Sunday 20 January 2019

The Cruiser: a man ahead of our time

Making Conor Cruise O'Brien a figure of fun and caricaturing him in film didn't mar his legacy, writes Eoghan Harris

'Stoic patriot': Conor Cruise O’Brien. Photo: Tony Gavin
'Stoic patriot': Conor Cruise O’Brien. Photo: Tony Gavin
Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

Conor Cruise O'Brien was born 100 years ago this year. Trinity College is marking his birth with a major symposium next Thursday and Friday.

Marking, not just celebrating. Looking down the list of speakers, my hunch is that it includes marginally more critics than stout defenders.

That is as it should be. 'The Cruiser' neither lacked nor feared critics at home - and in my time they were a pretty toxic bunch.

Abroad, O'Brien was admired both as an intellectual star and as an active campaigner against colonialism - which makes the caricature of his character in the film The Siege of Jadotville all the more reprehensible.

At home, however, he was a political prophet without honour among Irish nationalists, including many Irish academics. Many still dismiss him as a "revisionist" and depict him as an enemy of peace in Northern Ireland.

This is pretty rich. Critics of his revisionism should look in the mirror. Because on Irish unity we are nearly all revisionists now, and I can prove it.

Before O'Brien published States of Ireland in 1971, I can't think of a single politician who would publicly oppose a campaign for Irish unity or care about the consent of northern Protestants.

Today, I can't think of a single politician who would support such a campaign - publicly at least. Even Sinn Fein is obliged to pay lip service to unity by consent.

One of the major reasons for that change of mind was because the Cruiser gave irredentist Irish nationalism so many bloody lips, it lost its heroic looks.

The Republic finished off irredentism in 1998, when by a big majority it gave up the constitutional claim to a united Ireland.

You might think the 1998 widespread acceptance of O'Brien's 1971 position would cause nationalist academe to show some respect. Not at all.

The reaction to O'Brien's victory was largely one of loutish begrudgery, based on antipathy towards his anti-nationalism and intellectual jealousy.

This bilious begrudgery created a climate in which O'Brien was mocked to the margins and increasingly treated with insulting indifference, right up to the day of his funeral.

RTE did not even send a representative to the funeral of this intellectual giant. Nor had it made a film of his life it could show. So it was forced to ask my permission to use a film Gerry Gregg and myself made for the BBC, Making a Stand - Taking A Side.

RTE's episode of The Week in Politics that followed his death was also revealing. Sean O'Rourke put the following loaded question to Garret FitzGerald: "Conor Cruise O'Brien was a colleague of yours, a friend of yours, and made a great contribution to, I suppose, getting people, and forcing people, to re-think their attitudes to Northern Ireland - but in his latter stages did he take it too far, as it were, to the point where he almost became a figure of fun?"

Leaving aside the faint praise in the first part of the question, let me tease out the notion that he was a 'figure of fun' because he opposed peace and believed the peace process would cause civil war.

But O'Brien did not oppose peace, only the peace process as manipulated by Sinn Fein, using John Hume as a cover.

O'Brien deeply respected Hume's integrity of purpose. But he believed "a good man giving bad advice is more dangerous than a bad man giving good advice".

His problem with Hume's advice was that it drew the Republic into a Sinn Fein agenda by asking Dublin to lean on London to pressurise unionists on unity.

But O'Brien believed the only path to peace - and ultimate unity - was to stop nagging unionists about a united Ireland, close ranks against Sinn Fein/the IRA, and let time heal the tribal wounds.

Looking back over the rise of Sinn Fein in the South, how can his critics say the Cruiser got it wrong? As he predicted, the IRA's political wing has used the peace process as a Trojan horse to penetrate the politics of the Irish Republic.

Furthermore, his other long-term prediction of civil strife no longer looks so "funny".

What seemed remote on the day of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, does not seem so remote in 2017, as Sinn Fein ramps up tribal pressure by refusing to return to devolved government, while a new generation calls for inflammatory border polls.

Far from being a figure of fun, O'Brien was a prophet of profound wisdom. Irish taoisigh have been increasingly following his policy of refusing to treat the Irish Republic as a safe house for Sinn Fein.

Jack Lynch was the first to face the truth of O'Brien's belief that what was good for Sinn Fein nationalists was not necessarily good for the Irish Republic.

Garret FitzGerald, despite Peter Barry's posturing, continued a covert policy of following O'Brien's position by rejecting pan-nationalism.

Apart from brief back-sliding under Charles Haughey, the last three taoisigh have kept Sinn Fein at bay.

Today there is no sign of the sort of supine pan-nationalism that would allow Sinn Fein to dictate the Republic's policy in Northern Ireland.

That's because first Micheal Martin, and now Leo Varadkar, are on the same page in rejecting the pan-nationalist, "safe house" policy, in favour of pluralism.

O'Brien would have been particularly delighted by Micheal Martin's firm stand against Sinn Fein.

He had a big gra for the big beasts of Fianna Fail - such as De Valera, Frank Aiken and of course Sean McEntee, whose daughter Maire he had married.

Contrary to what his critics pretend, Conor Cruise O'Brien was not a West Brit, but what Frank Callanan memorably calls "a stoic patriot". As such he always acted with good authority, telling his own tribe the truths that set us free and would keep us safe for another century.

Sunday Independent

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