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A last word on Conor Cruise O’Brien (1917-2008) 

by D.R.O’Connor Lysaght.

25 January 2009

The death of Conor Cruise O’Brien has produced the inevitable rash of tributes from the twenty-six county establishment. This consensus has portrayed him as a prophet for calling for the abandoning of Articles 2 and 3 of the Republic’s constitution, for his chief work expressing this, States of Ireland,  his life of Edmund Burke and, undoubtedly with most sincerity,  for his attacks on Charles Haughey. As might be expected, the establishment has got it wrong.

Certainly, Cruise O’Brien was talented and intelligent. However, the praise given him concentrates on the period when he was in the vanguard of Irish capitalist history, roughly from 1970 to 1985. (There is a certain regret expressed that, for the last two decades or so of his life, his zealotry put him outside the circle that had used it as a pacesetter.) 

In fact, his analysis of the basis of partition was fundamentally flawed, his specific demand for the repeal of the territorial claim was not original but taken from the extreme right in the twenty-six county state, he did not influence the policy of the bourgeois state (as he did that of the Labour Party) on the border. his attacks on Haughey did not suggest his subject's venality, but concentrated on his relatively honourable role as the patsy in the arms trial. His best writing is in his earlier works, most notably Parnell and his Party and the pamphlet, Conflicting Concepts of the United Nations. Beyond these, the reader is left with some great writing containing some provoking conclusions, but always lacking an essential quality that would make it convincing to other than those who wish desperately to be convinced.

Why was this? In his 1965 collection, Writers and Politics, he declared himself ‘a liberal, incurably’. Most interesting is his definition of the ‘liberal concepts of freedom - freedom of speech and of the press, academic freedom, independent judgement and independent judges,’ an entirely political-cultural one. That historic liberalism sprung from an economic analysis of society is ignored in a manner typical of the author. Seven years later, in his Eliot lectures, The Suspecting Glance, he made a specific attack on ‘archaic and doctrinaire forms of economics’, opposing to them;  'zoology...the sensitive development of social psychology and anthropology [and] the careful exploration of the interplay of myth, metaphor and ritual forms both in our language and in our institutions and across the two'. These are important enough but are, in themselves, expressions of a reality that is shaped ultimately by economics, people's rational response to their need for survival. Without this anchor, the psycho-cultural approach enters very murky areas. 

Cruise O'Brien flirted openly with the ethologists and the Categorical Imperative ideas of  Robert Ardrey. In The Suspecting Glance he declares Yeats and Nietsche to be major political figures in a quartet with Machiavelli and Edmund Burke. Moreover, he interpreted his dismissal of ‘archaic and doctrinaire forms of economics' in a peculiarly biased way, being prepared, when pushed, to use that most ‘doctrinaire and archaic' (but bourgeois) economist, TR Malthus, to justify his case for legalising contraception. 

Against such temptations, he claimed to be protected by the virtue of intellectual honesty. He attacked the CIA-funded intellectual journal, Encounter. for bending the truth to advance its patrons' cause. The title of his Eliot lectures, The Suspecting Glance, refers to his view that this honesty should apply to oneself. In Writers and Politics, he had declared that  ‘we can identify lies readily enough ,and can reasonably hope that, when we have chipped away at these, what remains will be closer to the indefinable truth’.  It cannot be said that he applied these tests. 

One of the remarkable recurring facts shown in his career was his lack of self-criticism until events forced it upon him, and then only in their context. As for chipping away at obvious lies, his formulation ignored the fact that the less obvious half truth is far more misleading and that in his evasion of the economic factor, his own ontology was itself a vast half-truth. Moreover, as will be shown, he was not above adding to the sum total of lies, some of them all too obvious, in order to advance his chosen project. Though always formally a democrat, his attitude to the necessary practices that he listed and which make democracy work were always dubious. Within a decade of his praising ‘the liberal concepts of freedom’  he was showing a scant regard for ‘freedom of speech and of the press,' and little enthusiasm for ‘academic freedom, independent judgement and independent judges’ (though he might claim that, as regards the Special Criminal Court, he showed more regard for officially ‘independent judges’ that he did that other ‘liberal concept’ the jury trial). In practice, he acted as if these desirable principles were specifically for his benefit and for those who thought like him. Even his public presentations of his arguments came to be stagemanaged so that there could be no argument with his conclusions

This overriding approach was justified by Cruise O'Brien's belief in the irrational basis for most human and, particularly, political decisions. However, he did not see himself initially as an human Houhynnm amongst Yahoos, rather he came to this assumption as a rationalisation of attitudes bred into him from childhood.

