Damn Rousseau (for sending his infant children to the foundling home after writing Emile, a treatise on the importance of parental love). Damn the Pope (for appearing to endorse liberal Catholicism while actually reasserting pre- Vatican II doctrine). Damn Yeats (for his shiftiness of Irish nationalism and his fascist propensities). And now damn John Major's Downing Street Declaration for pretending that the IRA is war- weary, and damn Bill Clinton and Ireland's Prime Minister, Albert Reynolds, for fortifying Sinn Fein by approving Gerry Adams's visit to the United States. O'Brien is sparing with his blessings.
His most powerful columns - now in the Independent - engage one with the intimacy of a conversation in a Dublin bar. Sometimes he takes off into inspired fantasy: Henry Kissinger as Dorian Gray, his handsome public image betrayed by the dreadful true likeness in the attic, for instance; or the happy discovery of Bomfog, 'high-sounding discourse tending to obscure rather than illuminate its chosen subject-matter'.
There's nothing special about contrariness laced with irony. Solid Fleet Street reputations have been founded on little more than unfocused iconoclasm and a fondness for paradox. But O'Brien is no mere provocateur. The circumstances of his family background and the accidents of his career have forced him, virtually since boyhood, to define his political and moral position. They have made him a natural dissenter.
He was born in 1917, the year after the Easter Rising, into a Dublin family divided in its responses to Irish nationalism. His father, a Catholic agnostic who died when O'Brien was 10, was a journalist on two moderate nationalist papers, the Freeman's Journal and the Irish Independent. His mother, another moderate nationalist, was the original of Miss Ivors, the Gaelic-language enthusiast in one of James Joyce's finest stories, The Dead.
His maternal grandfather was prominent in the Irish Nationalist Party defeated at the 1918 general election. One uncle, Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, was close to the Rising leaders and was shot by the British Army in 1916. Another was killed in the same year fighting in that army on the Somme.
O'Brien was sent to a Protestant school, Sandford Park, because his father believed that Catholic education at that period was obscurantist. He grew up in the early years of the new Irish state having to distinguish his loyalties both from the fading Britishness of his school (and, later, Trinity College, Dublin) and from the Catholic nationalism of most of his countrymen. Unlike them he accepted Partition because it respected the principle of the consent of the governed. That acceptance, the belief that a united Ireland is neither practical, inevitable or just, has coloured his opinions ever since. It explains the deep distrust he arouses at home.
At Trinity he obtained firsts in history and modern languages, and in his late thirties acquired Russian, passing the British foreign service examination in it - reputedly the morning after a heavy night out in Soho. ('Being Conor,' said a friend, 'he not only had to speak it, he had to get drunk in it.') After stints of teaching and writing for the Irish Times, he joined the home civil service, switching to diplomacy two years later. 'It was important for my family, and for me, that I should play some part in the life of the new state, that we should come back and be vindicated,' he says.
For the next 20 years he was embroiled in combat. In 1960 he was appointed to the Irish delegation to the United Nations, and the following year joined the staff of Dag Hammerskjold, the Secretary-General. What he learnt there became the seed of much of his journalism.
'It was disconcerting to experience directly how presentation in politics differs from the reality,' he says. 'I found myself in New York reading cables coming in from the Congo (then collapsing into anarchy) and seeing a startlingly different and much less edifying picture than what the members of the UN's Congo Advisory Committee were receiving from the Secretary-General.'
Hammerskjold sent him to Katanga, a secessionist province of the Congo, as special representative charged with putting into effect an emergency resolution of the Security Council, authorising the use of force to prevent civil war. Fighting broke out, Katangese and UN peace-keeping soldiers (including Irishmen) were killed, and O'Brien rashly announced the end of secession.
There was international uproar. The UN was accused of exceeding its brief by interfering in the Congo's politics. The Daily Telegraph likened O'Brien's action to Hitler's annexation of Austria. He was summoned to New York (Hammerskjold had been killed in a plane crash) and resigned.
