John Bruton

Opinions & Ideas




I am deeply saddened to learn of the death of my great friend, Fergus O’Brien.

He had a distinguished career in politics, winning friends for his direct approach, in all parts of the political spectrum.  He was never silent when he felt the issues at stake were important. He was someone to whom I turned for advice many times.

His ministerial career was fruitful and contributed to the development of what was to become the IFSC, in Dublin’s , then semi derelict, dockland quarter.

I saw him during his illness and was struck by his positive attitude and his continuing interest in others, in his faith,  and in the country to which he had given such great service.

To Peggy and all his family I extend heartfelt sympathy.

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john_dillon_1851-1927I spoke at a Seminar organised by the Reform Group in Wynn’s Hotel in Dublin on John Dillon MP , the last leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), who was the father of James Dillon TD, who was leader of Fine Gael from 1959 to 1965. John Dillon died in 1927 having lost his seat in the 1918 General Election.

A soundtrack of the seminar can be accessed through the Reform Group website at

As well as Dillon, the seminar dealt with the DD Sheehan MP, who was a member of  The” All for Ireland”  League, set up by William O Brien MP, who was one of the few Irish Nationalists of the time to make a serious effort to understand the concerns of Ulster Unionists.

O Brien and Dillon, once close friends and allies, became rivals later in their careers, although both of them shared a belief in the Home Rule cause, and in exclusively constitutional and peaceful agitation to achieve their goals.

Grandchildren of both men were present at the seminar.


John Dillon was first elected to Parliament in 1880 and, from the outset, he pressed the cause of land reform, which, along with the enactment of Home Rule into law in September 1914, was to be a crowning achievement of the IPP.

In looking for rent reductions, and the eventual transfer of Irish land ownership from landlords to their tenants, Dillon had to contend with claims that this involved breaching contracts and property rights, which were then, and still are, regarded as central to the market economy.

Yet, if the land question had not been solved prior to Irish independence, the resultant struggles might have been so severe as to undermine the democratic character of the state, something that happened in some central European countries ,who gained independence in the early 1920’s without prior land reform.


Dillon, from the beginning, also believed in party discipline, and in the central control of candidate selection. In this, he clashed with Tim Healy MP and with William O Brien.

He believed, rightly, that discipline was vital if the Irish nationalist minority in the House of Commons was to achieve anything. In a parliamentary democracy, party discipline is of abiding value in achieving coherent outcomes, something Irish voters are inclined to forget nowadays.


Like many Irish nationalists, then and since, Dillon had difficulty facing up to the reality that Ulster unionists could not, in practice, be coerced into a United Ireland.

Arguing publicly for something, that one knows in ones heart cannot be achieved in practice, is bad political leadership.

Successive Irish governments gave bad leadership on the question of how a united Ireland might come about, until the principle of consent was belatedly accepted in the 1970’s.

In Dillon’s case, he gave a speech in Belfast in March 1915 in which, on the question of a possible partition, to exclude part of Ulster from Home Rule, he said

“We will never agree to divide this nation”.

That remained the position of the IPP.

But Tim Healy claimed, in a letter to his brother Maurice in 1914, quoted in Frank Callanan’s excellent biography of Healy, that Dillon was privately of a more realistic opinion

“Dillon is going about (the House of Commons) talking to the Liberals in favour of the exclusion of Ulster “

Healy claimed Dillon was justifying this by saying

“How can we coerce Ulster with our record against coercion and that we cannot face civil war as a beginning to Home Rule”.

If Healy is to be believed, and he was no friend of Dillon, then Dillon was more realistic in private, than he was in public.

Healy, himself , thought the Ulster Unionists were only bluffing, and could be coerced. This is a nonsensical belief, but it is the unstated assumption of most modern day critics of the Home Rule  policy, including Sinn Fein and some historians.

At least in private,  John Dillon was a realist.

This gap between public rhetoric, and private belief, about the feasibility of enforcing a united Ireland, has proven very costly ever since.

This sort of self deluding rhetoric may become prevalent again in nationalist circles, if Theresa May persists in her “hard Brexit” policy.


I believe official commemorations, of their nature, have to be selective.

So what criteria should guide our selection of the events to be singled out for commemoration in government ceremonies, postage stamps and public sculptures?

Commemorations cannot change the past.

All they can do is influence how we think about the future.

So government should select things to commemorate that will help us use historical event that help us manage foreseeable future challenges.

Thus I believe the focus of official commemorations on violent events, like the Howth gun running, the 1916 Rebellion and ambushes, is wrong.

These events have little of use to teach us about what we need to do in the future Ireland of the 21st century.

In contrast, the careers of men like John Dillon, his agitation, his compromises and his peaceful achievements, have much more to teach us ,about what is relevant to today and tomorrow.

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cropped-European-Union-flag-006-1.jpgMany Irish firms, and firms from other EU states, have extensive investments and trading interests in the UK. Indeed this must one of the most intense investment relationships in the world.

For the past 40 years, these investments have been protected by UK membership of the EU, which allowed firms, who might feel they were being discriminated against, in favour of British owned competitors, to appeal not only to the UK Courts, but also to the European Court of Justice(ECJ)

Yesterday the UK Prime Minister announced that , once the UK leaves the EU, the jurisdiction of the ECJ in the UK would be ended. Thus there will no longer be any, non UK controlled, arbiter to protect Irish or other EU investors in the UK against discriminatory laws by a future UK government. The UK has no written constitution.

Therefore it will be important that there be a robust independent investor protection disputes mechanism, capable of overturning discriminatory decisions that might be taken by the UK courts against the interests of EU owned firms.

 This must take immediate effect the day the UK leaves the EU.

It cannot wait for the longer term trade agreement the EU negotiates with the UK, which may take years to finalise. Investor protection clauses can be controversial, as we have seen with the TTIP negotiation, and are a reduction of “sovereignty” in the abstract sense.

