Conor Cruise O’Brien, 1917-2008

Conor Cruise O’Brien has died aged 91.

He had a long career: in the Irish Civil Service in the 1940s; in the 1950s in the UN; in the Congo, the University of Ghana and New York University in the 1960s, He was elected an Irish opposition Labour TD in 1969 under the slogan ‘The Seventies will be Socialist’. He became Minister for Posts and Telegraphs in 1973 and lost his seat in 1977. He became Editor in Chief of The Observer until 1981. He has been a writer and commentator ever since. He wrote numerous books on politics, history and literature.

Half way through he became a reactionary. The rock on which he fell was the Irish National Question.

In 1965, O’Brien said,

‘[A] liberal, incurably, was what I was[,]… profoundly attached to liberal concepts of freedom – freedom of speech and of the press, academic freedom, independent judgement and independent judges.’

In 1976, O’Brien told Bernard Nossiter of the Washington Post he wanted to imprison the Editor of the Irish Press for printing pro-Irish republican letters.

In 1993 O’Brien supported censoring a radio advertisement for a book of short stories by Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams. Favorable reviews in The Times, Sunday Times and Times Literary supplement were by IRA sympathizers, he suggested. Why not ban them then? Radio advertisements were more dangerous, said O’Brien, as the audience included,

‘people who are poor and who are not so well educated. That is… less educated people who on the whole are more likely to be impressed than more educated people’.

In 1998 he revealed that he had supported police brutality in 1974, by a group that went on to beat confessions out of, and obtain convictions against, innocent people.

He shifted rightwards under cover of the left. He had the kcredentials.

O’Brien was forced out of the Congo and the UN in 1961. He led the UN in a minor war against the Moise Tshombe’s breakaway Katanga. Time magazine called Tshombe the ‘solemn black defender of white capitalism in middle Africa’. White Rhodesia, Britain, France and the departing Belgians defended him. They, in turn, were backed by the US.

The ‘stripe shirted Castro’, as the British press described O’Brien, had to go.

Go he did, in public protest. He proceeded into the 1960s New Left. In 1963 he exposed Encounter magazine’s editorial ignorance of US racism at home and oppression abroad. He made fools of official and unofficial US government spokespersons. He humiliated Encounter in a 1967 libel suit, when its CIA funding was exposed. He opposed the Vietnam War. He got arrested (and kicked by a cop) trying to shut down the draft in New York in 1967. O’Brien joined Noam Chomsky, I.F. Stone, Betty Shabazz, and others in opposing police oppression of the Black Panthers. He opposed the 1968 police riot at the Chicago Democratic Convention. He backed Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 Anti-Vietnam War presidential platform.

The socialist new wine turned to vinegar in a paranoid 1973-77 Labour-Fine Gael coalition. O’Brien’s censorship is remembered alongside the repression perfected by Justice Minister Patrick Cooney.

But O’Brien started where he left off in New York in late 1968. This period is largely forgotten in the revisionist Irish history that O’Brien also promoted (see my previous Counterpunch article on Ken Loach’s Wind that Shakes the Barley).

On October 12 1968 O’Brien spoke in Queens University Belfast. It was one week after an October 5 Civil Rights march in Derry. A worldwide television audience saw British and Irish MPs, participants and bystanders batoned by local unionist police. According to then Republican Labour MP Gerry Fitt, it was ‘the beginning of the end of unionism in Northern Ireland’. The University meeting was barred to the media, due, said O’Brien, to pressure from a Protestant fundamentalist preacher, the Reverend Ian Paisley.  O’Brien reportedly,

‘described Northern Ireland as a ‘sub-state’ like Dixie which was under the control of Washington, whereas in the North the power lay with London. The beneficiaries of gerrymandering and discrimination in the North might be sacrificed by Britain just as the ‘Jim Crows’ were sacrificed by Washington. Civil Disobedience, he said, would only be a success if the Catholic population were prepared to run considerable risks and accept sacrifices in a disciplined way in order to improve their collective condition’.

O’Brien referred to the sectarian organization, the Protestant Orange Order,

‘The Orangemen had never been beaten… therefore their resistance to change would be all the stronger. Nor was it likely that all of them would restrict themselves to non-violence. [They] resembled the Afrikaners of South Africa in their qualities and their limitations, both of which were considerable’.

