Master of culture and controversy


OBITUARY:THE DEATH has taken place of Dr Conor Cruise O'Brien at the age of 91 after a distinguished career in public life as a diplomat, politician, government minister, writer, newspaper editor, critic and scholar.

Born in Dublin on November 3rd, 1917, Conor Cruise O'Brien, an only child whose father died when he was 10, represented the fusion of two extraordinary intellectual and political traditions: the Cruise O'Briens and the Sheehys. His father was Francis Cruise O'Brien, a freethinking journalist, and his mother was Kathleen Sheehy, sister of Hannah Sheehy Skeffington.

Education in Sandford Park School was followed by a brilliant undergraduate career at Trinity College Dublin, where his appointment as TCD correspondent for The Irish Times in 1938 signalled the beginning of a life-long fondness for journalism. There were also two youthful hot-blooded relationships: one with Christine Foster, whom he was to marry on September 20th, 1939; the other with the Trinity Labour Party. Almost immediately, however, O'Brien all but disappeared from public view, into the notoriously reticent, all-enveloping world of the Irish Civil Service, an initial appointment to finance in 1941 being followed quickly by a transfer to external affairs.

Many of his own interests were fused in his role as managing director of the Irish News Agency (INA), set up by the department under Seán MacBride in 1949, and home to a collection of journalists (including Douglas Gageby and John Healy) who were given a freedom, and an income, to which they could not have aspired in the tame and unadventurous national press.

Undermined by confusion about its role and by perpetual financial problems, the INA collapsed in 1957, but by then O'Brien had already departed to the newly established branch of the department dealing with the UN, of which Ireland had become a member. Dividing his time between Dublin and New York, his brilliance attracted the notice of many, not least the UN secretary-general Dag Hammarskjold, under whose stewardship O'Brien was given a key role in the ill-fated UN operation in the Congo in 1960-61.

In later years, O'Brien was fond of pointing out that he was the first person who had ever given a UN force the order to take lethal military action. The imbroglio that followed had huge international repercussions: under intense pressure from the major colonial powers involved, the UN vacillated and recanted. O'Brien's career was suddenly on the line, but what tipped the balance was the revelation, hyped by the deeply anti-UN British media, of his six-year-old relationship with a fellow Irish diplomat, Máire Mac An tSaoi, commenced long after his marriage had foundered. Conor and Máire were both, effectively, forced out of the diplomatic service: they married in New York on January 9th, 1962.

O'Brien's vigorous, and ultimately successful defence of his UN role, notably in To Katanga And Back, was now rapidly becoming a mere curtain-raiser to a series of career changes which propelled him again and again into the limelight. He was invited by Kwame Nkrumah to be vice-chancellor of the University of Ghana: here, the demands of intellectual honesty made his sojourn an exciting one, and he ultimately departed rather than submit to the increasingly unacceptable demands of the man who had appointed him.

He went on to New York, and an Albert Schweitzer chair in humanities at New York University, in which role he revelled in academic and intellectual activities, not least in his triumphant exposé of the way in which the CIA had secretly funded the supposedly independent cultural journal Encounter.

In the late 1960s, Irish politics beckoned, in the shape of a revivified Labour Party which was attracting a new crop of talent: not only O'Brien, but academics and television presenters such as David Thornley and Justin Keating. Their media prominence, however, was all that they had in common: subsequent events were to show that they differed profoundly on many important political questions, most notably on the question of Northern Ireland.

O'Brien's political career in the Dáil and Seanad was in fact deeply marked by the burgeoning Northern conflict. He had opposed the sacking of the RTÉ authority over an interview with IRA figure Seán Mac Stíofáin, mounting a filibuster in the Dáil which made him the darling of the media.

As minister for posts and telegraphs in the 1973-1977 coalition, he had the controversial task of policing the government ban on Sinn Féin and the IRA in RTÉ, and his 1976 legislation although more precise (and therefore more workable) and more liberal in some respects than its Fianna Fáil predecessor, made him a whipping-boy not only for republicans but for civil libertarians and journalists generally.

Like his mentor, Owen Sheehy Skeffington, he combined strong liberal tendencies with an unremitting hostility to political violence (except, in later years, when it was carried out by Israeli-backed militia against Palestinians) and a profound commitment to the political legitimacy of the Irish State.

He once incautiously suggested that even press censorship might be introduced to curb the tendency of the Irish Press to publish pro-republican correspondence. Within the Irish Labour Party, riven, as all Irish parties were at this period, by the tensions emanating from the Northern conflict, he was permanently and unambiguously opposed to militant republicanism, winning some notable victories at party conferences and within the parliamentary party, where feelings ran deep. He remained the party's official spokesman on Northern Ireland policy until manoeuvred out of it by Frank Cluskey after he had lost his seat in the 1977 general election and had gone to the Seanad as a member for the University of Dublin.

In his latter years in politics, his opposition to CJ Haughey, in particular, assumed some of the characteristics of an obsession and, in an era ignorant of the details of Haughey's personal dealings, probably helped to polarise feelings in a way that helped rather than hindered Haughey's electoral chances.

A stint as editor-in-chief of the Observer reintroduced him to journalism at a senior level, although his tenure there was marked by an extraordinary and, to many, unjustifiable decision to dispense with the services of Mary Holland. He was happier, in the end, in Irish journalism, taking up tenure as a columnist first with The Irish Times and later with the Independent group. His opposition to nationalism, expressed notably in his Independent articles, led him to espouse, eventually, membership of the UK Unionist Party in Northern Ireland.

Although his political career is the one which looms largest in recent Irish memory, his critical, cultural and historical activities form part of a lasting legacy. This has had many aspects: his (pseudonymous) work on politics and literature for publications as disparate as The Bell and Commonweal in the 1940s and 1950s; through his ground-breaking PhD (later published as a book), Parnell and His Party; Maria Cross, his fascinating series of essays on Catholic writers; and, finally, his magisterial study of Edmund Burke.

He has, unarguably, been a cultural critic of major national and international significance.