21 December, 2008

Remembering Conor Cruise O'Brien

You may have heard about Conor Cruise O'Brien dying. He was this Irish polymath who seems to have been involved in everything possible over the course of his long life. For people my age or younger, the crankish positions he adopted in later life largely overshadowed the rest of his life, so his obituary on the BBC website is a welcome corrective, bringing back into view his astonishing achievements in various fields of endeavour. It does however focus more on his international achievements, so it misses what he might end up being most remembered for in Ireland - coining the acronym GUBU (Grotesque, Unprecedented, Bizarre, and Unbelieveable) in 1982 to describe the then Taoiseach, Charles Haughey.

One thing that is striking about O'Brien is how he seemed to move from the left to the right over the course of his life. While involved in the Congo as a UN representative he played a major part in combating and exposing the destablisation of that country by western powers hostile to Patrice Lumumba, its post-independence leader. He also played a major part in exposing some international students union organisation as being under the control of the CIA. In later life, though, he turned into something a of a reactionary. He become a leading apologist for the Israeli state and an opponent of Palestinian aspirations. I recall him being rather less opposed to the apartheid regime in South Africa than might have been expected from the former scourge of imperialism. In Irish politics, he moved beyond mere opposition to militant Irish nationalism to a kind of embedded pessimism on Northern Ireland, where any attempt at political engagement was seen by him as a step on the road to intercommunal Armageddon.

I suspect it was O'Brien's period in government in the 1970s that caused the apparent shift in his political outlook. By that stage, he had moved beyond the Irish nationalism and was uncompromising in his opposition to the IRA and militant Irish nationalists. He, perhaps not unreasonably, saw those people as a dangerous and intrinsically undemocratic armed minority intent on subverting and overthrowing the constitutional order in Irish politics. Looking at who the IRA was palling with internationally, and what other causes were being espoused by those sympathetic to it, might well have made him reject all radicalism and move instead to supporting more establishment causes.

That is just supposition on my part. What is beyond dispute is the extent to which O'Brien managed to pack several lifetimes of achievement into his allotted span. He seems so much bigger and more active than the people who have succeeded him.


Nicholas Whyte said...

I met him when he was one of the elected representatives of Bob McCartney's UK Unionist Party at the Stormont talks in 1996!

joe smyth said...

nihil de mortibus sed bonum dixi..
An intellectually rigorous iconoclast, he was many things but never ignored. His mistaken status as a "professional troublemaker" was a lazy label from crass commentators. The 0bserver, in a could-have-done-better appreciation remembered its former editor on page 20. Unlike many, his political career did not end in failure but, in frustration. Whatever his faults he was a human being of conviction who could admit when he was wrong, and when unable to do so, he could persuade with almost unassailable reason that whatever his error, at least there was merit to his position. a man of principle who will be missed by his family. Our sympathies go to his family.
"The evil that men do lives after them: the good is oft interred with their bones; so let it be with".. Cruiser.
a dheis De go mbeadh a anam..

ian said...

As Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder have said, there is good and bad in everyone. I've started wondering if maybe CCOB's ludicrous over-achieving is partly down to the past being weird. I mean, how did he get to be editor of the Observer? Why did someone thing it would be a great idea to get in a one term politician and former civil servant to edit a prestigious national newspaper?