A lost nun and a closet extremist

Ideas Matter - Memoir - Mary Robinson
April 9, 1999

Brendan O'Leary reflects on the lives of two of Ireland's most intellectually gifted citizens - Conor Cruise O'Brien and Mary Robinson.

Mary Robinson and Conor Cruise O'Brien enjoy outstanding reputations in the liberal English-speaking world. The books under review will not disturb their reputations: Olivia O'Leary and Helen Burke's authorised biography of Mary Robinson is what it says; O'Brien's memoirs do not burst with self-criticism save where it suits his present postures; while Richard English and Joseph Skelly's festschrift for "Conor" is best described as a lightweight love-in.

At a time when high proportions of the Irish political class in Dublin stand accused of various forms of financial malfeasance, both "Mary R" and Conor, graduates of Trinity College, Dublin, and two former senators representing TCD in the Irish second chamber, stand out as incorruptibles - vigorous in argument, strongly individualist, tough-minded, personally honest beyond party, class and tribe. They deserve these reputations, but they are not the entirely flawless icons that their friends suggest.

Mary Robinson is now the UN high commissioner for human rights because she is rightly regarded as capable of giving this under-used post greater public impact. She won her legal and political spurs in defence of liberal and social democratic rights, and was a key player in building independent Ireland's now advanced secularisation.

Born in 1944, professor of constitutional and criminal law in Trinity College, Dublin, at the age of 25, senator at 25, she was elected president of Ireland in 1990 and served as head of state until 1997. Hers has been a role-model career for liberal feminists. Her biographers, however, are slightly embarrassed by her relatively privileged background - squirming over the fact that her brothers and she enjoyed the services of a live-in house cleaner while engaged in the delights of undergraduate life. Nevertheless, they provide us with some understanding of why she became what she did.

Her family was professional and upper class, and had significant British schooling and professional connections: "I had a complete lack of any sense of being second class. I had a background of having a great-uncle who was the Queen's bodyguard at Buckingham Palace and all these uniforms and things. So, subconsciously, I had no sense of an Irish inferiority complex." She stopped being a mass-going Catholic at the age of 17, but as her biographers note there is a "bit of a lost nun in Mary - the slightly public starchiness, the commitment to high ideals, the refusal to accept that the world could not be converted to new ways".

To her credit Robinson has shown no discernible inferiority complexes of any kind, and in her days as a campaigning socialist lawyer and professor she put her intellectual and legal self-confidence to good use in defending women's, non-Catholics' and underprivileged people's rights before both Irish and European courts. She was part of the 1960s upsurge in left radicalism that affected Ireland as much as it did the rest of Western Europe. O'Brien was one of the leading icons of the left whom she admired. Both were socialists then. Neither uses the term as a public self-description any more.

Though both have left socialism to their CVs, Robinson's liberalism has been more consistent than O'Brien's. When minister for posts and telegraphs in 1974 O'Brien stiffened the broadcasting ban on the Provisional IRA, and Provisional Sinn Fein, under Section 31 of Ireland's Broadcasting Act. He believed in trading off liberal rights to protect the state - the UK's and that of the Republic's. Robinson fought the relevant provisions all the way to the European Court of Human Rights in defence of freedom of expression. She consistently criticised the use of internment without trial as wrong in itself and counter-productive - and in consequence O'Brien accused her of casting aspersions on the integrity of judges. In this quarrel intelligent historians will judge that Robinson was right, both in the short and the long run.

Robinson resigned from the Irish Labour Party in 1985 because she considered the Anglo-Irish agreement to be wrong, attacking its Irish makers Garret FitzGerald and Dick Spring. She judged that "the agreement couldn't achieve the framework envisaged". This was bizarre, as the agreement infringed no human rights, and made their protection more likely. She may have seemed right in the short run about its likely efficacy, but she was wrong in the long run as the agreement created the political environment out of which the 1998 agreement could be made.

Her action did have one unintended consequence - it made it easier for Ulster unionists to engage with the Republic of Ireland in the 1990s. But there was a price: Northern nationalists felt that she had betrayed them, a suspicion that still lingers. In the North, nationalists tend to believe that Dublin liberals believe that their enemies' enemies are their friends - and so they have to endure Dublin liberals' support for the reactionary pleasures of Ulster unionism as an emblematic proof of their bien-pensant natures.That is how Robinson is seen in some quarters in the North, and there is some truth in this.

Robinson became Ireland's president by a series of lucky accidents, but also through some tough politics - including downplaying her views on the Anglo-Irish agreement, and using the PR skills of individuals who had just transfigured into ex-Stalinists. She started campaigning early and distanced herself from the Labour Party that endorsed her candidature. The campaign of the Fianna Fail candidate, Brian Lenihan, was severely damaged by the publication of old tape-recordings of himself released by a politics research student - which he was compelled to contradict.

Both the Robinson and Lenihan campaign teams went along with suggestions that the Fine Gael candidate, the Northern Irish Austen Currie, was somehow a foreigner and a blow-in. Their actions and his late entrance left Currie in third place in the polls. Remarkably, biographers O'Leary and Burke fail to give readers the actual election result: Lenihan won the most first-preference votes (44.1 per cent), with Robinson next (38.9 per cent) and Currie last (17 per cent). The second preferences of those who had voted for Currie enabled Robinson to defeat Lenihan: she would not have won under the UK's electoral system.