His career was guided by unexamined assumptions, arising from initial childhood influences. It has been assumed too readily (not least by the present writer) that Cruise O'Brien's family circle was not composed just of old Home Rulers, but of Home Rulers who resented the revolutionaries of 1916 and afterwards for usurping the power that they believed they were about to inherit. The first part of this is true and, in a real sense, Conor Cruise O'Brien saw himself as spokesperson for the Redmondite tradition of, as he saw it, purely constitutional nationalism.  At the same time, his extended family had no reason to resent the heirs of the Rising. Though it included two of the most able second generation Home Rulers, Francis Sheehy-Skeffington and Thomas Kettle, their suppression had been posed before the Rising, by  Sheehy-Skeffington's socialism and Kettle's personal problems, and ensured by their wartime deaths, the former's by British and the latter's by German guns. Had they lived, one or other of the parties in the twenty-six county Saorstat Eireann would have been glad to recruit either of them to a leading position, as their younger contemporary, John A.Costello, was recruited to Fine Gael, and, eventually, the post of Taoiseach.

What did colour young Conor's political education was the sense that something had gone badly wrong with the nationalist perspective. He got very different opinions as to what this was; his two most vocal political mentors, his aunts, Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington and Mary Kettle were poles apart in politics and economics. Where they agreed was in deploring the ostentatious and increasing clericalism and misogyny of the Saorstat. Conor Cruise O'Brien was brought up to follow a liberal cultural agenda.

This was supported, too, during his first decade, by his father, Francis Cruise O'Brien. Less brilliant and less healthy than either of his two brothers-in-law, he survived the war and the subsequent troubles only to die in 1927 when his son was ten, too soon for the boy to question his father's wisdom, and soon enough for the father to impart that wisdom to influence the boy's life.

The elder Cruise O'Brien  occupied a position between his two sisters-in-law. He shared the hostility of both of them to clericalism and began the upbringing of his son in a non-sectarian manner, but he shared, if in a mild form, Hanna's militant social conscience and her recognition of Ireland as part of a larger world, while opposing her hostility to imperialism per se, particularly that of Britain. He was an economist, working with the Irish Co-operative movement. Though this body could not have survived without the active support of farmers of a wide range of nationalist opinions, its central leadership and staff, including Francis Cruise O'Brien, were acutely conscious of the importance of the British market for Irish dairy products. Accordingly, he acted to neutralise Hanna's influence over Conor as regards Anglo-Irish relations and encouraged his son to see those relations as a minor part of a kaleidoscope of international connections. He completed this moulding by dying before the boy could start the process of adolescent questioning.

Such were the principles imparted by young Conor's mentors. Implicit with them was the attitude that has been mentioned. They had every reason to consider themselves part of the twenty-six county's intellectual aristocracy. Where they failed was in their refusal to bring their collective intelligence to the political market. Apart from Hanna, (and from Mary, who was elected to Dublin Corporation on a notoriously weighted franchise that she justified by proving a notably regressive Councillor), the Cruise O'Brien family circle was composed of hurlers on the ditch. All had supported the workers in 1913, but, apart from Francis Sheehy Skeffington, who had sat on the first Citizen Army Council when it was seen still as a workers' defence force, none had gone beyond that. Francis' widow, Hanna, continued to see herself as a Socialist, but zigzagged in practice between Labour and Sinn Fein, eventually opposing the treaty non-violently but on a firmly abstentionist basis. 

