Wednesday 13 December 2017

Conor Cruise O'Brien: The Irishman at heart of Congo siege

Diplomat Conor Cruise O'Brien was to find his stellar career come off the rails ­during the 1961 Siege of Jadotville, an epic engagement involving the Irish Army which made it to our cinema screens this week. Damian Corless reports

Mark Strong as Conor Cruise O'Brien in The Siege of Jadotville
Mark Strong as Conor Cruise O'Brien in The Siege of Jadotville
Conor Cruise O'Brien at Dublin Airport

Fifty-five years ago, in September 1961, a company of 155 Irish United Nations troops found themselves surrounded by a force of heavily armed warriors outnumbering them 20-to-one in the jungle of central Africa. The Irish soldiers, many of them still in their teens, were lightly armed, short of ammunition and supplies, and completely unprepared for the desperate situation in which they found themselves. They had been sent to the former Belgian Congo on what was supposed to be a peacekeeping mission. Instead, they found themselves ordered on to the offensive by the UN's most senior diplomat on the ground, Dubliner Conor Cruise O'Brien.

The Irish troops held out for six days before they ran out of bullets and drinking water. When precious water finally reached them, it came in old petrol cans which hadn't been cleaned, making it undrinkable. They inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy force, but miraculously had suffered no fatalities themselves. After their surrender, they spent months in captivity, unsure of their fate, and when they arrived back in Ireland, they were dismayed and deeply hurt to learn that the UN and their own government were anxious to sweep the entire sorry episode under the carpet.

Last Monday, some of the survivors of the siege attended the Irish première of a new movie that restages that epic engagement. Starring Irish actor Jamie Dornan, The Siege of Jadotville opened in cinemas this week. Two days before the movie première, at a ceremony in Athlone last weekend, the Minister for Defence Paul Keogh honoured more than 60 veterans of the siege for their bravery in the crisis. The families of the other men received citations.

At the start of the 1960s, the Irish Army had not been involved in any conflict since the Civil War of nearly four decades earlier. The newly installed government of Taoiseach Seán Lemass decided that it was time for this state to start taking an active role in international affairs. If Lemass and his cabinet had known what awaited their troops in central Africa, they might have had second thoughts.

It is one of history's great ironies that thousands of Irishmen marched off to the trenches of the Great War on a mission to save "little Catholic Belgium" from German oppression, at a time when Belgium, as colonial master of the Congo basin since the 1880s, was presiding over one of the most brutal and genocidal regimes the world has ever seen.

A decade before his execution for his part in the Easter Rising, Roger Casement led the campaign exposing the atrocities inflicted by the Belgians, who enslaved millions of natives to cultivate the world's new industrial wonder, rubber. Casement's friend Joseph Conrad captured a taste of this regime of terror in his shocking novel Heart of Darkness which became the movie Apocalypse Now.

The Belgians turned the Congo into a real-life hell on Earth, and when they pulled out in 1960, they left behind an unholy mess which the Irish, wearing their UN berets alongside a force of Swedes, were supposed to somehow sort out. Over a five-year period some 6,000 Irish soldiers served in the Congo, with 26 of them killed in action. Conor Cruise was posted to the Congo in 1961 as the special representative of the United Nations' charismatic Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld. He was still in his early forties and he already had a glittering career behind him.

The man who would become widely known as 'The Cruiser' grew up in the Dublin suburb of Rathmines, the son of a journalist father and a crusading feminist writer mother. Like Charles Haughey, who would become his bête noire in later life, Cruise O'Brien was a star scholar who breezed through academic life nearly always at the top of the class.

By the start of the 1960s, Cruise O'Brien was the rising star of the Irish diplomatic service, taking a vocal role at the UN General Assembly in New York. He became an influential figure close to the heart of UN policy-making. His stellar career was to come off the rails when Hammarskjöld handed the impossible task of bringing order to the former Belgian colony.

Even at the distance of more than half a century, Cruise O'Brien's conduct in the Congo remains a matter of hot dispute. The authors of one book on the subject delivered the withering verdict that, driven by his huge ego and arrogance, O'Brien displayed an attitude to the local population "not dissimilar to Congo's former Belgian overlords".

The Belgians had left the region in a state of warring chaos. The rulers of one province, Katanga, opted to secede from the newly formed Democratic Republic of the Congo. Although they had officially abandoned their old colony, the Belgians were still anxious to cash in on the great natural resources of the country, and Katanga was a land rich in those resources. So the Belgians backed the breakaway Katangans.

