignation from the United Nations and from the Irish Foreign Service is a result of British Government policy.” This analysis is absent from DH Akenson’s 1994 anthology of O’Brien’s writings.
After publication of To Katanga and Back in 1962, O’Brien was launched on an eight-year career as a “new-left” academic activist. He was in tune with the 1960s revolt against racism in the US, apartheid in South Africa and US involvement in Vietnam. From 1962 to 1965 he was vice-chancellor of the University of Ghana. He fell out with the university’s chancellor, Ghanaian president Kwame Nkrumah, on the issue of academic freedom. O’Brien asserted,
[A] liberal, incurably, was what I was. Whatever I might argue, I was … profoundly attached to liberal concepts of freedom ‑ freedom of speech and of the press, academic freedom, independent judgement and independent judges.
He was then appointed Albert Schweitzer professor of humanities at New York University. In 1967, he spoke at a US seminar on the Vietnam war, entitled “the legitimacy of violence as a political act”. Speakers included philosopher and German Jewish refugee Hannah Arendt and Noam Chomsky. In opposition to Arendt, who had remarked, ‘As to the Viet Cong terror, we cannot possibly agree with it’, O’Brien said:
I think there is a distinction between the use of terror by oppressed peoples against the oppressors and their servants, in comparison with the use of terror by their oppressors in the interests of further oppression. I think there is a qualitative distinction there which we have the right to make.
In addition, O’Brien publicly opposed US police oppression and killing of members of the radical Black Panther Party, which asserted a constitutional right to carry arms for self-defence. Panthers in jail were “victims of persecution”, he said. He also claimed that use of an anti-riot statute against protesters outside the Democratic Party convention in August 1968 potentially created “the foundation for a police state”
O’Brien was front-page news in The Irish Times in December 1967, after his arrest at a New York Vietnam War protest, alongside noted child development expert, Dr Benjamin Spock. O’Brien’s wife, Máire, observed that the police “kicked Conor around quite a bit”. In 1974, a short few years after voicing opposition to police state methods and after being himself kicked by a policeman, O’Brien became a secret champion of “kick[ing] the shit” out of republican suspects in Ireland. When The Irish Times reported on these methods in 1976-77 the then minister of justice denied their existence. Like RTÉ news, O’Brien remained silent. He revealed his support for police beatings in a memoir published in 1998.
During the 1960s O’Brien did not forget Ireland. In 1966 the New Left Review published O’Brien’s 50th anniversary essay on 1916, “The Embers of Easter”. It reproduced, sympathetically, VI Lenin’s observation that the Irish rose a year early, before European-wide imperialist contradictions occasioned by World War One had ripened sufficiently. In the article, O’Brien critiqued how Ireland’s “three quarters representatives” (as he then put it) eroded an initially anti-imperialist stance at the UN. After accession, Ireland had defied the US by calling for UN discussion on China’s admission, then represented by Taiwan’s pro-Western regime. Later, during the 1960s, Ireland sided with Western interests in all important respects, said O’Brien. The article also observed that the Irish Labour Party, which he was to join two years later, was all too often represented by “dismal poltroons”.
During this period, from 1963-67, O’Brien helped, spectacularly, to expose a seemingly independent and highly reputable magazine, Encounter, as a CIA-front publication. O’Brien’s later 1970s claim of political continuity with his 1960s self was undermined by Encounter editor Melvin Lasky. O’Brien had outed him as, effectively, a CIA functionary. Lasky wrote without contradiction in The Irish Times in 1974,
I have been following Dr. O’Brien’s new and substantially revised ideology with the greatest of satisfaction … it does seem to me that he now stands with us.
In 1966 and 1967 O’Brien also exposed the US historian and Kennedy administration aide Arthur Schlesinger Jr as having lied to The New York Times about how Encounter was funded. Twenty years later O’Brien tempered this with, “at that time I had not myself engaged in active democratic electoral politics in my own country”. It was implied that, had he been so engaged, Schlesinger’s lies would have been excusable.
O’Brien’s return to Ireland in 1968-69 was to a society undergoing a radicalisation similar to what was occurring in other parts of the world. The women’s movement was emerging. Irish youth were in revolt. A long strike wave played out during the 1960s. The conservative Roman Catholic stamp on Irish identity was put under a critical spotlight.
