The curious victory of Conor Cruise O’Brien

The arch revisionist of Irish history is now denounced as an intellectual eccentric. Yet his misanthropic vision governs modern Ireland; he was the Grandfather of the Peace Process.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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The death of Conor Cruise O’Brien – Irish writer, academic, former minister, arch-revisionist of Irish history, and eye-swivelling opponent of the Provisional IRA – provoked a strange reaction in the obituarist and political-commentary camps.

Alongside the normal gushing one expects when an Important Person dies (he was an ‘intellectual giant’, a ‘man of undoubted courage and brilliance’), there was also a concerted, and distinctly ungallant, effort to paint him as an intellectual nutjob who skated around the outskirts of polite society. He was a ‘towering intellect left exposed by the peace process’; he was a ‘grim historical reaper in the grimmest of times’; he ‘fell so low’ (from his time as an Irish diplomat in the 1960s to a flag-waving member of the UK Unionist Party in the 1990s). Reading the mixed-bag of mourning has left even me – a life-long despiser of the bruiser Cruise – feeling uncomfortable, or at least wondering: what’s going on here?

Perhaps the most revealing denouncement of O’Brien came from the Guardian/Observer stable, where, let us not forget, O’Brien worked and wrote for five years. Roy Greenslade, a prominent Guardian journalist, wrote a piece designed to smash ‘the tradition’ where one doesn’t ‘speak ill of the dead’, in which he dissented from the ‘hagiographic outpouring’ that followed O’Brien’s death and described him as a ‘flip-flopper’ and a ‘mythmaker’. Most strikingly, Greenslade took it upon himself to distance the Guardian/Observer from their former editor-in-chief. ‘Let me quash one further myth about O’Brien: he was not – repeat, not – the editor of the Observer [who said he was?]. For something less than two years from 1979 he was the paper’s “editor-in-chief” and exercised very little editorial power.’

This is an extraordinarily defensive account of O’Brien’s later life and work. Greenslade fails to mention that while, yes, O’Brien was only editor-in-chief of the Observer (a very important symbolic role in newspaper-land) from 1979 to 1981, he stayed on as a columnist until 1984, winning Granada TV’s Columnist of the Year Award in 1979 and the trendy, liberal Channel 4’s award for newspaper writer of the year in 1984. To this list, we might also add the fact that O’Brien was a contributor to the New Left Review. Greenslade might be accused of indulging in some ‘mythmaking’ of his own, and the Guardian/Observer of being a ‘flip-flopper’, too. For however much they try to paint O’Brien’s time at the Observer as a blip, there’s no escaping the fact that this curious beast of Irish politics and letters – a rabid and deeply censorious anti-IRA campaigner – was in bed with the British left and liberals from at least the 1960s through to the mid-1980s. They had something in common. Yet today many liberal observers feel itchily uncomfortable with O’Brien, to the extent that just days after his death they were seeking to rewrite the role that this Irish reactionary played in British liberal letters as well as in Irish history. What is going on here?

We’re witnessing a serious outbreak of what me might call Reverse Revisionism. If Conor Cruise O’Brien was an arch-revisionist of Irish history, discussing the decades-long struggle for Irish independence as an atavistic, tribal and criminal enterprise, then some of these obituarists and grave-dancers are arch-revisionists of Conor Cruise O’Brien himself, of his life, times and politics. It is disingenuous to paint O’Brien as an intellectual eccentric, a quirky outsider, little more than an academic poseur who was also known as ‘Camera Crews O’Brien’ because he loved the limelight. Because the fact is that O’Brien’s misanthropic outlook on Irish history, his core belief that there were ‘two states’ in Ireland (one nationalist, one Unionist) that might descend into civil war and barbarism if their individual integrity was not respected, is now utterly mainstream, and indeed is the governing principle of modern Ireland and Anglo-Irish affairs. It might not be going too far to label O’Brien the Grandfather of the Peace Process.

The rash-inducing reaction to O’Brien’s death amongst liberal observers has been brought about not because they disagree with him, but because this shrill denouncer of all things republican reminds them of a deeply uncomfortable fact: that the contemporary, liberal-sounding celebration of Ireland’s ‘two traditions’, which justifies the Partition of Ireland anew, has its origins in unadulterated elite disgust for the Irish people’s temerity to demand liberty and independence; in other words, in the outlook of people like Conor Cruise O’Brien.