Mary went to the right. The Cruise O'Briens themselves remained passive. As Kathleen Sheehy, Cathleen Cruise O'Brien had been Joyce' model for the nationalist zealot, Molly Ivors, in ‘The Dead', but that had been a youthful phase abandoned before Conor was born. Francis saw his commitment as one of writing pamphlets on living conditions and improving them through the Co-operative movement. As a whole, young Conor's family pontificated rather than acted. The times were out of joint, and their undoubtedly superior brainpower could do little more to set matter aright against the prevailing irrationality. This patronising view had to affect the younger generation.

Nonetheless Cruise O'Brien, like his older cousin, Owen Sheehy-Skeffington, rebelled against their elders' fatalism. Their choices were limited. Both Fianna Fail and its treatyite opponents were tarred with Catholic sectarianism. Owen associated with various Communist organisations before joining the Labour Party, then committed to a ‘Workers' Republic'. Conor followed him only to burn his fingers. Proposing a motion denouncing the Italian occupation of Ethiopia, in perhaps his best speech to a Labour Party conference, he linked the invasion to Franco's rebellion in Spain.  His argument was attacked by many delegates and his motion may have been saved only by the chair ruling that its actual wording had nothing to do with the Spanish war. He would not address a Labour conference for another thirty years, though he remained formally a party member until he joined the Irish diplomatic service. As late as 1966, he was denouncing Irish Labour as composed of ‘Uncle Paythers and poltroons’.

In the period immediately before his entry to the diplomatic corps, he worked as a teacher in a fee-paying school in Northern Ireland. In this position, he met a large number of middle class protestants, many of whom were, inevitably, Unionists, others being disillusioned Home Rulers, like the Fosters into whose family he married. He discovered that, in many ways, their outlook coincided with that of the Cruise O'Brien family circle, except that, instead of Hanna's inflexible republicanism, most of them were as inflexible in their opposition to it. Their criticism of the twenty-six county state and its  sectarianism was the same as his family's, with the far more logical difference that they used it to justify their link to the rather less confessional United Kingdom, rather than, like Hanna, advocating a larger dose of the strategies that had created the twenty-six county republic. 

Economically, too, they seemed to Cruise O'Brien to have a point; Ulster's industries survived, as far as any industry was surviving the slump, because of the British connection that would be endangered by de Valera's protectionist policies.  As for Northern sectarianism, the people he met did not seem to be bigots. Bigoted anti-Catholics did exist within Ulster Unionism, they agreed, and some of them conceded that the provincial government pandered rather too much to them, but, they would remark, de Valera did the same towards the most backward elements of Ireland's Catholic community. Above all, they insisted that such oppressive policies as the Special Powers Act and the maintenance of the all Protestant Special Constabulary could be justified, at least in part, by the understandable fear that the Catholic sectarians of de Valera's republic were biding their time to take over the six counties by force or guile or both as was shown in Articles 2 and 3 of that republic's 1937 Constitution. Finally, there were two facts; even without the gerrymander, this group expressed the general view of the six county majority towards the  neighbouring state and, from 1939, the six county province stood firmly as part of the United Kingdom resistance to Fascist imperialism, a consideration very important to a young man who had seen support for such imperialism even within twenty-six county labour.

It was not easy, indeed, practically impossible for him to answer this. He could have told his unionist friends truthfully that Articles 2&3 were no more than a gesture beyond which the Governments of the Republic had no intention of going. He might have remarked on  the obvious fact that some of the most obvious limitations on democracy, such as the abandonment of PR, the firm maintenance of the property franchise and the gerrymander were used as much, or even more against the working class movement and independent unionists as against nationalists. He could have noted on the fact that, in the twelve years between the twenty-six county government's recognition of the border and the introduction of the constitution containing the territorial claim, the Northern state became more rather than less restrictive and Protestant triumphalist. He was in a position to observe that many of those Unionists who were most vocal in supporting the United Kingdom war effort and denouncing correspondingly the neutrality of the Republic tended to be more concerned to kill Hitler with their mouths than to pull their weight, and that, in general, the Unionist regime belonged to that select company that included Somoza, Mihailevich, and the majority of the Rumanian fascists for whom opposition to Hitler stopped well short of commitment to democracy. He might well have done all this, but he would have known that such arguments would not have affected the core of his new friends' case.

