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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: December 24, 2008 @ 10:24 am

    Two Perspectives on the ‘Cruiser’

    Deaglán de Bréadún

    Two very different perspectives on Conor Cruise O’Brien, who died last week. Niall Meehan provides a highly-critical analysis. Michael McDowell (not the former minister and PD leader) is much more sympathetic.

    Looking back on his career, it is a pity he became a government minister in the communications area (Posts and Telegraphs) between 1973 and ’77. He acquired an authoritiarian image which detracted from his previous reputation as anti-establishment rebel. It was as if Vaclav Havel had taken over in Czechoslovakia and started locking up the old communists.

    Had he remained in opposition or just out of office, he could still have pushed his viewpoint that we in the South needed to be more understanding of the unionist position and perspective. The IRA had no mandate or lasting popular support for restarting the Anglo-Irish conflict which had come to an end in 1921.

    Will we ever achieve Irish unity and why do we still want it? Richard Humphreys, a Labour Party member like the “Cruiser” has written an interesting book on the subject which was reviewed by yours truly, also in today’s Irish Times. Don’t be put off by the cover which gives an entirely misleading impression of the contents.

    Happy Christmas to you all/Nollaig Shona daoibh.

    Deaglán de Bréadún, Political Correspondent

    • McDowell says John Hume “condemned” O’Brien’s States of Ireland as “unionist”. Hume wrote in The Irish Times that it was “a more subtle and effective defence of unionism than any that has come from any unionist quarter”. O’Brien called this a ‘serious and unjust charge’. He said, ‘I have never been a unionist and John Hume knows that’. However, by 1998, O’Brien conceded in his autobiography, that Hume’s ‘was quite a perceptive diagnosis’. Despite what McDowell writes, O’Brien’s long term view was that his ‘deadly enemy’, John Hume, got it right.

      The Counterpunch obit had the space to draw out O’Brien’s arguments.

    • Michael H.C. McDOWELL says:

      In 1972, Conor Cruise O’Brien would NOT have described himself at all as a “unionist” and so Hume’s distortion of the book was exactly that, a distortion. However Conor’s view evolved decades later, Hume knew when he wrote the review that, labelling States of Ireland “unionist” would condemn the book in the eyes of most Irish nationalists and republicans. But name-calling — and “unionist” was really a dirty word when I was at TCD in the mid-1970s, which it should not have been — was how this “debate” was conducted. Conor was a democrat with a small “d”, way ahead of his time. Twenty-six years on, the Good Friday Agreement, particularly through the referendum in the Republic of Ireland, made it official that unionism was a legitimate political philosophy just as much as nationalism and republicanism. I recall meeting, along with John Alderdice, in Washington, several pro-Sinn Fein Members of Congress in 1998 and they were not happy that there was no “Irish unity” under the GFA. “That’s too bad, I said. The people of Ireland, North and South, separately, have voted for the agreement and your own views are neither here nor there. This is democracy, gentlemen.” John and I met with a stony silence but they did not further argue with the comment I made. Indeed.

    • Niall Meehan says:

      Michael H. C. McDowell’s clarification is useful. However, I think he misconstrues the point John Hume was making. Hume was dismissive of the capacity of unionists to make a democratic argument. This was understandable in 1972. Unionist-ruled Stormont was ‘prorogued’ that year, effectively for good (in every sense of that term). McDowell argues that O’Brien’s States of Irelandmade “made it official that unionism was a legitimate political philosophy”. Yes, but one no longer permitted to rule in the normal democratic fashion. The years since 1972 have seen a gradual dismantling of the architecture of unionist rule and the erection of an institutional skin that prevents unionists from ruling in the way that they had. It has culminated in the D’Hondt system that prevents normal majority rule. Unionism has been legitimated by being forced to share power and by being prevented from instituting the types of sectarian measures that were its hallmark prior to 1972 (and why presumably Michael H. C. McDowell experienced unionism as a “dirty word” in TCD in the mid-1970s). Undoubtedly, this has made Northern Ireland a lot more democratic as a place to live. But it seems unlikely that Northern Ireland will ever become a democracy in the normal sense. Unionism is not that legitimate or, hence, democratic.

      As for O’Brien, he became more unionist than the unionists themselves. He did not support the current more satisfactory system of government in Northern Ireland, that Michael H. C. McDowell supports.

      To suggest that O’Brien’s “view evolved” is one way of putting it. The facts, which are usually more stubborn than mere views, evolved also, in tandem.

      In 1974, O’Brien wrote that the British Army “behaved brutally and on occasions killed indiscriminately (as on Bloody Sunday in Derry)”. In Ireland, a Concise History (third revised edition, 1985) by Máire and Conor Cruise O’Brien, this was revised to, “British troops fired on rioters in Derry…” In 1997 he concluded, “no one who knows anything about Northern Ireland doubts that the ‘civil rights civilians’ were Sinn Féin activists operating for the IRA”. On this latter point there are many doubters who know more than a little something about Northern Ireland.

      In my obituary (linked above), I cite O’Brien’s remarks at the start of the post-1968 Troubles. I think he made more sense then. In politics, unlike in nature, evolution is not always an advance on what went before.

    • Patrick Hennessy says:

      With due respect to above commentators and not to belittle the NI issue I think Conor Cruise O’ Brien’s contribution to the planet goes way beyond his role in Northern Ireland. As a philosopher, as a diplomat, as an historian, O ‘Brien was fearless in pursuing thoughts and espousing positions which the standard Irish or world citizen would not dare contemplate. From his intellectual tussles with existenialism and atheism; his foray into Nigerian infighting or his straight-in-the-face way of talking about religion, including Catholicism, O’Brien displayed the intellectual and moral courage to say what he believed, popular or not popular, right or wrong. Of how many leaders and thinkers in Ireland in the last 50 years can we say this?

      Despite all our glibness of tongue the majority of Irish thinkers and politicians stay well within the acceptable limits spending a great amount of time double-guessing what the electorate or the media would like to hear before pronouncing on it. Ireland needs a thousand O’Briens to rattle the cage so that Ireland becomes a real multi-faceted thinking tiger not a neo-liberal economic tiger of short duration.

    • Tomás McNulty says:

      Adored by the likes of the Daily Mail/Telegraph. He played to the ignorance and stupidity of the British establishment, adpoted their facetiousness with regard to Eye-a-land, condoned loyalist/British terrorism and made a lot of money out of it.
      Am I the only one who thinks that certain Irish people were spineless (apart from Sherlock of the Labour party), fearing being accused of being in the IRA if they were against loyalist/British terrorism and actions?
      His death met a muted response by all Irish journalists with some credibility.
      Let’s not forget that he actually believed that were Ireland ruled by Britain he would be a sort of aristocracy (not that his father would have).

      Fat Habbitte let him back in the Labour party and they have a lot to answer for.

      Intellectual? He made us question ourselves? Philosopher? My ass.

      Repulsive bigot.
      Every country has their own lord ha-ha, he was ours.
      A repulsive bigot

    • Ms Noma says:

      Wouldn’t want to be pendantic, but perhaps we’ve already had our Lord Haw Haw – the original one. William Joyce, son of an Irish Catholic father and educated in Galway 1915-21. Radio propagandist for the 3rd Reich 1939-45. Hanged at Wandsworth jail 1946.


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