Conor Cruise O’Brien

Conor Cruise O’Brien was a man of substance and of a great and sharp intellect; yet I was unable to have any rapport with him and felt ill at ease when I interviewed him in the spring of 1992. Although I knew we would never gel I nevertheless regarded an encounter with him as worth the effort.

Born in 1917 into a strongly nationalist Dublin family, he was an outstanding student at Trinity College, Dublin, where he took a BA and a PhD. His doctoral dissertation, later published as Parnell and his Party (1957), was a remarkable mingling of political analysis and literary insight. Between 1956 and 1960 he was a member of the Irish delegation to the UN. His book To Katanga and Back (1962), widely considered to be his finest work, is an autobiographical narrative of the Congo crisis of 1961, when he served in Katanga as representative to UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld.

In 1966 he made many enemies when he exposed the links between the journal Encounter and the CIA. The magazine retaliated with an anonymous attack, written by Goronwy Rees (exposed later as a Soviet spy) which described O’Brien as the ‘Machiavelli of peace transformed into the Joe McCarthy of political-cultural criticism’. O’Brien sued in a Dublin court, and Encounter settled with an apology, costs and a charity donation.

He wrote over two dozen books including The Great Melody (1992), a biography of Edmund Burke described by Paul Johnson as ‘a book by the greatest living Irishman on the greatest Irishman who ever lived’. The Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution followed in 1996, then Memoir: My Life and Themes in 1998. He was awarded half a dozen honorary degrees, including two from Northern Ireland. He was a member of the Royal Irish Academy and of the Royal Society of Literature

Following academic office in Ghana and New York, he was elected Irish Labour TD (MP) for Dublin in 1969, became Minister for Posts and Telegraphs in 1973, and was defeated in 1977 because of his opposition to IRA violence in Northern Ireland. Between 1979 and 1981 he was editor-in-chief of the Observer and became pro chancellor of the University of Dublin in 1973, a post he held till 1994. He died in 2008, aged 91.

The text of our complete interview follows.

You have said that in your youth you were more strongly drawn to the Protestant than to the Catholic ethos. Why was that? 

The second school I attended was a Catholic convent school and I have unpleasant memories of the severities practised there, not actually by the nuns, but by some of the lay teachers. My recollections of Catholic teaching are of being told this is how it is, repeat after me; it was all authoritarian. Then I went to my main school, and found that I was invited to discuss, to question, and I liked the atmosphere. What appealed to me was not Protestantism, but enlightenment, and I have related to it ever since.

This was a Protestant school? 

It was a school attended in equal parts by Protestants, Jews and liberal Catholics, that is to say Catholic families who did not want their children to get a Catholic education for reasons which I later came to understand. I remember being confused on my first day there when the headmaster said that the Church of Ireland boys would stay for prayers. It never occurred to me that the Church of Ireland could be anything other than Catholicism and I knew our family were supposed to be Catholics so I stayed for prayers, and witnessed the horror of people kneeling on one knee only. But I got over that initial shock.

In 1916, the year before you were born, your uncle was killed by a British officer during the Easter Uprising. Your maternal grandfather has associations with the Irish Republican Brotherhood, forerunners of the IRA. To what extent has your family background helped shape your own attitudes? 

One of my uncles, the one who was married to my mother’s elder sister, was shot on the orders, as you say, of a British officer in Easter week, 1916, but another uncle, just a little older than my mother, was killed in the autumn of that year of France, wearing the same uniform as that worn by the killer of my other uncle. These two deaths are an integral part of my life. I spent a considerable part of my youth puzzling out what it meant. I’m still not sure.

Do you have a strong sense of history in your present ideological position? 

Yes, I’m an historian, partly by training but more and more by inclination. I find that almost everything I read now is history in some form or other.

Is not history largely a matter of interpretation? 

Yes, but you wouldn’t find any historians who would deny that a world war happened between 1914 and 1918. From then on they could start interpreting, but again it is a fact that one side lost and another won, and the consequences of that are there. The historian interprets, but there are great brute facts which he can’t interpret away.

Your mother was a Catholic, your first wife was a Protestant, your daughter is married to the son of a Protestant archbishop. Your second wife is a practising Catholic, niece of a cardinal. Have these different threads confused your sense of your own identity, or have they clarified it? 