He had to recognise that an apparent majority in Northern Ireland wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom, and that, even more certainly, it did not want to be part of an independent Ireland. Even proceeding from the liberal-legalistic point of view, he could have queried the national authenticity of a community that defined itself, in a negative manner, as anti-Irish nationalist. His lack of economics, and, more specifically Marxist economics prevented him from going further, from seeing the roots of Ulster Unionism in a Protestant sectarianism that provided the productive force for an industrial economy to be built on the isolated edge of that of Britain. In States of Ireland, he would attack Connolly's position on the Unionist workers in a way that showed less readiness to understand it than he had given the Unionist case. (Admittedly, Connolly's view of the community is undeveloped, but it is more perceptive than all the relevant writings of Conor Cruise O'Brien.).  His hostility to twenty-six county sectarianism stopped him seeing that that the Northern unionist variety was less easily overcome. Instead, he accepted the bulk of his friends' case, though hoping that they and the majority of their community might be won for Irish unity by free discussion. As it was, though his marriage would end in divorce, the ideas that accompanied it would influence him ever more strongly.

They would be reflected in some aspects of his extra-curricular political activity. Though entry to the diplomatic corps made it impossible for him to remain in Labour, or any political party even had he wanted to do so, he was able to stay within the milieu centred on The Bell, an intellectual popular frontist journal, edited by Sean O'Faolain, with Peadar O'Donnell and Frank O'Connor. Though its self-description as ‘nationalist, democratic and catholic' were, on two points, by now,  not those of Cruise O'Brien's, he shared O'Faolain's belief that truth would follow discovery of pragmatically discovered facts. He contributed a number of articles to it and to other magazines, mainly on the literary subjects that he had come to see as more important than economic analysis. Some of his writings on Catholic literature would be collected in his first published book, Maria Cross.  Most significant in this work, was his specific denial that the classless society was any more realistic than the religious utopia of the author  Leon Bloy. Also important were two uncollected essays, one on George Orwell, where he suggests, quoting his subject, that ‘the aim of socialism is not to make the world perfect but to make it better' and warns lest excessive belief in the possibilities of revolution cause a disillusionment leading ‘to a peevish and sterile negativism.'  More specifically, he reviewed the film, Odd Man Out, suggesting that, in ignoring the reality of the Unionist presence in Belfast it was encouraging a hopeless armed struggle against partition. 

Shortly afterwards, his work led him to act in a similar manner to the film. He was placed in control of the Irish News Agency a body established by the new Inter-Party Government in order to outflank  the defeated Fianna Fail by showing its credentials on Irish unity through an international propaganda campaign. Given his developing views, Cruise O'Brien was not the most suitable person for the job. His view of the British presence was that it was there by the wishes of the majority of the Northern Ireland, which was an half truth that ignored the fact that Britain had, and has, a real strategic interest in that territory. Nonetheless, he did try to earn his salary. ,et, in the end, the chief result of his activity was to make him more unionist. As he would confess to Brian Inglis, nearly a quarter century later; ‘I did for a time believe that some effort of persuasion, whether international or within the country would do something towards [uniting Ireland], but certainly would have been through that by the fifties.’  For now he kept this to himself; not only did he have to pay the bills, but, as yet, recognition of the validity of Northern Ireland was asserted publicly only by the most regressive (and least liberal) of the Republic's public figures, whose advocacy itself compromised  the idea that such recognition was democratic.

Ireland's entry to UNO in 1956 released Cruise O'Brien from his increasingly arduous treadmill. Transferred to the Irish delegation to the Assembly, he became a force of which such as his aunt Hanna might have been proud. This can be ascribed to two factors. The first was that he had no longer to deal with issues that affected directly his native country; instead, he could use his country's membership as an independent force for truth in the world. The second was that few of the problems with which he had to deal were affected obviously by the economic factors that he preferred to ignore.

