Subverting Kant

Subverting Kant

Mini Teaser: An Irishman of indefatiguable mind and rare sensibilities.

by Author(s): John O'Sullivan

Conor Cruise O'Brien, Memoir: My Life and Themes (New York: Cooper Square Press, 2000).

Clarissa Eden, the Prime Minister's wife, once complained during the 1956 crisis that the Suez Canal flowed through her drawing room in 10 Downing Street. Far more turbulent waterways -- the Bann, the Liffey and the Shannon -- coursed through the parlor and dining room of the distinguished Irish family into which Conor Cruise O'Brien was born in 1917. As the first chapters of his memoir reveal, the young Conor was very early made aware of the gulfs separating some Irishmen from others. These naturally included the antagonism between Catholic nationalists and Protestant Unionists. But the divisions within Catholic nationalism were perhaps at least as powerful and probably more bitter. Dr. O'Brien's family was divided in particular by two deep gulfs: that between constitutional nationalists and "physical force" republicans, and that between nationalists who welcomed Catholic social power and those who resisted it.

His maternal grandfather, David Sheehy, was a leading figure in the dominant Irish Parliamentary Party in the British House of Commons from 1885 until 1918. And both of his parents were firmly in the same camp of constitutional nationalists. During the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin, however, a deranged British officer murdered his uncle, Frank Sheehy-Skeffington, a pacifist with strong republican sympathies who had come to the aid of a Catholic youth returning from Mass. Thereafter, Frank's formidable widow, Hanna, became both a symbol and propagandist for Irish republicanism, touring the United States after 1916 and lecturing on "British Imperialism as I have known it."

As Dr. O'Brien dryly notes, this lecture probably did not include the contextual details that her father was sitting in the Imperial Parliament at the time and that her brother was legal adviser to the governor of St. Kitts in the West Indies. In the independent Ireland that emerged from the Troubles, however, the fact that the Irish had been "among the ruling peoples of the Empire" was conveniently forgotten. Constitutional nationalism was the first of many post-imperial losers. It was Hanna's republican side of the family that enjoyed social prestige and closeness to power, and the constitutional nationalists like the young Conor's parents who were out in the cold.

As if that were not enough, O'Brien's father was an agnostic who specified that his son be educated in non-Catholic schools -- a stipulation that his Catholic mother faithfully carried out after her husband's early death. With the Irish Catholic Church busily reshaping society in its own stern image at the time, the young Conor found himself twice suspect in unsmiling Irish eyes -- once as insufficiently nationalistic, the second time as dubiously Catholic. And since his Catholicism was indeed dubious and destined to become more so, it was all the more important to him to assert his nationalism. So at his school and at Trinity College (institutions both Protestant in their foundation and Unionist in their sympathies), he went in for such gestures of Irish patriotism as remaining firmly seated when "God Save the King" was played.

There was scant relief from such ideological turmoil at home. The young Conor seems to have been more plagued by aunts than any man since Bertie Wooster. His devoutly Catholic Aunt Mary sought to save his soul, hinting that his mother might be prolonging her husband's stay in Purgatory by educating Conor in accordance with his wishes, and his devoutly republican Aunt Hanna sought to direct his political loyalties into republicanism. Both influenced his upbringing, Hanna especially, but there seems to be a rooted impulse in O'Brien to react against any strong influence and in particular against any strong intellectual influence. As a result, the adult Conor emerged from these family quarrels neither in thrall to his aunts' fiercely held views, nor neurotically torn between them and the more tolerant nationalism of his parents, but with an independent-minded political outlook that combined a clear commitment to modern political liberalism with an analytical curiosity about the interests and justifications that all parties, not excluding liberals, bring to any dispute.

The main aspect of this outlook consisted of a hostility to arbitrary power together with a suspicion that any excessive power is likely to degenerate into the arbitrary kind. (Surely not coincidentally, such hostility was the theme that animated Edmund Burke in Dr. O'Brien's thematic biography of the statesman.) But a regime that places chains on power needs to be defended where it exists or established where it is resisted. And that implies a willingness either to conciliate or crush its enemies and, for either purpose, an ability to understand them and the powers at their disposal. Thus a liberal regime should not disdain the help of authority, or of tradition, or of religious belief, or of prudence, or of any of the ideas and interests that are usually supposed to rest at the right end of the political spectrum. It will always respect such aids, since they may well be rooted ultimately in popular opinion, and it will sometimes seek to seize them from the hands of its opponents.

De Valera's Ireland -- that is, Ireland from about 1937 to about 1960 -- was not exactly hospitable to this brand of politics. Politically the country was a fledgling democracy that took peaceful changes of government for granted remarkably soon after a revolution and civil war; socially it was a quietly repressive society because the political victors (and most of the vanquished) wanted an avowedly Catholic republic that would be distinguished from liberal bourgeois England; and economically it was a Celtic dormouse. If the central reality of Irish life was the overwhelming power of the Church, however, this could not be admitted since it would confirm the Unionist slur that Home Rule would be Rome rule. The effect was a kind of limited democracy in which very lively political disputes took place within boundaries silently marked out by the bishops. Even the most radical Irish politicians presented themselves as good Catholics and maneuvered for episcopal approval. As the novelist Honor Tracey said about a cosmopolitan, womanizing ex-revolutionary whose baubles included the Lenin Peace Prize, "Ireland is a country in which Sean MacBride goes to Mass."