That’s a good question. All I know is that I am happy with the results, except that my first marriage broke up, and that’s always a cause of sadness to all parties. But relations with my five children and with my second wife are excellent, and I have learned a lot from my wife about Catholicism. She has taught me to be more comfortable with it, but makes no effort to induce me to believe in it. Indeed, I think if I showed signs of believing in it she would deter me.

I understand that now you do not profess any religion. Is that simply a lack of faith or were you driven from the church in some way? 

I was never really near enough to the church to be driven from it. My father was an agnostic, my mother indeed during my father’s lifetime would have declared herself to be an agnostic, as would other members of the family. Though I don’t think I ever believed any part of it, I had my first communion, I was confirmed. This, according to the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church makes you a Catholic, whether you say you are or not… I say I’m not, but if I were to meet a bishop, he would say, well you are. When I think back to my childhood I think of it as something dark and oppressive in the background, something of that I was supposed to be part of but didn’t ever wish to be any part of. I was a very priggish little boy, an only child who had spent most of his time with elders rather than contemporaries, and when a pious aunt presented me on my eighth birthday with a missal, I looked at this thing and said, ‘Thank you Aunt Mary, it will relieve the tedium of the mass.’ [Laughs.] That didn’t go down terribly well.

Do you think you might mellow in years to come? 

I have mellowed. Until 1977 … and that’s sixty years … I was actively hostile to religion in general and most particularly to the Roman Catholic Church. After my father’s death, my mother, acting on his request, sent me to a non-denominational school, as it might now be called. I learned around that time that a contemporary of mine, who also belonged to a family of Catholic background, was taken away from the school because his mother had been warned by a priest that every day the boy stayed at the school lengthened her late husband’s sufferings in purgatory. I believe my mother got similar advice, but the poor thing sweated it out, and kept me at that school though she was being mentally tortured by those people. So I didn’t grow up with any feelings of kindness towards the Catholics. Then my wife in the late 1970s was involved in a very bad car accident; her right leg was broken in thirty-three places, she was in intensive care for quite a long time in a hospital in Ireland run by nuns, and their care for her and kindness to all of us was something really marvellous. When the recovery happened it was very much ‘thank God’, and something melted then. I ceased to have hostility towards the religion that I had before. But that didn’t incline me at all towards belief in any credo.

You have had academic appointments as well as political, administrative and diplomatic ones. What drew you to the universities? 

A desire for knowledge, for instruction, for leisure in which to turn around and think, to meet other people interested in ideas; and I found all those. Most of my teaching has been done at various American universities, and I have enjoyed that. I found that American students start with absolutely nothing in the way of knowledge of the subject, but they learn prodigiously fast, and are very highly motivated and full of curiosity. Most recently I was a research fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington DC, and I found it delightful actually to be paid for reading books which I would be doing anyway.

The universities are currently in turmoil. What do you think their function ought to be in the late twentieth century? Has Cardinal Newman’s ‘idea of a university’ been superseded? 

All kinds of things are going on in the universities. There is, as we all know, the multi-cultural agenda which in broad outline I dislike. The idea of the politically correct is obnoxious to me, but I did have a curious experience in that regard. When I went out to the Wilson Centre I said I would like to work on the phenomenon of the multi-cultural, the politically correct, and of course race studies and gender studies and gender studies are a part of that. This was during the period of the Senate hearings over Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill’s accusations against him. This was a strange happening, because within that agenda, race studies and gender studies people have been allies, but here the black-rights people and the woman’s-rights people were opposed. A poll showed that sixty-seven per cent of blacks were for Clarence Thomas, whereas all feminists of whatever colour were for Anita Hill. This prompted me to read black feminist writings. I had expected – and I’m not proud of myself for having expected – to find a great deal that would be propagandist and attitudinizing. To my surprise and delight I found a very considerable body of valid and splendid historical writing by black women thinking about the past of other black women, not to make some propaganda point, but to find out. I also found that the alliance in gender studies and race studies is essentially based on white feminists and black-rights people, males mostly, zeroing in on the white male. It is Manichean stuff and the white male is the arch enemy, but the black feminists are aware that white women can be racist and that black males can be sexist, and this gives it a richness and a maturity that the other lot don’t have.

In view of the turmoil which appears to be typical of sub-Saharan Africa, do you have any sympathy at all with the South African whites and their dilemma? If they prevent majority rule they are anti-democratic … if they permit it they may be completely overwhelmed. 

