John Bruton

Opinions & Ideas


I greatly enjoyed reading “Emmet Dalton, Somme soldier, Irish General, and Film Pioneer” by Sean Boyne published by Merrion Press. Through the life of one man, this book gives a deep insight into Irish history from 1911 to 1960.

Sean Boyne worked as a political journalist and is deeply interested in military history. He has an accessible writing style, but is also meticulous in his research.

Emmet Dalton’s father , James, was active in the Home Rule movement, and was one of John Redmond’s nominees to serve on the Executive of the Irish Volunteers in June 1914. It was probably because of the family connection with Redmond and the Home Rule cause,  that young Emmet Dalton lied about his age, in order to join the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in 1915 as a Lieutenant.

 He was posted in Ireland at the time of the 1916 Rising and believed then, and subsequently, that it was a mistake.

Later in 1916, he was at the front at Ginchy when Tom Kettle was killed, in a battle in which many other  members of the Dublin Fusiliers also died. Dalton himself was awarded the Military Cross for his part in the battle.

 He also took part, in  1917, in the long forgotten battles with the Ottoman forces in Gaza, and in the eventual capture of Jerusalem.

 When the war ended, he served in the army of occupation in the Rhineland. 

He returned to Dublin and became a temporary clerk in the Board of Works and became a member of Bohemians FC, near his home in Phibsboro.

In early 1920, He was asked to join the IRA’s GHQ Intelligence Unit , which brought him into close contact with Michael Collins. He was involved in a daring attempt to spring Sean McEoin out of Mountjoy Jail.

  Sean Boyne describes Dalton’s role in this conflict in detail and conveys a  sense of the fraught atmosphere of the times in Dublin. For example, he covers Dalton’s efforts during the Truce to help families locate the remains of young members of the RIC who had been “disappeared” by the IRA during the “Truce”, including a constable Joseph Daly of Enfield.

Like most members of the IRA Headquarters staff, Dalton accepted the Treaty of 1921, but the bulk of the active service units around the country did not do so.

 Dalton was involved in taking over many of the British military facilities , but  the Provisional Government led by Michael Collins was unable to prevent many of them being occupied by anti Treaty forces.

Boyne gives a gripping account of the build up to the beginning of the Civil War.

 The murder of Field Marshal Wilson in June 1922 led to pressure on the Provisional Government from Britain to end the situation whereby large areas of the city of Dublin and of the country generally were occupied by forces who rejected the authority of Dail Eireann and the Treaty it had approved.

 The British believed, wrongly, that anti Treaty Republicans were responsible for the murder of Wilson. One theory is that Collins himself gave the order for the killing during the War of Independence, but forgot to rescind it.

 But the result of the Wilson murder was that Collins was forced to take action to restore the authority of the Dail. From this immediately flowed the shelling of the Four Courts, and the beginning of the Civil War, in June 1922. Again Dalton’s role in this action is described in detail.

 The then 24 year old Dalton commanded the pro Treaty forces who retook Cork and the rest of east Munster in the subsequent fighting. His counterpart in west Munster was Eoin O Duffy, and they did not get on well with one another.

As is well known, Dalton was with Collins in his fateful tour of recently recaptured areas of West Cork, during which we were killed in an ambush at Beal na mBlath. Collins died instantly while returning fire against the ambushers. 

 One of the reasons for Collins visit to Cork was to recover funds, the receipts from excise duties, that had been collected by Anti Treaty forces during their occupation of Cork city and lodged in local banks. But the tour of west Cork was hardly a military necessity.

A few months after Beal na mBlath, Dalton, who was a talented soldier , decided to leave the Army.  He did this even though the Civil War was not over, and he was giving up a potentially good career. 

Boyne speculates that this may have been because of worries about the execution of prisoners by the Free State. 

After he left the Army, he was appointed to be Clerk of the newly established Free State Senate, a rather sedate post in which he did serve for long.

Boyne gives a good account of the Army Mutiny of 1924, in which Dalton’s brother was involved.

Dalton himself went on to make a living as a private detective. In the 1940’s he went to live in England where he got a job with Paramount Pictures, and he supplements his income as a professional punter.

