Distinguished writer and political meteor who illuminated our lives


AS I grew up in the 1940s I became aware of Conor Cruise O'Brien as a most distinguished writer and diplomat. However, I believe that it was not until the late 1950s that we met. In his Foreign Affairs capacity he invited me to dine with a British visitor to Dublin - Norman St John-Stevas, now Baron St John of Fawsley, writes Garret FitzGerald.

At the time his invitation puzzled me. Since 1948, as Irish correspondent of more than a dozen Commonwealth and British newspapers, I had been criticising vigorously the Northern Ireland policy of successive governments which were persistently demanding that Britain transfer sovereignty over Northern Ireland to our State, regardless of the wishes of a majority of its population.

Now, throughout much of the 1940s Conor, as a Foreign Affairs official, had been active in promoting that policy - which always seemed to me to have the double disadvantage of exacerbating unionist fears that led them to discriminate against the embattled nationalist minority, as well as encouraging some nationalist elements to contemplate violence.

I have often wondered since then whether that dinner invitation was an indication that he was then already starting to have second thoughts about that anti-partition policy, which, as a politician a quarter of a century later, he flatly rejected.

In the early 1960s I heard a lot about this Irish diplomat when my brother Pierce served as his finance officer at the time when Conor was UN civil administrator in Katanga. But it was only after he was elected to the Dáil in 1969 that we became close friends. And from 1973 to 1977 we served in government together - I as foreign minister and he in the multiple role of minister for posts and telegraphs, Government member responsible for information services, and, most curiously, Labour Party spokesman on Northern Ireland.

This latter role gave rise to some difficulties, specially in respect of our relations with the SDLP. My relationship with Conor at that time was complicated by my unfortunate ignorance of the tension between him and his fellow Labour minister, Justin Keating, which seems to have arisen from Conor's earlier - and hugely important - success in 1969 when he weaned the Labour Party away from its traditional support for anti-partitionism, a process with which I was simultaneously engaged within Fine Gael.

On one occasion the SDLP asked to see the government urgently, at a time when Conor and his family were having a break in Dunquin. Rather than asking him to return to Dublin at short notice for this meeting, I innocently asked Justin to represent Labour on this occasion.

Not alone did Conor see this as an attempt to undermine his Northern Ireland role within the party - the last thing I would have ever wanted to do, given its huge importance to our State - but he also seems to have decided that my action was part of a plot to advance Justin's chance of succeeding Brendan Corish as Labour leader, something that had never entered my head.

Nevertheless our personal relationship remained warm, and I never ceased to enjoy his sparkling personality and infectious humour. I think he realised that I had a huge respect - even envy - for his intellect and his skill as a writer, and indeed as a speaker. And above all for his remarkable courage, and his undeviating hostility to the violence of the IRA.

We were, indeed, closer on many issues than, perhaps, any two members of the Cabinet - but he had a curious trait of directing much of his combative energy not so much against his opponents as against whoever was closest to his stance, if, perchance, such a person were to differ even in a minor way from him on some aspect of the issues in debate.

He was, indeed, a "black-and-white" man, with no time for any kind of grey - and in politics there is often, necessarily, a good deal of grey!

He had opposed the Fianna Fáil government's earlier decision to sack the RTÉ Authority because it had failed to ban an interview with a leading member of the IRA. Whilst he had no time for the IRA, he felt that the authority had been left in an unfair position because of ambiguity in the relevant legislation, and in government he sought to remedy this for the benefit of RTÉ, while making it clear that he did not propose to remove the ban on interviews with IRA representatives.

In the popular memory this was soon converted into an enduring myth that he was the original author of this ban - and when late in the life of that government he spoke of his concern about pro-IRA material in some newspapers, that copper-fastened the image of him as a reactionary opponent of freedom of speech.

I have to say, while recognising that there was a case for a different stance, I supported the ban on radio and TV interviews with IRA representatives on two grounds.

First, it is a patent liberal fallacy that free speech and debate will demolish the stance of extremists. I do not recall any journalist succeeding in down-facing Ian Paisley - or, indeed, after they were released on to the airwaves some 15 years later, either Gerry Adams or Martin McGuinness. TV in particular carries a huge potential emotive charge that does not arise in the same way with the printed media.

In the second place, RTÉ is this State's public broadcasting system, and if it had been permitted to broadcast interviews with IRA leaders during their campaign of violence, this could have dangerously confirmed unionist delusions that our State was in league with those running the murder campaign, thus increasing the risk to nationalists from loyalist paramilitary gangs.

Finally, but far less important, the ban provided a huge incentive to the publicity-hungry IRA to abandon violence, and thus secure coveted access to the airwaves.

It would have been remiss of me not to have used this opportunity to explain to a new generation some of the rationale of Conor Cruise O'Brien when he thus acted to preserve Irish lives, even at the expense of his own reputation as a liberal. He never worried about what people thought of him.

In the decades after his departure from politics he remained deeply engaged with the Northern Ireland problem. He continued as a political journalist, but also found time to produce further books, most notably his great work on Edmund Burke - his hero and also mine. Although I told him once that I had skipped certain passages - not of his own writing, but of his too lengthy quotations from Burke!

I was hugely privileged to have known and enjoyed the company - and, despite some disagreements, I believe friendship - of this polymath and political meteor who crossed our 20th-century skies, illuminating our lives, even if he sometimes also tried our patience!

My deepest condolences to his children and to his dear wife Máire (whose family and mine, regardless of political differences, have been so closely and warmly linked for almost a century), who cared for him so tenderly, especially during the difficult later years of his long life.