Terror, law and press freedom: an interview with Conor Cruise O'Brien
Conor Cruise O'Brien has become a figure Of violent controversy, not for the first time in his life. He was originally an academic— author of a number of critical and historical books, including the brilliant Parnell and/us Par/Y—and a civil servant. From the Irish Foreign Ministry, where he was, ironically as it seems today, concerned for a time with anti-partition propaganda, he was seconded Io the United Nations. He became famous (or notorious) in 1960-61, when he directed the UN's campaign against Katangese secession, incurring the hatred of conservative opinion in England and Europe. He returned to academic life, but in Africa, again arousing hostility by accepting a high Position under Nkrumah's dictatorship in Ghana, and was an eminent partisan of another secession, that of Biafra.
In his fifties he entered party politics in his native land as a Labour member of the Dail. With the formation of the Fine GaelLabour coalition government in 1973 he became Minister for Posts and Telegraphs. This makes him the political overlord of RTE, the Irish broadcasting service, and he has regularly ordered it to modify its coverage of IRA activities. For some time interviews with republican representatives have been forbidden and now even mention that Others have conducted such interviews is Prohibited. This, and Dr O'Brien's general role as the Irish government's fugleman in its campaign against the military and political ings of the republican movement, have inevitably cast him in the role of censor. I asked him how he reacted to the accusation. 'To my mind there is no difference in kind between censorship here and in Britain,' he said. 'We will not allow inciteMent to crime, and incitement to crime is Sinn Fein's business.'
Is the degree of government control of broadcasting and press increasing? 'What Weare doing is trying to make the prohibition or incitement to crime more effective. No government allows public incitement to Crime. I just don't accept that that is political censorship.' Although everyone recognises the connection between the IRA in its two wings9fficial and Provisional, both illegal in the IcePublic—and the respective 'political' ounterparts of Sinn Fein, neither Sinn Fein branch is banned. Is it justifiable to treat tit.ern as if they were outside the law? 'The niffieulty—if it is that—is that there are two Ppssible views of Provisional Sinn Fein. Either they are a legitimate political party With the same rights to express their views as arnY other party in a democracy, or they are tie Propaganda arm of a criminal conspiracY. As I take the second view I don't see
that they have any more right to advertise themselves than other criminals have. Some people have argued that treating them as if they were a legitimate political party will turn them into one.'
The hostility between the government and the communications media in Dublin has now become extreme, with intemperate accusations on both sides. The press sees the beginning of a police state; government supporters talk—with some evidence—of known terrorists working for certain newspapers. Dr O'Brien has become the bete noire of many inside the news media: 'And how's the most hated man in Ireland?' was a characteristic reaction from an acquaintance to whom I mentioned him. Did O'Brien reciprocate the feeling: what were his own feelings about the line of the press over the last few years? 'It's hard to deliver a general verdict. But I would say this, to put it no more strongly: they haven't given much of a lead to public opinion. They followed in its wake. The proof of that is in the editorial columns of the papers here if you look back.'
Then has there been a conscious sympathy towards subversion and violence within the communications media ? `No, I wouldn't say that. There is a small minority of people in the media sympathetic towards the subversives, but for the rest ... I think I would at least say that in my view they have been hypersensitive to threats of encroachment by the State while being unduly insensitive about the armed conspiracy in our midst. It's a matter of tendentious comment rather than slanted news. In fact the Irish Press [the strongly anti-government daily owned by the de Valera family] has a very good news coverage. For all that I still feel that any coverage of Sinn Fein activity is too much. I can't emphasise enough that wheneverSinn Fein is treated by press or broadcasting at its face-value claim to be just another political party—and remember that the Dublin papers are read and RTE is seen in the North—it reinforces the Provisional IRA.'
At the same time Dr O'Brien must be aware of the classic dilemma in which he finds himself. He would call himself a friend of liberty and in particular of the freedom of expression. Surely some of the laws introduced by this government and its predecessor are in normal terms repressive? 'Of course I don't like several of the present laws. One of the most damaging effects of an armed conspiracy is that it forces undesirable courses upon the state. One is dealing with a question of lesser evils. In 1972 I opposed the last government's emergency measures by which a man could be convicted of membership of the IRA on the uncorroborated evidence of a police chief superintendent. But if the law was undesirable I now see that it was necessary. It's worked.'
Has support for the IRA anyway diminished in the republic? 'Without any doubt. There used to be considerable sentimental support, so that in bars in the country Sinn Fein could always sell a few copies of their magazine. Now they just see them off.'