But , given three factors

  • the highly nationalistic tenor of UK politics at the moment,
  • the dramatic ideological trends in the Labour  party, and
  • the likelihood of trade tensions between the UK and the EU,

Irish and other EU firms doing, or intending to do, business in the UK will need a very robust independent investor protection regime.  These three phenomena must be confronted realistically. We must not assume that everything will work out in the end. It may not!

Unless Irish and other European firms have concrete assurances that they will not face discrimination of any kind in  their activities in the UK after Brexit, they may have to commence disinvestment to protect their shareholders’ legitimate interests. The proposed “Great Repeal Bill”, reversing EU law in the UK, will need to scrutinised with immense care by  Irish and other European investors in Britain. Political assurances will not be good enough.

In the present atmosphere of UK politics, it is all too easy to envisage calls for discrimination in favour of UK firms in contracts with UK local authorities, in access to certain public services, and in standards for goods and services. All would be done, of course, in the name of “protecting British jobs”, or “defending British standards”.

If the ECJ is no available to protect Irish and EU firms from discriminatory practices on the UK market, alternatives will have to be agreed with the UK. These alternative mechanisms, investor courts in other words, will have to have the power, like the ECJ, of striking down UK decisions, including UK court decisions,  that they deem to be discriminatory against the interests of an EU investor.

These mechanisms are known as  an Investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) or an  investment court system (ICS). They are an instrument of public international law and  grant an investor the right to use dispute settlement proceedings against a country’s government.

Provisions for ISDS are contained in a number of bilateral investment treaties, in certain international trade treaties, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (chapter 11), the Trans-Pacific Partnership (chapters 9 and 28) and the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (sections 3 and 4). ISDS is also found in international investment agreements, such as the Energy Charter Treaty.

If an investor from one country (the “home state”) invests in another country (the “host state”), both of which have agreed to ISDS, and the host state violates the rights granted to the investor under public international law, then that investor may bring the matter before an arbitral tribunal.

The prospect of having to use such cumbersome procedures will undoubtedly be daunting and difficult for small firms.

This will be particularly difficult for Irish firms who have been used to treating the UK as part of their “home market” since 1966 and the Anglo Irish Free Trade Agreement.

In the aftermath of the original referendum decision, soothing statements were made by British Ministers about the position of Ireland, and about there being no “hard border. But Prime Minister May’s speech to her Party Conference yesterday represents a major shift in position. She is going for a “hard Brexit”, which inevitably means a “hard border”. She offered no assurances to Ireland.

Indeed it is hard to see how the UK could offer special protection to Irish firms investing in the UK that it was not also offering to French or Romanian firms.

The Irish food industry is heavily invested in the UK market. Before it joined the EU, the UK discriminated heavily in favour of UK farmers and against Irish exports. The food industry is far more complex now than it was forty years ago, and the opportunities for discrimination more subtle and more numerous.

The European Union will need to adopt a tough line on investor protection in the forthcoming negotiations and make sure these protections apply in full from the moment the UK leaves, and are not left to a wider long term negotiation.

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US political partiesMost observers believe Hillary Clinton did better in the recent television debate than Donald Trump.

But not everybody did.

The Republican supporting “Washington Times” newspaper claimed that Trump did better because he focussed on America’s (perceived) global weakness, and  because he “projected authority”, and “appeared every bit the non politician”.

He did appear to me to me to be more spontaneous than Hillary Clinton, who sometimes appeared to have memorised her lines.

But the price of being spontaneous is that he said some things that were barely coherent , and  were sometimes inaccurate.

Given that the United States is a democracy governed by politicians, rather than by bureaucrats, it is worth reflecting on the preferred system of government of anyone who thinks being a “non politician “ is a plus.

In the 1920’s in parts of Europe, “anti politician” rhetoric like this was often a prelude to something much worse.

The Washington Times also argued that Clinton had not been asked the hard questions about her record as Secretary of State in the Obama Administration on

  • Libya,
  • the attempted “re set “ of relations with Russia and
  • the rise of China.

I think the intervention in Libya, although motivated by humanitarian concerns, may have led to even worse humanitarian results than non intervention, but that is hard to prove. Trump may bring that up in later debates.  Mrs Clinton support for the Iraq war ,as a US Senator, is not quite on the same level of responsibility, as Mr Trump’s alleged initial support for it as a private citizen, and she got away with pretending that it was

It is hard to argue that an attempt should not have been made to improve relations with Russia, although these have proved fruitless.

It is not clear what Mrs Clinton’s critics would have wished the Obama Administration to have done about the rise of China.  It did attempt to negotiate a Trans Pacific agreement to draw the rest of Asia closer to the US and away from China, but both Trump and Clinton now oppose that .

Trump’s plan to impose a 45% tariff on Chinese imports to the US would certainly slow China’s rise, but would hurt America too. That issue was not explored in the debate, which was a great pity. Mrs Clinton seemed to be more interested in Mr Trump’s business past, than in his potential future trade policies.

The race will be fought in a few battleground states.

To win the Electoral College, Trump must win all four of the following states

  • Florida (where he is 0.5 points behind in the latest polls),
  • Pennsylvania (where he is 1.8 points behind),
  • North Carolina (where he is 0.8 points ahead), and
  • Ohio (where he is a more comfortable 2 points ahead)

He needs a major win in the debates to achieve this, and so far he has  not achieved that.

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US political partiesI am in the United States this week, and finding out how people here feel about the Presidential Election.

Although the candidates have been selected through a primary process, in which the voters themselves have had the final word, they now find themselves deeply dissatisfied with the choice they have given themselves.

Everybody is looking to the debate on Monday night, as a signal for the momentum of the campaign.

The debate may enable Hillary Clinton to re establish the lead she won after the Conventions. Or it may confirm the more recent trend, of increasing support for Donald Trump.

One influential person told me he thought more Americans will be watching the debate than have ever watched any event on television before.

