8 January 2009 Edition
Conor Cruise O'Brien - defender of oppression
IN 1993 Gerry Adams and John Hume were working intensively to bring together the elements that would make the Irish Peace Process. As they did so a former Irish Cabinet minister was sitting on a witness stand in the Four Courts supporting the ban under Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act on a radio advertisement for a book of short stories by Gerry Adams.
The scene was farcical. A young barrister read out to the court an entire short story from the collection. Then the former Minister, Conor Cruise O’Brien, took the stand to explain how the main character in the story, an elderly woman, was a terrorist and how hearing an advertisement for those stories with the voice of Gerry Adams would threaten law and order in Irish society. Such an ad, said O’Brien, would have a dangerous influence on “people who are poor and who are not so well educated. That is... less educated people who on the whole are more likely to be impressed than more educated people.”
The ban on the ad was upheld but Section 31 itself collapsed the following year as the Peace Process further exposed its absurdity and injustice. O’Brien was a virulent opponent of the Peace Process. For decades he had anathematised any notion of talking to Sinn Féin or the IRA. Now the Irish government and John Hume were the targets of his invective for doing so. O’Brien predicted that the process would lead to civil war and a dictatorship led by the military forces in the 26 Counties. He joined Robert McCartney’s United Kingdom Unionist Party before falling out with them as well, the last stop on his bizarre political journey.
That journey began as an Irish civil servant and diplomat. He was seen to have taken a progressive stand as a United Nations diplomat in the Congo in 1961. He embraced the left-wing liberalism of the ‘60s. He was arrested at an anti-Vietnam war protest in New York and spoke on a platform with Noam Chomsky. On joining the Irish Labour Party in 1968 he condemned the Irish government for betraying James Connolly “that great enemy of imperialism”.
O’Brien expressed support for the Civil Rights movement in the Six Counties and compared the Orange state to ‘Dixie’, the racist Southern US. He was elected as a Labour TD in 1969 when the party ran on the slogan ‘The Seventies will be Socialist’. The ‘60s liberal was beginning to change, however. The views he expressed in his 1972 pro-unionist book States of Ireland caused controversy in the Labour Party and between O’Brien and the SDLP.
But verbal liberalism was not yet dead. In November 1972 the Fianna Fáil government of Jack Lynch sacked the RTÉ Authority after the station broadcast a report of an interview with IRA Chief of Staff Seán Mac Stiofáin. “In a modern democracy, the autonomy of radio or television was as vital as the freedom of the press or parliament,” declared O’Brien in the Dáil as Labour and Fine Gael opposed the Government’s action.
The following year Fine Gael and Labour won the General Election and O’Brien became Minister for Posts and Telegraphs. O’Brien now imposed political censorship of broadcasting even more stringently than his Fianna Fáil predecessors. He led an assault not only on free speech for republicans but on informed debate about the Six Counties and on Irish nationalism itself. He showed an American interviewer a drawer full of cuttings of readers’ letters printed in the Irish Press and said he wanted to take action against the editor, Tim Pat Coogan.
O’Brien was a member of the Cabinet Security Committee along with Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave, Justice Minister Patrick Cooney and Defence Minister Paddy Donegan. In May 1974 British agents bombed Dublin and Monaghan killing 33 civilians, including two employees of O’Brien’s Department. The Cabinet blamed the IRA for provoking the bombs and O’Brien attacked those who ‘condoned violence’ whether by “a facial expression, an inflection of the voice, by a smile or even by silence”. The effect was to spread fear in the 26 Counties and a turning away from any effort to address the causes of the conflict, aims which coincided with those of the bombers. And it was the same Cabinet that allowed the Garda investigation of the bombings to be wound down in a matter of weeks, turning a blind eye to British involvement.
In 1998 O’Brien admitted that he knew and approved of the assaults on detainees by the Garda Heavy Gang during 1973-’77 but never mentioned it to his Cabinet colleagues Justin Keating and Garret FitzGerald as he feared they would have qualms of conscience. O’Brien lost his Dáil seat in 1977. He became Editor-in-Chief of the English Sunday newspaper The Observer and he sacked Mary Holland as Irish correspondent after she wrote an article on the situation in the H-Blocks through the eyes of a prisoner’s mother, Mary Nelis of Derry (later a Sinn Féin MLA and now An Phoblacht columnist).
While O’Brien never held political office again he exercised major influence on the political and media Establishment in the 26 Counties. For conservatives he provided the ideological cover for their retreat from rhetorical nationalism. The privileged classes in the 26 Counties wanted to turn their backs on the North, fearing the implications for them of a united Ireland. O’Brien helped them to do so and he developed an antipathy to people from the North, expressed well in a radio programme after O’Brien’s death by Co. Down-born RTÉ broadcaster Derek Davis who said as well as imposing censorship O’Brien simply did not like Northerners as he found out when he interviewed him.
Lauded as an intellectual, it was the repressive forces of the State and not the force of his intellect that O’Brien used to get his way. The problem for the 26-County Establishment was that he was often too outspoken. It was not that he did things of which they disapproved it was that he gave the game away. His refined version of broadcasting censorship was renewed by every Government until 1994, including Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour. They all co-operated with British policy in the North and demonised republicans until the start of the Peace Process. That process could well have begun many years earlier but for the policies championed most prominently, but by no means exclusively, by Conor Cruise O’Brien.
• SECTION 31: O'Brien stringently imposed political censorship
• For more see article by Niall Meehan on Counterpunch website: http://www.counterpunch.org/meehan12222008.html