I certainly have a lot of sympathy with many white people there, especially the Afrikaners. De Klerk is working on the right lines; he is not about to give in to the ANC, but is looking for a power-sharing formula in which the whites would still have considerable power. It now looks as if Mandela is prepared to go down that road, which means on his part a sizable compromise. I think the ANC as we know it is about to split, and what you will have will be a coalition of all those, white or black, who have anything to lose. It is basically the people on the outside who are going to be unemployed. This is not an exhilarating prospect, but it’s better than the apartheid state. I’m politically now fairly optimistic, but the demographic and social and economic realities are absolutely horrendous. Anyone you talk to in South Africa is more likely to be talking about crime than about poverty; if you’re a young black and can’t get a job, crime is your only career.

I believe you visited South Africa three years ago and in Cape Town you were forced to leave the platform by anti-apartheid demonstrators. What exactly happened there? 

I’ll tell you exactly what happened. In 1986 the World Archaeological Congress was held in Southampton, and scholars from every country in the world were invited, including South Africa which has one of the richest schools of archaeology. Then, under pressure from the ANC and the academic left in Britain, the South African scholars were disinvited; they were told they were not wanted here, not because of any flaw in their scholarship but on account of their South African nationality, although these scholars were actually from universities like Cape Town which was desegregated. This struck me, as it struck a number of other academics, as a dreadful thing to do. So I protested against it. Then, having been invited to give a course of lectures at the University of Cape Town, I publicly announced that I was accepting, thus breaking the academic boycott of South Africa. I was to give a course of fifteen lectures. In the beginning there was no serious trouble, then I was invited to a debate on the subject of the cultural boycott. Naively I accepted, thinking a debate was a debate. When I arrived in the hall there was nobody on the other side of the debate, and although I insisted on making an initial statement, the evening consisted mainly of hostile questioning. The first question was, ‘Why did you come here to South Africa – was it to mock the sufferings of the oppressed people?’ That was just a foretaste of what was to come the following night when I gave a public lecture about the Middle East and Israel. There was quite an audience, mainly Jews from off-campus, but the same crowd gathered outside in the corridors around the lecture hall and chanted slogans just when questions had started from the audience; I was most edified by my Jewish audience who went on as if nothing had happened. They thought, wrongly, that this was an anti-Semitic demonstration, but it was actually part of the cultural boycott. The audience remained attentive until the mob broke down the doors and surged in and drove us all out. When I met my regular class in the morning, a class of about a hundred people who were racially distributed as in the general population of the University of Cape Town – about fifteen per cent black students, the rest white – again the mob broke down the door. The vice chancellor, Stuart Saunders, rang me later that day to say that there was a danger of much more serious violence, so I had to call them off. The impression it left on my mind was that I wouldn’t like to be in a South Africa that was run by the ANC. I wouldn’t mind a government of which the ANC was a part, but not in control.

So there was no hostility directed against you personally – it was simply as a result of the boycott? 

Yes. Of course, they subsequently claimed that I had treated them in an intolerably patronizing manner, but in those circumstances you either bow down or you are accused of being insufferably patronizing. On the whole I’d rather be accused of being insufferably patronizing.

You were devoted to the whole concept of the United Nations. What was it that attracted you to the UN? 

To enter the United Nations for the Republic of Ireland; we were admitted in 1955 and took our seats in the General Assembly in 1956. It was like returning to the world, because Ireland had been neutral in the Second World War and, understandably, rather cold-shouldered by the victors. We had been vetoed by the Soviet Union for membership of the United Nations for which we had applied as soon as it was set up, it had been a pretty claustrophobic existence before that.

Katanga was described by Brian Urquhart as ‘the most frustrating, nerve racking and isolated of all the UN posts in the Congo’. Did you feel honoured to have been chosen by Hammarskjöld for the job or did you think you were being exiled? 

Katanga was the great challenge to the United Nations at that time. I did feel honoured, and I knew it was a high-risk post and also that it was the for that post I had been chosen. Formally the request to the Irish government was to second me for service in the political and security council affairs department in New York, but I always knew I would be sent to the Congo. And I had no sense of being isolated or banished or anything of the sort.

You had been selected by Hammarskjöld for your qualities of courage, independence of mind and spirit, as a radical young man who would be able to put Hammarskjöld’s own ideas into practice. You for your part admired him equally. This mutual high regard must surely have made the break all the more painful when it came? 