At the same time, it is remarkable that he acted in a manner that led the delegations of the NATO powers to see him as an enemy. Basically, his chief emphasis was on maintaining the Republic's neutral status, partly because this enabled Ireland to fulfill its role as arbiter far better than if it had committed itself to a military alliance. His position was not that of enemy to NATO, but, rather, that of candid friend. Indeed, towards the end of this period, he could write, introducing a collection of Thomas Davis lectures, Introducing Ireland,  ‘ Ireland, in the early twentieth century [that is: before the Rising] was scarcely oppressed.'  His stance was too subtle to be understood in a period when the Cold War was threatening to turn hot, when the American Secretary of State was making clear his view that all states were committed to one side or another, when Russia had just crushed the Hungarian Rising and when America was turning a blind eye to its south Vietnamese client state's refusal to hold scheduled elections.

Despite increasing NATO disapproval, this was a happy time for Cruise O'Brien. Its sweetness was increased by the publication of his former doctoral thesis, Parnell and his Party. This was his best fullscale book, mainly because it is limited to the political and organisational relationship between the leader and his parliamentary followers; when it tries to explain how both related to the people who gave them their mandate, its author's lack of economics leaves him adrift in a decade when the land question was a major issue.

His diplomatic career ended in Katanga. With hindsight, it seems possible that he was manoeuvred into going there by those who intended his downfall.  Certainly, he underestimated, was bound to underestimate the economic interests that dictated their states' covert support for their central African Bantustan, whatever the decisions of the United Nations. At all events, he tried to execute these decisions, had his attempt sabotaged, and resigned his posts both national and international.

Despite his failure, his prestige was enhanced outside the major oligarchies. It continued to grow through the 1960s.  He left diplomacy for the post of Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ghana, where his determined defence of academic independence showed that he was no more a pawn for semi-colonial authoritarians than he had been for the imperial metropoles facing them. He moved from Ghana to the University of New  York where his reputation was increased further by an injury received from the forces of law and order whilst he was protesting against the Vietnamese War. The left was impressed, too, by his successful prosecution and exposure of the CIA funded journal, Encounter, for claiming that he saw himself as ‘a Machiavelli for peace'. He continued to write, as well, publishing his considered verdict on UNO, Conflicting Concepts of the United Nations, the best of his shorter published works.

There were, still, signs that Cruise O'Brien had not changed too much from the days of The Bell and Maria Cross. After his old employer at the University of Ghana had been toppled, he wrote an article welcoming the event, whilst ignoring the fact that the successful putschists had curtailed the aid given freedom fighters in the remaining African colonies. His pamphlet on the United Nations was followed by a prestigious illustrated book, United Nations, Sacred Drama, which conceived its subject in terms of ritual, rather than power politics. In 1967, he wrote a positive introduction to Edmund Burke's Reflections on the French Revolution.

This side of Cruise O'Brien was shown particularly when he wrote on Irish subjects. On the centenary of the birth of WB Yeats in 1965, he wrote an article, ‘Passion and Cunning', that went to the limit in attacking Yeats' Fascism. On the one hand, it exaggerated the significance of the outlook in Yeats' poetry, partly it would seem to emphasise the difference between his authoritarianism and that of the essayist. And, on the other hand, this underlying agreement was shown by the obvious respect shown it by Cruise O'Brien himself, though, as yet, Yeats was not to be put on a pedestal with Machiavelli and Burke, but he was on the way.

A year later the golden jubilee of the Easter Rising was celebrated by Conor Cruise O'Brien with an essay, ‘The Embers of Easter' which was unique by being published in both the Irish Times and New Left Review. (More suited to the first, it got into the second mainly through its author's name, (and the culture of ignorance of matters Irish that prevails in the NLR). Insofar as he had a message, it was one of stand pat conservatism. No radical change was possible and it was best to look to the enlightened civil servants for any necessary reform.

In fact, matters were not quite as bad. The Labour Party was, at last, resuming its leftward drift. It had declared itself opposed to joining further coalitions. Now, over the next two years, though it would not revive its call for a Workers' Republic, it produced a set of policies, empirical, unco-ordinated, but quite radical. In the north, too, the Catholic population was beginning to mobilise in support of a modest set of democratic demands. Conor Cruise O'Brien decided that Irish Labour was no longer dominated by ‘Uncle Paythers and poltroons'. After nearly thirty years he resumed his membership, stood for the Dail and was elected for Dublin North-East. A Government-organised Red Scare prevented Labour doing as well as it had hoped. Nonetheless, its expectations remained high, particularly that Dr Cruise O'Brien would use his voice as spokesman on External Affairs to revive the policy of enlightened neutrality that had been abandoned since his departure from Ireland's diplomatic corps.