In past Presidential Elections, the first debate has also had a disproportionate influence.

Under the Electoral College system, a narrow win in the popular vote can gain all the electors of that state for the winning candidate. The margin of victory does not matter. The winner takes all. Because of the way her support is spread throughout the country, this system gives Hillary Clinton the advantage.

The system means that the candidates will tend to focus their appeal to certain “swing” states. One seasoned observer said to me that the election comes down to just four swing states, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida and North Carolina. He said that, to get a majority in the Electoral College, Hillary Clinton just needs to win one of these swing states, whereas Donald Trump must win all four of them.

As a European, I have found the depth of the hostility, in some quarters, to Hillary Clinton surprising. Concrete evidence of specific wrongful acts is absent. But the negative feelings towards her are very strong. Her own campaign advertising against Trump is itself very negative, which feeds this.

In the case of Donald Trump, it is his personality, rather than his policies, that attract attention.

 His policies include

  • Imposing 35% tariff on imports from Mexico
  • Imposing a 45% tariff on imports from China
  • Ending the trade agreement with South Korea
  • Considering US withdrawal from the World Trade Organisation

These trade policies of Donald Trump are a radical departure from the traditional policies of the Republican Party.

They have been analysed by the Petersen Institute for International Economics (PIIE) in Washington DC, who say that , if implemented,  they would ignite a trade war, because retaliatory tariffs would be imposed on US exports.

They say that, if elected, President Trump could implement these policies even without the approval of Congress.

PIEE have calculated which states within the US would lose most from the trade war a victorious President Trump might initiate. Washington State, home of Boeing, tops the list, with a loss of 5% of all jobs. Other big losers would include California, Connecticut, and Illinois.

But two “must win” states for Trump, Pennsylvania and Texas, also stand to lose more jobs than most, if his policies lead to a trade war.

Support for Donald Trump, and for his anti trade policies, derive from an instinct that many Americans have, that globalisation (the free movement of foods, services and money around the world) is reducing their personal job security, and rendering their skills redundant.

 In the 1990’s, when world trade was growing at 5% a year, and everyone’s income was rising, Americans were willing to put up with the disruption and uncertainty brought by the opening up of markets.

 Now, with the emergency caused by the banking crisis receding, and world trade growing at only 2%, more people are willing to take the risk of voting for a radical anti trade candidate, like Donald Trump.

A similar willingness to take big risks, to make a point, was evident in the 52% vote for Brexit in the UK.

Donald Trump’s policy of making the allies of the US pay more for their own defence also strikes a chord with many Americans. While he wants to “make America Great again”, Trump does not believe the US should pay, as much as it does at present, for other countries’ defence. This explains why some East European countries are pressing for the EU to take a bigger role in defence. Ireland, as an EU member, will have to take account of these trends.

Trump, who is spending a lot less on his campaign than Clinton is, is also tapping into a dissatisfaction among voters with the disproportionate role that money and fundraising play in US politics. From the moment he or she is elected, a new member of Congress must spent three times as much time, every day, on the phone, raising money for the next election, as  he or she does on legislative business or in meeting ordinary constituents.

All this explains why this is an angry election, on both sides of the divide.

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apple-euThe EU Commission decision that Ireland must collect 13 billion euros in back taxes from Apple has created quite a sensation. Most people agree that multinational companies can, and should, pay more tax. That general goal of the European Commission is widely supported.

The key question is whether Apple was given selective aid, and , if so, if this breached EU  competition rules.

It is therefore important to say that the Irish government never “selected” Apple for subsidy.

Apple, of its own accord, simply applied for, and was given, an interpretation of Irish tax law as it stood at the time (in 1991 and again in 2007). Any other company, in a comparable legal and factual situation, could have applied for, and got, a similar ruling.

It is important to stress that, in its interpretation of the meaning of Irish tax laws, the Irish Revenue Commissioners act independently of the government. Their relations with individual taxpayers, large and small, are confidential. They hold themselves to a high standard of objectivity and integrity.

The Commission ruling, going back and revising ten years of tax liability on grounds of competition policy, rather than of tax law, creates uncertainty for many other companies about their present liabilities.

At a time when too many companies are failing to invest and are, instead, paying down debt or accumulating piles of cash, this added uncertainty is not good for the revival of the European economy.

It may even encourage some companies to incorporate or invest outside the EU, where the Competition directorate of the European Commission will not have the same power to issue retrospective directives to national tax authorities.

The Commission decision in the Apple case attempts to change the way in which profits can be attributed, for taxation purposes, as between different parts of a multinational company’s structure.

Previously, companies could get authoritative guidance on what was permissible in this respect from the relevant national tax authorities. This was possible because taxation was understood by companies to be primarily a member state, rather than an EU, competence.

Now companies will no longer be able to rely in the same way on these rulings, but will have to seek clarity from the European Commission on whether a ruling could be construed as offering a “selective” advantage to the company. In light of the Irish experience, revenue authorities of member states will be very cautious. All doubtful cases will tend to be referred to Brussels. This will add greatly to the burden of work of the Commission, and will entail an extension of the Commission’s field of activity. Commissioner Verstager herself has said that companies should double check the compatibility with EU Competition and State aid rules of the rulings they have been given by their national tax authorities.  

As the corporate structures of multinationals vary considerably, the national tax ruling on each of them will have to be individually examined and adjudicated upon as to whether “selectivity” of some kind is involved.

The test of whether a ruling is illegal, in the Commission’s eyes, is whether it is “selective”. “Selective” is defined as giving a company an advantage over other companies in “comparable legal and financial situation”. As the factual situation of every company is different, this leaves a lot of room for subjectivity and argument.

The Commission will have hundreds of thousands of tax ruling of the 28 member states to review, and so far it has only looked at a thousand.

