‘He was never afraid to take up unpopular positions, with the result that few ever agreed with him all the time’ was the verdict of Irish Labour party leader Eamon Gilmore on Conor Cruise O’Brien, who died on Thursday.
This is reflected in the ambivalence of many of the obituaries. The Cruiser defied easy ideological categorisation. As a former Irish Labour party politician and a member of that party when he died, he can be seen as a man of the left, the more so in the light of his championing of secular values in Ireland and his hostility to the influence of the Catholic Church. His career in the United Nations, and in particular his involvement in the Congo places him as an anti-imperialist. His long-standing opposition to the Irish republican movement is less easy to pigeonhole, but his strong Zionist sympathies, not to mention his support in his later years for George W. Bush and the war in Iraq, meant that he often drew more praise from right- rather than left-wingers. The more so in view of his later identification with Unionism and his opposition to the 1998 Belfast Agreement.
In truth, once he was freed from involvement in front-line politics in 1977, Cruise O’Brien was that rare thing – an intellectual who did not feel himself bound by the set menu of either left or right, but who was willing to think things out for himself and reach his own conclusions. That is what makes him difficult to pigeonhole and therefore why he is not being mourned as a hero of left, right or centre, however respectful most of the obituaries may be. Of course, some of the reactions to his death have not been respectful at all, and the virulence of some of the comments on, for example, the Slugger O’Toole website from republican sympathisers would no doubt have pleased him as much as the positive tributes. 'A man cannot be too careful in his choice of enemies', as O’Brien’s fellow Trinity College Dublin graduate, Oscar Wilde, once said
I hope that at least some liberals will shed a tear for his passing and more importantly should read his work, for however much we too will not agree with him on everything, there is much he has to teach us. In the first place, O’Brien was a scathing critic of nationalism and in particular of the dangerous cocktail of nationalism and religion. In Ireland he exposed how republicanism, even when dressed up in secular language, was closely linked to religious notions of blood sacrifice, which enabled its adherents to see themselves as being on a more profound moral plane than those forced to make the shabby compromises of democratic politics. He was particularly critical of ‘sneaking regarders’ - nationalists who formally opposed violent republicanism but nonetheless were ambivalent about confronting it. O’Brien’s critique of Irish nationalism was all the more powerful because he came from a strongly nationalist background, but the wider message is that we should look upon all national movements with scepticism rather than simply assume that national conflicts are a matter of victims versus oppressors and back the ones we regard as the good guys.
When he was a minister in the 1973–77 Fine Gael–Labour coalition, he was much criticised for extending the ban on representatives of and apologists for the republican movement appearing on state broadcasting channels. This was seen as compromising his liberal credentials and was criticised as an attack on free speech. Yet O’Brien justified it on the grounds that an organisation which did not recognise the legitimacy of the Irish state, formally claimed to be the legitimate government, and used violence in order to undermine the state, should not be granted access to the airwaves by the government which it sought to overthrow. In doing this, he tackled head-on the reality that free speech can never be an absolute and that democracies will in extreme circumstances have to protect themselves from their enemies.
Indeed, one of the threads that run through O’Brien’s writing, is that in general order is better than anarchy and that attempts to overthrow governments by violence generally leads to more bloodshed rather than greater justice. This led him, for example, not only to oppose the republican movement in Ireland, but also American attempts during the Cold War to destabilise hostile governments – he was a strong opponent of US funding of the Contras in Nicaragua during the 1980s.
It is perhaps no surprise therefore, that the historical figure with whom O’Brien most closely identified was Edmund Burke, the eighteenth century Whig reformer who became the earliest and most trenchant critic of the French revolution. His biography of Burke, The Great Melody, is a brilliant, though highly personal study of his fellow Irishman, which argues that in supporting reform of British rule in America, India and Ireland, while opposing revolution based on abstract theory, Burke was being consistent by objecting to abuse of power, no matter from which quarter it came. As I am inclined to think that liberals too easily cede Burke to the ranks of conservative thinkers, I would recommend The Great Melody to Liberal readers of this blog as a way of gaining an insight not only into the mind of one of the great thinkers of the eighteenth century, but also one of the most important public intellectuals of the twentieth.
It is the fate of writers of non-fiction that books go out of print very quickly, but for those who wish to understand the conflicts in Ireland over the last century in its emotional and spiritual as well as political dimensions, it is worth tracking down O’Brien’s States of Ireland, his response to the start of the Provisional IRA armed campaign and also Ancestral Voices, his later reflection on the links between religion and Irish nationalism.
If nothing else, at least read the obituaries, which are many and various, including those in the Guardian, Daily Telegraph, Irish Times, The Times, New York Times.
There is also a very interesting interview from the 1990s in the UC Berkeley Conversations with History series on Youtube.