This brought back two related questions: if there is so little support for the IRA should not jury trial be reintroduced for republican suspects? And if Sinn Fein is in practice a criminal organisation, why has it not been made one in law, like the IRA itself? 'Unfortunately the IRA's unpopularity doesn't destroy its powers of intimidation. There used to be two reasons why it was difficult to get people to give evidence against the IRA or to convict its members. One was something like the mafia tradition of onierta. That doesn't operate any more. The other was intimidation. That does, and the special courts are a necessary defence against it. We have not outlawed Sinn Fein, purely for reasons of expediency at the moment. If we did, hundreds of people would declare themselves members simply so as to clog up the courts.'
Dr O'Brien unequivocally supported the line of his party—confirmed at its recent meeting in Limerick—in abjuring the use of capital punishment for any criminals, including terrorists.
We then talked about the future prospects of fighting terrorism. 'At the moment I am guardedly optimistic. Guarded because the question of Northern Ireland remains open. If the British were to withdraw with no assurance of stable agreement between the two communities there could be another Lebanon in the North, and it would be bound to spill over into the South.'
In view of his former career in the Irish Foreign Service, I asked when he had changed his mind about the 'border question.' As late as twenty-five years ago I would still have talked nonsense about Partition. When I began to think seriously about the border and the North I realised that it wasn't as simple as I'd believed.'
Given the long-standing orthodoxy in the South of Ireland, did it seem reasonable—as far as is any historical 'if' —to imagine that a solution might have been arrived at before the present troubles began ? 'I don't think so. The fount and origin of the present situation was devolved government as prescribed by the Government of Ireland Act in 1920. Lloyd George solved the Irish Problem temporarily but he was too clever by half. Perhaps if the Six Counties had then been fully integrated into the United Kingdom it might have led to a peaceful settlement. What in fact followed was the worst possible combination : the institution of the Stormont government for fifty years followed by its removal in the wrong conditions. If Stormont had been abolished in 1969 it might have been seen to have been done because of its abuses. In 1972 its prorogation could be interpreted as a straight surrender to the IRA. The fault lay with both the Irish and British governments up till the 'sixties. The Irish were still hooked on the traditional rhetoric about the need for immediate reunification. The British simply refused to talk or even think about Northern Ireland. At least now the position of both governments is altogether more healthy and realistic.'
What does the Irish government want to see now in the North ? 'Devolved government based on the participation of the two communities. That can only come from the communities themselves. There are some signs of hope. The Catholic minority largely wants it, and so I think does an increasing section of the majority. We musn't be impatient about such a development. It has to wait until the sentiment is really there —the last thing anyone wants is another round of apparent consensus followed by collapse--another Sunningdale.
While waiting for a consensus to emerge everyone must sit tight. The two essential messages that must be got across are that there is no question of British withdrawal without evidence of stable agreement by the representatives of the two communities. And the other is that devolved government is possible if the two communities want it. I know that the British have tried to get that message across, but there are other messages sowing doubt. Every time a British paper has an opinion poll asking whether you should withdraw it sounds plausible.
'Mind you, I don't think the IRA would benefit in the way they imagine if there were a British withdrawal. Years ago I asked Rory O'Brady, the IRA leader, what he hoped to achieve in the North. He said that he wanted first to destroy Stormont, and many would now say that he succeeded. Then, he would make direct rule impossible. And then what ?Oh, after a bit more violence the Protestants would come to their senses. It's nonsense, of course. Whoever gained control after a British withdrawal— if there was any control—it wouldn't be the IRA.'
Would a timed British withdrawal from Northern Ireland be a possible solution ? '"Timing" a withdrawal is just lighting a shorter or longer fuse on the bomb. It's easy enough to see what would happen: an announced withdrawal date of, say, five years would be cut to eighteen months as violence mounted and the arms supplies built up, and then shorter, with an increasing atmosphere of fear and panic. And then, as I say, Lebanon ... or worse.'
What part is the Fianna Fail opposition playing now ? 'The opposition are not even beginning to approach the Northern problem. They are playing at twenty-six county politics with the six counties, using them to upstage the government and to try to strengthen their position as the "national" party. Of course, there is a division within Fianna Fail. Jack Lynch is trying to hold back the nationalist line against Charles Haughey. But Mr Haughey's right wing seems to be growing stronger all the time. He himself is back on the front bench and even has the gall to talk about security—the man who was responsible for finance when £100,000 of relief funds was diverted to buy ing arms for the IRA. For party political reasons I suppose I should want Haughey to become leader of Fianna Fail : they couldn't ever win a general election with him. But it would be highly dangerous for the country.
Next year, when Dr O'Brien will be sixty, there will very likely be a general election in Ireland. Has he any further ambitions? 'Not for myself. I shall be haPPY to leave public life if I have done something to stamp out violent, extreme nationalism in Ireland.'