The Apple ruling also raises  new questions about which country is responsibility for collecting the taxes on particular profits, depending. Up to now, it was understood that a country was expected to collect taxes on profits on activities within that country. Now, Ireland is being told it must to collect the 13 billion euros from Apple even though, in Commissioner Verstager’s own words, “other countries” may actually be owed the money, not Ireland.

Much of the profit may actually be derived from activity undertaken by Apple in the United States, and any tax to be collected it may belong to the US. But Ireland now is told it must collect the money anyway. This is new form of universal jurisdiction!

This precedent will increase uncertainty, jurisdictional disputes, and compliance costs. Yet the Commission is promoting TTIP, precisely in order to reduce uncertainty and compliance costs. The form of the Apple decision sends a directly contradictory signal.

I believe it would have been wiser for the Commission to concentrate its attention, in a forward looking way, on ensuring the uniform and rigorous implementation of the EU Anti Tax  Avoidance Directive which has already been approved by all member states, including Ireland.

The determination of the amount, and the collection, of back taxes should be left to national tax authorities, who, after all, have plenty of incentive already to go after the money!

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parmesh04I recently read a history of modern India, entitled “India After Gandhi” by Ramachandra Guha.

It is a very big book, about a very big country.

Although it runs to almost 800 pages, it is well worth reading in full.

India is already the seventh largest economy in the world, is growing at 7% a year, and could be the 3rd biggest economy ten years from now.

It is a large exporter of software, and it will surprise many to learn that it is also the largest producer of milk in the world.

Guha’s book shows how India survived as a democracy, and remained united, while authoritarian regimes elsewhere broke up.

Although India obtained its independence peacefully, civil disturbances after partition meant that the new Republic of India had to absorb 8 million refugees from what is now Pakistan. Democracy has taken secure root in India. Voter turnout in the first national election, in the late 1940s, was 46% and it has been increasing ever since.

Initially the Congress party dominated the political scene and pursued a socialist and protectionist economic policy. Since the early 1990’s, that approach has been reversed. Congress is no longer dominant, and political power has been dispersed among numerous parties. This has made decision making more difficult.

Like Ireland in the 1960’s, India in the 1990s, opened itself up for international investment and trade. This has contributed to the rapid economic growth in the country.

Even more rapid growth is possible because, unlike China, India has a youthful population.

It’s economy is still held back by excessive bureaucracy and corruption. If those  artificial obstacles can be removed, India can become the driver of growth for the global economy.

Understanding the diversity of India, with its numerous languages, races,  and religions, is important to anyone who wants to do business in the county.

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peter barryThe loss of Peter Barry will be felt deeply throughout Ireland, but particularly in the city of Cork to which he devoted a life of public service.

Peter represented all that is best in Cork, its culture, its pride and its intimacy as a city. He knew, and was loved and respected, by his neighbours in Blackrock.

Just as I never heard Peter Barry say a bad word about another person, I never heard anyone ever say a bad word about him. This was perhaps the key to his success  as international diplomat on behalf of Ireland. He won respect without ever needing to command it. The inherent dignity of his personality sufficed to ensure that he always got a fair hearing for his views.

He was a crucial figure in the history of Fine Gael. At a time when Jack Lynch was dominant in Munster politics, Peter Barry’s election to the Dail in 1969 reminded the people of his province that there was an alternative, ready to govern.

That alternative government came to office in  March 1973, under the leadership of Liam Cosgrave, and Peter Barry was among its senior cabinet members. Serving in the portfolios of Transport and Power and in Education, he held his own in a government of many talents.

Among the practical matters he promoted as Minister for Transport and Power, was the completion of rural electrification. Even then, there were places in Ireland, like the Black Valley in Kerry and Ballycroy in Mayo that, because of their remoteness, did not have a supply. In 1976 put through the legislation to ensure that those remote areas at last got that requisite of a modern life, an electricity supply.

He was briefly Minister for Education, and in that capacity, I was his parliamentary Secretary (Minister of State).

In Education,he continued the implementation of the important reforms of his predecessor Dick Burke, establishing management boards for schools and the Transition Year.

He was deeply committed to the Irish Language and to all aspects of Irish culture.

But he also had an interest in the development of the European Union. He supported the late professor Jim Dooge, who chaired the committee at EU level that lead to Single European Act, which was the reform of the EU treaties that created a genuine single EU market for goods and services.

As has been pointed out by others in the last two days, his central achievement as Foreign Minister was the negotiation of the Anglo Irish agreement.

This agreement ended the international isolation of the nationalist minority in Northern Ireland. It created an institution, the Anglo Irish Conference, that ensured the governments in London and Dublin were required to work on ongoing basis to ensure fair treatment of both communities.

The very existence of the Conference, created by the Agreement, provided a safety valve for the discussion of differences that inevitably arose, from time to time, between the two governments. Rather than these differences becoming the subject of megaphone diplomacy, discussion of them could  be referred to the next meeting of the Conference. This allowed time for things to cool down. In a sense, this typified Peter Barry’s approach to politics. He combined conciliation with firmness and his calm demeanour lowered the temperature and allowed others to take the time to find a more constructive way forward.

Looking back over his early contributions in the Dail debates. I am struck by the number of occasions of which he raised the issue of unemployment, particularly the level of unemployment in Cork.

During our time together in cabinet in the 1980s, there were a number of major setbacks to employment in Cork, notably the closure of Dunlops and Fords. As the Minister responsible for employment at the time, I remember well the persistence of Peter Barry’s representations to preserve employment in Cork. It was partly as a result of his efforts that an Employment Task Force for Cork was set up at that time, and I believe some of the initiatives taken by that Task Force laid the foundation the tremendous industrial renaissance that took place in Cork and around Cork Harbour.

Peter Barry was immensely loyal to his friends. He was loyal, in every possible way, to each of the Fine Gael leaders under whom he served. I have particular reason to remember that deep appreciation.

