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Conor Cruise O’Brien forced Ireland to reconsider nationalism

The intellectual challenged the idea the pursuit of unity was the State’s main goal

Conor Cruise O’Brien, the centenary of whose birth occurs on November 3rd, was one of the most influential and courageous public figures to emerge in the history of independent Ireland.

He had an enormous, and often divisive, impact on public opinion during his relatively short eight years as a TD between 1969 and 1977, but he exercised power through the force of his ideas, as expressed in books, essays and newspaper articles for more than half a century.

His greatest achievement was to get the people of his country to reassess the meaning of Irish nationalism. Even many who denounced him and saw themselves as being opposed to his political views were ultimately influenced by his analysis, either consciously or unconsciously.

Very early in the Troubles O’Brien challenged the consensus across the political spectrum that the pursuit of Irish unity was the overriding goal of the Republic. He argued that unthinking adherence to the so called “first national aim” underpinned the increasingly brutal campaign of the Provisional IRA and gave it legitimacy.


Shortly after his election as a Labour TD in 1969, he challenged the notion that a united Ireland should be the supreme political goal. The steady descent into violence which started with the loyalist pogrom of 1969, followed by the plot by senior Fianna Fáil ministers to import arms and the emergence of the Provisional IRA began to wake up public opinion to the danger of outright civil war across the island.

Fianna Fáil taoiseach Jack Lynch managed to see off the forces that wanted to push the country over the brink, but the cycle of violence had achieved an unstoppable momentum that lasted for almost 30 years.

Intellectual force

O’Brien did not simply condemn violence like most other Irish politicians, he went a step further. He gave intellectual force to the argument not simply that a united Ireland was not achievable by force, but that it was wholly inappropriate and dangerous to seek to include in a state a substantial number of people who did not wish to belong.

Although many of his views came to be accepted over time, O’Brien showed enormous courage in propounding his principles in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He faced deep-seated hostility not only from Sinn Féin/IRA but from most mainstream Irish politicians and much of the media.

In the end even the republican movement accepted the consent principle, although it is one of the ironies of history that the IRA’s bloody campaign reinforced partition in a far more effective manner than any of O’Brien’s arguments.

The reason O’Brien had a greater impact on public opinion than other intellectuals then or now was not simply the originality of his thought or the clarity of his expression but his courage in leaving the academic ivory tower and taking the plunge into political life.

The Labour Party also deserves credit for asking him run for the Dáil as a party candidate in 1969. Just three years earlier he had described the Labour leadership as "dismal poltroons" in an Irish Times article.

Party candidate

That did not stop the then leader Brendan Corish inviting him to come home from his prestigious post in New York University to run for the Dáil as a party candidate in Dublin North East.

It was the same constituency as his prime opponent in the politics of the Republic Charles J Haughey. The arms crisis of 1970 in which Haughey was directly involved was one of the factors that caused O'Brien to reassess traditional nationalism, and he was a bitter opponent of Haughey thereafter.

In the Labour Party O’Brien’s views on the North caused huge dissension, but with the support of Corish he swung the party behind his policies and was appointed party spokesman on Northern Ireland.

When the party went into power under Liam Cosgrave in 1973 O'Brien was appointed as minister for posts and telegraphs which meant he had responsibility for broadcasting. He reformed the Broadcasting Act, giving the Dáil annual oversight of a broadcasting ban on named groups who advocated political violence. This alienated some of O'Brien's old liberal allies and large sections of the media who wanted the ban abolished in its entirety.

He was unapologetic in his defence of the broadcasting ban as a vital tool in the State’s defence of democratic values against terrorism, and it was renewed by successive governments until the peace process was well under way.

His love of controversy was one of O’Brien’s great strengths, but it meant that opponents found it easy to distort his views. He didn’t help his reputation by an ill judged foray into Northern politics in support of the unionist position in the 1990s.


Even after his death he has managed to remain embroiled in controversy. In the recent film The Siege of Jadotville about the events in the Congo in 1961, he was cast as a pantomime baddie in a complete misrepresentation of his actual role.

A symposium on O'Brien's life and work is taking place in his old alma mater Trinity College Dublin on Thursday and Friday. There will be a public lecture on Thursday in the Edmund Burke Theatre at 7pm by barrister and historian Frank Callanan, which will be followed by a round-table discussion chaired by the Taoiseach's adviser Patrick Geoghegan.