In October 1968 the North began its long-simmering eruption. Very quickly, due to media coverage, Southerners learned about the mechanisms by which Northern nationalist political and socio-economic rights had been systematically suppressed. More importantly, they learned and were impressed with how the same Northern nationalists, like 1960s African-Americans with whom they were compared, seemed unlikely to be going back, any time soon, to their assigned role of sullen passivity.
O’Brien initially welcomed these movements North and South. He then became alarmed, alongside the Southern establishment, when Northern nationalists no longer acted as grateful recipients of Dublin’s unsuccessful policies and initiatives. O’Brien had promoted official anti-partition propaganda during the early 1950s. With others, he grew tired of meeting ignored Nationalist Party representatives; and, in turn, of being ignored by other states when partition was raised. O’Brien knew also that unionist resistance to reform would be unrelenting. As he reportedly put it in late October 1968,
Orangemen had never been beaten and therefore their resistance to change would be all the stronger. Nor was it likely that all of them would restrict themselves to non-violence…. [T]he Orangemen resembled the Afrikaners of South Africa in their qualities and their limitations, both of which were considerable.
Despite this, civil rights leaders refused to go backwards, no matter how much state violence or state-sponsored violence and repression came their way. They gave a lead that threatened to spread throughout thirty-two counties. These leaders, including later SDLP representatives, also sought Southern arms for self-defence. Some members of Jack Lynch’s Fianna Fáil government attempted to take control of the movement, while Lynch followed the latest episode of the Northern revolt, and Stormont’s usually violent reaction, with verbal support. A crisis of leadership developed inside Fianna Fáil in May 1970, with the sacking and then failed prosecution of the ministers Haughey and Blaney, for alleged illegal arms importation. That debacle and the election of an essentially pro-unionist Conservative government in Britain in June 1970 ended the first phase of the Northern revolt.
O’Brien portrayed the May 1970 arms crisis as a crisis of democracy. As pointed out, though from different perspectives, by historians Niamh Puirséil and Angela Clifford, he had been aware of attempts to procure and to supply arms, at least since October of the previous year. As the arms crisis unfolded, he began to argue hysterically that Fianna Fáil, under Lynch, might attempt to establish an authoritarian regime like that of Greek colonels. And with that, he began to turn.
Previously, during 1969, while publicly indifferent to attempts to procure arms, O’Brien’s support for nationalist violence was far from ambivalent. In December 1969 in New York, he said Catholics were “the blacks in Northern Ireland”:
The Civil Rights Movement began as a strictly non-violent one, civil rights workers were pelted with rocks, thrown in jail, beaten by the police, without resistance or retaliation…
A year earlier, in October 1968 in Queen’s University, O’Brien had counselled non-violent civil disobedience tactics. Not now. As he put it,
“No bombs, no rights” read a local headline. There is no doubt that the young people of the civil rights movement with backing from older people achieved first through non-violent symbolic protest, and then through the use of a degree of violence, far more than their elders had achieved in two generations of argument and minority voting … [T]he cost was high and not yet paid in full … In this case violence did indeed assure a hearing for moderation, which in the absence of violence had gone unheard for nearly fifty years.
O’Brien also reported:
Civil rights people and the people in [Derry’s] Catholic ghetto … used force to break-up the traditional [Apprentice Boys] procession of their oppressors …. and successfully defended their ghetto against the police by use of petrol bombs. In Belfast armed defenders of Protestant supremacy started shooting Catholics and burning their homes.
O’Brien was referring to what happened in August 1969, after which British troops were introduced. He had argued previously that it was necessary to “keep up the pressure” on Northern Ireland’s then rhetorically reformist prime minister, Terence O’Neill, in order to “to keep up his intentions”. In January 1969 he termed O’Neill’s Unionist Party the “political arm” of the Orange Order, in which “the denial of rights to Catholics is an essential – indeed the essential – part of its character”. Pressure was required also so as to counteract “hate merchants” like Protestant fundamentalist preacher Ian Paisley. O’Brien was largely indifferent to O’Neill’s fate, even if “replaced by a more right-wing unionist”, because “it often turned out that a strong man with a reputation for toughness was more able to make concessions than a reputed liberal”.