 I believe that the loss of his wife, Margaret, was felt very deeply by Peter. They were an exemplary couple in every way, and Margaret’s support of Peter in his political life was vital to him. They inculcated in their children a deep sense of public service.

Peter Barry was a credit to Ireland and to Cork.

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Thomas DArcy McGee Summer SchoolHistory does not repeat itself, but it can teach us lessons.

Theresa May will face a similar problem in 2017, to the one faced by John Redmond and the Irish Party in the 1910 to 1918 period.

Theresa May is trying to gain independence for her country from a bigger Union. But a geographically concentrated minority of her people want to stay in that Union, in this case, the people of Scotland and Northern Ireland.

John Redmond wanted independence for Ireland from another Union. In his case, a resolute, and also geographically concentrated, minority wanted to stay in that Union. They were a majority in Down, Antrim, Derry and Armagh.

Similar problem, 100 years later.

Theresa May wants access to the market of the Union she is leaving, and to get it she may have to continue to accept some of the rules of the Union.

John Redmond had to do likewise, although he, unlike Theresa May, under the deal he won would have continued to have some input to those rules.

Each represent, or represented, smaller entity seeking separation from a larger one.

So, to get a good deal for exit, both need, or  needed, to know, understand, and work the politics of the Union they wanted to leave.  In this task, The Irish Parliamentary Party, of 100 years ago, did a markedly better job, than the British Conservative Party has done so far.

As the Brexit negotiation continues, Theresa May even may have to contemplate a partition of the UK.

This partition might exclude Scotland from some, or all aspects of UK law, if Scotland insists on remaining in the EU. This could be a price Theresa May might have to pay for willing consent by Scotland to the rest of the UK leaving the EU. Again similar to the problem John Redmond faced.

But, all in all, Theresa May’s challenge is the easier one.

Hers is a purely political problem. Her country is at peace, and the possibility of consent to Scotland going its own way has been conceded by her predecessor.

John Redmond had to contend, on the other hand, with the existence of two private armies in Ireland on either side of the debate.

He had to contend with a wider world in the midst of a World War.

He also had the difficulty that the principle of consent (the legacy of a more recent peace process) had not yet been invented.

I will explore these parallels further in this paper.


Turning back to our own decade of centenary commemorations, we should reflect on something President John Kennedy once said.

He said a “nation reveals itself” by the events it chooses to commemorate.

This state is a rule of law based, parliamentary democracy, which has integrated itself with its European neighbours by peaceful negotiation and compromise. It is militarily neutral, and the military power is subordinate to the civil power.

 If we decide that we were to pick from our history a “foundation event”, and choose as that foundation event the 1916 Rebellion and Proclamation, does that accurately reflect, or reveal, who we really are today in 2016?

 Is the 1916 story a practical inspiration for Irish people as we navigate a process of reconciliation within Ireland, and of shared sovereignty, within Europe?


 Perhaps we should instead seek inspiration from the non violent achievements of a century ago,

  •  the enactment of Home Rule,
  • the ending of landlordism,
  • the establishment of the National University
  • the introduction of old age pensions and
  • National Insurance….

all parliamentary, and non violent  achievements, in which the Irish Parliamentary Party of John Redmond, John Dillon,  Joe Devlin, and, at times, of the North Louth MP, Tim Healy played a big part.

If one scrutinises the record of debates in the House of Commons, now available on line, one gets a sense of the practical patriotism of the (unpaid) Irish MPs who travelled to London to represent their constituents and their country.

Tim Healy’s successor as North Louth MP, Augustine Roche, was particularly busy on the land question, seeking new holdings for those who had lost their farms, and looking for a larger grant for road works for Louth County Council.

His successor, the 22 year old Irish Party MP, Paddy Whitty, elected in February 1916 and  the last person representing this area to sit in Westminster, raised questions about the conditions of post 1916 detainees, the tragic collision of two ships in Carlingford Lough in 1916 because of poor wireless communications, and the poor pay rates of carpenters in the GNR railway works….not the stuff of poetry, but practical matters, still relevant today.

Constitutional nationalist politics in Louth was far from dull, because of the split at national level between Tim Healy ( up to 1910 the North Louth MP) and William O Brien on one side, and the majority of constitutional nationalists, led by Redmond and Dillon, on the other.

For example, in 1910 Healy, having been defeated in North Louth by a Redmondite, Richard Hazleton, launched an election petition, alleging bribery and intimidation of voters, and demanding his opponent be unseated.

He won this case, and a Healy supporter, Augustine Roche, won the seat in the re run.

The Catholic Church exercised a strong influence in Louth politics, usually in favour of nationalist political unity rather than on religious matters as such.

The hotly contested character of elections in Louth actually strengthened constitutional nationalism in the county, and explains why constitutional nationalism held its own here against Sinn Fein, even in the 1918 General Election and in the 1920 local elections.

I now turn to the Irish Party’s response to the Rising.

After the Rebellion, on 11 May, John Dillon MP spoke in the House of Commons of his opposition to it, and of how Irish Party MPs had persuaded some of their constituents not to take part.

 He said nine out of every ten Irish people were opposed to the rebellion.

 But he condemned the house searches in parts of the country where there had been no trouble at all.

 He said his prime object was to stop the executions. He said the river of blood was undoing the work of reconciliation on which he and his party had worked so tirelessly. His party’s success, in ensuring the passage of Home Rule into law  after 40 years of  peaceful agitation, had created a new atmosphere between Britain and Ireland, and he argued that that was being undone by the repression.

 He recalled that when the American Civil War ended, Abraham Lincoln did not execute anyone. He said Premier Botha had put down a pro German rebellion in South Africa without any executions. This was an apt comparison in many respects.

 To put the Easter Rising in its proper context, one must draw attention to a few important points.


Earlier in 1916, the Irish Party had, by political methods, prevented conscription being applied in Ireland, while it was being applied on the entire island of Britain.