Later, O’Brien noted,

‘Some Protestant unionists favour the cause of the whites of Southern Africa and the white backlash generally: the [Paisleyite] Protestant Telegraph carried communiqués from Ian Smith’s Rhodesian front and members of [Paisley’s] movement denounced the boycott of the Irish trade unions of the South African Rugby Team on its 1970 Irish visit.’

In 1968 O’Brien thought it necessary to ‘keep up the pressure’ on then liberal unionist Prime Minister, Terence O’Neill, ‘to keep up his intentions’ and to counteract ‘hate merchants like Paisley’. However, O’Brien the liberal 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’.

It was 1968’s ‘hate merchant’, Paisley, who was the 2007 ‘strong man’, able to make concessions. By that stage, O’Brien, who had come to call Paisley his ‘friend’, predicted that Paisley would not agree to share power with the pro IRA party, Sinn Fein. He was wrong, increasingly so.

O’Brien is remembered today as an opponent of violence.

Again, it was not always so.

In a then unpublished New York talk in December 1969, O’Brien 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.’

He continued,

“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 the Catholic ghetto, in Derry itself, used force to break-up the traditional [Orange Order] procession of their oppressors – which signifies the oppression of the Catholics –  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.’

While O’Brien was endorsing violence, nationalists were seeking arms for self-defense. Dublin ministers attempted to aid them. Colleagues who knew of it claimed ignorance and betrayed them. The Ministers were dismissed in the May 1970 ‘Arms Crisis’. O’Brien and the Labour Party portrayed it as a grave threat to democracy. They changed a leftist no-coalition stance for mainly this reason.

Back in ’69 O’Brien said the use of ‘British troops… in Derry and Belfast resembled [President Eisenhower’s] decision in 1956 to send federal troops to Little Rock’ Arkansas. O’Brien hoped it was ‘the beginning of the end of the institutionalised caste system’. He noted,

‘the smaller of the[..] communities has been oppressed by the larger, and has now served notice of its determination to refuse to continue to be oppressed’

However, O’Brien opposed ‘American support’ for Irish reunification. It confirmed,

‘Protestant suspicions of an international conspiracy to place them under Catholic domination (or Communist domination, which militant Protestants take to be much the same thing)’.

This stance harmonized briefly with nationalist strategy. The violent refusal to grant so-called ‘British’ rights exposed the sectarian state. The violence O’Brien endorsed was a response to state violence. However, his opposition to Irish unification was a link to ideas O’Brien had before the 1960s. He ignored discrimination against Northern Ireland’s nationalists until, as he said of Encounter’s ignorance of US racism, ‘the news made it impossible to play it down’.

O’Brien’s observations in late 1968 contradicted the religious prism through which he later articulated a sympathetically pro-unionist outlook. Prior to the ‘Troubles’ he had also seen the conflict as religious. In attempting to explain it UCD’s Liam de Paor asserted,

‘In Northern Ireland Catholics are Blacks who happen to have white skins. This is not a truth. It is an oversimplification and too facile an analogy. But it is a better oversimplification than that which sees the struggle and conflict in Northern Ireland in terms of religion…. The Northern Ireland problem is a colonial problem, and the ‘racial’ distinction (and it is actually imagined as racial) between the colonists and the natives is expressed in terms of religion’.

Unionist references to their ‘kith and kin’ in white minority ruled South Africa and Rhodesia clarified matters. The Home Affairs Minister, William Craig, supported Apartheid. He also said, with a straight face, ‘It is well known that in countries where there is a Catholic majority there is a lower standard of democracy’. The Afrikaner and US racism comparison seemed then obvious to O’Brien. However, it was not one with which he persevered. Or rather, it was one to which he returned in the mid 1980s, but this time with a sympathetic view of Afrikaners. He said,

‘It probably doesn’t help to treat them as morally inferior to ourselves. We are morally superior to them only if we can be certain that we, if placed in their predicament would act better than they do. How many of us can be certain of that’.

The supporter of broadcasting censorship opposed an academic boycott of South Africa. He decided to break it in 1986 with the words, ‘I am off to Cape Town accompanied by my [adopted] Black son’. Combined anti-Apartheid, anti-O’Brien, and pro-IRA protests, erupted on campuses at which he attempted to speak.

