Conor Cruise O’Brien Centenary Symposium
(Paper presented 3rd November, by DENNIS KENNEDY)
“FROM LEINSTER HOUSE TO ULSTER HALL; CONOR CRUISE GOES NORTH”
When I saw the draft programme, with the array of speakers and topics, I was reminded of a childhood story book. It was a young person’s illustrated Gulliver’s Travels. On the cover was a large coloured picture of the giant Gulliver lying on his back, pinned down by a network of ropes. All over him, up and down ladders, swarmed an army of Lilliputians, equipped with notebooks, magnifying glasses and tape measures. Some were disappearing into his pockets, others were squinting up his nostrils, peering into his ears and eyes …All trying to make sense of this great giant among them.
(I speak as someone who knew Conor Cruise for a long time. I first saw him when I was an undergraduate at Queen’s University in Belfast in the 1950s. He came to speak in debate on Partition. I cannot remember a single word he said that night, but I was greatly impressed by his exquisitely posh Dublin accent, by the fluency of his delivery, and by his quashing of his Unionist opponent.
I first met him personally in 1968 in Belfast, when I was sent from up from the Irish Times to cover civil rights agitation, and Conor was on a visit from the USA. I later got to know him well when he was Minister if the 1970s coalition, and particularly through Michael McInerney, Pol Cor of the Irish Times, and who was a very close friend of Conor.
Thereafter we met occasionally via mutual friends and mutual interests, and we had some spasmodic correspondence.)
I want to consider, and answer, two main criticisms often levelled at our giant’s approach to the Northern problem: First, did Conor Cruise, as Roy Greenslade of the Guardian has claimed, “flip flop” from passionate Irish nationalism in the 1950s, to attacking it in the 1970s, becoming a card-carrying Unionist in the 1990s and reverting in the end to arguing for a united Ireland?[i]
Second; was he right when he denounced the Belfast Agreement as appeasement of the IRA and claimed it would not bring peace, but would exacerbate the existing hostility between the two communities in Northern Ireland?[ii]
I don’t think he flipflopped. There is a discernible progression in his thinking away from the very strong Catholic nationalist, in part republican, family background to not, I think, becoming an Ulster Unionist, but being sufficiently disenchanted with Irish nationalism, that he not only became a member of a Unionist party, but president of it, before leaving it in a row over his sudden advocacy of a united Ireland.
The transition may have had early roots in a non-Catholic education at Sandford Park and TCD, but, despite having Northern friends at Trinity, including wife to be Christine (and despite a few months r teaching in Belfast Royal Academy), there is little indication of any particular interest in the North.
From 1948 he was obliged to talk and write, if not necessarily to think too deeply, about Partition, as the young civil servant at the head of the Irish News Agency, Sean MacBride’s propaganda unit in External Affairs. His job involved frequent trips to.the North. His Parnell and his Party, published in 1957, shows not a lot more awareness of the North than did Parnell.
However, in his foreword to The Shaping of Modern Ireland, (written in September 1959) he accepts the inevitability of Partition, dismissing the assumptions both of moderate nationalists - that Ireland could be united by parliamentary process -- and of Sinn Fein, that some military victory was possible.[iii]
The later 1950s saw the IRA’s Border Campaign, now almost forgotten. But it was a major emergency with hundreds interned, six RUC men murdered and 32 wounded, eight IRA men killed, police barracks sandbagged as in wartime and B-Special patrols manning roadblocks. All food for thought for the young O’Brien, busily campaigning for the same goal the IRA claimed to be fighting for. He refers to it in passing as an absurd and tragic ‘war’ on ‘occupied Ireland’.[iv]
A decade later, he blushed to recall the time spent working professionally for the anti-partition campaign. The only positive result for himself, he wrote in 1966, was that it led him to discover the ‘cavernous inanities’ of anti-partition.[v]
That was in The Embers of Easter in The Irish Times at the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising. It is not a radically revisionist piece attacking the Rising or its commemoration, but a call to look back across the half century and ask what went wrong. In particular to realise that the State created as the result of the Rising had been based on ideals impossible to attain, and that it was fantasy to continue to assert that they could be attained.