Two months after his election, all changed utterly. In the north, Unionist resistance to the civil rights campaign culminated in an outright attack on the Catholic ghettoes. The nationalist population organised resistance that became a revived (Provisional) IRA. British troop numbers were reinforced; officially to hold the ring, in reality to keep change within the limits of the union settlement. The majority of the  twenty-six county population was bewildered by these developments. Opinion divided on a scale from those who wanted immediate Irish unity to those who would have been happy to see the six county province towed into the mid-Atlantic and sunk. Most wanted the Catholics protected and given more civil rights, but feared the struggle spilling over the border. On the whole, the middle classes were more worried about the latter: the workers more concerned about the first. Despite this the workers' formal party, Labour reflected only the overall confusion. 

Cruise O'Brien moved into the post of its spokesman on the issue. He had just presented a collection of essays by various hands, entitled Conor Cruise O'Brien Introduces Ireland in which he declared publicly at last; ’my own essay on Ireland in International Affairs implies the acceptance of some kind of ‘two nations’ view.' As party spokesman, he avoided defending that position, limiting his arguments to a programme of further civil rights demands. Nonetheless, he had other means of advancing his case. He made clear that he believed in the progressive role of the British troops. As republican resistance to them increased, he became increasingly against it. In April 1970, two leading Ministers of the Fianna Fail Government were fired by the Taoiseach for trying (and failing) to send guns to aid the defenders of the ghettoes. It is probable that they were scapegoats after the discovery of an illicit Government initiative. Certainly, Cruise O'Brien's reaction to the affair could be justified only on this assumption, though he concentrated his fire on ex-Minister Haughey, who had prevented him topping the poll in his constituency. More significantly, he and others of the new ‘enlightened' Labour deputies blocked with the ‘Paythers and poltroons' to rig a Special Conference and revise the no coalition policy, leaving the way open to coalition with the conservative bourgeoisie of Fine Gael. His views fitted the Labour ethos far more than support for republican armed struggle or the possibility, revealed after Bloody Sunday and later during the H Block hunger strikes, of strikes in sympathy with the northern nationalists leading to working class power.

In this period, his literary productivity was at its height. No less than four books appeared between 1970 and 1973. Each reveals something about its author's current political position. His study of Camus (1970) deals with his subject's difficult relationship with his community of birth, the Algerian colons, in a sensitive manner that puts the book among its author's best and certainly the very best of those he wrote in that period. The catch comes when one realises that Cruise O'Brien is using Camus's career to justify his own indiscriminate rejection of the attitudes of his own relations. It is no longer a question of seeking the truth in them; it is a case of ‘my tribe, wrong.'

This is revealed in his three other contemporary books all published in 1972.  The Suspecting Glance formalises and rationalises the philosophical lessons he draws from Camus. States of Ireland applies them. Hailed by his recent bourgeois obituarists as one of his masterpieces, it is in fact a compendium of sloppy analysis (His weakness, ignorance of economics, leaves a gaping hole in his argument that is not filled by his account of communal perceptions) and biographical recollections to back his call for the repeal of Articles 2&3 and the crushing of armed resistance in the north as preconditions for a peaceful and democratic solution. A former diplomat might have been expected to recognise that he was demanding the sacrifice of two of Irish nationalism's strongest cards in any possible settlement. Nonetheless, his book sold well because of general frustration with the armed struggle after the failure to capitalise on Derry's Bloody Sunday massacre.

His fourth book, A Concise History of Ireland, written in conjunction with his second wife, Maire, may do more lasting damage. The authors claim ‘to make somewhat more widely known some of the results of the work of those historians of Ireland, many of them recent, who have written not to validate competing myths but to find a common historical language in which we today can communicate, with a minimum of recrimination, complacency or boasting. About a past which has moulded us and which also threatens us.’  In effect, history is to be regarded as a collection of myths to be synthesised to get mutual agreement between the different believers. The search for truth is secondary to this aim. Moreover, the Cruise O'Briens' dependence on selected secondary sources, their avoidance of economic factors and Conor's family bias towards the Home Rule tradition  distorts their account even further. An outstanding error is their statement that the Anglo-Irish Articles of Agreement of 1921 resembled the substance of the British Government of Ireland Act [The Partition Act -DROÕL] much more closely than they did the absloute independence proclaimed by Sinn Fein. This was so even as far as ‘Southern Ireland’ was concerned. Presumably, this was justified by the need to discredit the armed struggle. As history it is rubbish.

