The lethal struggle in Katanga was not O'Brien's finest hour
'The Siege of Jadotville' has been criticised for its portrayal of Conor Cruise O'Brien. But the Irishman took risks in the Congo, says Michael Kennedy
'Fate may bring you to the Congo while I am here. In that case we will have a party and eat some Belgians."
So wrote Conor Cruise O'Brien to a colleague shortly after his June 1961 arrival in Congo's secessionist Katanga province as Special Representative of UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld.
Much comment has been made about the portrayal of O'Brien in Richie Smith's new Netflix film 'The Siege of Jadotville'. To Eoghan Harris it is "a hatchet job". O'Brien's grandson Alexander Kearney suggests reading O'Brien's 'To Katanga and Back' to really meet the man.
Yet declassified 1961 documents in UN archives in New York reveal O'Brien becoming increasingly strained by his immersion in Katanga's internecine struggles.
Arriving in the province with the best anti-colonial intentions, hoping to reunite it with Congo, O'Brien's despatches show him moving out of his depth as relations between the UN and the Katangese government of Moïse Tshombe worsened. By September 1961, when UN peacekeepers went to war against Katanga, he was frustrated and taking risks.
I based much of my 2014 book 'Ireland, the United Nations and the Congo', written with Defence Forces Congo veteran Comdt (ret.) Art Magennis, on these UN records. As far as I know, I am the only Irish historian to have made extensive use of the UN's Congo archives.
Director Richie Smith and scriptwriter Kevin Brodbin drew from my account when forming O'Brien's character in 'The Siege of Jadotville'.
O'Brien's UN despatches also call into question points in 'To Katanga and Back'.
In 1961, O'Brien was a skilled diplomat. He excelled on Ireland's UN team. Yet he lacked on-the-ground experience of Africa. He saw Katanga from the perspective of an Irish nationalist with strong anti-partitionist and anti-colonial views.
In his first months in Katanga, O'Brien relished being the UN's man on the ground. His witty correspondence betrays a curiously colonial-sounding air.
Inviting UCD friend Professor Patrick Lynch to Katanga, O'Brien promised "an entirely new perspective on world politics and plenty of Power's gin … I can offer you a room, food, drink and approximately 3 million acres of rough shooting."
Though wary of the UN's mission, O'Brien energetically entered the fray. He was determined to use UN resolutions to end Katanga's secession.
By August 1961, O'Brien was being influenced by India's Brigadier-General KAS Raja, commander of UN forces in Katanga. Raja was determined to end Katanga's secession by force.
O'Brien now felt Katanga's government would "do nothing without being squeezed and to some extent frightened". Raja and O'Brien saw eye to eye.
In late August, Operation Rumpunch scored a short-term UN success, temporarily removing the foreign mercenaries commanding Katanga's Gendarmerie.
Just over two weeks later came Operation Morthor, a short, sharp UN military assault to end Katanga's secession. This objective the UN would never admit.
Here the limitations of 'To Katanga and Back' become evident. Written following Morthor's failure and O'Brien's resignation, it sought to justify his position in the face of international criticism.
Like all histories, it is selective. When deconstructed alongside material from UN archives, it is evident how its stylish polemic reconfigured key events between Rumpunch and Morthor.
Critically, O'Brien removed himself from planning Morthor. He left out of his book a key September 4 meeting where he convinced senior UN officials to undertake the operation.
Hammarskjöld too was convinced, telexing senior UN officials in Congo "we are beyond the point of no return … you are therefore authorised to pursue [Operation Morthor]". This vindicates O'Brien's point, for which he was vilified by Hammarskjold's supporters, that he acted with the Secretary General's authority.
Raja and O'Brien expected that with Morthor's show of force Katanga would crumble. Events proved otherwise: the Katangese fought back fiercely.
O'Brien was under immense strain throughout Morthor. During the fighting he told Katangese officials the UN would execute Katangese prisoners if two Irish UN soldiers held hostage were not released.
Responding to questions on the conduct of Indian UN troops and responsibility for the Radio Katanga massacre, he smoothly replied: "any troops in the world are likely to get touchy under these circumstances".
When top-level UN commanders, including Congo Force Commander Ireland's Lieutenant-General Seán MacEoin, over-ruled a decision by Raja to remove Commandant Pat Quinlan's A-Company from Jadotville before fighting broke out O'Brien was privately critical, but did not oppose.
Katanga was not Conor Cruise O'Brien's finest hour. Sucked into the province's lethal score-settling politics, his gritty street-level correspondence, rather than the sculpted 'To Katanga and Back', show him consumed by Katanga. The pressure, intrinsic tension and anxiety of his raw reports inspired his characterisation in 'The Siege of Jadotville'.
Dr Michael Kennedy (@DIFP_RIA), executive editor of the Royal Irish Academy's Documents on Irish Foreign Policy series, is co-author of 'Ireland, the United Nations and the Congo' (Four Courts Press).