This was a state of affairs that O'Brien was almost designed to subvert. He had emerged from Trinity as a kind of European literary intellectual on the James Joyce model, a Catholic at best croyant and certainly not pratiquant, who undoubtedly struck his colleagues as a very exotic bird indeed when he arrived in the Finance Department in 1942 and, shortly afterwards, in the Department of External Affairs. Yet his depiction of De Valera's Ireland (and of De Valera himself) is far kinder than would be given by almost any modern young Irish liberal. He sees it the way Orwell saw wartime Britain: as a family with the wrong members in control. Though the quiet repression had real victims -- poor Protestants, Catholic orphans, unmarried mothers -- many a blind eye was turned to sin and heterodoxy. Under the facade of Catholic decency, even the civil service had interstices in which dissidents and bohemians were given shelter. In the Europe of the forties and fifties, it was a haven of easy-going virtue.

Besides, as a rising young bureaucrat, O'Brien had to confine his resistance to Catholic power to private practical jokes and literary essays published under a pseudonym. And his nationalism, though liberalish, still conformed sufficiently to the authorized version to facilitate his running of such sallies of nationalist diplomacy as the Anti-Partition campaign in the United States and the establishment of an Irish news agency to replace reliance on Britain's Press Association. In these years, accordingly, he was present at the creation of two transformations in Irish foreign policy.

The first, which he merely observed as a junior official, took Ireland from its policy of official wartime neutralism, embarrassing after 1945, to one of broad support for a U.S.-led anti-communist West. This reflected Irish interests and its Catholic hostility to Soviet communism, but it was less effective than it might have been because the Irish government, while remaining outside NATO, insisted to the Americans that Britain was letting the West down by holding on to Northern Ireland.

The cracks in this policy were too gaping for mere diplomacy to conceal. Still, it succeeded domestically to the point where O'Brien, seeking entry into Ireland for Hungarian refugees in 1956, was told that they could not be admitted because they were from a communist country. He explained that the refugees were anti-communists. "I don't care what kind of communists they are", replied the official. "They're not coming in."

As a senior member of Ireland's delegation to the United Nations, Dr. O'Brien played a more influential role in the second transformation of Ireland's movement in the late fifties from its pro-Western position, which implied almost automatic support for American policy, to a more neutral stance coupled with marked sympathy for the Third World. And although he was obeying a political directive from Frank Aiken, the Irish foreign minister, he was also following his own inclinations: to win more influence for Ireland internationally by gaining friends among the newly independent post-colonial states, and -- that theme again -- to place some check on the overwhelming power of the United States both at the UN and internationally. As it turned out, O'Brien's connection of Irish nationalism to Third World internationalism was a prescient move later followed by many an Irish left-winger. It naturally won him admirers in the UN's "Afro-Asian bloc." It led to his transfer to the UN secretariat. And it made him internationally notorious when he was sent by the UN to represent its interests in the Congo crisis.
The Katanga story is grippingly told here. To simplify, O'Brien saw "independent" Katanga as a neocolonial fraud ruled by Belgian economic interests and local white settlers, and, interpreting an admittedly ambiguous UN resolution, initiated military action to end its secession from the Congo. This action only half succeeded, provoked opposition in the Security Council, was effectively disowned by the UN secretariat, and eventually led to O'Brien's retirement from UN diplomacy. In retrospect, as at the time, he fingers the British government as the villain of this piece on interesting and plausible grounds: because it was then hoping to foist its own white-ruled neocolonial fraud, namely, the Central African Federation, on Nyasaland and the two Rhodesias, it wanted neither contagious disorder nor the successful overthrow of white rule next door.

There is no reason to doubt the facts in this account. And in opposing the arbitrary rule of white Rhodesians, O'Brien is being perfectly consistent. But is he applying his other tests and estimating the forces ranged against black majority rule in Central Africa in 1960? The British government not only had to calculate the risks of violence spreading -- a prudential duty for any government -- but it also had to know that a quarter of a million whites controlling all the levers of power could only be dislodged either by a British military invasion or a prolonged guerrilla war. If London was not prepared to invade (and it was not), then it had to finesse the situation -- which meant creating a new multiracial polity in which the black majority had limited democratic rights, in the hope that this would evolve over time into majority rule.

This attempt failed, in part perhaps because Katanga's secession was ended and O'Brien vindicated. But was it either unreasonable or dishonorable? After all, the consequences for Central Africa were exactly what London feared: a strong push for immediate black majority rule, the rise of the Rhodesian Front arguing for undiluted white supremacy, the Unilateral Declaration of Independence, fifteen years of sanctions and guerrilla war, an eventual settlement that rewarded the most extreme party, and a government that has impoverished the country and murdered large numbers of its citizens. The outcome might perhaps have been still worse if the British had succeeded in keeping Katanga afloat; but it is hard to imagine how.