A year and a half earlier, on September 18th 1914, it had had another vital parliamentary achievement which invalidated the case for a Rebellion.  The principle of Irish legislative independence for Ireland was won, by the passage into law of the Home Rule Bill. That centenary was not properly commemorated by the state in 2014

That happened BEFORE any rebellion here, and, as Conservative leader Bonar Law subsequently admitted, there was no going back on Home Rule.

The principle of Irish legislative independence was won, without a shot being fired.

 Likewise, before a shot was fired in 1916, the effective ownership of the land of Ireland into the hands of those who were working it, and landlordism abolished. In terms of land ownership, the Cromwellian conquest had been reversed….peacefully.

 Indeed it was the Irish Party’s achievement of land reform, which created an Irish rural middle class, something that enabled Ireland to remain democratic in the 1920’s and 1930’s, when so many other new European states, where landlordism had not been abolished, became authoritarian.

 The only open questions in 1914 were whether, or how, Home Rule might apply to Antrim, Down, Armagh and Derry (and perhaps Fermanagh and Tyrone). If some counties were excluded, would the exclusion would be temporary or permanent.

 But if that exclusion was once accepted, there was no barrier in the way of the rest of Ireland progressively winning ever greater degrees of sovereignty, starting from the platform of Home Rule.  Just as the 1921 Treaty turned out to be a stepping stone to greater sovereignty by peaceful negotiation, so too could Home Rule have been, if that was what the voters here wanted.


 Home Rule, in the form passed into law in September 1914, did not guarantee a united 32 county Ireland. The question of exclusion of 4 or 6 counties from Home Rule was left open to be decided by a vote of the people in each county.

But all subsequent attempts to coerce Northern Ireland into a United Ireland, whether by the attempted incursions across the border in 1922, by the propaganda campaign in the late 1940s, or by IRA killing campaigns in the 1950’s and from 1969 to 1998, all failed, because they were based on a faulty analysis of the Ulster Unionist mind.

Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, I do not know how Irish nationalists, of any persuasion, really thought rule from Dublin could ever have been workably imposed on Unionists in places like Antrim and North Down. Did they expect

 + the British to coerce the Unionists,

 + did they expect to be able to coerce them themselves, or

 + did they  think these Unionists were just bluffing?

All three of these scenarios are politically unreal, and building a national ideology on something unreal is not healthy. They are the great unexamined questions at the heart of Irish nationalism.

An unwillingness to accept the real answers to these questions persists widely to this day.

John Redmond’s policy was one of attempting to persuade Unionist to accept a United Ireland, not to coerce them. His support for recruitment to the British army in 1914 was part of a (probably naive) attempt to persuade Unionists that they would not be sacrificing all their loyalties by taking part in Home Rule.

But, under the arrangements being considered in 1914, if an Ulster county opted out of Home Rule, they would have continued under direct rule from Westminster.

There would, under the formula being considered in 1914, have been no Stormont Parliament, no “Protestant Parliament for a Protestant people”, no B Specials, no discrimination and no gerrymandering of local government, because that would have been prevented by direct rule.

The concept of a separate Northern government and parliament only came onto the agenda in late 1919, after most of the rest of Ireland had rejected Home Rule and voted for complete separation and abstentionism in the 1918 General Election.

That closed the door on compromise, although I am not sure that all those who voted for Sinn Fein, and against the Irish Party, in December 1918 really understood all that would follow, between the opening of hostilities at Soloheadbeg in January 1919, when RIC members James McDonnell from Belmullet and Patrick O Connell from Coachford were shot, and the eventual end of the agony in 1923.If they had known or been told what would follow, would they have made the same decision?


Many of the limitations on the Home Rule powers could have been removed by negotiation. They were not of a character that justifies all the suffering that flowed from the decision to take the path of violence in 1916. That is, of course , a value judgement, but one must be able to make value judgement about history.

Some of the limitations (eg. The exclusion of Marriage law and tariffs) were only put therein the original bill, to reassure Ulster Unionists, when it was envisaged that all 32 counties would be fully included from the outset.

Other limitations would have been financially beneficial to a new Irish Administration, such as the exclusion of the financing of Old Age pensions and of Land Purchase Acts. This is because of their net financial cost, as Ernest Blythe was to discover in 1924 when he had to reduce Old Age Pensions, and Eamonn de Valera found in the economic war over land annuities.

Home Rule was not brought into force immediately on its passage into law in 1914 because it was felt that it would distract from what was expected to be a short duration war effort.

That postponement was not controversial in Ireland at the time. Indeed John Dillon had said “No rational man would expect the government to set up an Irish Parliament while war was raging”.

That said, Home Rule could have a come into effect in late 1916, and Carson had agreed to it on the basis that the six counties would be excluded for the time being, and would be administered directly from Westminster.

It did not happen because some Conservative members of government, Lansdowne, Selborne, and Long, objected because of the disturbed state of the country, a predictable consequence of the Rising, and the fear that Germany might again exploit the situation, as they had attempted to do earlier that year.

The effect of the Rising on wartime British opinion probably helped the objections being made by Long, Selborne and Lansdowne.

This disappointment, and the radicalisation brought about by the Rebellion, led to a hardening of the position of the Irish Parliamentary Party, so that by March 1917 they were unwilling to accept Home Rule involving any form of partition(temporary, indefinite or otherwise).

The  alternative path of violence, started upon by Pearse, Connolly, Clarke  and others in 1916, and followed from 1919 to 1923 by their imitators, was traversed at a terrible price.

I believe the Irish Parliamentary Party knew this, and so did the majority of the Irish people who opposed the Rising at the time, and by those who continued to support constitutionalism in the 1918 Election.

The Dundalk Democrat described the Rising as “an act of madness”.

The local authorities in Louth took a similar view. They would have realised that once violence is introduced into the blood stream of politics, it is very hard to get it out again. So it has proved.  Even those who initiated the violence began to recognise their error.