By the time Cruise O'Brien arrived in the Katangan capital of Elizabethville in June 1961, the Congo had been sucked into the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union as a bloody sideshow that was getting bloodier by the day.

A year later, as the Irish troops of the Jadotville siege languished in captivity, the Cold War would bring the planet to the brink of destruction as the Americans and Soviets played out the game of chicken that was the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Shortly before Cruise O'Brien arrived, the crisis in the region was made far worse after the murder of the newly independent Congo's first democratically elected prime minister, Patrice Lumumba.

Lumumba had been trying to solicit Soviet support for his military campaign to stop Katanga breaking away, which drew the wrath of the United States. One reason given for the interference of the western powers was that they feared the Soviets would exploit the Congo's rich uranium deposits for making nuclear weapons. Washington, Westminster and Brussels have all been implicated in Lumumba's execution at the hands of a firing squad assembled by the Katangan authorities.

In the weeks and months leading up to the Irish capitulation at Jadotville, a murky situation got ever murkier. Cruise O'Brien was effectively the UN's commander on the ground. Acting on what he believed to be a UN resolution, he ordered the peacekeeping troops into action against Katanga's forces, many of whom were European-backed mercenaries. The existing crisis descended into tragic farce.

The international community rounded on Cruise O'Brien, accusing him of warmongering. Britain's prime minister Harold Macmillan typified the hostile reaction, asking "Who is Conor Cruise O'Brien?" His answer to his own rhetorical question was: "An unimportant, expendable man."

And expendable he was. Cruise O'Brien was hung out to dry by his UN boss Hammarskjöld, while his political masters in Ireland tried to wash their hands of the whole debacle. It has since emerged that while the Irish government was providing a monthly analysis of events in the Congo to members of the cabinet and some senior politicians, they weren't sharing this key information with Irish officers on the ground there.

Cruise O'Brien's version of events, set out in his 1962 book To Katanga and Back, has been dismissed as highly selective and self-serving, and while it deliberately excluded crucial items, recent evidence from the UN archives suggests Cruise O'Brien was acting with the express approval of Hammarskjöld. Armed with the archive material, one expert concluded Hammarskjöld "knew in advance that the UN was about to take action in Katanga and he authorised that action".

Hammarskjöld also permitted O'Brien to act on his own initiative, which enabled Hammarskjöld "to exercise plausible deniability should the operation go wrong".

Days after he green-lighted the aggression, as the Siege of Jadotville raged, Hammarskjöld was killed in a plane crash, leaving Cruise O'Brien to carry the can. He was swiftly let go by the UN, at the request of the Irish government, and he resigned from the diplomatic corps.

Soon after, he divorced his wife Christine, married the poet Máire Mhac an tSaoi, and the couple adopted two Congolese children.

After his bruising in the Congo, The Cruiser was down but not out. He resurfaced as a writer and playwright, an outspoken Irish Independent columnist, and as Minister for Posts & Telegraphs in the 1970s he reinforced Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act banning supporters of militant republicanism from the airwaves. He also bequeathed the English language a new word, Gubu, describing foe CJ Haughey's car crash 1982 administration as "Grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented".

Cold war and a royal land-grab

The roots of the so-called Congo Crisis of 1960-65 can be traced back to the avarice of Belgium's grasping King Leopold II, 75 years earlier. Envious of the empires of his close relatives Queen Victoria and Kaiser Wilhelm, Leopold made a land-grab for a huge chunk of central Africa some 30 times the size of Belgium.

When Belgium officially relinquished its colony in 1960, it left behind a legacy of slavery and plunder. But while the Belgians cut their official ties, they didn't stray far, bent on extracting further great profits from the region's abundant natural resources. Given strong Belgian encouragement, one of the richest provinces, Katanga, decided that it would fare better on its own, outside the newly-founded Democratic Republic of Congo. After the newly-independent Congo Republic elected a pro-Soviet leader, the Western powers piled in on the side of breakaway Katanga as the Congo became the latest theatre of hate in the Cold War.

Irish troops were sent into this boiling bloodbath on a peace-keeping mission (more than 100,000 Congolese and 26 Irish troops would die violently in the five-year conflict).

The UN was supposed to provide a neutral buffer, but archive records released many years later show that the head of the UN, Dag Hammarskjöld, was fiercely pro-Western/anti-Communist and covertly gave his full backing to UN aggression towards the breakaway Katangans. Swede Hammarskjöld's top man on the ground was Ireland's rising star of the diplomatic corps, Conor Cruise O'Brien, who was left, after his boss was killed during the crisis, to carry the can for a blot on the copybooks of both Ireland and the UN.

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