Conor Cruise O’Brien

[This review by Desmond Greaves of Dr Conor Cruise O’Brien’s  book States of Ireland, published in 1972, was carried in the  December issue of the Irish Democrat that year under the heading “Elaborate states of chassis”. The numbered references below have been added by the editor of the Greaves Archive web-site]

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That fateful day when, through the good offices of an Irish newspaper, three prominent intellectuals were recruited into the Irish Labour Party and promised seats in the Dail,  probably sealed the fate of Irish Labour for a generation.1

The most prominent of them unwittingly tells us why in this lengthy, well written statement of the position of the modern “Cawstle Cawtholic”.

Reading it is a “must” – not that it conveys much political enlightenment – but it reveals the state (one almost wrote states) of its writer’s mind.

The essential conception – a fundamental harmony, upon which innumerable elaborate decorations are superposed – is that the partition of Ireland arises from necessities within Ireland itself. Here is an example:

“The British Government of 1920 did not, nor does the British Government of today, artificially preserve the relation between the two communities in Ireland which resulted in the partition of the island; but when partition became inevitable, the British Government of 1920 ensured that the benefits of all doubts went to one community, the Protestant community descended from settlers from Britain.”

It is worth examining the logic of this contention. And the premises. It is true that the British Government of 1920 did not create community relations in Ireland. But previous governments had already done so. And the 1920 Government preserved them by means of partition. Dr O’Brien in his capacity as devil’s advocate accuses the wrong parties; then as the impartial judge pronounces them innocent. But that does not let John Bull off the hook. For the crime was committed, and it is possible to identify the criminals.

Who planted Ireland and preserved the plantation with penal laws against Catholics? Who gave the “King’s gift” to draw Presbyterians close to the monarchy? Who in the 1880s deliberately played the “Orange card” in order to stop Gladstone introducing Home Rule? Who financed the Orange Order’s revival in these days? Who officered and financed the rebellious Ulster Volunteers before the First World War? Who organised these into the A, B and C-specials under the Restoration of Order in Ireland Act? Who allowed Belfast Corporation every privilege while keeping Dublin back? Who gave firm orders that war orders were not to be placed in the “southern” part of Ireland?

It is a lie that Englishmen did not do these things. It is a lie that Irishman did them. But Dr O’Brien has not told the lie. He has pointed to the wrong men, and by declaring their innocence, concealed the crime.

Partition “became inevitable” because England was hell-bent on it, and had taken all the preliminary steps over the 30 years since it was first proposed by H.M. Hyndman2, during one of his flirtations with the Tories. It was called “Home Rule within Home Rule” and the object was to bind Ireland firmly and permanently to England.  

Then as for the benefit of doubts: what doubt was there that the nationalists of Fermanagh and Tyrone were in a majority in those counties? What doubt was there that the nationalists   as a whole from part, and know they form part, of the majority of the Irish nation? What doubt is there that laws were placed on the statute book which had a discriminatory effect? Or that Churchill backed up these discriminatory and therefore unconstitutional laws by illegal payments of British Government funds and was denounced in the House of Commons for doing it?  What doubt is there that there has been a continual agitation over 50 years to get these disabilities removed, and that successor English governments have refused to listen and have acted recently not out of the slightest concern for Ireland, but like their predecessors in order to preserve property relations and imperial interests?

Calling a certainty a doubt no more destroys it than calling an elephant in an earthworm puts it in the ground. 

The method of this book is studied ambiguity.

Here is another example: “The period from August 1969 to April 1970 saw, in a sense, the end of the border. That is, it marked the end of the border insofar as it was a border separating Catholic from Catholic.”

“In a sense”? In a nonsense! Any border separating Catholic from Catholic (That is, as Mr O’Brien explains, the gobbledegook for the non-intervention of the Dublin Government in Six County affairs) is and all the time was, the consequence of the actual physical border that is still there. And all the intervention we have had since 1969 has done (which incidentally constituted the resumption of an old policy; does Dr O’Brien not remember the information service on Six-County Affairs run for years by Mr De Valera?), is to highlight the fact that the border is still there. And to rub that in, Prime Minister Edward Heath has declared that while the Unionists want it, it will remain and the preserving of it will be an absolute.

Dr O’Brien was, one gathers, reared on the so-called humanities. It may be that he had very little solid scientific training. Certainly, he misses the very heart of scientific thought. That is to deal with things, not their reflections. And it is because he deals with reflections, because his thought is abstract and mechanical, that he can produce 336 pages in which everything is stood on his head. 

Now there are some other things, aside to his argument, which make the book noteworthy. That is the disclosure of the strong Redmondite tradition that exists in his family background. One naturally thinks of Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington; but she was apparently the exception. This Redmondite tradition Dr O’Brien seems to have inherited and is now engaged in attempting to justify.

It is therefore no surprise to find that he does not advise arguing with Republicans. He is quite right. Either you accept that the sovereignty of Ireland rests of right in the hands of the Irish people, who exercise it in accordance with the wishes of the majority, or you do not. It is worth arguing with an Englishman about this, since his government lays claim to sovereignty in Ireland and spends a lot of his money preserving it. But there is no argument between politically literate Irishman. They are on one side of the other. Dr O’Brien claims to have produced a “critique” of the Republican position however.  So we have one side of the argument.

His conclusion is that Ireland requires “greater flexibility in division”. England is still the arbiter, but must behave more flexibly, an arrangement appropriate for making the adjustments necessitated by entry into the EEC, of which Dr O’Brien is an admirer.

What is alarming is that Dr O’Brien is spokesman for the Irish Labour Party on international affairs. These include the subject matter of his book. Did he discuss its thesis with Mr Corish? 3 Is this to be Labour Party policy? The Labour Party may rue the day when it took this self-confident charmer to its bosom. For he will have created for them several elaborate states of chassis.

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  • The three “prominent intellectuals” alluded to here were Conor Cruise O’Brien, Justin Keating and  David Thornley. Their entry to the Labour Party in the mid-1960s was encouraged if not mediated by Michael McInerney, political correspondent of the “Irish Times” at the time and a strong Labour Party supporter. McInerney was given his head by that paper’s then editor Douglas Gageby. On one occasion in those years the paper editorially congratulated the Labour Party for have adopted a “Workers’ Republic” as its objective!  McInerney, a Limerickman, was the first editor of “Irish Freedom”, later the “Irish Democrat”, in London and he later edited “Unity”, the paper of the Northern Ireland Communist Party, before going to work on the “Irish Times” in 1946.  He tended to counter “socialism” and “nationalism” and would have been unsympathetic to Desmond Greaves’s view of the priority of the national question in Irish circumstances. 
  • Henry Mayers Hyndman, 1842-1921, originally a wealthy Conservative, he was converted to socialism by Marx’s Communist Manfesto and launched Britain’s first left-wing political party, the Social Democratic Federation, in 1881, when he was in his forties. An authoritarian and dogmatic person, he took up the Irish question and got involved in the Irish National Land League in the 1880s. He supported the war against Germany in 1914.
  • Brendan Corish, 1918-1990, was leader of the Irish Labour Party from 1960 until 1977.