As president she proved stunningly popular. She was graceful, dignified and extremely competent. She reached out to the marginalised. She assisted in the peace process. She added glamour to the office. She also made a few blunders, such as sacking the elderly presidential staff en masse , and shaking hands with Augusto Pinochet - an episode rather unsatisfyingly explained by her biographers. In short, Ireland lost an extremely able constitutional lawyer in return for the symbolism of a woman, a liberal, and a human rights champion in Aras an Uachtairain, the presidential house in Phoenix Park. Ireland benefited, domestically and in external reputation. Robinson herself did not - she was practically institutionalised, but she has re-liberated herself, and now plies her trade on a world stage. She should prove a robust and effective operator.

Conor Cruise O'Brien has long been a global phenomenon. Historian, literary critic, diplomat, politician, newspaper editor and polemical pundit, his mental gifts have never been in doubt. His capacity for self-doubt is more questionable. He writes superbly, though these memoirs are not his best work, perhaps because his very talented daughter's early death disrupted both its composition and its conclusion.

A brilliant student, his working life began as a civil servant in Ireland's department of external affairs. While in post he wrote a PhD dissertation, Parnell and his Party . It is still the standard work in the field, and he published accomplished literary criticism on Catholic novelists. His abilities were recognised despite his agnostic deviance among his believing peers, and he was soon Ireland's chief diplomatic propagandist complaining about the British partition of Ireland - a subject he now treats with delicate and interesting embarrassment.

His talents led to his promotion and he soon became the chief civil servant with responsibilities for the UN after Ireland joined in December 1955. Five years later he became Dag Hammarskjold's special representative in the Congo, trying to steer an anti-secessionist policy through immensely turbulent and murderous waters. Unless I missed something O'Brien does not reflect on whether the UN and the OAU's decision to preserve the territorial integrity of the Congo was beneficial in the long run - Mobutu's kleptocratic Zaire was born from these events. O'Brien's contemporaneous narrative, To Katanga and Back, remains a riveting read and should be referred to in preference to the sections devoted to the subject here.

On resigning from the UN with his dignity intact, O'Brien became the vice-chancellor of the University of Ghana. There he had his finest moment as a defender of intellectual and other freedoms as Nkrumah's dictatorship unfolded. From Ghana he went to be a professor at New York University, and engaged in public protests against the Vietnam war, before returning fully to Ireland in 1969 to be elected as a Labour member of Dail Eireann in 1969. Within five years he had become a minister in a Fine Gael-Labour coalition government. Soon it became evident how his passions had altered. Foreshadowed in his book, States of Ireland , O'Brien had become convinced that democracy and political stability in Ireland depended upon a full frontal engagement with Irish nationalist republicanism, which he deemed to be fascist. To that end rights were tradable, and no important distinctions were to be made between soft and hardline nationalism.

His opposition to separatist republicanism had deep personal roots. His family was part of the "home ruler" caste in the Irish parliamentary party - the doctorate was partly a work of familial piety. They were destined to be integral members of the Irish governing class if the UK ever granted Ireland autonomy. Their prospects were swept away by the militant republican and Sinn Fein revolution that unfolded between 1916 and 1921. O'Brien does not deny that this deprivation of his expected birthright partly underpins his intellectual opposition to republicanism. While his objections to republican violence have always been correct, his diagnoses of its causes and nature are not: in fact they owe more to his literary imagination.

From government he departed to the shores of the media, as editor-in-chief of The Observer, before "retiring" to be a columnist. His enduring characteristic since the 1970s, as he became progressively more reactionary in keeping with the timbre of the age, has been the dogmatic clarity of his conviction that he is possessed of wisdom and light on all matters Irish, European, Middle Eastern, South African and global. He is a pundit without shame for what some think is the era of globalisation.

He has written a history of Israel that is more Zionist than most Zionists; a defence of Edmund Burke that is an undisguised apologia pro vita sua ; and an acerbic analysis of Thomas Jefferson that in some respects is "politically correct" and anachronistic. All this, of course, is part of the secret of his success. He is an extremist who postures as a man of the Enlightenment. His reason has become the fulsome slave of his passions. Like the man in Yeats's poem, he in effect cries to us "Why should not old men be mad?" He shredded memorably and lucidly Yeats's political reputation; he has lived long enough to do the same to his own.

He has also become apocalyptic and attention seeking - notoriously warning of a Fourth Reich, complete with new statues of Hitler, at the moment of Germany's reunification. He has attacked John Hume as the catspaw of Gerry Adams and the IRA. On the principle that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, he became an active unionist, opposing the direction and idea of the peace process as a member of Robert McCartney's UK Unionist Party, and sharing common cause with Ian Paisley in the "No" camp ranged against the British-Irish agreement of February 1998. In the conclusion to these memoirs he argues that unionists should embrace a united Ireland now in order to preserve the RUC - quite how this would be accomplished is not elaborated. This is not being too clever by half. It is rather a bizarre, unintendedly funny and sad note on which to end the memoirs of a man of such huge talent. Out of Ireland did he come; great hatreds and great bravery have marked him; our island was certainly too big for his ego. It has benefited from his engagements, but his times and the time of his passions are nearly over.

Brendan O'Leary is professor of political science, London School of Economics.

Ideas Matter: Essays in Honour of Conor O'Brien

Editor - Richard English and Joseph Morrison Skelly
ISBN - 1 85371 882 3
Publisher - Poolbeg Press
Price - £12.99
Pages - 410

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