Whatever the historical might-have-beens, O'Brien emerged from the Katanga crisis widely misunderstood as a Third World revolutionary and settled enemy of Western interests. This reputation increased throughout the rest of the sixties, when, as a professor at New York University, he was among the first demonstrators against U.S. policy in Vietnam and, later, was appointed chancellor of the University of Ghana by Kwame Nkrumah. In fact, the headlines were somewhat misleading. As he anti-heroically tells the story, O'Brien prudently retired from demonstrating when a New York cop kicked him hard on the shin for "going limp." And he disappointed the more extreme members of the Third World lobby by bravely defending the independence of the University of Ghana and academic freedom against both the insidious pressures of the president and the outright thuggery of his supporters. Nonetheless, O'Brien still enjoyed the reputation (and some of the reality) of an international socialist when he returned to Ireland to enter politics for the Irish Labour Party in the late sixties.

This made him some predictable enemies and some surprising friends. As O'Brien points out, Ireland was until recently the only nation in the world where an accusation of communism was the cover for a more serious charge -- namely, being a bad Catholic. When the influence of religion is not avowed openly, its warnings have to be expressed politically, though not necessarily subtly. Thus, he tells the story of a priest who, giving a pre-election sermon, began with a brisk denunciation of communists and then went on to warn his parishioners about socialists. They were, he said, worse than communists; they were a breakaway sect of communists; you might almost say a Protestant variety of communists! O'Brien's political opponents, mainly in Ireland's natural governing party, Fianna Fail, were only too ready to exploit such themes against him.

What is interesting is that the IRA and its supporters, then in a Marxisant phrase, found him simp‡tico on the same grounds. Because O'Brien had enough nationalism left in him, and because Stormont then plausibly represented the arbitrary power that invariably arouses his opposition, he flirted briefly with a left-wing version of republican politics. The flirtation quickly collapsed when IRA sympathizers called on the Labour Party to demand the release of "political prisoners." Were they, he asked, to regard men who planted bombs in pubs as political prisoners? And with that question he began tearing away the veil of republican rationalizations for murder.

In the thirty or so years since then, Conor Cruise O'Brien has become the principal opponent of IRA terrorism in Irish politics -- as a Labour Party spokesman, a minister in coalition governments, a journalist and an editor. As a writer of such works as States of Ireland -- the single best explanation of what the Irish conflict is about -- he has painstakingly demolished the official myths of the Irish state that continue to persuade young men to die for Ireland and, of course, to kill for Ireland, too. In playing these various roles, he has revised a major element of his own thought, moving from moderate constitutional nationalism to support for Unionism, on the democratic argument that this is what Northern Irish majorities repeatedly vote for.

Events, however, seem to have been moving in the other direction. He was gently chided in a recent New York Times review of his memoir for opposing the "peace process" on the above lines. Yet he can point out in reply, drawing on themes that thread through his life and thought, that insofar as the peace process succeeds, it does so by erecting an arbitrary power over the people -- an administration that the voters cannot throw out in elections, since all parties with votes above a low threshold have an automatic right to ministerial posts. This arbitrary power is imposed by a political compromise with terrorism because democratic governments in London and Dublin fear that private armies will otherwise bomb their capitals. The political compromise with these armies allows them to retain their weaponry, while requiring that the British Army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary be partially disarmed and reduced in size and authority. And to keep the show on the road, the two governments have decided not to treat the maiming and murder of coreligionists as breaches of the ceasefire but, in the chilling jargon of Whitehall, as "internal housekeeping", thereby validating the rule of the gun in sectarian ghettos, Catholic as well as Protestant. If these arrangements have been extorted over democratic opposition by a few hundred terrorists armed with yesterday's weapons, it can only be because, pace Mr. Gladstone, the resources of civilization have finally been exhausted. It hardly seems a rational calculation of the real social interests at stake -- or a solid basis for political progress.

In the South the picture is only a little better. Under the impact of economic growth and European liberalism, Catholic power has imploded with astonishing speed, to be replaced not by a liberal democratic humanism, however, but by the usual social ills of prosperity and -- among intellectuals and much of the media -- by terrorist chic and the romance of the gun. It is even speculated that Sinn Fein (whose members were interned by the De Valera government) might enter the next government if today's Fianna Fail needs its votes to attain a majority. O'Brien's nostalgic respect for "Dev" is readily explicable on political grounds as well as those of personal friendship.

If this autobiography is sometimes naturally andante, as all lives are, it is invariably told allegro con brio. There are wonderful jokes, witty asides, undiplomatic stories of the diplomatic life; there are also moving personal tales, inevitably neglected in a largely political review, of O'Brien's family life and his love for his wife, M‡ire, which flowered improbably against the exotically risky background of the Katanga crisis; and there are brilliant pen portraits of such ornaments of recent history as Sean MacBride and Dag Hammarskjšld.

And, finally, neither O'Brien's life nor the Troubles have come to an end. Even as I write, the peace process is creaking loudly. He may be writing -- and making -- Irish history for some years yet.

Essay Types: Book Review