Cruiser: vital to the maturation of political thought in Ireland

Right, I know I said that Christmas Eve post of mine was to be the last on the Cruiser. Well, this one is too good to miss. Dr Seamus Kilby has kindly allowed Slugger to publish own reflective thoughts on the man and his work. Whilst we’re at it, this piece in Spiked is also worth a read. By Seamus Kilby

In the few weeks since the demise of Conor Cruise O’Brien there has been a barrage of obituaries and life reviews. Predictably these have ranged from gushing hagiography best typified by the sindonista school of journalism to the a hostility of mainstream republicans.

In a sense both do him a disservice. Being a highly complex character and a man of apparent contradictions, to get a proper perspective you have to look at his life as a whole and not just one or two quotes or vignettes; or one or two of his many incarnations. And there were incarnations aplenty – some of them, admittedly, disturbing and bizarre: UKUP member, persecutor of newspaper letter-writers etc.

Love him or loathe him few can deny his seismic influence on late twentieth century Irish political thinking. Dr.O’Brien’s influence was so transformative that his original groundbreaking analyses (on the partition etc.) are now considered so self-evident that few remember that it was ever any other way.

And it was all pretty well down to one seminal work, ‘States of Ireland’. My reaction on first encountering this was reminiscent of economist J.K. Galbraith’s shock on first hearing Keynes expound his revolutionary theories:

Could it possibly be true that everything I was brought up to believe was actually wrong?

The book’s persuasiveness arises largely from its being of a particular phase in the author’s political evolution. It was his only major work on current Irish politics written from a standpoint of impartial, ruthlessly objective, intellectual clarity. Before that he was within the broad nationalist camp; afterwards he began to swing in the other direction.

This book was to prove a game-changer whose consequences still reverberate. The average, thinking reader of ‘States of Ireland’ on seeing their sacred cows slaughtered more or less went through a four phase response (with apologies to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross):

1. Stunned disbelief.
2. Intellectual wrestling with its startlingly new concepts.
3. Acceptance of the book’s central contentions.
4. Awed credulousness in terms of its author.

The fourth was to have consequences which were often problematic. In this respect the book, apropos James Connolly, contains a prophecy of its own perennially hypnotic power:

Connolly’s plain powerful prose, with the force of his extraordinary character behind it, strikes home to many intelligent young Irish men and women with the effect of a revelation. Unfortunately in Ireland the idea of revelation is associated with canonization and canonization, once attained, is not conducive to rational enquiry.

Substitute ‘O’Brien’ for ‘Connolly’ and you get the general picture. An irony was then fulfilled: at a time when broad masses were still enraptured by the death cult dimension of nationalism he was the main deprogrammer; he then unwittingly initiated a cult of his own. And so was born the phenomenon of O’Brien cultism of which sindonistaism is the most toxic modern manifestation. This need not have been an issue had he not departed from his early seventies phase of impartiality in terms of the unionist/nationalist conflict – a phase which he rediscovered only in his last decade.

His slow drift from objectivism at this stage is best summed up by Ian McLeod’s assessment of Enoch Powell:

“Poor Enoch, he is driven mad by the remorselessness of his own logic.”

This led to a pattern of valid concepts being taken to inappropriate extremes: from the starting point of having taken the very necessary step of maintaining and extending section 31 there was a progression towards (implicitly) threatening the imprisonment of a newspaper editor for publishing pro-republican letters; from forcing an accommodation with the unionist viewpoint he graduated to participation in Robert MacCartney’s quasi-Paisleyite UKUP. From, in ‘States of Ireland’, coming down on the side of Ismene, the moral pragmatist, as against Antigone, the moral purist, Dr.O’Brien vehemently opposed the Good Friday Agreement oblivious to the fact that Ismene would probably have given it a cagey thumbs-up.

Often his analyses, when looked at in sequence, defied logic – ‘remorseless’ or otherwise. For example in 1981 he advocated repartition with the transfer of nationalist majority areas in Northern Ireland to the South and a mere four years later fanatically opposed the far less radical Anglo-Irish Agreement.

Having instigated this vital revolution of the mind Dr.O’Brien teetered on the brink of becoming its Maximilien Robespierre. And where he lead the cultists followed: their facility for critical analysis, which originally led them to embrace O’Brienism as per ‘States of Ireland’, seemed to desert them when serious questions needed to be asked as it veered off the rails. Where there could have been a Robespierre, in other words, there would have been no restraining ‘Convention Nationale’ (figuratively speaking).

Personally I parted company after his opposition to the AIA as I couldn’t reconcile it with his earlier flirtation with repartitionism. Diminishing returns also set in from his serial, and misplaced, forecasts of impending civil war which made it clear to the more rational of his followers that he was not blessed with powers of unerring prophecy. His morbid obsession with what came to be termed ‘the O’Brien bloodbath’, relevant in 1972, began to ring hollow as times changed to the extent that he appeared less and less a Cassandra and more like an apocalypse-obsessed religious fundamentalist.

However looking at the complete picture this can now be seen as an aberration. With his characteristic intellectual rigour he showed a capacity for ‘revising his revisionism’ and sailed into calmer waters from the time of the publication of his memoirs onwards. This capacity has been sadly lacking in the sindonista automatons who have followed in his slipstream and who will now probably milk his legacy for all its worth– Kevin Myers, to be fair, being one exception.

I believe history will judge his overall legacy to be not just positive but actually vital in the maturation of political thought in Ireland. He was in essence an illuminator of the darker recesses of the national psyche, a demythologiser-in-chief, a forensic dissector of PIRA-friendly doublethink, and a debunker of CJH at a time when it was far from fashionable.

I was going to end with ‘ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dhílis’ until I remembered that the ‘culture of the cúpla focail’ was one of his main bugbears. Let’s just say, Conor Cruise O’Brien, rest in peace.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty