A talent to offend

Memoir: My Life and Themes

Conor Cruise O'Brien <em>Profile Books, 384pp, £20</em>

Despite the international recognition that Conor Cruise O'Brien has won in his long career as diplomat, scholar, politician and journalist, there is a dimension to him that must surely escape those who are not Irish. The mere mention of his name or the sound of his voice evokes an intimate, ethereal presence. A generation of Irish who grew up in the 1970s cannot forget that voice: cool and steely, a touch superior even, possessed of a disturbing, alien rigour. Others might write of how Ireland was burdened by pieties; O'Brien made you feel the weight of them.

In British common rooms, on American campuses and across African capitals, O'Brien is known as the unreliable UN diplomat who came unstuck in Katanga, the one-time anti-Vietnam war demonstrator in the streets of New York, the anti-anti-communist, the resolute defender of Israel, the champion of Edmund Burke and the demolisher of smug utopianism. But these readers and audiences are often immune from the psychic disturbance that his utterances can provoke among his compatriots.

In 1974, for instance, when I was at school and O'Brien was a minister in the Irish government, the elderly Christian Brother who led us in reciting the Angelus at noon each day would pause after the last Hail Mary. Head bowed, rough hands crossed over his black soutane, he would then intone quietly: "And now let us say one more Hail Mary for the conversion of Conor Cruise O'Brien." I've never worked out if that was terror of an infidel speaking or actual sadness.

O'Brien, a half-Catholic (his father was an agnostic), attended a Protestant school. "Somewhere in there at the levels of the psyche I am trying to explore was the notion that religion and nationality were like lungs," he writes in this memoir. "One lung [religion] was gone - it might be aptly described as past praying for. If you lost the other you would be finished." No sooner had he discarded the lung of religion than he set about persuading the rest of the Republic of Ireland that they would breathe easier without it, too. And in his 82nd year, he now advises that the unity of Ireland is the best way to save unionism.

O'Brien's attachment to such dramatic reappraisals is now part of his personality. After his return to Ireland from his spell as Albert Schweitzer professor of humanities at New York University, he embarked on a complete rethinking of his nationality, rejecting in the brilliant polemic States of Ireland the sacred principle of the thwarted Republic: unity of North and South. He performed this task with such diligence and energy that even one of his admirers, the historian John A Murphy, accused him of demolishing people's self-confidence in their own nationality.

O'Brien's own self-confidence was unharmed by the hatred he had to endure for his act of apostasy. The reason he could sustain it is clear from the richest chapters of this book, those about his family and upbringing in the genteel Dublin suburb of Rathmines. His grandfather had been an Irish Parliamentary Party MP. He writes wistfully that if Home Rule had been achieved and the violent uprising of 1916 had never happened "our whole family would have been part of the establishment of the new Home Rule Ireland". Dispossession seems to have had little effect on the family's sense of pride and distinction. The O'Briens felt so secure about the eminence of their ancestors that Conor's fearsome Aunt Hanna referred to the Protestant settlers who supplanted them as "Cromwell's little drummer boys".

An only child, O'Brien was adored by his father. One of the most affecting passages in the book is the description of the death of his father on Christmas Day in 1927. That devastating childhood blow is cruelly echoed at the end of his life - the opening pages describe how, when visiting his daughter Kate, editor of this memoir, to celebrate its near completion, he found her dying of a stroke on the floor of her house.

O'Brien throughout strikes the right note, an unsentimental, colloquial retelling, brimming with emotion. The humorous, barbed anecdotes about colleagues and adversaries in a life devoted to sowing controversy are delivered in the same engaging style. It is unlikely that any other Irish public figure would be so joyful about his ability to attract enemies. One feels that, in some way, O'Brien needed enemies - in the United Nations, in the Dublin cabinet, at the Observer, where he was editor-in-chief - against whom to define himself and fashion his triumphs. One of his most notable stands was his effort to implement the United Nations mandate to end the secession from the Congo of the British- and Belgian-sponsored puppet state of Katanga. Out of his defeat, the result of covert manipulations and betrayals, came his best book, To Katanga and Back. It is a wondrously plotted dissection of imperial meddling and UN weakness before the weight of the great powers. Long sections of it are reprinted in the memoir to cover his UN episode - a disappointing shortcut if you've read the original book, but an invitation if you haven't.

Reading To Katanga is an antidote to the darker side of O'Brien that emerged when he was a member of the Dublin government. Possessed at that stage by a febrile premonition of civil war in Northern Ireland and a sense that the IRA posed a powerful threat to the Republic itself, he exercised moral and political authority towards stamping out any expression of even unwitting support for subversion. In retrospect, he is insouciantly unapologetic about this departure from his liberal creed, even confessing that he wasn't bothered when told that Irish policemen had "beaten the shit" out of an IRA sympathiser.

The writer Seamus Deane has complained that O'Brien's humanism is utterly detached from its atavism - by which he means, I suppose, that he is estranged from the intuitive attachments of common people in Ireland and elsewhere. I don't think that this is the case and there are many passages here to contradict that line.

Whether O'Brien is right or wrong on a particular question is not really the issue. In1966, lecturing on Burke and Marx, he declared that these figures may not be reliable guides to the 20th century, but that their importance lay in "the manner and intensity of their coming to grips [with reality] - an example of intelligence fired by passion". Intelligence fired by passion - this would do as O'Brien's epitaph.

Maurice Walsh is a BBC foreign correspondent

This article first appeared in the 01 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, An earthquake strikes new Labour

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently a non-compulsory aspiration of campaigners) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.