CONOR Cruise O'Brien. who has died at the age of 91, was an Irishman of outstanding intellect who often took a stand against received political wisdom. He was a diplomat, historian, author, academic, UN official and journalist. Born into a Catholic family in Dublin, O'Brien was brought up and educated as a Protestant.

It was hardly surprising, therefore, that one of his earliest published books was a study of Ireland's “lost leader”, the Protestant Charles Stewart Parnell.

After joining the Irish diplomatic service O'Brien worked at the United Nations in New York where he was noticed by Dag Hammerskjold, the UN Secretary General, who asked O'Brien to join him. His first major assignment was in the Congo where a civil war had broken out after independence from Belgium. A UN resolution authorised a peacekeeping mission to use force if necessary to bring the Katanga rebels under control but O'Brien was criticised severely when he took this action. He always believed he was betrayed by Britain and other Western powers who secretly supported the rebels. In 1962 he became Vice-Chancellor of Ghana University and crossed swords with premier Kwame Nkruma on issues of academic freedom and the rule of law. On returning to Ireland he took a stand in favour of power-sharing between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland. In the late 1970s he became Editor of The Observer but annoyed the American owners by supporting Labour at the 1979 election. On his 90th birthday O'Brien announced that he was at work on a new book, a biography of George Washington.


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