Yes, it was very painful indeed. Your summary is correct, but I’d like to add an element or two to it. This is the background to why I was appointed to go to Katanga: in January 1961, Mnongo, then minister of the interior of the so-called independent state of Katanga, announced the death of Patrice Lamumba, the prime minister of the Congo. Mnongo said that he had escaped from captivity in Elisabethville and had been killed by some villagers angered by his bad behaviour. But the whole world believed that Lamumba was actually murdered by the government of Katanga, specifically by Mnongo himself. There was outrage throughout the world, in the third world in particular, and also among American blacks. The United Nations and Hammarskjöld in particular were being blamed, with – though I didn’t know at the time – a good deal of substance, because Hammarskjöld instructions to the UN forces who controlled all the airports at the time were not to intervene between Mr Lamumba and his official pursuers. This meant that with the United Nations troops looking on he was handed over in Elisabethville to be murdered. The revulsion that followed this caused the United Nations, and Hammarskjöld in particular, to change course. My instructions were to try and bring the secession to an end. He picked me for that because the Irish delegation of which I was a part had an anti-colonialist record. Also he wanted someone who was not part of the communist bloc, or African, or Asian, and not part of the Western alliance either; and I had those qualifications. But the break with him was a very grim thing. The first I knew of it, that I had lost contact with Hammarskjöld, occurred in this way. We had moved to arrest Tshombe and his ministers (Tshombe had been helped to escape by the British) but whether Hammarskjöld knew exactly what we were going to do or not, I don’t know. He certainly knew what we had done because it was reported to him, and he issued a statement in Leopoldville in which he represented Tshombe’s people as having been the aggressors, which they were not; we were. But he gave the impression of the United Nations being peacefully engaged until fired on by Tshombe’s lot. Of course, the meaning of that was that Tshombe could have a ceasefire at any time he wanted. The legs were cut from under us. I’ll never forget the reading of that dispatch.

I know it’s going back a long way, but how would you sum up what went wrong in the Congo? A lot of people say that you were going to be sacked by Hammarskjöld, had he not been killed. Is there any truth in that? 

I think so. Once he nullified what I had done, he couldn’t live with me. He would certainly have got rid of me.

How much did your personal affairs contribute to your resignation? There must have been enormous pressure on you from the press, given that you were living, not with your wife, but with the daughter of a cabinet minister. 

That was raked up, but the decision had already been taken on political grounds because I had become identified with a policy that had not worked and had to be repudiated. It was, incidentally, a policy to which they reverted after I went, because they did use force to end the secession of Katanga, partly because they were embarrassed by what I had revealed. My wife’s presence in the Congo then became a convenient way of notifying my government that I would have to be withdrawn.

What are the practical limitations of the United Nations as an organization? 

I think one has to distinguish between the United Nations when there is consensus among the permanent members, and when there isn’t. For most of the existence of the United Nations there was no consensus. For example, when I was in the Congo only one of the permanent members supported the secretary general in what he was doing. The Soviet Union openly opposed, Britain and France covertly opposed, so that’s the context in which I and Hammarskjöld had to work at that time. No wonder it became a bit crazy. But then of course in the late 1980s, towards the end of the Iran-Iraq war, five-power consensus emerged. The secretary general in his mission to Baghdad and Teheran was backed up by the embassies of all the five super powers, a blissful condition which I had never thought to live and to see. That five-power consensus is still there, though there is of course uncertainty as to whether it can be preserved. Nobody knows what’s going to happen in Russia.

But do you think it’s a good thing for the super powers to dominate the United Nations? 

There is only one super power, and it dominates; that’s a fact of life. But there is a qualification to it: the United States likes to get the blessing of the security council on what it is about to do. It was the United States who determined that a war should be fought over Kuwait… nobody else. But the fact that they need to get the agreement of other powers is welcome as a limiting factor. If for example the United States at the time of the Vietnam War had needed to get consensus in the security council, I don’t think they would have got it.

You were once interested in Yeats’s relation to the idea of Nietzsche. Was Yeats in any real sense a fascist? 

