O'Brien and the UK Unionists
Madam, – Jeffrey Dudgeon’s memory errs on the side of exaggeration when he maintains (December 30th) that in April 1972 he observed the late Dr Conor Cruise O’Brien’s “foresight as he went bail for a group of nine Northerners from the Workers’ Association for the Democratic Settlement of the National Conflict in Ireland”. He did not. Like myself, he went bail for just one of them.
The protesters had chained themselves to the radiators of the Department of Foreign Affairs, demanding the deletion of Articles 2 and 3 from the Republic’s Constitution. The nine protesters in fact comprised four from a Northern Protestant background, three from a Northern Catholic background (including one former Republican internee) and two from a Southern Catholic background.
As a fellow member of the same Workers’ Association, I was deputed to ask Dr O’Brien if he would consent to be a bailsman for one of the defendants, and to his credit he readily agreed.
Regrettably, once a Government Minister, Dr O’Brien was not so amenable to further lobbying on my part. When his government defended itself against the late Kevin Boland’s challenge to the constitutionality of the Sunningdale Agreement by reasserting its commitment to Articles 2 and 3, I proposed to Dr O’Brien that a logical consequence of that stance was that he in conscience should no longer be a party to his government’s insistence on ploughing ahead with the Council of Ireland in the face of mounting majority opposition in Northern Ireland to such a council with a Republic refusing to amend the territorial claim in its Constitution. But as we in the Workers’ Association plastered Dublin with posters saying “Save Powersharing, Drop Articles 2 and 3”, Dr O’Brien insisted on implementing Sunningdale to the full, maintaining that otherwise there would be civil war (The Irish Times, April 2nd, 1974).
The net result of Dr O’Brien’s bullheaded stance – in gross violation of the principle of consent – was that powersharing itself was brought down in May 1974.
I do not know of any of the nine Workers’ Association defendants of 1972 who would have followed Jeffrey Dudgeon’s logic in championing Dr O’Brien’s later membership of the UK Unionist Party. The person for whom Dr O’Brien himself went bail, Belfast man Eamon O’Kane, believed in a united Ireland by consent. General secretary of Britain’s second largest teaching union at the time of his death from cancer in May 2004, Eamon O’Kane chose to have Seán Ó Riada’s music for Mise Éire played at his funeral. – Yours, etc,