Paul Hopkins: Jadotville, and my world scoop in a war zone...

When I was cutting my teeth in journalism, I decided one day to take myself off to Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, where a war was being waged by the majority black people against their white minority rulers.

There were six million blacks, the whites just 250,000. The Patriotic Front guerrillas of Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo were engaged in a bloody conflict with the soldiers of Premier Ian Smith, a veteran British World War II fighter pilot who had unilaterally broken from British rule in the early Sixties.

I can still recall the sounds and the smells and the scorched earth that first day I set foot on African soil in 1977. All I had back then was a raw enthusiasm and ‘some’ nerve to venture into a war zone, with a token guarantee of work for Ireland, Scotland and the odd stint for Associated Press (AP).

In the middle of this war one day came Conor Cruise O’Brien.

Seventeen years previously, in September 1961, a company of 155 Irish UN troops found themselves surrounded by a force of heavily armed mercenaries outnumbering them 20 to one in what was then Belgian Congo. This was supposed to be a peacekeeping mission: instead they found themselves ordered on to the offensive by the UN's most senior diplomat on the ground, Cruise O'Brien.

The Irish held out for six days in the Siege of Jadotville before spending five weeks in captivity. When they arrived home, they were dismayed to learn that the UN and the Irish State wanted to sweep the ‘whole sorry episode’ under the carpet.

This paper last week reported Meath county councillors agreeing to write to the Minister for Defence welcoming a full review of what happened at Jadotville, involving A Company, 25th Infantry Battalion. The councillors called for the review board to include expert historians and professional military personnel and that the review would examine the psychological effects of the battle on the soldiers involved. To effectively put a piece of controversial history to rest.

If you have not seen the 2016 movie (Netflix) in which Commandant Pat Quinlan (Jamie Dornan) leads the fateful siege, and in which Cruise O’Brien (Mark Strong) does not come out of it at all good, then I recommend you do.

Meanwhile, back to 1978 when a so-called internal settlement was reached in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe between Ian Smith and the moderate Bishop Abel Muzorewa, with a concessionary nod to a future, unspecified, independence. Cruise O’Brien was then Editor-in-Chief of London’s Observer.

In the Press Club at the Ambassador hotel in Salisbury (now, Harare) I got wind that the Cruiser was coming out to write an overview for the Observer on this suspiciously seen ‘internal deal’. The Irish Press Group News Editor in Dublin, Mick O’Kane, asked me to interview Cruise O’Brien on his views on Africa, given his ‘legacy’ in the Congo.

As it happened, he decamped at the Ambassador Hotel where I was having a brief dalliance with a young woman, Valerie, from reception. I got the Cruiser’s room number and rang him. “No interviews,” he said emphatically, “I’m here as a working journalist.”

I said to Valerie: “I’ll be in the Press club — if he calls for room service, let me know.”

He ordered Earl Grey tea and cucumber sandwiches. At the pass, I cut off room service and knocked on the Cruiser’s door. He was expecting a black face.

“Please sir,” I said, “just give me 20 minutes of your time. I need this story, my future is hanging on it.” He objected to my intrusion quite vociferously but eventually relented.

I got my story – and half a cucumber sandwich – and sold it halfway round the world.

In 1988, I was a senior editor at the Irish Independent and Conor Cruise O’Brien came on board — we stole him from the Irish Times — to write a weekly column which came under my jurisdiction. The Indo’s Editor, the late and truly great Vincent Doyle, invited the Cruiser to lunch to celebrate. He arrived with his daughter Kate, a fellow journalist who was later to die far too young. It was our first time meeting since I had wormed my way into his hotel room back in Africa.

“You don’t remember me,” I said when introduced and then jogged his memory.

“Good God,” he said, “you did alright for yourself.”

We laughed, and I proffered him some wine. And said: “I’m afraid the cucumber sandwiches are off today.”

- Read Paul Hopkins' column every Tuesday first in the paper
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