As early as 1924, a member of the IRB Supreme Council at the time of the Rebellion,  PS O Hegarty said of the decision to use violence in 1916.

“We turned the whole thoughts and passions of a generation upon blood and revenge and death; we placed gunmen, mostly half educated and totally inexperienced, as dictators with powers of life and death over large areas.” [1]


Violence, once initiated, tends to persist because of psychological as well as political factors.

Psychologically, once one has killed, or seen colleagues die, in a particular cause, it is very difficult to stop pursuing that cause, without feeling one has somehow betrayed the dead.

Politically, the absolutist wording of the 1916 Proclamation itself, made compromise almost impossible for some.

The Proclamation said the Republic existed, once  it was declared outside the GPO. The proclaimed Republic was a “Sovereign Independent State”, presumably of 32 counties.  No room for compromise there. The Rising was not to fight FOR a Republic, which would have left some room for compromise, but to  DEFEND one that had been proclaimed to exist already.

 Such a state does not even NOW exist.

Yet its existence was declared to “indefeasible” in the words of the Proclamation. That proved to be a recipe for endless conflict.

 It is on the strength, and in pursuit, of that  unqualified claim in the Proclamation, that people continue to be killed, including Adrian Ismay earlier this year.

The phrases used in the Proclamation, which our schoolchildren are now being asked to regard as the founding stone of our democracy, left little or no room at all for democratic negotiation or compromise. Therein lay the seeds of Civil War because, in politics as in life, compromise and negotiation are essential.

The men in the Four Courts in 1922,resisting the Provisional Free State government,  and those who resisted compromise in the more recent peace process,  all felt themselves sincerely bound by the absolutist and uncompromising words of the Proclamation, and the oath they had taken to defend what it has proclaimed.

Rather than the Republic being proclaimed in the name of a living Irish people, whose opinions had first been taken into consideration, it was proclaimed in the name of

“God and the dead generations”,

 neither of whom could, of necessity, be consulted about what they meant.

 The rights of the proclaimed Republic were not conditional on consent, but were

 “sovereign and indefeasible”.

 The Nation, was treated, in the wording of the Proclamation, as something separate from the people, or their views.

Many of the 1916 participants had taken an oath of allegiance to the Republic, which again made compromise difficult and conflict interminable.


Home Rule could have been in effect, possibly from the 1880’s on, were it not for the resistance to it in North East Ulster. John Redmond and other had wrestled with this problem for years, and, in Easter Week of 1916, it was the only unresolved issue concerning the implementation of the Home Rule Act.

These Ulster difficulties were fully known to the signatories of the Proclamation. But they were not addressed in a serious way in the Proclamation.

 The only oblique reference to the Ulster problem was the promise to cherish all the ”children” of the nation equally, and to be “oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien government”.

 It is worth reflecting on the words used here.

Ulster Unionists were “children” of the nation, and normally children, in that era were expected to be obey.

 The wish of Ulster Unionists not to be governed from Dublin, was assumed by the Proclamation’s signatories, not to be something they had decided  themselves, but only the result of “careful fostering” by an “ alien government”. This did not show much respect for the seriousness, or the  reasoning powers, of those who had signed the Ulster Covenant, only five years previously.

 The problems of Ireland, as it was at the time, were not thought through by the authors of the Proclamation. That was a serious omission, particularly when it is followed by the taking of human life.


Given the value Irish people place on each human life, those who take a life, have the primary burden of proof to discharge. It was for them to prove that no other way was open.  Other options must have been exhausted.

 That that test was not passed by those who initiated the Rebellion in 1916. The possibilities of Home Rule, already law, had not been exhausted ,or even tested.

 The use of force should always be a last resort.  It was not.

For every Volunteer killed in 1916 (including those executed afterwards), three Dublin civilians died.

The first casualty to die, on Easter Monday, was James O Brien, an unarmed DMP policeman from Limerick, shot in the face at the gate of Dublin Castle.

Another early unarmed DMP casualty of the Volunteers was Michael Lahiff, a 28 year old Irish speaker, from the West of Ireland, shot in cold blood on St Stephens Green.

Michael Cavanagh, a Dublin carter, who tried to retrieve his cart from a Volunteer barricade, was executed by the Volunteers.

The only casualty, on any side, in County Louth in 1916 was Charles McGee, an RIC constable, and also a native Irish speaker, who was from Donegal, who was accidentally shot dead on 24 April while a captive in the care of the Volunteers at Castlebellingham.  He is buried in Gortahork and has recently been the subject of a biography in Irish by his grand niece Madge O Boyle

 These were not “Brits”.

 They were Irishmen.


 The Home Rule Parliament, if it had come into being in 1916 or at the end of the Great War in 1918, would probably have been elected under the wider suffrage that applied in the 1918 General Election (all men over 21 and women over 30).

With this wide electorate, not only the Irish Party of John Dillon, but also Sinn Fein, the Irish Labour Party, and the group led by Tim Healy, would have got seats.

 All four groups would have pressed for ever greater degrees of independence, going beyond the Dominion status, negotiated after such loss of life in the Treaty of 1921.


In the 1918 General Election, which Sinn Fein won, the policy of the Irish Party, led by John Dillon, was Dominion Status for Ireland.

That was the policy on which Richard Hazleton contested the Louth constituency for the Irish Party against the Sinn Fein candidate JJ O Kelly. Hazleton lost by only a tiny margin of 1% in an electorate of 30000. That is what Dillon and Hazleton would have worked for if they had been elected

 The policy of Sinn Fein in that Election was, in contrast, immediate and complete separation of the 32 counties from the UK, on the basis of the 1916 Proclamation.

Sinn Fein won the election, on this “no compromise” agenda, but, after all the killing in the War of Independence, all they ended up with, under the Treaty, was Dominion status, the very policy of their John Dillon and Richard Hazleton in the election three years before.