No, he wasn’t; he was a person who in certain moods was attracted to fascism. He was attracted in the 1930s when the Blueshirts limped out – I won’t say emerged – in Ireland, imitating the paraphernalia of Mussolini and Hitler. They were never really a formidable lot – they never killed anybody, for instance. In 1938, the last full year of his life, his poetry is more seriously fascist. He wrote, ‘You that Mitchel’s prayer have heard, Send war in our time, O Lord.’ The poetry of that time is certainly attracted towards Nazi Germany; it never fully flowered, but that’s where it was all tending in the last few years. Yeats felt the pull of violence, and violence attracts the imagination. He was a sort of heat-seeking missile.

A lot of politicians were also attracted to Nazi Germany at the beginning. 

There was something very powerful and attractive about success after success from 1935 onwards. Everyone’s eyes were riveted on what was happening there and a lot of lesser politicians hitched their wagon to that, to their later regret.

You are known in some nationalist quarters as the fascist of the left. How do you react to that? 

First of all, I laugh at the said nationalists using fascist as a term of abuse, because during the Second World War the IRA was pro-Hitler. Their chief-of-staff went to Berlin and they were trying to liberate Ireland with the aid of the Nazis, so when they call me a fascist I ask them, who do they think they’re kidding?

But is there anything you might have done that could label you as a fascist of the left? 

Yes. And not so much of the left either. I am in favour of the introduction of internment for the parliamentary godfathers on both sides of the boarder in Ireland, and the IRA in opposing that would of course have liberal allies.

For a long time you have been pro-Israel and anti-Arab, and have been especially vitriolic about the Palestinians. How did you come to adopt this position? 

I would like you to quote – if you can – anything vitriolic I have ever said about the Palestinians, or indeed any Arabs. I have never attacked them. What I have said is that I don’t think it is possible for Israel to obtain peace with the Arabs by handing over territory. There will always be, and for quite understandable reasons, a great many Arabs who don’t want peace with Israel except on the basis of the destruction of Israel. That is not true of the people who are at present negotiating with them on behalf of the Palestinians, but there are other Arabs out there who will not give Israel peace on the grounds of anything that could be negotiated by the Palestinians.

Wouldn’t you acknowledge that there are people on the Israel side who are equally extreme, if not worse? 

This is part of my case. This is why territory for peace is not possible either on the Arab side or the Israeli side. If, for example, a government in Israel were to say that the Palestinians can have the West Bank and Gaza, that they can set up their state there and the settlers will be withdrawn, that would mean civil war in Israel.

But one has to acknowledge that there will be no peace ever unless there is compromise on both sides. Whereas in the old days one could have accused the Arabs of intransigence, today the intransigence seems to come more from the Israelis. The majority of Palestinians want peace, and your stand on the issue, if I may say so, does not help the cause of peace. 

You’re quite right that the Palestinians in negotiating on the basis of autonomy have come a long way; they have come to it in the terms of Shamir’s own offer. I regret that he now seems to be backing away from what he has offered, and as you say that is an unreasonably intransigent position.

Let’s talk some more about this. I have the impression from reading articles you have written that you are very pro-Israeli. Presumably you don’t deny that Begin and Irgun gang modelled themselves on the IRA of Michael Collins? 

Indeed, Shamir’s own clandestine name, Michael, is after Michael Collins.

Since you are opposed to the IRA, how do you reconcile the two positions in your own mind? 

The IRA of 1919-21 were acting at least nominally under democratic authority; they were the armed forces of the First Dáil, which was an elected body representing in free elections in the majority of the Irish people. The modern IRA since 1922 has no democratic mandate at all from anyone; they are an unlicensed body of terrorists.

But Begin and Irgun were terrorists too. In one way you seem to oppose terrorism, in another way you don’t condemn it. 

Essentially the Zionist movement has its roots in Europe and is an outgrowth of the European history that produced Nazism. Chaim Weizmann said of 1921: ‘We must have a Palestine if we are not going to be exterminated.’ That seemed a very extreme and bizarre thing to say in 1921 but by 1933 it was not. And the degree of sympathy I have for Israel is based on the realization that Israel is the result of horrendously extreme conditions. That is why I write as a do. It’s an emotional issue with me.

What about the poor Palestinians? They weren’t responsible for the Nazi atrocities? 

No, they were not, and they have suffered as a result of the Nazi atrocities. But they haven’t suffered quite as much as the Jews. Of course, nothing that one can say or do will make amends to any of those who have suffered, either among the Jews or the Palestinians. But one has to look at the here and now and see the best that is actually available. I have a high regard for the present negotiators on the Palestinian side, I think they are very brave people, but there are high risks, especially if they succeed. I wish that Shamir would meet them halfway. Palestinians are not at present demanding territory; what they are asking at the moment is autonomy, and I would hope they get it.