O’Brien’s life was bound up with the history of the Irish Republic itself. Right from his birth in 1917 (when the Irish Republic was barely a year old, and was denounced as ‘illegal’ by the then British rulers of Ireland) to his death in 2008 (when the Irish Republican project of creating a fully free and independent state has come to an end), he was an outsider in Irish politics. For both political and deeply personal reasons, O’Brien was an instinctive opponent of the Republic that had been proclaimed in opposition to British rule during the Easter Uprising of 1916, when small groups of armed men stormed the General Post Office in British-ruled Dublin and announced: ‘We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland, and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible.’ This was followed by the Irish War of Independence in 1919 and by the Irish Civil War in 1922, eventually leading to an historically disastrous settlement in which Ireland was partitioned between a Free State in the 26 counties of the South and a Unionist-ruled Northern Ireland in six of the counties of Ulster.

For O’Brien’s family and forefathers, the declaration of a Republic in 1916 – the kickstarting of that 80-year experiment in Irish independence – was an unmitigated disaster. O’Brien was born, as one observer points out, into the ‘inner sanctum of intellectual Home Rulers’ – that is, the middle-class supporters of the late nineteenth-century Irish activists Parnell and Redmond, who wanted ‘Home Rule’ for Ireland, a kind of devolution within the British Empire, rather than political independence. O’Brien’s maternal grandfather was David Sheehy MP, a prominent member of the Irish Parliamentary Party and organiser of the Irish National Land League. His father, the Home Rule-supporting journalist Francis Cruise O’Brien, was a friend of Yeats and was instinctively hostile to the Catholic, republican Free State that emerged following the Civil War and Partition. He sent Conor to Protestant schools and colleges. Consequently, as The Times’ obituary points out, Conor was ‘educated in the minority culture, apart from the mainstream of Catholic Ireland’, and he was ‘to remain an outsider in Irish life’.

The Home Rule movement, which saw prominent and powerful Irish families entering into a political relationship with the British state on the promise of devolution, was utterly swept aside by the emergence of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and later Sinn Fein and the Irish Republican Army, during the heady 1910s and 1920s. This new republican movement sought, not accommodation with Britain, but separation from it; sovereign equality with it. Its radical aim was to overcome the class and religious divisions fostered in Ireland by British domination and to usher in a new era of ‘religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all citizens [of the Irish Republic]’, as the 1916 Proclamation put it. It is impossible to overstate what a blow the rise of republicanism was for the Sheehy family, the Cruise O’Brien family, and the Home Rule movement more broadly. In his most influential book, States of Ireland (1972), Conor Cruise O’Brien wrote, as one observer summarises, about ‘the political success of the republican Easter Rising and the consequent demise of his Home Rule family’s position in society’. As one O’Brien-sympathising commentator recently put it, the ‘cosmopolitan world’ of the Home Rule classes was ‘dealt the sharpest of blows in the aftermath of the 1916 uprising’. Ireland became a ‘suffocating backwater’ in which the place of the ‘O’Briens and the Sheehys’ had been taken ‘by the newly ascendant political class of Sinn Fein-IRA’. Some of us, however, see this as a hugely positive development: the usurping of a self-interested middle-class elite by a radical movement that at least contained within it the promise of liberty and equality for all.

Born out of political and familial defeat, O’Brien always harboured a deep hostility to republicanism. However, he managed to suppress his political feelings, most of the time, in his early career as an Irish minister, diplomat, academic and author. He had to, since he frequently worked with Irish governments in the 1940s, 50s and 60s that were headed by former chiefs-of-staff of the IRA or commanders in the anti-Partition side of the Irish Civil War (such as Eamon de Valera and Sean MacBride). O’Brien became, in his own words, a ‘successful sycophant’.