More trouble was soon to
follow. O'Brien became vice- chancellor of the new University of Ghana in 1962, at the invitation of Kwame Nkrumah, the country's President. But he defied Nkrumah when he was ordered to appoint government nominees as faculty members, despite rioting incited by the President's supporters. Only his anti-colonialist credentials saved him from dismissal. O'Brien left at the end of his three-year contract to become a professor of humanities at New York University. In the Seventies he served in the Irish parliament as a Labour member, becoming Minister of Posts and Telegraphs.
In 1979 Atlantic Richfield (Arco), the American oil corporation that had bought the Observer, appointed him editor-in-chief over the head of the editor, Donald Trelford. Once again he was plunged into conflict. Robert Anderson, Arco's boss, wanted the paper to support Margaret Thatcher in the 1979 general election. O'Brien, after consulting his colleagues, plumped for Labour. 'I took it as my first test,' he says. 'I'd been promised complete editorial freedom. I now know there's no such thing.' Anderson was furious and O'Brien's life became increasingly fractious, a perfectly natural condition for him.
He had been appointed to restore the paper's international reputation. It was not a success though he handled the divided command with tact. O'Brien was remote from the staff, bored by
logistics and often side-tracked by speculative discourse.
Shortly after arriving he circulated a memorandum Against Muzzification. There were to be no more 'On the one hand, on the other' leading articles. The deputy editor John Cole, an Ulsterman, riposted with a counterblast, In Praise of Honest Dealing, decrying dogmatism. O'Brien was delighted, circulated it among the staff and asked for comments. His English colleagues, pragmatists ill-at- ease amid all this Irish theorising, wanly ignored it and turned to the proper business of producing newspapers by the seat of one's pants, as decreed by the ancient gods of Fleet Street.
In those days O'Brien lived during the week on a Thames houseboat. Entry was by a rickety gang-plank. Like many newspapermen, he was accustomed to dining well and none too wisely. Fears were expressed that one dark night . . . ker-SPLOSH] - Ireland would lose a notable writer and scholar overboard. Thereafter, when he spent the evening out with colleagues, someone with life-saving skills would be deputed to see him home.
After two years he resigned, retaining his weekly column. Almost at once Anderson sold the Observer to Lonrho as a sweetener for an Angolan oil deal. O'Brien testified to the Monopolies Commission that Lonrho's boss, Tiny Rowland, was unfit to own a newspaper. Rowland was furious, and O'Brien resumed combat with a new adversary. The paper was losing money. Rowland refused to bale it out until O'Brien's column was dropped. In 1984 Trelford obligingly sacked O'Brien, provoking protests from the staff. It was a perfect O'Brien double: to have enraged not just one but two successive proprietors of the same newspaper.
O'Brien lives with his second wife, Maire, daughter of a former Deputy Prime Minister of the Republic, in a house outside Dublin with a magnificent view of the ocean. He has three children by his first marriage (dissolved in 1962 after 23 years), and he and Maire have two adopted Irish-African children. He is currently in America, researching a book about the American Founding Fathers and the French Revolution.
His lively exploration of Bomfog continues. With O'Brien, however, what you see is not always what you get. Sometimes the tone is reflective and balanced. But when he is at his most belligerent, intellectually inconvenient facts and arguments are swept under the carpet. That subjectivity is what gives his columns their polemical thrust.
His recent attack on the Downing Street Declaration is a good example. Jaw-jaw, however muddled and tentative, is usually better than war-war. And what is O'Brien's alternative? A limp formulation about pursuing 'serious discussions on security'. What was that about muzzification?
Perhaps there are two O'Briens: the cool rationalist, heir to the European Enlightenment; and the Irish dogmatist, liberated from the ruinous tribal affiliations of his countrymen but with a mind of the same passionate temper. One begs leave to prefer the former.