Saturday, December 20, 2008

Conor Cruise O’Brien dies

The death has taken place in Dublin of Irish intellectual giant Conor Cruise O’Brien. He was 91. O’Brien’s brilliant career led to important roles in politics, diplomacy, journalism, academia and the world of literature. Leading the tributes for Cruise O’Brien was Irish Taoiseach Brian Cowen who said he was blessed with a strong intellect and strong intellect and a leading light in Irish life in many spheres. “While Dr Cruise O'Brien's political views were not always in accordance with those of my own party over the years,” said Cowen, “I never doubted his sincerity or his commitment to a better and more peaceful Ireland".

Cowen’s reference to Cruise O’Brien’s political views was his major involvement in the regeneration of the Irish Labour Party in the 1970s. His biggest fame in his native land was his stint as Minister for Post and Telegraphs during the Garret Fitzgerald-led Fine Gael and Labour coalition government between 1973 and 1977. During office, he was renowned for his strong anti-IRA stance and he enforced controversial strong media censorship before he was voted out of office in the Fianna Fail 1977 landslide election win.

Although O’Brien was subsequently elevated to the Irish Upper House (the Seanad), his main influence was in other fields. He was editor-in-chief of the London Sunday broadsheet The Observer, and a historian who wrote several critically acclaimed books. He was also appointed Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the University of Dublin. He always remained an outspoken opponent of republicanism and was for a brief period in the 1990s a member of the now defunct United Kingdom Unionist Party in Northern Ireland. However he was later forced to resign after publishing his memoir where he called on Unionists to consider the benefits of a united Ireland.

The roots of Cruise O’Brien’s political and anti-republican leanings can be found in his birthright. His father Frank Cruise O'Brien was a journalist who edited a key 19th century tract on the pervasive influence of the clergy on Irish politics. His mother Kathleen Sheehy was an Irish language teacher, grammarian and Suffragette whose father was a member of the Irish Parliamentary Party and a Land League organiser. Their son Conor was born in the Dublin suburb of Rathmines in 1917 as the Great War raged but as Irish opinion began to turn against Britain. Frank died when Conor was 10 so the strong-minded Kathleen was the major influence on her son.

She gave him a mixed education. His first school was Muckross College, a Catholic convent school. Later he went to Sandford Park, which was nominally secular but strongly imbued with a Protestant ethos. The brilliant pupil won a scholarship to study Irish and French at Trinity. He overcame the devastation of his mother’s death in 1938 and supported himself by tutoring and journalism. He married young, enrolled with the Labour Party and joined the Irish Civil Service on graduation in 1942. It did not take long for Cruise O’Brien to become a leading figure in the Foreign Ministry. He played a major role in the agenda of the UN notably in the organisation of China's admission to the assembly. He was also caught up in the Congolese Civil War in 1961 and controversially ordered UN troops into action. He was ditched after the UN deaths mounted up and he resigned from the Irish civil service.

Despite this, he had a good reputation in Africa and became the vice-chancellor of the University of Ghana for three years. When New York University offered its Albert Schweitzer chair in the Humanities, he left Ghana and President Nkrumah saw him off, thanking him "for what you did for the university, whatever it was". During his Congolese adventure he met the poet Máire Mac An tSaoi. His marriage had failed by 1962 and he and Maire became romantically involved.

In 1969 he returned to Ireland, where he was elected to the Dail for Dublin North-East. When Labour agreed to a Coalition with Fine Gael in 1973, it was obvious Cruise O’Brien would become a cabinet minister. His most infamous act in power was Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act which banned Sinn Fein and IRA members from being interviewed on RTE. Given that the state broadcaster had a monopoly in radio and TV at the time, it was effectively a nationwide censorship. While the rule was introduced by Fianna Fail in 1971, Cruise O’Brien greatly strengthened its provisions. The act went so far as to prevent a Sinn Fein member from speaking about a trade union dispute in which he was the spokesperson. The law was eventually repealed in 1993. O'Brien believed that there was too much sympathy for Sinn Fein in RTE saying "If the Provos are successful, there will be civil war into which the south will be drawn."

His views on the North brought him into conflict with Charles Haughey. Cruise O’Brien coined the phrase GUBU ("grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented") which were the flowery words used by Haughey to describe the arrest of double murderer Malcolm Macarthur in the home of the attorney general, Patrick Connolly. Cruise O'Brien was a tireless critic of Haughey not only about his stance on Northern Ireland, but he also publicly questioned his integrity years before any large-scale evidence emerged that Haughey was on the take. It was Cruise O’Brien who said “man watches his history on the screen with apathy and an occasional passing flicker of horror or indignation.” His own history will be the deserved subject of more than an occasional passing flicker.

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