In the 1940s, he even worked with then Irish foreign minister Sean MacBride on an anti-Partition campaign launched by the Dublin government. (However, all of the contemporary obituarists who treat this fact as the most bizarre in O’Brien’s ‘flip-flopping’ life should bear in mind that, as O’Brien himself recognised, the real aim of Dublin’s 1940s anti-Partition campaign was not to reunite Ireland as a free republican state but to undermine the still-existing IRA and to win wider recognition on the international stage for the young Irish nation. O’Brien said the anti-Partition campaign was partly about stealing the republican initiative back from the IRA – that is, it was about undermining more ‘ambitious anti-Partition schemes which are clearly doomed’ – and partly about assuring the people of Ireland and others that the new 26-county Free State was not a complete sell-out to Britain. In O’Brien’s view, the anti-Partition campaign was ‘addressed to southern Irish and Irish-American opinion rather than to Northern Ireland or England’.)

While Ireland was in a kind of political limbo between 1921 and 1969, when the historic conflict between Irish republicanism and British domination and division seemed to have been resolved, the likes of O’Brien could get on with fairly normal politics and academic work – even if they had to wear a metaphorical peg on their snouts while dealing with Catholic and republican politicians. In the 1960s, O’Brien became a rather renowned and even liberal-leaning Irish diplomat in the newly independent Congo, and served as vice chancellor of the University of Ghana under Nkrumah. However, the outbreak of war in Ireland in 1969, when the British Army entered Northern Ireland to restore British/Unionist rule, put Irish History with a capital H back on the agenda. The 25-year war between the British state and the Provisional IRA, from 1969 to 1994, reawakened the life-and-death issues of who rules Ireland, of political legitimacy, of what kind of state Ireland wanted to be and what kind of relations it wanted to have with Britain.

More fundamentally, it reminded history, lest it had forgotten, that the Irish Republic proclaimed during the Easter Uprising of 1916 had never been realised, and that now there were two forces in Ireland – the Dublin government and the Army Council of the Provisional IRA – that claimed to represent the spirit and letter of that Republic. It is at this moment in Irish history that O’Brien, descended from anti-republicans and possessed of an innate, sometimes suppressed anti-republican outlook, devoted his political energy to propagandising against and severely censoring the Provisional IRA and anyone who smelt like a supporter of the IRA. O’Brien became a kind of single-minded, single-handed warrior against the realisation of a Republic whose first proclamation in 1916 had proved so disastrous for his family’s status in society, and for the standing of his forefathers’ more polite, accommodating, apologetic and civilised politics of Irish devolution.

O’Brien’s rabid (that is not too strong a word) war against the Provisional IRA was executed on two fronts. Firstly, in his capacity as a writer and academic of international repute, he launched a concerted campaign of revisionism of Irish history. ‘I intend to administer a shock to the Irish psyche’, he declared. Directly in response to the Provisional IRA’s campaign to end Partition and expel British forces from Northern Ireland, O’Brien wrote States of Ireland in 1972. Though many try to deny it today, the book represented a turning point in the way that modern Ireland is discussed and understood. It was one of the first serious Irish texts to posit the idea that Ireland’s real problem was not that an external power had denied it liberty and independence, but rather that there were two distinct ‘states’ or ‘traditions’ (nationalism and Unionism, Catholicism and Protestantism, the South and the North) that had failed to reach an equitable accommodation.

O’Brien turned Irish history utterly on its head with States of Ireland. One of his key arguments was that the central injustice in Ireland was not Partition and Britain’s occupation of the North, but the Dublin government’s continuing constitutional claim over Northern Ireland. Dean Godson, a right-wing British think-tanker who is a fan of O’Brien’s, summarised it thus: ‘So it was not the British presence in Northern Ireland that was colonialist; rather, it was the South’s aspiration to rule over a million Unionists. So who was the oppressor now?’ O’Brien’s argument was a grotesque distortion of reality, where the undemocratic institution of Partition became re-justified as a barrier necessary to protect the cultural minority of Unionist Protestants from intolerant, hectoring, unreconstructed Irish nationalism. Britain didn’t have to get out of Ireland in order for democracy and equality to prevail; rather the Irish people had to grow up and learn to accept that there are ‘two states’ on their territory, both equally deserving of respect. The British were redefined as the enablers of diversity; the Irish people were redefined as the imperialists in their own country.

