For more than half a century he was possibly the most articulate spokesman in relation to the partition issue.
At some stage everyone might have considered that he articulated his or her views on the problems of Northern Ireland, but that would depend on when he was talking because at different times he took stands that ran right across the political spectrum.
He burst on the public scene at the Labour Party conference of 1936 when, as a university student, he caused uproar by denouncing the Catholic icon, Francisco Franco, in the ongoing Spanish civil war.
He later admitted his intervention was “a bit overheated” and that he was operating as a polemicist. One sensed that the attention-seeking polemical bug never left him.
He first came to prominence as a civil servant running the Irish News Agency, which was established essentially to promote anti-partition at the behest of the Minister for External Affairs and former IRA chief of staff, Seán MacBride.
Later he also worked closely with Frank Aiken, another former chief of staff of the IRA, as an official in the Department of External Affairs in the 1950s and early 1960s. “I conceived a great respect for him, which was to increase at a later stage when I worked with him even more closely at the UN,” the Cruiser wrote.
As a UN official, O’Brien came to international prominence during the Congo crisis in the early 1960s. He was quite critical of Dag Hammskjold, the popular secretary general, and penned a controversial play, Murderous Angels, in which he depicted him as gay.
In 1969, Cruise O’Brien was elected to the Dáil as a Labour deputy, along with a high-profile group of intellectuals — Noel Browne, David Thornley and Justin Keating. They were expected to raise the level of debate within the party, but what resulted was little short of farcical.
Relations between Browne and the party leader, Brendan Corish, were poisonous from the outset because Corish had said during the Mother and Child crisis of 1951 that if he had to choose between his country and his religion, he would choose his religion. Browne seemed to consider this unforgivable.
“After a few weeks of close political contact with Browne, I had come to regard him as half mad and dangerous to know,” the Cruiser wrote. On April 23, 1971 Browne made a controversial speech in Tramore calling on the Labour party to confront the Catholic church because of the possibility that some of the clergy had “ambivalent and confused sexual attitudes”. He advocated taking stands on matters like divorce, contraception, abortion and homosexuality.
Instead of prompting a rational debate, this set the intellectuals at each other throats. Thornley, backed by Keating, tried to have Browne expelled from the party, but the Cruiser suggested that Corish simply repudiate Browne’s remarks by saying they did not reflect party policy. Browne resented their efforts to repudiate him, so he ceased talking to them.
Thornley and the Cruiser also stopped speaking because Thornley resented O’Brien’s upstaging him. Not long afterwards Keating called for O’Brien to resign from the party and they also stopped talking to one another. It was amazing that these intellectuals who were supposed to be open-minded were not even talking to each other.
When the Fine Gael–Labour coalition came to power in 1973, the Cruiser was appointed Minister for Posts and Telegraphs, and he played a leading role in negotiating the Sunningdale Agreement. He supported it vociferously, predicting disaster if it failed.
According to the historian J Bowyer Bell, “Conor Cruise O’Brien, often a step ahead of everyone, recycled threats and menaces in moderation’s name on April 1, when he told BBC’s ‘World at One’ that if Sunningdale were to fail it would mean civil war. This would become a set piece for O’Brien and others: accept my analysis or the heavens will fall. It was a piece played over and over again until at last no one believed.”
The Cruiser wrote that “the first sound I can remember is a series of booming noises, which woke me up”. This was the bombardment of the Four Courts at the start of the Civil War. It seemed to spark a life-long fixation with civil war as a kind of living nightmare.
In the early 1970s, the Cruiser contended that the militant republicans “were grateful, in a sense, to Carson’s movement for calling the bluff of the constitutional nationalists, rehabilitating the idea of physical force and increasing the prestige of the organisation associated with that idea.”
In a sense, the Cruiser seemed to look to militants to justify his own views. In 1977, Time magazine depicted him as being like a lighthouse in the bog of Irish politics. “Yeah,” one Fianna Fáil wag said, “brilliant, but useless!”
The Cruiser tended to have more influence with commentators than voters. In 1977 he lost his Dáil seat but he remained active as a political commentator. It was he who coined the acronym GUBU after Charles Haughey had variously described the arrest of a murder suspect in the apartment of the attorney general as grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented. He revelled in denouncing Haughey, but it was his views on Northern Ireland that attracted most attention. “The so-called peace process represents in fact progress towards civil war,” he wrote on September 17, 1994. He denounced the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the Hume-Adams initiative, the Framework Document and the Good Friday Agreement. Each was a recipe for civil war, according to him, and his predictions grew more desperate as those initiatives showed signs of bearing fruit.
THE essence of his argument was that the British were on the brink of declaring an intention to withdraw from the North and that the various initiatives would speed up this process and thus provoke civil war. Having worked closely with MacBride and Aiken, he seemed incapable of believing that Adams could change.
In opposing the Good Friday Agreement he even went so far as to join the United Kingdom Unionist Party (UKUP) under Robert McCartney. He was delighted when McCartney was elected to Westminster in a North Down by-election. “I see him as a probable future leader of a reunited Unionist party,” the Cruiser wrote, adding that he “will be such a force at Westminster as no unionist representative has been since the days of Edward Carson.” One could hardly be blamed for thinking the Cruiser was hankering back to the days of Carson.
“I frankly abhor Pope John Paul II,” Conor Cruise O’Brien wrote in early 1997. “Hardly a day passes that I do not murmur to myself the prayer — ‘May his days be few and may another receive his bishopric’.”
As an UKUP member this kind of anti-papal bile seemed designed to upstage even Ian Paisley. Maybe the Cruiser was just trying to endear himself to the Orange bigots by emulating Enoch Powell as the thinking man’s bootboy.
Conor Cruise O’Brien had enormous moral courage and he added great colour to our politics over the decades by winding people up. But he was not a politician. He was the ultimate polemicist.