In the 1960s, the real revisionist was not Conor Cruise – who was mostly busy elsewhere - but Sean Lemass. From the first his policy was to stop shouting about Partition, accept it as fact, and get on with it. He dropped the term Six Counties and made it official practice to calll Northern Ireland Northern Ireland.[vi] Something, half a century on, two successive Sinn Fein Deputy First Ministers of the said Northern Ireland still find a bridge too far.
In 1963 Conor Cruise had said in an interview that ‘to accept partition as a fact is the best way of beginning the process of ending it’. That was a long way from campaigning against partition, but could still be seen as orthodoxically Lemass nationalist in that it implied the desirability of ending it.[vii] In January 1965 Lemass took revisionism a bit further when he drove through the grandiose gates of Stormont to meet Terence O’Neill in the Parliament Buildings of Northern Ireland in a remarkable act of de facto recognition.
Events happen, and change things. In the Ireland that Conor Cruise returned to in 1969 there was to be no shortage of events - the Civil Rights movement, followed by street disturbances escalating to major riots and violence, leading to the start of a new IRA campaign and the appearance of the Provisional IRA in 1971. For Conor Cruise personally, the first big event was his election for the Irish Labour Party to the Dail in 1969, and his appointment as Front Bench spokesman on Northern Ireland.. As IRA violence increased he devoted himself to what was almost a one-man campaign to steer the Labour Party membership away from ambivalence towards sympathy with, or even support for, acts of terrorism purportedly carried out in the pursuit of Irish nationalist goals.
As this particular period has been covered in the previous session I will simply record that Conor Cruise opposed the inclusion of a Council of Ireland as defined in the Sunningdale agreement, was against the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, and in the 1990s was highly critical of the Hume-Adams dialogue, personally of John Hume, and of the whole so-termed ‘peace process’
In 1998 he vehemently opposed the Belfast Agreement. In May he appeared alongside Ian Paisley on the platform of the Ulster Hall before a packed anti-agreement audience boisterously denouncing the Agreement, a move that brought shock to many of his friends and supporters in the North, and denunciation across the board in the South.
Why did he do it? Partly, I think, because of a simple rule he had enunciated to me over lunch about 1980. Discussing the NI problem, he broke off and said:. “Look, whatever it is, if it helps Sinn Fein/IRA, we are against it. If it hurts them, we’re for it.”[viii] In May 1998 he was convinced the Agreement was a massive concession to the IRA. He also saw that Paisley was the loudest and strongest voice against it.
It was the same dictum that lay behind his supposed relapse into nationalism the following October when he advised Unionists to do a deal with Dublin and quit the United Kingdom. The UK, he believed, had put the appeasement of terrorism as its top priority, and worse was to come for the Unionists. Better for them to jump now, than be ditched later. Perhaps more to Conor’s heart such a move would, at a stroke, deprive Sinn Fein of its entire raison d’etre, and deliver a mortal blow to that party’s political aspirations in both North and South.
I think he did it, too, because he loved drama, not just writing it but also, as he once said of Yeats, he loved playing a part in ‘real life theatre’.[ix] He was never content to be an academic, commentator or journalist– he wanted to be on the stage and in a leading role. His main appearances included with the UN in the Congo, heading a university in Nkrumah’s Ghana, being managing editor of the Observer, sitting down against Vietnam in New York, being a TD, being a Government minister ……how could he possibly turn down a one-night stand in the holiest of holies of Ulster Unionism on the boards where Charles Dickens, Randolf Churchill and Edward Carson, had stood, and from which Winston Churchill had been barred.
He paid for it, of course, in rotten notices. Fintan O’Toole gave him a stinker in the Irish Times, listing all the evil doings of Paisley, and damming Conor by association. But the sting was in the headline. It read simply ‘Cruise O’Brien proud to be a Paisleyite’. Conor had said he was happy to be an ally of Paisley ‘in defence of the Union’, meaning opposing the Agreement, and opposing Sinn Fein and the IRA.[x]
That did not make him a Paisleyite, no more than joining a Unionist party for the same reason made him a Unionist, no more than advising Unionists to opt for a United Ireland to thwart Sinn Fein, made him an Irish nationalist..
Conor Cruise dated his own first serious questioning of Irish Nationalism to the start of the Provo violence in 1971. ‘From 1971 until now’ he wrote in 1994, ‘I have been combating an Irish Catholic imperialist enterprise: the effort to force the Protestants of Northern Ireland, by a combination of paramilitary terror and political pressure, into a United Ireland that they don't want.’[xi] So long as Irish nationalism did not involve collusion with the IRA through Sinn Fein, he said, he could still regard himself as an Irish Nationalist, but not any longer.
