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3 April 1997 Edition

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Just Cruising along

By Mary Nelis

At the St Patrick's Day events in Washington, TV viewers saw a mysterious figure in a large black hat and cape alongside Robert McCartney of the UK Unionist Party.

The Dr Who lookalike turned out to be that other Dr, Conor Cruise O'Brien, whose full name is Dr Donal Conor David Dermot Donaugh Francis Sheehy Cruise O'Brien. Anyone who has had to carry around a name like that obviously also carries a heavy responsibility for it. Perhaps such a responsibility has been too much for the intellectual O'Brien, who at the beginning of his career earned the reputation of being the ``voice of radical anti-partitionist Ireland'', a reputation which made him the darling of liberals and opened many academic doors overseas, especially in the US.

O'Brien first came to fame as a delegate at the Irish Labour Party conference in 1937 where he caused uproar by denouncing Franco and the Catholic Church. Over the years O'Brien's radical politics displeased many. He faced down the Belgians and the Americans over Katanga. When Ireland entered the UN after the Second World War, its position of non-alignment became the model for emerging post-colonial countries. The architect of the policy was O'Brien.

In the US, as part of the Irish Diplomatic Service, and later as Professor of Humanities at New York University, O'Brien opposed the Vietnam War and joined anti-war demonstrations. He also supported Castro's rebels and confronted the CIA.

In 1969 he came back to Ireland to begin his political career as a member of the Irish Labour Party, which he proudly proclaimed ``was founded by James Connolly, one of the great socialist thinkers of the present century''. He was elected to represent Dublin North East. In his first years in Leinster House he remained on the liberal wing of the party. In 1969 he spoke on a Civil Rights platform in Strabane with Eamon McCann and Bernadette Devlin.

In the aftermath of Bloody Sunday O'Brien wrote a major article in the Observer newspaper calling for the British to withdraw from Ireland. Those were the days when O'Brien, like many of the intellectual elites, was very much a man of the `left'.

In taking up the post of Minister of Posts and Telegraphs in 1973, O'Brien promised that all restrictions on the media introduced by Fianna Fáil under Section 31 would be lifted by 1974. But the responsibility or the importance of assuming governmental power, especially for one with international intellectual prowess, seems to have politically unhinged the Cruiser.

He began to see his role in the humble office of Posts and Telegraphs as a historical victory for a new age enlightenment which he believed would resolve the problem of irrational nationalism. He publicly repented of his anti-partitionist past, preferring to join the new thinking of Ireland as part of a liberal European entity. He dismissed the idea of the Irish situation as one of post or neo-colonial legacy in both North and South and began arguing that the problem was rooted in the inability of the Irish to govern themselves.

This flawed analysis which had its roots in colonialism made it easy for him to align himself with partition and the British presence in the North. By 1974 he no longer supported the argument for a United Ireland. He set out as Minister to exorcise, as he put it, ``the IRA spiritual occupation of the RTE authority''.

His time as Minister for Post and Telegraphs, will not be remembered for the upgrading of the country's communications system, but rather for a tightening of the screw on censorship and control of RTE. Certainly to lay the blame for censorship at his door would be giving him too much credit for his efforts. When he was rejected by the Irish electorate he took a post with the Observer, since he had always made it clear that he preferred English journalist to Irish. It was during this period as Editor in Chief that he sacked Mary Holland, who had an eleven year contract with the Observer. The Observer has never recovered form his period as Editor.

In his declining years Dr O'Brien or Dr O'Zion, as he has become known in Palestinian circles, has taken to predicting the catastrophe which will befall the North when Britain withdraws.

In 1994 he predicted in that in 1995/96, 10,000 civilians would die in the North. He then predicted that in May 1995 the government in the South would be overthrown and the Southern army would take control and announce a Provisional government to carry on the war in the North.

This astrological brainstorm may have influenced his decision to join the UK Unionist Party. His latest pronouncement that those who marched on Bloody Sunday were all Sinn Féiners masquerading as fronts for the IRA has convinced many that a more earthly diagnosis may be correct. Whatever the reasons, Dr O'Brien, who used to be hailed by the British press ``as the voice of sanity in the Irish mess'', looks more and more like the voice of insanity in the English mess, of partitioned Ireland. Well, with a name like that!

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