One of the things worth considering before the Christmas season finally swallows us into its (generally) good natured maw, is just why Conor Cruise O’Brien had such a impact on the Unionists he met and worked with. Michael McDowell (no, not that one) was at Trinity thirty six years ago when he first heard the Cruiser speak. A Northern Irish Labour man, he’d joined the Irish Labour party for his time there, and therefore they were in the same party at the time. Then decades later:
In Washington, when I challenged Hume at a think-tank, he remarked to a colleague: “Michael McDowell will always be an Ulsterman and never an Irishman.” The Cruiser taught me that I didn’t have to choose to be one or the other. I could proudly be both.
How could a Prod like me be just simply “Irish”? My family came to the North in the 17th to 19th centuries, were Scottish Calvinists and English non-conformists. Our identity was a hybrid and no harm in that.
The Cruiser knew we didn’t have to choose one identity, or to allow people like Hume to define us. Likewise, I and my family didn’t accept the unionist label either. We were Northern Ireland Labour Party voters, social democrats or democratic socialists, who supported a party which had both Protestant and Catholic voters who eschewed the tribal choices which so many others felt they had to make or made comfortably.
Later he concludes:
I might have differed with the Cruiser in his last years, but not a lot. He fought to keep the gun out of Irish politics, North and South; he created the intellectual space in what was a stifling cesspool of lazy sectarian understandings. He changed the political playing field decades ago but we are still far from the pluralism he sought.
The fact of this ‘intellectual space’ is these days taken for granted, possibly because such ‘spaces’ on create potential, it is down to real politicians to act upon them, often creating realities that fall a long way short of the originating intellectual’s pristine vision.
The Cruiser once set an acid test for the pluralism of individual Irish Nationalists:
Find out how a given person stands on Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution. Those Articles are a naked claim to territory, irrespective of the wishes of the inhabitants. There is no nonsense, in the wording of the Articles, about the consent of the inhabitants. There is not mention of any inhabitants. It is all about territory and jurisdiction. The territory is ours, because we say it is and we must have it.
Ireland, north and south, passed that test in the 1998 referendum. Although it is clear the zero sum of the previous era still has a broad appeal for many. It was a game that has serially ill served the Irish nation (however one defines that terms) in the past.
Indeed one of its side effects is that Irish nationalism has acquired the rather distasteful habit of lopping off from the nation everyone whose face or politics don’t fit our own highly reductive template of what an Irishman should be. Even ultra right wing Senator Joe McCarthy was bounded by the term ‘un’ (rather than ‘non’) American.
That, it seems to me, is not simply to the effects of polticial partition or the incomplete nature of the historical Irish Republican project, but that project’s inability to concieve of itself as sufficiently large and broad enough to encompass of all of those with a birthright to the name Irishman/woman.
The fault lies in the ideology; not the people.
If living on the hill of Howth, jutting as it does away from the mainland and out towards the other island, the Cruiser was somehow cut a roguishly unIrish figure, he was for all of that an Irishman in the depth of his bones.
And a much greater one than many of his more venal critics.