In 1996, when he joined McCartney’s UK Unionist Party, he argued that it was: “the logical conclusion to a political, intellectual and moral process’ which had begun after Sunningdale (in 1973) when he found, and publicly declared, that he could no longer work for a united Ireland, as that would make him an ally or accessory of those who were murdering for the same end.[xii]
There was a coherent line of development in his thinking on the North from his earliest encounters with the problem. Between 1969 and 1971 there was a radical change, not of direction but in emphasis. In late 1969 he was still calling for support for equality of rights in Northern Ireland, and the abolition of what he called ‘Stormont’s institutionalised caste system’, while making it clear that this was not the same thing as calling for Irish unification.[xiii]
What happened between 69 and 71 was the start of the IRA’s campaign of violence, and it was opposition to this that dominated his stance from then on. He saw the Belfast Agreement as the culmination of long process of appeasement. He had argued forcefully that, in principle, negotiation with terrorists was not the way to end terrorism. Bargaining with them was to concede parity of moral ground, and to compromise was to offer rewards to terrorists for stopping what they should never have been doing.[xiv]
Was the Belfast Agreement an act of appeasement ? In 1999 Conor Cruise wrote a short paper entitled Malign Changes and Benign Labels for an Irish Association conference.. Mo Mowlan had described continued violent acts, including murder, by the IRA in areas under its control as ‘internal housekeeping’. Conor uses this as an illustration of how the collapse of the rule of law is tolerated under a benign label as part of the ‘peace process’ which is, itself, a benign label for appeasement of terrorists.[xv]
The Belfast, or more benignly, the Good Friday Agreement is full of benign labels. A text of more than 11,000 words designed to end 30 years of terrorism uses the word ‘terrorist’ only once, and that in reference to future policing needs, not to past deeds. All terrorists are now ‘paramilitaries’, a neutral term that can mean part time or semi professional soldiers. There is no suggestion that arms illegally held should be surrendered. The word ‘surrender’ does not appear at all. Instead, illegally held weapons are to be ‘decommissioned’ by those illegally holding them under the supervision, as it turned out, of two, rather elderly, clergymen..
As the Agreement was negotiated under the fiction that no terrorists – only political parties - were involved - the only obligation put on the signatories was “…to use any influence they may have, to achieve the decommissioning of all paramilitary arms.”
Of course, it was appeasement. But so what, if it worked?
Almost 20 years on we have not seen violence on anything like the scale of the years before the Agreement. Life in Northern Ireland has returned to normal, the province has seen modest growth and development, including, to our amazement, a thriving tourist industry.
So some of Conor Cruise’s predictions were simply wrong. The provisions of the Agreement were implemented – the Assembly and Executive set up with Sinn Fein included, the RUC was disbanded, all without the near civil war he had forecast.
But was he wrong, when he wrote in April 1998, that “This agreement does not herald the coming of peace to Northern Ireland. On the contrary its repercussions will exacerbate the existing hostility between the two communities, thereby fanning the violence that comes from that hostility”?[xvi]
The Agreement was an armistice, not a peace treaty, and the armistice has held, though the official assessment of the risk of ‘security related violence’ (the official term) in Northern Ireland remains ‘severe’, just one category below the highest ‘critical’ grade. The statistics for the past year – 2016/17 may surprise you.
Five people were killed and 94 were casualties of ‘paramilitary style’ shootings or beatings. There were 61 shooting and 29 bombing incidents, 45 firearms and 75 kllgms of explosives were found.[xvii]
Small beer compared to the height of the Troubles, but hardly reflecting a normal peaceful society.
The Agreement is in more obvious and serious trouble at the political level. For nine months we have had no Executive and a malfunctioning Assembly. Sinn Fein and the DUP have been unable to agree, meaning there has been no provincial government. In a very real sense, the Agreement is not working.
Yet in one sense it has worked to malign effect – the near destruction of the middle ground in Ulster politics. The UK Election in June saw the elimination of the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP from the House of Commons. The Agreement, which was predicted to bring moderate Unionism and Nationalism together in a new peaceful dispensation has reduced the SDLP and the UUP to bit players in the political scene, with Alliance just holding on.
We might note that in 1998 Sinn Fein had one TD in Dail Eireann; today it has 23.