O’Brien criticised the London Observer’s editorial policy of support for O’Neill and a policy of “gradualism”. O’Neill’s call-up of the “armed Orangemen” of the paramilitary B-Special RUC reserve was, noted O’Brien, “more instructive … than … the studied moderation of [O’Neill’s] language”. To “proceed slowly”,
… implies a corollary, the greater the resistance, the slower the pace. This is an encouragement to the Paisleyites in and out of uniform to increase their provocations. Those who are repressed will respond ‑ and are responding ‑ in kind, and the more gradual the process the more long-drawn out and bloody it will be.
It turned out as O’Brien then predicted. Into this failure of reform in the North and crisis in the South stepped the IRA. Its analysis that the North was irredeemably sectarian and not reformable seemed at that time in line with reality.
After 1970 O’Brien abandoned this type of commentary. He would criticise its use by others as “verbal violence” leading to “civil war”. O’Brien feared that Southern rhetoric generally might provoke cross-border Northern unionist violence. A policy of Irish unity would foster, he asserted, “a massive and perhaps uncontrollable escalation”. Fear of death was used to discourage discussion accused of provoking violence. Paddy Devlin said this approach was “an invitation to extreme loyalists to hold an open season on Catholics”, to crush nationalist aspirations since nationalists could not generate as much violence as a unionist community presented as more uninhibited in that regard. Devlin suggested that this Southern commentary was part of a “deliberate effort […] to reduce interest in issues affecting the North”. Professor Denis Donoghue argued perceptively that O’Brien’s ”prophecy is yet another way of making discourse afraid of itself”.
Elements of British counterinsurgency may have contributed to this climate by being instrumental in exploding bombs in Dublin in 1972 and 1974. On December 1st, 1972 bombs that killed two CIÉ workers collapsed Fine Gael opposition to emergency legislation being proposed by Fianna Fáil. Labour and O’Brien still voted against but O’Brien regretted having done so a few years later. The bombs went off after two English bank robbers in the pay of MI6 were apprehended. The Littlejohn brothers’ task was to engage in acts of violence, so as to provoke Fianna Fáil justice minister Desmond O’Malley into composing the emergency measures. Three weeks after the explosions, Garda Special Branch arrested John Wyman, the Littlejohns’ MI6 handler, and, as a bonus, Wyman’s Garda mole, Patrick Crinnion. Gardaí were alerted to Wyman by another Dublin MI6 operative, Alex Fursey, whose role was kept secret. It was revealed in History Ireland, May-June 2018 (at https://www.academia.edu/36964845/).
While fixated on IRA violence, O’Brien was not particularly concerned with the loyalist or British state-sponsored variety. His 1998 Memoir mentioned the 1972 emergency legislation he regretted not supporting, but not the explosions that guaranteed its passage. He reminisced on the 1974 collapse of the Sunningdale power-sharing arrangement in Northern Ireland, but not the related May 17th, 1974 Dublin-Monaghan bombings that killed thirty-four people. They caused more deaths than any other single incident in “the Troubles”. After the bombings, a widely reported comment from an Ulster Defence Association press officer asserted: “I am very happy about the bombings in Dublin. There is a war with the Free State [Republic of Ireland] and now we are laughing at them.” While O’Brien ensured that republicans remained off television screens, two weeks later he appeared on Britain’s Thames Television with two paramilitary UDA representatives, Andy Tyrie and Glen Barr. They told him that only those who “served Ulster and the Queen” could govern Northern Ireland. When he named organisations to be censored under Section 31 in 1977, O’Brien omitted the UDA. He asserted that, “access by the UDA did not present the threat that broadcasting by the Provisionals represented”.
O’Brien’s move rightwards contained an international as well as a national dimension. In 1958 he supported the struggle of the Black majority victims of apartheid in South Africa. As mentioned earlier, he also expressed sympathy for Palestinian refugees, driven out when Israel was formed in 1948. During the 1980s he expressed sympathy for the alleged “predicament” of the white Afrikaner architects of apartheid and ignored Palestinians when expressing newfound support for Israeli Zionism. Formerly a supporter and founder member of the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement, in 1986 he broke the movement’s academic boycott of South Africa, an initiative that ended in farce and failure.
