The “O'Brien Ethic” as an Interpretative Problem

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    Abstract

    The necessity of adopting or redefining illiberal measures—such as torture, internment, or targeted-killings of terrorists—to protect states places burdens on the meaning of liberalism around the world. After 1969, liberal intellectual responses to the so-called Troubles in Northern Ireland identified two conflicted groups of Irish liberals. Then academic and politician Conor Cruise O'Brien attempted to reduce responses to the crisis to the choice between supporting the state and condoning terrorism. “Consenting liberals” compromised professional practices in the law, journalism, broadcasting, and academia to support the state's counterinsurgency. Alternatively, “dissenting liberals” defended their “neutrality” alongside the freedom to criticize the counterinsurgency. Justifying infringements on individual freedoms, O'Brien and others said the democratic state was imperiled. But, anomalously, freedoms were sacrificed in defense of the Irish state, which in security terms did little to defend itself. Nevertheless, the counterinsurgency became an organizing principle in intellectual life, and over forty years colored self-perceptions of Irish society, past and present.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)908-939
    Number of pages32
    JournalJournal of British Studies
    Volume52
    Issue number4
    DOIs
    Publication statusPublished - Oct 2013

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