Most Israelis recognize that the 1982 invasion of Lebanon was a terrible mistake, yet you defended it strongly at the time. Would you now agree you were wrong? 

I didn’t defend it strongly at the time. I merely went against some of the denunciations of Israel that were going on at the time. I defended it to this extent, and would still defend it; the PLO on the soil of Lebanon were claiming to be carrying a war on Israel, and they had their vast heavily armoured encampments there for the destruction of Israel; I put the point that if in the Republic of Ireland you had a similar situation with the IRA, legal and condoned by Dublin, carrying on bombings of Britain from the Republic, British intervention in the Republic would be the probable outcome and would be rather generally accepted. That is the parallel I drew. That was regarded as outrageous.

I regard it as outrageous. Shall I tell you why? 

Am I interviewing you or are you interviewing me?

You are being interviewed, but I want to pick up on your reference to the destruction of Israel. Nobody can destroy Israel today; the world would not allow it. 

Under certain conditions the destruction of Israel could indeed occur. For example, if as a result of an attempt at peacemaking the people of Israel should be divided to the point of civil war; that would be the end of Israel. There are great divisions in Israeli society, there’s no doubt about that.

One more question about Israel before we drop the subject. You are known as a vocal champion of Israel, perhaps an uncritical one… 

Not true. You wish to portray me as uncritical.

Not at all. It seems almost a case of ‘My country right or wrong’. Whereas there might have been a case for supporting the state of Israel to begin with, what do you say about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians – well documented by Amnesty and Israel’s own human-rights organization? 

The Israelis are in occupation territory whose inhabitants reject them and resist them. And these things happen under these conditions. I wish that Israel could withdraw from territories it occupies. I find it difficult to see that it can, for reasons which I have set out analytically and not emotionally. The treatment of the populations of the West Bank and Gaza is based on the laws, regulations and practices with which Britain governed all of Palestine, under the mandate. The military regulations are there; they are British ones.

But you were always anti-colonial… 

Yes … all right…

I’d like to ask a question in a different area now. There is a great deal of controversy about the efforts made to suppress the freedom of information. You have been a member of government – did you feel the need to keep the public in the dark as far as possible? 

I don’t recall keeping the public in the dark about anything in particular. In this domain I am blamed for being the author of the legislation currently in force which prevents spokesmen for the IRA and other paramilitaries from broadcasting; and there are those who hold that this is a limitation on freedom of information. I defend it on the grounds that all broadcasting codes prohibit incitement to crime, that terrorist violence is of its nature criminal and that the spokesmen in question have no other purpose than to promote this criminal conspiracy.

During your time as Minister for Post and Telegraphs, it has been suggested by some that you will be remembered chiefly for attempts to censor and control RTE. Is that an unfair assessment? 

I would accept it to this extent: that is prohibition of broadcast interviews with spokesmen for terrorist organization is censorship, then I am a censor. Beyond that not at all, never one step beyond it. While I was minister responsible for broadcasting, the RTE regularly ran a series of satirical broadcasts about the government of which I was a part, including pieces about myself. They ran it every week, for two years I believe; it was still running when my government fell. I don’t think that’s censorship exactly.

Mary Holland recalls that when she went to work for RTE in the mid-1970s people were ‘quite simply frightened out of their minds’. Were you aware of that at the time? 

Utterly ridiculous. Nobody was ever frightened out of his mind at RTE, nobody at all. They were frightened under Mr Haughey because he intervened regularly; whenever he objected to a programme, he was on the line. We never interfered with RTE at all.

Yet Mary Holland described the atmosphere as follows: ‘Self-censorship had been raised to the level of an art and a caution lay like a thick cloud over everything.’ Do you accept that it was like that or at least appeared to others in that way? 

I think it appeared to Mary Holland like that, but it’s a ridiculous portrayal. I don’t think you’d find anyone in Dublin to agree except Mary Holland and some republican sympathizers.

In an interview with Bernard Nossiter of the New York Times you attacked the Irish Press and said you were collecting clippings printed in the paper with a view to having the editor, Tim Pat Coogan, arrested on the grounds that the letters supported Sinn Fein. The interview was duly published in the Irish Press and it was suggested that only the ensuing public outcry prevented you from putting your plan into practise. How do you defend your position on this issue? 