O’Brien gradually lost his grip on political reality. Prior to the 1994 IRA ceasefire, he wrote regularly in the Sunday Independent that John Hume and Gerry Adams’s dialogue would initiate the civil war he had anticipated since the 1970s. If Hume had been, since 1972, O’Brien’s self-declared deadly enemy, he warmed to a new friend, 1968’s “hate merchant”, Ian Paisley. Joint opposition to the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement initiated the O’Brien-Paisley alliance. It was further cemented when O’Brien joined the UK Unionist Party in 1996. The political bromance ended when, in 2007, Ian Paisley became O’Brien’s “strong man … able to make concessions” by agreeing to share power with O’Brien’s bête noire, Sinn Féin. O’Brien had observed, unwisely, a short time earlier:
I have known Paisley now for about 50 years, during the first phase of which I was opposed to him and he to me. But for the past 20 years, we have been good friends and still are. I am quite sure he is not going to do a deal with the British and Irish Governments, despite their copious hints to the contrary … When Paisley finally announces his decision against them, the two governments will have to shut up about the North.
O’Brien’s anti-republicanism and diminished political acuity developed in tandem.
I don’t have time to go into O’Brien’s view in 1974 that former president Mary Robinson was “dancing to the IRA’s tune” and that her opposition at that time to internment in Northern Ireland entailed support for shooting judges. She accused him of abusing his position and of attempting to censor her. Essentially, O’Brien thought that those who did not toe the O’Brien line were IRA dupes. Hence, in 1974 also, he referred to newspaper political correspondents as “IRA stooges”. The same year he wondered whether history teachers were sending pupils into the IRA. In 1976 he revealed to a very surprised Washington Post reporter, Bud Nossiter, his intention to prosecute Irish Press editor Tim Pat Coogan for publishing pro-republican letters. Mary Robinson remarked in 1976 that “simple condemnation of the IRA does not require particular courage today”, but it was more difficult to combine that with ‘deep concern for the protection of civil liberties and for the curtailment of government power’.
The question remains, why did O’Brien lose his bearings in 1970? The answer may be partly political, partly psychological. In 1939, he privately described his aunt, the well-known feminist, republican, and socialist Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, as “a howling bitch”. Hannah’s pacifist husband Francis was murdered by a British officer, Capt JC Bowen-Colthurst from Cork, in 1916. Another O’Brien uncle, Tom Kettle, was soon afterwards killed by the Germans, while serving with the British army in France. O’Brien’s father died when he was ten, in 1927, his mother in 1939, after which he declared that there was no one left who could hurt him. He wrote, also privately, that he disliked “most of my family most of the time”.
O’Brien appeared increasingly to view the 1916 rebellion and the succeeding war of independence as a usurping of the position of the reformist Irish Parliamentary Party, with which his mother’s family was associated. These upheavals negatively affected the position of “my family” in the community, said O’Brien. It occasioned, he thought, the lower middle class near penury he experienced while growing up. Perhaps, when confronted later with views of the three Marys -‑ Holland, Nelis and Robinson ‑ his mind linked back to unpleasant memories of his Aunt Hanna.
With the North blowing up in 1970, the catharsis appeared to be happening all over again. The radical part O’Brien’s family retreated in independent Ireland and he was beaten in Katanga. Perhaps he decided to side with the winners, the Orangemen who had never been beaten, who physically assaulted him at the conclusion of an Orange parade in 1971, and the strong men who served the Southern Irish state. When he was elected for the first time in 1969 he was fifty-two years old. Maybe he was tired of the prospect of fighting the same battles all over again and possibly envisaged insurmountable obstacles to victory by the nationalist or republican side. Perhaps, defeated, he sought solace by changing sides while claiming to be on the same side.
For more on O’Brien’s analysis and the emergence of revisionist historiography, see ‘The Embers of Revisionism’ (2017) by Niall Meehan, at https://www.academia.edu/34075119/