After repositioning his view of white South Africans, O’Brien also identified with Israeli Zionists, whose position he appeared to compare favorably with Northern Ireland unionists. While rejecting out of hand comparisons between the 1845-47 Irish famine and the Nazi Holocaust, O’Brien elided the question of how unionist experience in Ireland could be compared with the Jewish people’s fate. In essence the comparison was contemporary and political, not historical, Unionists with Zionists and Nationalists with Palestinians, O’Brien tending to support the former equation over the latter. Four pages of acknowledgements in his The siege (1986) contain not one Arab name. It was suggested that he might interview Yasser Arafat. He replied ‘No, I don’t want to’.

A historical interrogation might not have been favorable to unionism.

In 1916 the Unionist Party drove out of Northern Ireland a former Unionist councillor and 1899, 1904, Belfast Lord Mayor, Sir Otto Jaffe. He, like other Jews in Britain and Ireland, was portrayed as a German sympathiser during World War One. It was hysteria encouraged by the British Government that Unionists endorsed. The Winston Churchill Archive for 1914 contains:
‘Telegram from Captain MacIlwaine, fitting out ships at Harland and Wolff, Belfast [Northern Ireland] to Admiralty, reporting that Sir Otto Jaffe, a prominent German Jew, was a suspected spy. MacIlwaine alleges that Jaffe had made an exhaustive report to the German Government on Belfast, and that he had been seen spying on ships fitting out “from an unusual place of observation”.’
The ‘suspected spy’ fled to England.

Many Jews fled south, where the increasingly republican atmosphere was considered more congenial. Similar unionist nonsense was replicated against Moslems after September 11 2001.

O’Brien acknowledged how civil rights demands opened up the 1922 Partition settlement. Almost immediately, he set out to suppress or to re-define the question. Then Taoiseach (Irish PM) Jack Lynch asserted that Partition was the ‘root cause’, and continued,

‘gerrymandering, discrimination in jobs and housing, suppression of free speech and the right of peaceful protest – could not be continued without the political and the huge financial support received by Britain’.

In reply, O’Brien indicated that Partition both was and was not the issue. It was not in that it merely reflected the consequences of the successful coloniatiozn of Ulster in the 17th Century. It was in the sense that parts of the province contained substantial nationalist majorities.

In early 1969 O’Brien believed that civil rights demands should be pursued while also warning that ‘an Irish Sharpeville was not out of the question’. He believed that it might be carried out by unionists, but provoked by southern interference. Therefore, he advised, avoid it. The ‘Irish Sharpeville’ did occur on Derry’s ‘Bloody Sunday’ on January 30 1972. 14 nationalist civilians were shot dead by British Army Paratroopers. Up to then the nationalist minority in the North felt it had been subject to many mini Sharpevilles and to a sectarian police and judicial system. O’Brien erected a ‘keep out’ sign to southern political parties. Increasingly, he did not wish to offend unionists, irrespective of how offensive they were toward nationalists. Avoidance of unionist upset became a regular theme. Unionists might act violently if disconcerted. It was to lead eventually to an elective affinity between O’Brien and those unionists he earlier compared with racists in the USA and in South Africa.

O’Brien also suggested that in 1969 in Dublin there was ‘thinly disguised impatience, irritation and even contempt’ directed at ‘the Catholics (alias in certain contexts the nationalists)’ of the North. The observation was not new. In his States of Ireland (1972) O’Brien noted the Dublin view of 1961 that northern Catholics had ‘brought… most of their troubles on themselves, it was now up to them to come to terms with reality’. They did. But the reality they came to terms with was increasingly driven by autonomous action. However, instead of welcoming political self-activity, as he had with African Americans, as early as 1968 O’Brien was wondering whether nationalists should endure their ‘disabilities’, which he said ‘are real, but not overwhelmingly oppressive’. He asked, ‘is their removal really worth attaining at the risk of precipitating riots, explosions, pogroms, murder’? This surprising request begs a question he did not pose: why such barbaric unionist methods in defense of supposedly minimal ‘disabilities’?