The year after the three books were published, a general election put out Fianna Fail and allowed Labour to join Fine Gael to form what was called euphemistically a ‘National Coalition’. Cruise O'Brien became Minister for Posts and Telegraphs. He started cautiously and auspiciously getting funds to upgrade the telephone system and participating in talks with Britain and the constitutional parties in Northern Ireland to get an executive for the province that shared power between the Ulster Unionists and the nationalist SDLP. This collapsed in May partly because of continuing IRA activity, but mainly because of a provincial general strike of Unionist workers organised outside the working class movement with the tacit support of the British forces that claimed to be holding the ring between unionist and nationalist. The Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave declared ‘The Unionists have won.’  Cruise O'Brien agreed wholeheartedly and spent the three remaining years of his ministerial career trying to help enforce this victory. 

Although he had opposed coercive legislation while in opposition, he acted enthusiastically to defend his Government's new and effective measures of censorship. The ban on Sinn Fein appearing on television and radio was tightened. Newspapers were threatened for publishing allegedly subversive letters. When the Minister for Defence insulted the President for not signing a new coercion Bill but sending it to the Supreme Court to check its constitutionality and force the resignation of the head of the state, Conor Cruise O'Brien, the defender of constitutional government, went out of his way to express support for his colleague. Although only a spokesman for the minority government party he seemed to be dictating the administration's overall line on the northern struggle.

Then, in 1977, a new general election put out the ‘National Coalition' and put Conor Cruise O'Brien out of the Dail despite his contesting a constituency that seemed tailormade for him. This was the start of a decline in his influence. At first, it didn't seem to matter too much. He had a column in the Irish Times and walked into the post of Executive Editor for the London Observer, where he would distinguish himself mainly by forcing the resignation of its Irish correspondent, Mary Holland when she tried to report republican objections to illegal British Army actions. On top of this, he was elected to Seanad for Dublin University. He seems to have looked forward to returning to the Dail in the next election

Any such hope was not to be fulfilled. Though Fianna Fail continued the reality of the coalition's northern policy, it did so with less open determination and without the bullying that had been a feature of its predecessor's strategy.  TV and Radio continued to be censored against Sinn Fein, but it was notable that the petty censorship restrictions on reporting British and Unionist provocations were lifted. There were no open threats against newspapers, which was scarcely surprising, since Cruise O'Brien's main target had been Fianna Fail's organ. In Labour, there was a sense that the Cruise O'Brien approach had been a liability. The ‘poltroons' began to abandon him. The new party leader, Frank Cluskey, did not object when the Seanad timetable was drafted so that Senator Cruise O'Brien would not be available when partition was to be discussed. Finally, in 1979, Cruise O'Brien's chosen candidate for Dublin Corporation, whose election was intended to help the senator back to the Dail failed to get the necessary votes. Shortly afterwards, he resigned as senator.

His influence began to wane even faster. The H.Block protest and subsequent elections made it clear to everyone that the IRA was more than just a version of the Baader-Meinhof Red Army Fraction.; that Sinn Fein represented a real constituency and would have to be brought to the conference table. Cruise O'Brien remained unimpressed. In 1985, his old colleagues, again in Government, signed an agreement with Britain which provided for extradition, but allowed also some cosmetic gestures towards the Northern Irish majority.  The Unionists objected and Cruise O'Brien resigned from the Labour Party in sympathy.

