Intellectual giant who turned into a political pygmy

BY any standards, the contribution to political life in Ireland over many decades by the late Dr Conor Cruise O’Brien has been both enormous and controversial.

In acknowledging his many and varied talents and the passionate manner in which he approached his subject, Dr O’Brien nonetheless failed to define the Northern conflict as a political problem, preferring to regard it as a law and order issue which in turn resulted in the introduction of some of the most repressive legislation in western Europe.

The period of the 1973-’77 Cosgrave coalition government saw the emergence of the ‘Heavy Gang’. These were gardaí who specialised in the extraction of confessions amid claims of ill-treatment while in garda custody. Dr O’Brien was made aware of these allegations yet decided to ignore them.

Such was his irrational take on the Northern conflict that it was assumed if one expressed even mild support for a united Ireland one was likely to be regarded as a fellow-traveller of the Provos. Such paranoia made decent, law-abiding citizens wary of expressing an opinion that deviated from the perceived consensus as espoused by Dr O’Brien. Not even the president was permitted to express concerns about the constitutionality of some emergency legislation without evoking irrational criticism.

Defence Minister Paddy Donegan almost precipitated a constitutionalcrisis by his unwarranted attack on President Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh who referred legislation to the courts to test its constitutionality. The president felt obliged to resign when Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave refused to accept Donegan’s resignation.

Despite being the biggest mass murder in the history of the State, the investigation into the 1974 Dublin and Monaghan bombings was effectively wound up after just a few months.

In the 2003 interim report of the commission of inquiry led by Judge Barron into the Dublin and Monaghan bombings, the inquiry stated that “the government of the day showed little interest in the bombings”. Furthermore, when information was given to that government suggesting the British authorities had intelligence naming the bombers, this was not followed up by the government of which Dr O’Brien was a pivotal member. Today, almost 35 years later, those killed and bereaved are still seeking justice.

Also, attempts were even made to censor letters to newspapers which expressed political opinions that conflicted with those of his government. This was indicative of how far that government was prepared to go to silence alternative viewpoints. Threats were even made to prosecute the editor of the former Irish Press because Dr O’Brien did not want bigoted unionist sensitivities offended. He was a staunch defender of unionism, eventually joining Robert McCartney’s reactionary UKUP, and he was prepared to muzzle all media opposition in defence of this policy. Dr O’Brien may well have been an intellectual giant, but he was also a political pygmy.

Tom Cooper.

Delaford Lawn


Dublin 16

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