While addressing the views of the elite, O’Brien may also have been addressing his own irritation. He began to articulate a fear for the stability of the status quo on the island as a whole. He articulated an institutional preference for dealing directly with Unionist power, not the irritations of nationalist powerlessness. In the 1960s, the Dublin political establishment decided to turn away from articulating the grievances of nationalists. O’Brien’s political trajectory was in line with southern practice if not its then politically expedient rhetoric.

IRA violence was implicated in the creation of southern disaffection. However, the IRA served as a convenient scapegoat for a policy direction desired by the comfortably off down South. O’Brien’s target was not the IRA. Non-violent especially left-wing activists bore the brunt of O’Brien’s opposition. The targets included Labour’s Northern Ireland sister party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), and Labour itself. Also in the frame was the left wing of the republican movement, which had split in 1970. These efforts caused a crisis in relations between Labour and the SDLP.

O’Brien vs Labour vs the SDLP

In 1972 the left wing SDLP founder member, Paddy Devlin, formerly of the Northern Ireland Labour Party, noted O’Brien’s public ‘criticism’ of SDLP policy, Toward a New Ireland, ‘while the Irish Labour Party were planning a meeting to discuss the contents’.

Labour was reportedly ‘split down the middle over O’Brien’. David Thornley TD attempted unsuccessfully to remove him as foreign affairs spokesperson. A procedural motion at a party meeting in October 1972, that would have brought differences into the open, ‘was defeated very narrowly and Dr O’Brien survived’. John O’Connell TD called for endorsement of the SDLP policy. Discussion was ruled ‘out of order’. Protestant SDLP MP Ivan Cooper accused Labour of engaging in a ‘face saving charade in the interests of Dr Conor Cruise O’Brien’. Cooper said the SDLP and Labour ‘cannot continue maintaining a special relationship’.

O’Brien clashed sharply with a later SDLP leader, John Hume. In 1998 O’Brien described Hume as having been his ‘deadly enemy’ in 1972. Hume said O’Brien’s States of Ireland (1972),was ‘a more subtle and effective defence of unionism than any that has come from any unionist quarter’. O’Brien replied that Hume’s was a ‘serious and unjust charge’. He said, ‘I have never been a unionist and John Hume knows that’.

Hume charged O’Brien with misrepresenting SDLP policy on Irish unity. The SDLP wanted a British declaration that ‘it would be in the best interests of both these islands if we became united on terms acceptable to all the people of Ireland, North and South’. O’Brien stated that unity ‘such as that sought by the SDLP would stick in his throat’. He said, paraphrasing Hume’s comment about a ‘United Ireland or nothing’ post-Bloody Sunday, that it would push ‘toward the terrible nothing of anarchy and civil war’. Hume replied that the ‘so called’ ‘unionist fears’ on which O’Brien focused ‘never had justification’. He continued, ‘the price of these fears had been very high on both sides of the border’, causing southern Civil War and ‘50 years of injustice’ in the North. He noted, as a consequence, ‘now there were 600 people dead’.

O’Brien asserted that ‘even to suggest unity is to destroy hopes for peace’. The Irish Times was critical of O’Brien’s charge, ‘that to mention unity is dangerous’. The Times suggested that ‘Dr O’Brien’s prognostications of incipient civil war are hardly compatible with his declared intentions’. The editorial went on to declare as ‘unfair and invalid’ O’Brien’s suggestion that a worsening of relations between the Irish Labour Party and the SDLP

‘would be saying to the Protestants that there is no room in Catholic Ireland for a dissenting voice or for anyone who urges that any form of Protestant opinion should be taken into consideration’.

In seeing Protestants politically as unionists, O’Brien’s stance encouraged an intertwining of religion and identity, rather than challenge it. The agnostic O’Brien now personified this sectarian identity. He became an ersatz Protestant.

Douglas Gageby, the last Protestant Editor of The Irish Times, said O’Brien ‘pushes his case too far’. He said O’Brien,

‘did not dwell on the effects on the anti-unionist minority in the North if the battle in which he is engaged should spread further. The effect might be to throw more and more people into the arms of the men of violence’.

O’Brien in office marginalized the nationalist middle and populated the increasingly disaffected extreme.