Is the Belfast Agreement to blame? Under it all MLAs at Stormont have to declare themselves Unionist, Nationalist or other, and this tribal allegiance is built into the voting system. Seats in the Executive are automatically allocated according to party strength, with the plum of First Minister going to the biggest party. The result is an irresistible impulse towards winner takes all in the two tribal camps. It is the Agreement and the manner of its implementation which has ensured that the most extreme party on each side has eclipsed the others.
Was appeasement necessary to stop the IRA campaign? By the early 1990s the Provo leadership was admitting privately that things were going badly. There was no breakthrough on the political front – the SDLP was still the party of nationalism, there was war-weariness in the heartland Catholic areas of Belfast where security measures weighed heaviest, the Provos were being blamed for provoking the Loyalist campaign of random killings of people in Catholic areas, the bombings in Great Britain had not produced any movement, and, as we now know, the penetration of the Provos by British security services was such that this was possibly the greatest concern of all.[xviii]
No wonder they made, or responded to, overtures from Downing Street. Their objective, which they largely achieved, was to end their ’war’ without admitting defeat, and without surrendering anything, particularly not the fantasy of the true Republic declared in 1916, certainly not the right of Irishmen to assert in arms the sovereignty of that Republic, even if they agreed, for the time being, to refrain from doing so. The heritage had to be preserved for another generation.
In 1923, in a similar but not totally comparable situation, DeValera tried to make terms with the Government of the Free State to end the Civil War. He sent a list of conditions to Cosgrave, who replied bluntly, no talks, no negotiations, until you surrender all arms and acknowledge the legitimacy of the State. There were no talks, no negotiations, but within months the Civil War was over, and within a couple of years, Dev had entered the Dail, and, while still fantasising about Pearse’s republic, he and his party were finished with guns. (Apart from a momentary stumble in the early 1970s.)
Two decades on from the Belfast Agreement, at political level community divisions in the North have been institutionalised and cemented, as Conor Cruise had feared.
I will end with two quotations, one from Conor’s widow, Maire, and the other, albeit indirectly, from Conor himself. “Conor has rendered a signal service to both communities on this island. He has shown that a basic belief in the primacy of justice can transcend even the most cherished tribal varieties.”[xix]
This,finally, from the Old Testament Book of Amos:
“I hate, I despise your feasts and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies…Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. ~But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
That was read at Conor Cruise O’Brien’s funeral, and whether or not selected by Conor himself, was surely his way of saying "a plague on all your nationalisms and imperialisms and other dangerous fantasies."[xx]
[i] Guardian, 20th December, 2008.
[ii] Irish Independent, April 11th, 1998.
[iii] The Shaping of Modern Ireland, p 3. edit. Conor Cruise O’Brien, Dublin 1960.
[iv] Ibid., p7.
[v] The Irish Times, April 7th, 1966. (“The Embers of Easter”)
[vi] Sean Lemass, the Enigmatic Patriot, Ch 8. John Horgan, Dublin 1997.
[vii] Conor: A Biography of Conor Cruise O’Brien, p360. D.H.Akenson. Montreal 1994.
[viii] Conversation with the author, c.1980.
[ix] Ancestral Voices, p123, Conor Cruise O’Brien, Dublin 1994. (Quoted from Atlantic Monthly, January 1994.)
[x] The Irish Times, May 8th, 1998.
[xi] Ancestral Voices op cit, pp 4,5. (Quoting from his article in The Atlantic Monthly, June 1944)
[xii] Irish Independent, May 4th, 1996.
[xiii] “Holy War” New York Review of Books, November 6th, 1969. (Also in D.H.Akenson ‘s Anthology)
[xiv] See “Thinking about Terrorism 1” in Passion and Cunning, Conor Cruise O’Brien. London 1988. (From Atlantic Monthly, June 1986.
[xv] Forging an Identity,. pp.8-11. ed. Dennis Kennedy, Belfast 2000.
[xvi] Irish Independent ,April 11th, 1998.
[xvii] Police Recorded Security Situation Statistics, Annual Report 2016/2017. PSNI.
[xviii] Based on author’s private conversations.
[xix] The Same Age as the State, p 308. Maire Cruise O’Brien. Dublin 2003
[xx] The Book of Amos, ch.5, vs 21-24., Revised Standard Version, Bible