The second front pursued by O’Brien against the Provisional IRA was in the realm of politics. In 1973, under the Fine Gael/Labour coalition government, O’Brien, then a Labour member of the Irish parliament, the Dáil, was made minister for posts and telegraphs. From this vantage point he instituted some of the most severe political censorship in Western Europe. He amended Section 31 of Ireland’s Broadcasting Act in order to deny airtime on Irish state TV or radio to any IRA or Sinn Fein members. The Irish republican viewpoint was simply wiped out in the mainstream Irish media. It was, as The Times noted, ‘a form of censorship that had no parallel in Northern Ireland or the rest of the UK’. Looking back on O’Brien’s censorious tyranny, one Irish journalist recently pointed out that the ‘fatwa’ extended even to ‘fellow travellers’ of the republican movement and anyone ‘who did not adhere to the same dogma as [conservative elements in the Irish authorities]’. One RTE journalist was summarily sacked from her job for reporting the words of Martin McGuinness following the British execution of three IRA members in Gibraltar in 1988. Thatcher was inspired by O’Brien’s law to institute a broadcasting ban on Sinn Fein in the UK in the 1980s. No wonder elements at the Observer are so mortified that this arch media censor later became their editor-in-chief and star columnist.

So on one hand, O’Brien used his privileged position as a published author and media star to revise Irish history and demonise republicanism, and on the other hand he used his political power to deny republicans or republican sympathisers access to the airwaves. Politics doesn’t get much more degenerate than that. In a sense, though, O’Brien was being perversely consistent. If his view of Ireland was correct, and it was indeed true that the key problem was the failure of Irish nationalism to recognise and appreciate the existence of the two states of Ireland, then surely he was justified in censoring and harrying the ‘one state’ (unfettered nationalism) that was threatening the ‘other state’ (victimised Unionism). O’Brien was wielding censorship in order to protect a community from intolerant threats, to preserve a political tradition from being abused. This was an early instance of PC censorship.

At this time, in the 1970s, O’Brien was seen as something of a dinner-party eccentric in Ireland. Although the Irish state was more than willing to institute and support his censorship of republicans (and to imprison IRA men and assist Britain in other ways in its war against the IRA), it felt uncomfortable with his explicit revision of Irish history. Indeed, part of the reason why O’Brien decamped intellectually to Britain (well, to the Observer, to be precise) in the late 1970s and early 1980s is because there was much more openness in chauvinistic liberal British circles to the idea that the war in Ireland was an atavistic clash between two gangs of people rather than a national conflict. It wasn’t because the Irish elite actively and politically disagreed with O’Brien that it looked upon him as an oddity. Rather it was because Dublin was acutely aware that, while the Provisional IRA was waging a war of liberation, it had no choice but to hide behind its nationalist garb, to continue claiming sovereignty over the North, and effectively to pose as the true descendant of the Irish Republic of 1916. Anything else would have handed a moral victory to those other descendants of 1916: the Provisional IRA.

After all, the Easter Proclamation of 1916, which Dublin claimed was the source of its legitimacy, stated explicitly that: ‘Until our arms have brought the opportune moment for the establishment of a permanent National Government, representative of the whole people of Ireland and elected by the suffrages of all her men and women, the Provisional Government, hereby constituted, will administer the civil and military affairs of the Republic in trust for the people.’ Given that in the 1970s there was still no government that was representative of the ‘whole people of Ireland’, the IRA had a very strong case that it rather than Dublin was the legitimate Provisional Government that had been proclaimed in 1916, and that the Dublin authorities, in conspiring with Britain in the creation of a 26-county Free State, were the usurpers of the Irish Republic. Faced with such a live threat to its legitimacy, Dublin could not afford – yet – to go along fully with O’Brien’s rewriting of 1916 as blind ‘blood sacrifice’ or his redefinition of Irish nationalism as essentially oppressive. Given his Home Rule, anti-republican background, O’Brien was in a position in 1970s Dublin to state out loud the discomfort with Irish nationalism that much of the Irish elite felt but could not articulate; as a ‘victim’ of the rise of republicanism, O’Brien’s desire to rewrite Irish history, in which republicanism would be cast as the demon and the Home Rule sympathisers with official Unionism as the heroes, became a personal obsession. However, strikingly, as soon as the IRA’s campaign started to wind down in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Irish elite and the British state became more willing to adopt the O’Brien-style revised version of Irish history, and to start talking about ‘two traditions’ and the need for ‘parity of esteem’.

