Conor Cruise O’Brien, an Irish diplomat, politician, man of letters and public intellectual who staked out an independent position for Ireland in the United Nations and, despite his Roman Catholic origins, championed the rights of Protestants in Northern Ireland, died Thursday. He was 91 and lived in Howth, near Dublin.
His death was announced by the Labor Party, of which Mr. O’Brien was a member. No cause of death was given. He was reported to have suffered a stroke in 1998 and several broken bones in a fall last year.
Once described by the social critic Christopher Hitchens as “an internationalist, a wit, a polymath and a provocateur,” Mr. O’Brien 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 at the United Nations and played a critical role in the United Nations intervention in Congo in 1961. As vice chancellor of the University of Ghana in the early 1960s, he fell out with the dictator Kwame Nkrumah over the question of academic freedom, and while teaching at New York University later that decade, he took part in an antiwar demonstration that led to 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 Irish Republican Army then prevalent in the Republic of Ireland. “I intend to administer a shock to the Irish psyche,” he said in defiance.
With the Troubles raging in the North, his position made him a hate figure for many Irish, as did his later opposition to the peace effort aimed at bringing Sinn Fein into the government of Northern Ireland.
Mr. O’Brien, known to friends as the Cruiser, was born in Dublin on Nov. 3, 1917, to a family with a long political pedigree on both sides of the widening split in Irish political life. Ardent republicans in the family somehow took tea with supporters of the Irish Parliamentary Party, which favored home rule but not a break with Britain.
His father, a journalist, moderate nationalist and agnostic, insisted that Conor, his only child, attend a Protestant school, although his mother the model for Miss Ivors in James Joyce’s story “The Dead” managed to keep him in a Catholic school until he received his first communion. He later studied history at Trinity College, Dublin, which was also Protestant. On graduating, he found a job in the civil service, initially in the finance department but soon with the department for external affairs (now called the foreign office).
In 1939, Mr. O’Brien married Christine Foster. The marriage ended in divorce. Two of their children survive, a son, Donal, and a daughter, Fidelma Sims. He later married Maire MacEntee, an Irish-language poet who writes under the Gaelic name Maire Mhac an tSaoi. She also survives him, as do their two children, Margaret and Patrick, as well as five grandchildren.
While a civil servant, Mr. O’Brien published two books to wide acclaim: “Maria Cross” (1952), a collection of critical essays on modern Catholic writers, and “Parnell and His Party” (1957). The latter, submitted as his doctoral dissertation at Trinity, caught the eye of Frank Aiken, minister of external affairs, who in 1957 sent Mr. O’Brien to the United Nations with instructions to take an independent line. The British magazine New Statesman wrote of Mr. O’Brien in 1968: “In so far as a civil servant can, he became a minor national hero; the Irish independent, asserting his country’s independence along with his own.”
In 1961, Dag Hammarskjold, the secretary general of the United Nations (and an admirer of “Maria Cross”), sent Mr. O’Brien on a special mission to Congo, which had recently achieved independence from Belgium but faced a separatist revolt in the mineral-rich province of Katanga. The rebellion was being backed openly by Belgium and secretly by France and Britain.
Mr. O’Brien, determined to take decisive action, ordered in United Nations troops, but the operation ended in disarray. In the aftermath, as the United Nations hastily repudiated the mission, Mr. O’Brien took the fall and left the world body. He recounted his version of events in “To Katanga and Back” (1962) and later wrote “Murderous Angels,” a play about Hammarskjold and Patrice Lumumba, Congo’s murdered premier, which was produced in Los Angeles and New York in 1970.
His tenure as vice president of the University of Ghana proved nearly as eventful. Nkrumah, becoming increasingly dictatorial, removed the nation’s chief justice. Mr. O’Brien publicly protested. The Ghanaian press mounted a campaign against the university, portraying it as a hotbed of subversion. Mr. O’Brien departed for the more welcoming environment of N.Y.U., to lecture on literature and social issues.
Mr. O’Brien then plunged into Irish politics, where a changed social climate made it possible for him, as a declared nonbeliever and a divorced man, to take part in public life. “For me, the idea of being able to represent a constituency in the Parliament of Ireland, without accepting the teachings of the church or pretending to accept them, had powerful existential attractions,” he wrote in “Memoir: My Life and Themes” (1998). “It meant that I would be accepted by my own people for what I really was. It closed a kind of schism in the soul, which had long troubled me more than I had ever consciously acknowledged.”
In 1969, as a Labor candidate, he won a seat in Ireland’s Parliament representing Dublin Northeast. Regarded as left-wing by Irish voters, he soon surprised many of his supporters with the provocative and highly influential book “States of Ireland” (1972), in which he attacked what he saw as the myths of the Republican movement and excoriated the nationalist dream as sectarian and colonialist. As minister of posts and telegraphs in the coalition government that formed in 1973, he banned Sinn Fein from the airwaves.
With the defeat of the coalition, Mr. O’Brien became editor in chief of The Observer, the London Sunday newspaper. For the two years he occupied the post, it gave him a platform from which to write polemical articles on politics and to indulge his passion for literature and history.
This he did, in a variety of forums and forms, for the rest of his long life. He was a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books and The Atlantic in the United States and The Irish Independent in Ireland. He also wrote many books, among them “Religion and Politics” (1984); “Passion and Cunning: Essays on Nationalism, Terrorism and Revolution” (1988); “The Great Melody” (1993), a biography of Edmund Burke; and “The Long Affair,” a revisionist study of Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution. At his death, he was working on a study of George Washington’s presidency.
“I think the intellectual in relation to politics is something like the Greek chorus,” Mr. O’Brien told an interviewer in 2000. “He’s outside the action, but he tells you quite a bit about it.”