It is said that Home Rule would have left British forces on Irish territory. But so also did the Treaty. It left the UK military in control of ports on Irish territory.  But these ports were handed back in 1938, through entirely peaceful negotiation.  The fact that those ports could be won back by purely peaceful negotiation on the eve of World War Two, shows that the limitations on Home Rule could also have been negotiated away, peacefully.

The use of force in 1916, and from 1919 to 1923, did not serve the interests of northern nationalists.

If a nation is to learn anything at all from history, it must be willing to examine, using all it knows now, what might have happened, if a different historical choices had been made. Otherwise there is little point studying history.

 The choice to use force in 1916, and again in 1919, must be subjected to reappraisal, in light of what  we can now  see  could have been  achieved without the taking of life .

[1] PS O Hegarty, The Victory of Sinn Fein (Dublin Talbot Press 1924) page 91

Speech by John Bruton, former Taoiseach, at a Seminar on “1916 and Revolutionary Republicanism” at the Thomas D’Arcy Magee Summer School in Carlingford, Co Louth at 10 am on Monday 22 August

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Interest rates are low, so it should be attractive for companies to borrow to invest in new products and markets.

But United States companies are not doing so to the hoped for extent. Instead they are spending about $500 billion every year buying back their own shares.

Share buy backs keep up the value of their shares, which is good for their shareholders.  But they are not all that beneficial to the economy, in so far as they reward holders of financial assets, without creating new job opportunities through investment. They also may increase inequality in US society, because shareholders tend to be better off than the average citizen.

 But do the Companies have a real choice here?

Companies should only invest if the risk/ reward ratio of the proposed investment is good. Investment is inherently riskier than share buy backs, so the prospective rate of return on the investment must be above a hurdle that is set in advance. A lot depends on prospective demand in the market place.  If society is ageing, there may be fewer, and most cautious, potential customers, and that raises the hurdle which a proposed investment must surmount.

A related uncertainty, discouraging investment decisions, is the long run growth potential of mature developed economies.

Is it 3% a year, as in the past 60 years, or just 1%, as it was in previous centuries?  Economists differ on this. Some technologies add measurably to growth and GDP, other just make life easier without adding to the same extent to GDP.

If the political future is uncertain, and there are threats of protectionism, that also increases the risk of any investment that depends on exports.  Brexit is a good example of this, and so is the volatility and seeming irrationality of voter behaviour in other countries, including the US.

Against this uncertain background, Central Banks are trying to stimulate the economy by cutting interest rates.  This is supposed to encourage investment by reducing its cost, but that is happening very slowly, if at all. It also means that governments can borrow very cheaply, which may tempt them into mistakes.

A persistent low interest rate policy undermines the financial models of insurance companies and pension funds, which have to pay insurance claims and pensions out of interest they get on investments. If the interest rates stay very low, the money may not be there to meet the pension and insurance obligations. This is a further economic uncertainty.

We now have a big mismatch between savings and investments. We have a surfeit of savings, chasing very few convincing investment opportunities

So the policy of low interest rates cannot continue forever.

If low interest rates are not stimulating the economy sufficiently, what can, or should, be done?

If companies are not investing, perhaps governments should step in to stimulate the economy by investing on their own account.  This is what was done during the Depression of the 1930’s in some countries, like Germany and the US.

Whereas privately owned companies have to be satisfied that an investment will yield a return to their own bottom line, a government can take a longer and broader view of the return on the investment it makes.

An investment by government is financially justifiable if the eventual return, in extra taxes paid at some stage in the future, as a result of the extra economic activity generated by the investment, exceeds the cost of servicing and repaying the extra debt undertaken.

It can also take non financial benefits into account if it is satisfied it will have no problem servicing its extra debts from other sources.

But because the factors to be taken into account in assessing a government investment are so much wider, the calculations to be made are much more subjective and uncertain.

For example, how does one compare the return on an investment in additional places in a university sociology faculty, with the return on an investment in improving a lightly trafficked road?

It all depends on future trends and needs, and a multiplicity of other factors which are matters of pure judgement.

There is, however, another limitation on government investment that must be considered…the impact of ageing on the solvency of governments, thirty or more years from now.

A government’s   debt/GDP ratio may be 90% or less today, and, on that basis, it may be able to justify borrowing more to invest more.

But some important future liabilities of governments are left out of these official Debt/GDP calculations.

Predictable future increases in public pension liabilities and age related expenditures generally are not included in the Debt/GDP ratio.

Apparently an average 64 year old consumes six times as much healthcare as an average 21 year old.

When, over the next 20 years, the number retired increases relative to the number at work, and the number of 64 year olds increases relative to the number of 21 year olds, the resultant increase in government spending, relative to its receipts, will worsen dramatically, unless policies are changed in the meantime.

The numbers aged 65 or over in Ireland will increase by 97% by 2060, as against an average increase of 60% in the EU as a whole. By then, on present policies, age related spending by government would absorb 8.7 percentage points more of GDP than it does  today, which is twice the average EU increase.

Most EU countries could see their debt to GDP ratios increase to 400% of GDP by 2050, if pension and age related policies are not changed.

Uncertainty about how this might be done is a factor holding back countries, like Germany, which seemingly can afford to invest more, from doing so, because Germany is ageing rapidly on the basis of  its historic low birth rate.

All this uncertainty is leading to stagnation.

I believe the best way to avoid stagnation induced by uncertainty would be for governments in developed countries to produce a comprehensive, demographically based, scenarios for the economy for the next 30 years.

These scenarios should set out the menu of decisions that  may need to be taken and the consequences of taking, or of not taking them.  Obviously the EU could coordinate some of this work and the assumptions used, but the choices to be set out would be for national politicians.

These scenarios would be extremely controversial and subject to vigorous questioning from all sides.  But they would orientate  politics towards the things we can actually change, and away from the localism, emotionalism, and xenophobia we are seeing at the moment in some countries.


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