During this period, he extended his scope in line with Ronald Reagan's proclaimed War on Terror. He supported the siting of Cruise Missiles in Europe. The one-time upholder of the interests of the peoples of the semi-colonies against the imperial metropoles, became a major critic of freedom fighters, particularly the Palestinians. When their camps in the Lebanon were attacked by that country's Fascist militias in 1982, the former attacker of Falangism defended its Lebanese namesakes. In 1985, he published a new book, The Siege, a summary of Zionist propaganda, albeit written in a superior style to most such publications.  In 1984, he resigned from the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement when it allowed Sinn Fein to affiliate, and, two years later he defied the movement's ban on visits to apartheid South Africa, behaving oafishly to the Movement's President, Kader Asmal, when challenged on his position on the Late Late Show. In the shops, this former author of best sellers could find his titles on the remainder shelves.

Politically he had become, less an elder statesman, since elder statesmen can wield some influence, but rather a moody uncle, whose foibles are tolerated and excused because of his distinguished past. He might have been satisfied that the chief Irish aims of his later political career, the end of the IRA campaign and the repeal of Articles 2&3 were achieved. However, he objected to the process by which this was accomplished. He attacked virulently the far more subtle John Hume for talking to Gerry Adams and denounced the Hillsborough Agreement to which the talks led. His argument was that such a peace could be no more than temporary. He may be proved correct, yet, but this possibility should be linked to three qualifications. Firstly, his own recipe of total victory over the IRA would have caused more fatalities and would have left the unionists in a strong position to dictate terms more favourable to them. Secondly, if the present settlement does break down it will because of Unionist intransigence on the equality agenda, not Republican violence. Thirdly, though such a breakdown may provoke such violence, it will be defeated because it will not enjoy the active revolutionary support of the mass of people in the Republic, particularly the workers, and if defeated, the minority community in Northern Ireland, whom Cruise O'Brien claims to be defending from itself, will be more than ever dependant on the agreements of the last decade.

Not only do the Unionists know this and drag their feet on fulfilling their terms the more determinedly, but Cruise O'Brien's own last political intervention shows it. Believing that he had found an organised, rational and benevolent unionism, he joined Robert MaCartney's United Kingdom Unionist Party, only to be forced to leave after considering aloud the possibility that Unionists might have more clout in a united Ireland. Since then some of his leading colleagues in that body have joined Jim Allister's Traditional [sectarian] Unionist Voice.

He did have some triumphs. His study of Burke, The Great Melody, has been described as his masterpiece by several of his obituarists. They ignore the fact that it is essentially an apologia for Cruise O'Brien. Moreover, his concentration on and equating of the Yeatsian themes of Burke's defence of the peoples of America, Ireland, India and France, ignores firstly the fact that the Americans used methods akin to a low-tech IRA and secondly that while the people of Ireland, America and India were indeed oppressed by Britain, he was calling on Britain allied to some of the least progressive states in Europe to liberate the French from themselves. Nor does the author consider Burke's complicity in the oppression of the British by Crown and aristocracy. However the book was characteristically well written and helped revive Cruise O'Brien's intellectual credibility. A few years later a Scots Canadian academic produced a biography of Conor Cruise O'Brien and a collection  of his essays and a few years after that, the old man was presented with a festschrift, though some of the essays in his honour, notably that of Seamus Heaney, were short on substance.  Despite this, neither his last two books, his Autobiography, an expansion and extension of the personal parts of States of Ireland, and his Thoughts on the Millenium, a warning against the Islamic movement ,were critical or popular successes. By the time he died, he was seen by most as just another, if older Independent columnist.

How will he be remembered ? There is a Cruise O'Brien Society dedicated to maintaining his memory and teaching. However, such a body needs more straw to make its bricks than its hero provides.  Among academic historians, Parnell and his Party will have an honoured place and Conflicting Concepts of the United Nations will be read as a textbook about that body's weakness.  Perhaps Camus will be remembered honourably, too. But, generally, it is likely that Conor Cruise O'Brien will be remembered like the Catholic polemicist Hilaire Belloc, as someone who wrote stimulatingly, brilliantly, and sometimes perceptively but was too obsessive and concerned with scoring emphatic points to be regarded as truly authoritative.

A pity: he had the intelligence to do so much better. 

(Quotations in the above text can be checked in the author's END OF A LIBERAL, THE LITERARY POLITICS OF CONOR CRUISE OÕBRIEN, Dublin 1976) 


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