Conor Cruise O’Brien, 1917-2008

Obrien.190.1 William Grimes in the NYT:

Mr. O’Brien, once described by Christopher Hitchens as “an internationalist, a wit, a polymath and a provocateur,” was a rare combination of scholar and public servant who applied his erudition and stylish pen to a long list of causes, some hopeless, others made less so by his combative reasoning. When called upon, he would put down his pen and enter the fray, more often than not emerging bruised and bloodied.

As a diplomat, he helped chart Ireland’s course as an independent, anticolonialist voice in the United Nations and played a critical role in the UN’s intervention in the Congo in 1961. As vice-chancellor of the University of Ghana he fell out with the dictator Kwame Nkrumah over the question of academic freedom, and while teaching at New York University, he took part in an antiwar demonstration that resulted in his arrest.

Most notably, as a lifelong commentator on Irish politics and as a government minister in the early 1970s, he argued passionately against a united Ireland without the full consent of the Protestant north and bitterly criticized the tacit support for the IRA then prevalent in southern Ireland. “I intend to administer a shock to the Irish psyche,” he said, defiantly. With the Troubles raging in the North, his position made him a hated figure for many Irish, as did his later opposition to the peace process aimed at bringing Sinn Fein into the government of Northern Ireland.