From the academic debate about ‘cultural diversity’ in Northern Ireland in the late 1980s to the institutionalisation of the ‘two traditions’ Good Friday Agreement in 1998, O’Brien’s states-of-Ireland thesis has become absolutely the dominant player in Anglo-Irish relations. His view of recent Irish history as being an ‘internal’ Irish problem of, essentially, a severe lack of tolerance is now accepted across the board, and British intervention has been rehabilitated as the arbiter of cultural relations in Ireland, as the preventer of war rather than the cause of it. In a gushing appraisal of O’Brien that has the virtue of at least being more honest than Greenslade’s dissenting view, the Irish journalist Vincent Browne wrote on 21 December: ‘He, more than others, changed public attitudes towards the North and towards republicans and nationalism… [His apprehension about political violence] informed his critique of nationalism and led him – and us eventually – into an acceptance of the essence of Unionism.’ Browne shows that O’Brien was actually a man before his time, putting the case for two states/traditions before others did; and he also shows what O’Brienism, later developed and instituted in various ways as ‘the peace process’, really represented: ‘acceptance of the essence of Unionism’; that is, of the Union between Ireland and Britain, of the alleged futility of republicanism, of the death of Irish independence.

This is the essence of Anglo-Irish politics today. As one critical observer says of the politics of the peace process: ‘Central to the peace process is the idea that the conflict is one “internal” to Northern Ireland [and that] the state should recognise and respect the “identities” of the “two traditions”, and ensure parity of esteem between them. Politics should be a sectarian balancing act to ensure that they are given equal worth.’ From O’Brien in the 1970s to the Good Friday Agreement today, the misanthropic ‘two traditions’ outlook – based on notions of Irish atavistic instincts that must be suppressed or managed by a supposedly neutral outsider – has emerged victorious. Irish republicanism is seen as simply one tradition that deserves respect, Britain as the protectors of the tradition of Unionism, and Partition not as a terrible historic crime, but as the thing that facilitates and makes real Ireland’s apparently natural and celebratory states.

O’Brien makes people uncomfortable because he reminds them where today’s seemingly PC Anglo-Irish politics really comes from. The rule of the ‘two traditions’ emerged not only from academic debate at the University of Ulster or peace conferences at Downing Street; more fundamentally it has its origins in a deeply political, fanatically censorious desire to defeat the threat posed by Irish republicanism to the existing order, and to thwart the Irish people’s uppity demand for old-fashioned sovereign independence. O’Brien was only the earliest and most vocal proponent of this anti-republican creed; it was agreed with, and eventually adopted and reshaped and remoulded, by successive British and Irish governments in their determination to neuter Irish republicanism and institute a new political order in which the Irish Free State would still exist in a renewed form and Britain would still rule Northern Ireland with concessions. There is a direct line from O’Brien’s apparent ‘eccentricity’ in the 1970s to what counts as ‘normal politics’ today. Indeed, to all those obituarists who have slammed O’Brien for finally joining the UK Unionist Party in the 1990s, we might point out that at least he was being honest and consistent: preserving Partition and the Union is at the root of the peace process, yet rather than confess to respecting ‘the essence of Unionism’, too many of today’s Anglo-Irish politicians and commentators, such as those in the Guardian/Observer stable, dress up their pro-Partition stance as something like ‘respecting cultural diversity’.

O’Brien’s life and works are significant, for they are bound up with the birth and death of the Irish Republic. That proclaimed entity existed only as an ‘illegal’ state from 1916 to 1919, eventually replaced by the 26-county Irish Free State in 1921 and the renamed 26-county Republic of Ireland in 1948. But its spirit infused Irish politics and aspirations throughout the twentieth century. The desire to make this free and equal Republic a reality motivated the 1916 insurgents, the Civil War protagonists, various radical movements in Ireland, and the Provisional IRA from 1969 to 1994. Today, the Irish Republic is dead in theory as well as in practice. The curious victory of Conor Cruise O’Brien – well, of the divisive, anti-republican politics that he helped to shape – is an enormous tragedy for Ireland. The universality of the Irish Republic – which declared that it would cherish ‘all the children of the nation equally, and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien government’ – has been replaced by the politics of two states, a ‘sectarian balancing act’.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

States of Ireland by Conor Cruise O’Brien was published in 1972 by Hutchinson. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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