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6 November 2017

Republicanism must learn from statesman who realised consent was only road to a united Ireland

Conor Cruise O'Brien could see the obvious, but it eludes many in Sinn Fein, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

Conor Cruise O’Brien’s influence on Irish politics was honoured at a two-day symposiumConor Cruise O’Brien’s influence on Irish politics was honoured at a two-day symposium

I am called various names, many of which are unsuitable for a family newspaper, but two of the cleaner ones are "public intellectual" and "revisionist", both of which were applied to the late Dr Conor Cruise O'Brien, the centenary of whose birth on November 3 was commemorated in Trinity College Dublin by a two-day symposium.

I checked the definition of "public intellectual" and found "a well-known, intelligent, learned person whose written works and other social and cultural contributions are recognised not only by academic audiences and readers, but also by many members of society in general".

I prefer to describe it as someone who thinks and writes about serious stuff, but rather than confine their thoughts to academic audiences is prepared to explain and defend them in the public arena.

A revisionist is harder to define.

When used by Irish republicans, it's a term of abuse implying that you are a turncoat who, for malevolent reasons, challenges the primitive version of history in which the Irish were the Most Oppressed People Ever (MOPE) who groaned under the British yoke until freed in 1916 by a tiny band of patriots led by seven selfless visionaries.

What makes that amusing is that Sinn Fein are startlingly revisionist as they cynically lie about the past to justify a 30-year campaign of terror against servants of the legitimate governments and anyone else who got in their way.

Thus, since the IRA failed to achieve the united Ireland they killed and died for, they claim that Roman Catholics were treated as badly as South African blacks, had no rights and had been forced to fight for equality.

I'm a proud revisionist who believes it is the job of historians to be prepared constantly to revise their opinions in the light of fresh evidence, and that if their conclusions are of national relevance they should defend them publicly.

The greatest of 20th century Irish public intellectuals was Dr Conor Cruise O'Brien: diplomat, politician, historian, journalist and wit, whose parents were both involved in the 1916 Rising, who at the beginning of his adult life was a traditional nationalist but who changed his views as a result of his exposure to the horrors being inflicted on Northern Ireland.

As John Maynard Keynes, one of the most influential and famous economists of the 20th century, put it: "When events change, I change my mind. What do you do?"

O'Brien - aka "the Cruiser" - was a man with a fine intellect and exceptional moral and physical courage.

In 1972, in his uncompromising States Of Ireland, he analysed the way in which, in schools and public life, the Irish State glorified the political violence of 1916, peddled "the fantasy of a United Ireland", and yet hypocritically then punished the brainwashed who joined the IRA to make the fantasy reality through force.

In his own words, he administered "an electric shock to the Irish psyche". For the rest of his life, he continued applying the live wires.

It would take many decades of argument and a stoical acceptance of vitriolic abuse and ridicule, but Conor would change Irish public opinion dramatically, leading to the abandonment of the constitutional claim to the territory of Northern Ireland and forcing even Sinn Fein to accept the principle that its people would have to consent to a united Ireland.

In a brilliant contribution to the symposium, Eoghan Harris who, like me, was greatly influenced by Conor, lambasted the "bilious begrudgery" of official Ireland who refused to honour a great man, epitomised by President McAleese in 2008 failing to go to his poorly-attended funeral or praise his immense contribution to peace.

Some amends were made last week, with a glittering array of scholars from America, Ghana, and the UK, as well as Ireland, arguing over his astonishing career, the attendance at the symposium of President Michael D Higgins, and a reception in the Department of Foreign Affairs.

I was amused by the leaflet being handed out by forlorn traditionalists advertising a publication called The Embers Of Revisionism.

Hey, guys, the truth is the revisionists won.

The Cruiser has had the last laugh.

This is a fuss about nothing.

Ruth Dudley Edwards’ The Seven: The Lives And Legacies Of The Founding Fathers Of The Irish Republic, was published by Oneworld Publications on March 22.

The paperback of Ruth Dudley Edwards’ The Seven: The Lives And Legacies Of The Founding Fathers Of The Irish Republic will be published on April 23.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards