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Issue 38, May 1999

A reactionary diatribe

      Memoir: My Life and Themes
      By Conor Cruise O'Brien, Profile Books, 1998, 20.
      Reviewed by Anton McCabe

SOME REACTIONARIES have written fascinating autobiographies: they tell us how and why they reached their political and social conclusions. Conor Cruise O'Brien's Memoir, however, is just a long and uninteresting whine.

O'Brien is well-known for his pro-Unionist views: he arrived at them from right-wing Irish nationalism and, on the conclusions of this book, seems to be on his way back there. O'Brien came from an often-neglected background: the rich Catholic upper-middle-class of the South. This class did well under British rule, and continues to prosper.

Having studied at Trinity College, Dublin, O'Brien joined the Irish civil service. In 1961, as a member of the Foreign Service, he was UN representative in Katanga (south-easternmost province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo).

O'Brien's experience in Katanga gave him a totally false reputation as a left-winger. At the time he had refused to be completely railroaded by US, French, Belgian and British imperialisms. These wanted to hive Katanga off from the rest of the Congo, because it was the province wealthiest in natural resources. Anti-colonial revolt was sweeping Africa, giving Britain an added motive. A state controlled by mining interests would shelter white-ruled Southern Africa from the 'winds of change' blowing further north. The Congo section is the only part that is an interesting read, given the terrible situation of that country today.

1961 was a much less liberal time than today. O'Brien's marriage had ended, and his girlfriend was visiting him in Katanga. A major reason for O'Brien resigning from the UN was that this was used against him, at high levels. The rest of the 1960s he spent as an academic in the US and Ghana.

  In 1969 he was elected as a Labour member of the Irish parliament. Irish Labour had moved to the left in the late 1960s: the party stood on a very left-wing platform, calling for a Workers' Republic. The party polled well: it's highest ever vote until 1992. But not as well as was unrealistically expected. O'Brien and two other academics were invited aboard in the belief that such personalities would strengthen the party. The three, however, were central in getting the party into coalition four years later. O'Brien became a government minister. In 1977 he lost his seat.

There is a self-justifying description of how the three academics elected for Labour in 1969 had the most incredibly petty quarrels, and were soon not speaking to each other. These were supposed to be the intellectual giants of the labour movement!

I can't understand how someone supposedly intelligent can be so uninterested in the world round them. The 1969 general election polarized the Irish Republic. It was occurring at the same time as the Civil Rights' Movement in the North. My generation of socialists was formed by those years. But O'Brien only devotes four perfunctory pages to them.

A generation earlier, his cousin Owen Sheehy-Skeffington, was one of the leaders of the Dublin Labour Party and worked extremely closely with the small Trotskyist group in the city. O'Brien claims bosom friendship with Sheehy-Skeffington, but exhibits not the slightest curiosity about his ideas.

From 1965 to 1969, O'Brien taught at New York University, during the intense anti-Vietnam war movement. The country was polarized. But, apart from showing his face at one demonstration, he exhibits no interest.

  O'Brien lets slip how slight was his real commitment in 1969. When his son asks him why he wants to stand, he replies 'for the experience'. Nothing about changing society! There is the occasional other interesting nugget in the book. In 1946 O'Brien was the Irish delegate to an International Conference on Refugees in Geneva. The chief Vatican representative gave him a diatribe on Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, how they were all making fortunes in black market trading.

But O'Brien also lets his own mask of civilization slip. His book is pitted with slabs of quotation from the French, and the odd lump of German, all of course from the classics. On p355, in contrast, he repeats a secret policeman's boast of how a Dutch industrialist, Herrema, kidnapped in 1975 by a couple of unstable fringe Republicans, was found: "One of the gang had been arrested, and we felt sure he knew where Herrema was. So this man was transferred under (Special) Branch escort from a prison in the country to a prison in Dublin, and on the way the car stopped. Then the escort started asking him questions and when at first he refused to answer they beat the shit out of him. Then he told them where Herrema was".

"I refrained from telling this story to Garret (Fitzgerald) or Justin (Keating - both fellow government ministers) because I thought it would worry them. It didn't worry me". Getting others to beat the shit out of people judged a threat to the system is where O'Brien and his ilk stand, when you strip away their liberal apologies for reaction.

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