Gageby’s point was interesting. The cycle of violence finally ended after Gerry Adams and John Hume began serious talking during the late 1980s. For nearly three decades, policy had been not to talk with, but also to actively censor, those whose violence did not have state sanction. That policy was a failure and it was O’Brien’s failure, but not only his.

Like Cooper, Devlin noted that as a result of O’Brien’s attitudes and actions relations between the two parties ‘could never be the same’. At a subsequent meeting between them, according to Devlin, ‘we were on our feet shouting and gesticulating at one another’.

The controversy caused Labour leader Brendan Corish to declare,

‘there could be no greater travesty of our position than to suggest that I, or any of my colleagues was in the slightest degree opposed to Irish unity’.

Corish said O’Brien wished for Irish unity, but ‘in such a way that there will not be violence or alienation of the two communities’. Since no one was calling for an Irish unity so encumbered, and since the current arrangement had plenty of both, the statement was meaningless, though politically expedient.

It was also untrue as a description of O’Brien’s thoughts on Irish unity, thoughts he hid and denied when criticised for having them.

O’Brien responded to the charge ‘that I am against the very idea of unity’. He committed himself to ‘reconciliation between Irishmen’, which he said was the Irish Labour Party’s ‘precondition’ for ‘socialism and unity in Ireland’. ‘Every utterance of mine’, said Dr O’Brien, to cries of ‘hear, hear’ at a prominently reported Labour party seminar in Kerry attended by ‘fewer than 100 people’, ‘was aimed at the achievement of that necessary precondition’.

He pursued a pre-condition. He allowed himself the right, availed of at every opportunity, to criticise anyone who argued for a United Ireland without it.

This stance became the Labour’s version of the Fianna Fail policy of unity through rhetoric and prevarication, though Dr O’Brien managed to add ‘socialism’ to the list of policy aims to be achieved once pre-conditional unanimity was attained.

O’Brien was Labour’s delegate at the November 1972 SDLP annual conference. The latter passed a motion that O’Brien should be denied the right to speak. He did achieve a sound bite. O’Brien interjected to support SDLP objections to Dublin’s attempt ‘to muzzle RTE’, the state broadcaster. Its governing body had been sacked for not operating state censorship to the then Fianna Fail government’s liking. The muzzled, but soon to be southern Minister for Posts and Telegraphs, was making a point, one he could not make for too much longer. Having at first opposed censorship, he went on to copper fasten and perfect it. RTE was well and truly muzzled then.

O’Brien’s arguments gained authority through the exercise of ministerial authority, through censorship. Prior to this O’Brien’s arguments, while in tune with the needs of the southern elite, competed with others. Once censorship and repression was imposed his arguments monopolised attention.

O’Brien hoped that unionists would become ‘moderate’. Persecuting their opponents was his chosen route in pursuit of this goal. It was not successful. In The Irish Times, Claud Cockburn suggested that

‘those such as Dr O’Brien and many others who pin faith and hope on the moderates, have to admit that the nerves of those unhappy people are far from in good shape. For years they have been under the protection of the British Army, the RUC [police], the UDR [state militia], the UVF, the UDA, the Tartan Gangs, [unionist paramilitary death squads] and an unlisted number of skilled assassins. Yet they cannot, it seems, feel easy in their minds unless and until they are assured that the Irish Labour Party intends them no harm’.

In his 1998 memoir O’Brien explained that setting up an independent Irish state in 1922 prevented his family from attaining its rightful place within the Irish ruling class, ‘those who would run the country when Home Rule [within the UK] was won’. After independence, ‘we were out in the cold, superseded by a new republican elite’. When O’Brien attained ministerial office in 1973 it was, effectively, payback time.

O’Brien briefly applied his 1960s left wing international experience to Ireland. The effort did not survive re-immersion in Irish politics. He began to frame constructs pleasing to the political right. This included those he had opposed in Encounter. They expressed genuine surprise and admiration for a lost sheep returning to the fold.

O’Brien joined the small UK Unionist Party in 1996. In 1998 he admitted that John Hume’s 1972 suggestion that O’Brien was a unionist apologist, ‘was quite a perceptive diagnosis’.

NIALL MEEHAN is researching the imposition of censorship in the 1970s and how Irish history was turned into propaganda. He can be reached at