Wednesday Book: A diplomat without soft words

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The Independent Culture
WHAT A man, and what a life! Born in 1917, and in the thick of it: the year before, two of his uncles were killed, one on the Somme fighting in the British army, the other shot as a traitor by the same army after the Easter Rising. His first books, written while still an Irish civil servant, were Maria Cross in 1952 - a sceptic's critique of Catholic writers - followed by Parnell and His Party. Both were important works, admired by intellectual critics, but they can still stir jealousy among scholars.

The Irish representative at the United Nations, Conor Cruise O'Brien then became UN Representative in secessionist Katanga. Was he a bull in a china shop, or an unlucky hero? John Arden dedicated Armstrong's Last Goodnight to him: a play about the moral dilemma of trying to impose peace by guile and minimal violence ("the Machiavellian art") on an imagined 16th-century Scottish border. Appointed Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ghana by Kwame Nkrumah, O'Brien stood up to him and preserved (for a while) academic freedom.

The New Left took against him for the strength of his anti-Communist polemics, but they shamefully ignored how strongly in Ireland itself he had fought McCarthyism and the Church, and how he exposed the CIA's funding of Encounter magazine, despite his closeness to its line. His defence of Zionism and Israel went way over the top; even his loyal biographer noted that he interviewed not a single Arab while writing The Siege. His attacks on the Communist wing of the ANC got him further reviled. But his real fault was not to notice the diversity within that camp, even while being among the first to take seriously the new thinking in Afrikanerdom.

From his days in the Irish diplomatic service, O'Brien has sustained a bold and provocative campaign against ultra-nationalism and romanticising the IRA, and has striven for an understanding of the Protestant majority in the North. Twenty years ago, his book, States of Ireland, argued that there are two Irish nations. Then denounced as heresy in Dublin, London and New York, this idea is now almost a commonplace. But then, typically, he went over the top again, pouring ungenerous, bitter scorn on all talk of joint institutions, peace processes, reconciliation or even hard-headed compromise.

Somehow, he found timeto be managing editor of the Observer, director of Amnesty International, an Irish cabinet minister and then holder of distinguished American chairs. So much to set down: but, so often, what began in high hopes and cheers ended in recriminations and tears. O'Brien has every pagan virtue but temperance and prudence.

Four years ago, a biography appeared by a Canadian historian, Donald Harman Akenson, together with an anthology of writings. To put it tactfully, the imprint of "the Cruiser" on both works was as plain as the elephant's foot in the butter. Akenson quoted Paul Johnson, calling O'Brien "the greatest living Irishman". Some Irishmen, even if finding it hard to differ, may at least regret that.

Certainly, O'Brien is larger than life, and knows it. He must have been dissatisfied with Akenson's biography, so now comes his own account in even more glistening varnish. Almost all memoirs of great men are like this to some degree, except those designed to shock by true confessions. But O'Brien shocks by polemical boldness on the "themes" of the subtitle, echoing Yeats on Edmund Burke's "Four great melodies", or public causes. O'Brien has written well on Yeats, able to speak truly of the poet's flirtation with Irish Fascism while defending the greatness of his poetry. "Good strong blows are a delight to the mind": indeed, they are.

O'Brien began writing after recovering from a stroke, to set it all down in time. He sadly tells us in the Preface that he had nearly finished when, this March, his daughter Kate died. "Sadly" in a double sense: for it is sad to feel the need to begin an essentially public and polemical memoir by telling us so movingly of private grief.

The book is at times a fascinating but also irritating and confusing mixture of autobiography and argument, sometimes reasonable, occasionally humorous, but too often hectoring, bullying, self-justificatory and pompous. He has the last word on all who have differed with him: British diplomats, Irish bishops, John Hume, the IRA, the ANC, anti-Zionists or even theatre critics.

Not for O'Brien the tranquillity of old age, assured reputation and quiet pride of achievement. The book ends with the argument that the peace process in Northern Ireland is failing. His hopes for a final, sensible acceptance of the justice and inevitability of partition, are dashed. So the Unionists, whom he has so boldly supported, should now make "a deal with constitutional nationalism to avert British surrender of Northern Ireland to violent republicanism".

O'Brien says of himself, in Katanga days, that arguments from "Pride and anger are not necessarily always unsound". True, but so is the converse.