It’s not true that I suggested that Tim Pat Coogan should be arrested; I didn’t. I simply showed Bernard Nossiter certain letters that they had published which amounted to incitement to violence.

In 1978 you left politics and became editor-in-chief of the Observer. Why did you do that? 

Because it was an attractive thing to be asked to do. I had been writing for the Observer on and off for a good many years. I was invited by Lord Goodman to meet with him and the new proprietors of the Observer, and then they offered me the post of editor-in-chief of the newspaper which I was happy to accept.

There is speculation among your opponents that you got the job at the Observer because of a possible connection with the British Intelligence Service. Do you find this an absurd idea? 

Are my opponents the IRA? I imagine they are, since nobody except the IRA has its spokesmen talk like that. I never had any connection with the British Intelligence or any other intelligence organization…

But have you ever heard it mentioned before? 

I’ve seen it chalked on walls by the IRA, but I won’t dignify it by further discussion.

During your time at the Observer there were suggestions that you used your editorial powers to censor articles on Ireland, notably from Mary Holland. What do you say to that? 

An editor is a kind of censor. You decide what goes in and what out, and if you don’t like things you want them to go out. Mary Holland wrote a piece during one of her IRA strikes, a tear-jerking thing about the dependents of the people who were on the dirty strike, and the whole article was an IRA sympathy kneejerk performance which appeared in the Observer magazine, not something that normally engaged my attention. When I saw it I naturally complained about it to the editor, but it was too late to stop it. I certainly did create when I saw it, and Mary would of course seen it as censorship.

Do you think any sort of reconciliation is possible between Rome and Canterbury? I recall you speaking of the Pope’s missionary attitude towards Protestantism. The two positions do not seem to be hopelessly intransigent. 

When the present Pope talks about the unity of the Christian churches, he means unity under him and according to his laws, and if I were an Anglican I wouldn’t be too keen about being incorporated into all that; but that’s their business. I’m neither Anglican, nor a Roman. I wish the Pope well.

You were one of those who was instrumental in deleting from the constitution the reference to the special position of the Catholic Church in Ireland. How powerful does the church remain in Ireland? 

The results of two referenda would suggest that the church still does have a lot of authority. They defeated the referendum which would have made divorce legislation possible in Ireland, and they succeeded, most ironically, in inserting the provision which appears to make abortion illegal in all circumstances but is now found actually to have legalized abortion in certain circumstances; so they really shot themselves in the foot over that one. Their authority is now less than it used to be, even considerably less, despite the results of these referenda, for the real test of authority is on the matter of contraception. The teaching of the church is still implacably against artificial contraception, and yet it is quite clear that married Catholics are using contraceptives – the reproduction patterns are the same as those of other groups – so the teaching of the church in a centrally vital matter has gone. Also the public reaction to the original court decision in the rape-victim case was quite negative in relation to the church. You may have seen a piece of mine in The Times, an open letter to the Catholic bishops. That letter in a more extended form appeared in the Irish Independent, the largest circulating newspaper among Irish Catholics. The fact such a letter could appear is a sign of the times.

Yet last year in an interview you described abortion as ‘a great evil’… 

My point about abortion is that it is an evil always, but there are a number of cases in which it is a lesser evil.

How long do you think the Catholic Church will be able to hold out against letting their clergy marry, with all the ramifications of providing for widows and children and housing and pensions and divorce and remarriage and the whole secular round? Do you think it will come eventually? 

I don’t know. The convention of celibacy is so long established that the rule won’t go unless there is such a shortage of clergy that they make the concession. I would certainly wish to see celibacy at an end. It is a bit sick to have celibate males deciding how other people should behave in bed. In fact it’s disgusting.

In an article in the Observer written twenty years ago you said that socially you belonged to the Irish Catholic community, that you were motivated by affection for it, identification with it, and a fear that it might destroy itself and you through infatuation with its own mythology. Twenty years on do you still believe that, and is it any closer to destroying you? 

I feel more relaxed about it than I would have then because the power and authority of the Catholic Church have been eroded. It doesn’t inspire the same amount of fear and therefore revulsion that it used to when I was younger.

