I am sure that the recent crop of hagiographies masquerading as obituaries would have nauseated and delighted the late Conor Cruise O’Brien in equal measure.
He was brilliant, complex and difficult man.
Whatever, or whoever, he was he was certainly significant.
In the Irish Independent (30/12/2008. www.unison.ie) Kevin Myer’s memoir of his first meeting with the “Cruiser” was doubly interesting because it recalled an incident told by the Cruiser himself in his seminal “States of Ireland”.
Published in 1972 I read the book in the 1980s. One incident stayed with me long after I had put the book down and I wondered if it had been a moment of epiphany for the Cruiser.
He recalled an incident in 1969 when he and a colleague had been set upon and beaten by a crowd of Loyalist in their Londonderry.
The standard response of an out of shape, middle aged middle class man with no physical history. The Billy Boys were street fighters the urbane Cruise O’Brien WAS frightened and shocked.
Myers said that the Cruiser was angry with the young reporter for telling the press that O’Brien had run from his attackers. He told the young Myers that this was a lie and that Conor Cruise O’Brien never ran away from anything! I believe Kevin Myers. The Cruiser was angry nit because he had been lied about, but because someone had told the truth about him. He had run. He then sought to, through his writings, soothe those who had given him a kicking.
He was a brilliant writer, but he wouldn’t have made a Bogsider!
In that he turned the mind that once served former IRA Chief of Staff Sean Mac Bride in the Dept of Foreign Affairs to serve the cause of revisionism.
His analysis of the national question was perfectly timed. 1972 started with Bloody Sunday. The War of Independence generation was still around and able to offer their take on what British rule in Ireland inevitably meant.
The fifty something generation of the southern middle class didn’t want to hear.
The Cruiser gave them a way out-partition was the natural order of things.
This was, in the South, a very heady admixture that had a willing market just ready for addiction.
The Cruiser offered no analysis merely amnesia and the South’s political elite, who had never experienced British rule just wanted to forget.
In Britain he played another role he was the British medias favourite Mick. He told them was no colonial issue that Britain’s eight centuries of stewardship had nothing to do with the current messy difficulties in the Six Counties.
Oh no, it was all Paddy’s fault.
My first memory of reading his journalism was in 1982 when I read a piece of his in the Observer extolling the merits of the Maronite Christians in Lebanon.
The Christian Phalange, the Cruiser lectured, were actually very good chaps. In fact the party run by the Gemayel clan were in fact the Lebanese Social Democratic Party. In fact the reality was more troubling. Pierre Gemayel the head of the clann had travelled to the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany. He had met with Hitler and had come back to Lebanon and formed the Phalange convinced that the Maronite Christians of the Lebanon were part of the Aryan race.
The Cruiser’s piece had to be submitted on the Thursday for the page to be made up.
In the 48 hrs that followed the “Damur Militia” a unit of the Maronite Christian Phalange, with Israeli blessing, entered the Sabra and Shatilla Palestinian refugee camps in West Beirut and slaughtered till they could slaughter no more.
Over 3,000 were murdered.
Even in the Middle East, even in Lebanon it was a shocking outrage.
It was the global lead story every Sunday paper and the Cruiser’s opinion piece, too late to be pulled, looked utterly surreal.
That he could then write “The Siege” an affectionate treatment of Israel and the history of Zionism indicates that for the Cruiser his objections to political violence were flexible.
In his autobiography he stated that his first memory was when he was a four year old listening to explosions as he played in his family’s comfortable Dublin home.
He later was told that was the sound of the Free State forces shelling the Republicans inside the Four Courts. He recalls that an adult soothed him that he shouldn’t be frightened that everything was going to be ok.
When he was in the Cosgrave government in the 1970s he later revealed that he had that he had no problem when he found tout that the Gardai were torturing republican prisoners. Indeed he hid this information form government colleagues.
Especially when writing about Ireland and the Irish situation for the Cruiser the political was personal.
1916 probably robbed him of his rightful inheritance. He was from Home Rule party royalty. The upstarts in the GPO destroyed Redmondism and the Sinn Fein victory in the 1918 election was the end of Redmondism.
His entire life’s work as a writer, within an Irish context, was a personal vendetta against the belief system of armed republicanism.
It would be difficult to underestimate the triumph of his ideas in modern Ireland. His views have become orthodoxy in the South. No one in political life in the Republic of Ireland would have the worldview of Sean McBride the Cruisers boss in the 50s,or, indeed, Sean Lemass.
With argument won in the South it was only a matter of time for Northern nationalism to capitulate.
He has turned the Provos into guarantors of partition in their government positions in Stormont.
Myers’ observation that the Cruiser had “intellectually decommissioned the ideology of armed republicanism” is impossible to argue against.
When O’Brien entered public life it was still common currency within the environs of Dail Eireann to discuss “national purpose”.
Today such a concept would seem hopelessly anachronistic.
Gerry Adams once referred to the Cruiser as “ a dangerous crank.”
Well the ex-labour minister has rendered Adams and his movement as dangerous as a pond full of ducks.
Ten years ago he published his autobiographical “Memoir”. In it this the advocate of the “Two State” solution to the Irish question stated that under certain circumstances the only way for Northern Protestants to preserve their identity would be to join a united Ireland! He didn’t spell out what those specific circumstances would be. In the final years of his life his writings became laced with apocalyptic predictions, which, happily, never came true.
The last one I touched based with was when he was predicting a military coup in the Republic of Ireland.
Despite becoming something of a joke character in his later years, especially as his prophecies became moiré and more awful and every time unfulfilled he was a substantial figure.
He dismantled the legitimacy of 1916 in the minds of the southern middleclass.
When he did that it would be inevitable that the war in the North would be viewed through a different prism.
Although the peace Process was very much the creation of his mind he stayed outside it predicting Bosnian style chaos would result from it.
Earlier this year the British army had a home coming parade through Belfast. In fact it was a victory parade of the United Kingdom.
A Sinn Fein counter demonstration turned up with Gerry Adams at the head.
There they stood impotently holding placards. I hadn’t noticed that the Provos had become CND.
When States of Ireland had been published in 1972 Adams was an Army Council member secretly flown to Britain for a parley with Northern Direct Ruler William Whitlelaw. In 2008 he had become Monsignor Bruce Kent politely asking the British presence in occupied Ireland to keep the noise down.
That is the extent of Britain’s and the Cruisers victory over the belief system fashioned in 1916.
There is one aspect of this counter-insurgency victory that remains the wild card.
The same tribe that Conor Cruise O’Brien fled in terror from in the Bogside are still there in their Northern Laager. As ever fearful of the hordes of natives who inhabit their settler nightmares.
If their insecurity levels rise they have an autonomic tribal response. Kill a few Taigs.
They may still be the undoing of the surrender of Irish nationalism that was signed into law at St. Andrews in Scotland.
A new generation of Billy Boys will, at some point in the future, feel the need to kill a few Fenians to remind the minority northern tribe in the North of their subservient place in the scheme of things.
A new Malvern street could sweep away all the smoke n mirrors of the Provisional movement’s political project.
The blueprint for the long retreat away from Republicanism by the Provos was written by a dangerous crank.
Today’s Ireland owes much to Conor Cruise O’Brien.
It will be for future generations to assess whether or not he made national cowardice acceptable.