The trouble in Ireland is always put down to the differences between Catholics and Protestants, but how true do you think that is? Some of the IRA appear to be extreme left-wing revolutionaries who have only the most tenuous connection with Catholicism. 

I don’t think that’s true. Indeed if you look at the times when emotions have been greatly raised, for example during the hunger strikes when men died, you wouldn’t have seen too many volumes of Das Kapital around, but you saw the missal, the rosary beads, the holy water, all the paraphernalia of Roman Catholicism. Catholic Ireland was there; the Marxist stuff was very much top dressing. There is a story that illustrates this in the Provos. There was a time before the split in the IRA when the leadership was Marxist, and in that period, the late thirties, they were trying to detach the IRA from anything that would identify them with Catholicism. They sent a circular saying a decade of the rosary at the funeral of any given IRA volunteer was to be discontinued, but eight battalion commanders sent it back with the word that they were not going to obey. Those eight battalion commanders were later the founders of the Provisional IRA, so the good Catholic boys are the core of the Provos. For that reason the Catholic clergy in Belfast encouraged the emergence of the Provisional IRA because they thought it meant saying goodbye to those bad communists who had been in charge. And of course by bringing about a purely Catholic and nationalist IRA which fitted much more naturally into the scene that the old Marxist stuff did, they produced in fact a more dangerous strain of the virus. To do them justice they didn’t foresee the lengths to which the Provisional IRA would go, and I think those of them who are still around now regret what they did in 1969.

Do you think the Anglo-Irish Agreement can ever do any good? It seems obvious that whatever the political talk about guarding the rights of the majority, it does put Northern Ireland in quite a different category from the rest of the United Kingdom – because of deep-rooted historical differences. 

As long as the majority of the population in Northern Ireland want to remain in the United Kingdom they should be allowed to do so, and we should leave them alone and stop trying to nudge them in the other direction. By nudging them we appear to be partners with the IRA. When I say ‘we’ I mean the government. The historical differences in political allegiance are there, but you can’t argue the population of Northern Ireland out of existence, nor can you induce the people who fundamentally disagree, to agree. It is therefore an inherently unpleasant and enduring situation.

But do you see there ever being a solution to it? 

I think it could be ameliorated. One thing that would have been a positive effect would be for the Republic of Ireland to amend articles 2 and 3 of its constitution, which lay claim to the territory of Northern Ireland. This claim is very offensive to the majority of people there. I won’t say this would change everything overnight; it would just reduce the temperature a little.

In 1972 you sketched two positive models for the Irish future, the ‘benign’ and the ‘malignant’. What you said then has turned out to be largely true. Twenty years on, are there any new models? 

I’m afraid not. As long as the British stay, you’ll have the IRA and in turn the Protestant parliamentary response to the IRA. But if Britain goes you’ll have full-scale civil war. That’s my malignant model, and I still believe in it.

Do you enjoy popularity in Ireland? 

When I walk down O’Connell Street, for example, I’m likely to be stopped four or five times by somebody who wants to talk to me, and those people are invariably friendly. That’s not to say there aren’t other people who recognize me and cross to the side of the street. Let’s say I never feel uncomfortable in the parts of Ireland I do walk around in. I wouldn’t go to South Armagh or Anderson’s Town, places which are IRA turf, but I would regard myself as popular with everybody except people who are pro-IRA or very traditional Catholics.

I hope you don’t find this offensive, but a lot of people say you’re a British stooge, and I wonder how you react to that? 

For ‘a lot of people’, read the IRA and their stooges, some of whom you have clearly been talking to. Give them my regards.

People have seen a parallel between you and Paul Johnson – both intelligent journalists, and initially socialists, who have become increasingly right-wing. 

I can understand that. We’re also both pro-Israel. Paul would certainly be to the right of me, but otherwise there’s a parallel, certainly one that I would not resent.

You are known to be a very good family man. Has the experience of adopting two half-African children been a rewarding one? 

Richly rewarding. This is one thing I’m extremely happy about, because there is a close and loving relationship, not merely between my wife and myself and those two children, but also between the three children by my first marriage and the two young adopted ones. That is a great joy.

Why have you spent so much time out of Ireland? Do you prefer to live somewhere else? 

Ireland is the place where I like to live, but I couldn’t bear living in it if I couldn’t get out of it often and for long periods. As it happens I have never spent an entire year in all my long life outside Ireland.

One response to “Conor Cruise O’Brien

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