 In the 1950’s and helped establish an Irish film industry. In 1956 he started by making  the film “Professor Tim” a good part of which was shot in Dunboyne Co Meath. He went on to found the Ardmore Studios in Bray Co Wicklow, with help from the IDA. 

He died in March 1978 and was buried with full military honours, although no member of the then government attended.

This is a remarkable book about a truly remarkable man of multiple talents who crammed several lifetimes into one.


I have just finished reading Seamus Mallon’s autobiography, entitled a “Shared Home Place”.

Boris Johnson, or one of his advisors, ought to read it if they wish to get an insight into the concerns that underlie the Irish backstop. 

They will learn that Brexit, and the Irish peace, are not events in themselves, but processes that will go on for years, and will either deepen or reduce division over generations to come.

 This is not a one off problem to be solved, but a choice between two courses of action that are fundamentally inimical to one another.

As the title of his book implies, Seamus Mallon makes the case that Irish nationalists in Northern Ireland, must come to terms with the fact that they must share their home place with a million or so people (unionists) who see themselves as British, and who do not have, and will never have, an exclusively Irish identity.

The early part of the book deals with the author’s experience growing up, peacefully, as a member of a Catholic minority in the predominantly Protestant town of Market hill in Armagh.

 It then moves to the beginnings of the troubles, and the exclusive way in which local government operated to the benefit of the unionist majority, without regard to the wishes of the nationalist minority.

After a stint in local government, Seamus Mallon later was a member of the 1974 power sharing administration, led by the Unionist Brian Faulkner, and established on the basis of the Sunningdale Agreement between the Irish Taoiseach of the day, Liam Cosgrave and his counterpart, Edward Heath. 

This power sharing Administration was brought down by the Ulster Workers strikers, who objected to the whole idea of power sharing between the  two communities. 

Mallon believes the IRA also felt deeply threatened by power sharing, which may explain why Sinn Fein, despite all the efforts made by others to accommodate them, has so far been unable to work the Good Friday institutions even to this day.

Mallon was SDLP spokesman on Justice in the 1980’s and he made a point of attending all the funerals of victims of politically motivated violence in his area, which was an important, but very difficult, demonstration of his profound sense of fairness and,  of his opposition to all violence. 

The book is very explicit about the murderous collusion between the security forces and Loyalist paramilitaries. He names names.

Mallon deals with the Hume/Adams talks, and makes clear that John Hume did not bring his party along with him in this solo endeavour, a failure that had deep long term consequences. 

As Mallon puts it,

 “peace was being brought about in a way that was bypassing democratic procedures”.

He is critical of Sinn Fein having been allowed into government in Northern Ireland without the IRA first  getting rid of their weapons. 

As he puts it, the IRA, continuing to hold weapons, after the Good Friday Agreement had been ratified in both parts of Ireland, was

“a challenge to the sovereignty of the Irish people”.

This was also my opinion at the time, both as Taoiseach and leader of Fine Gael. 

There are some principles that should not be blurred.

 It took the IRA 11 years to eventually put their arms beyond use, and Mallon says that this

 “led to huge mistrust and misunderstanding”.

 Mallon believes the British and Irish governments should have called the IRA’s bluff much earlier, and claims that it was the Americans who eventually forced the issue of decommissioning.

He gives a good account of the dramatic conclusion to the talks that led to the Good Friday Agreement, and of Tony Blair’s letter to David Trimble, promising that the process of decommissioning should start “straight away”, a promise Mallon says 

“Blair was either unwilling or unable to keep”.

Mallon understood Trimble’s problem, praises his courage, and believes he was ill used by Tony Blair.

But the artificially prolonged focus on decommissioning kept Sinn Fein as the centre of attention, and thus helped them to supplant the SDLP as the voice of Northern Nationalism. This was an error of historic proportions.

Mallon believes that the Trimble/Mallon( UUP/SDLP) power sharing Administrations  under the Good Friday Agreement achieved more that the Paisley/ McGuinness (DUP/SF) Administrations did.

Mallon opposes political violence in all circumstances. 

As he says

“It is a universal lesson that political violence obliterates not only its victims, but all possibility of rational discourse about future political options”

I agree.

 The 1916 to 1923 period in Ireland also taught us that lesson too!

In the latter part of the book, Seamus Mallon talks about the prospects of a united Ireland. 

The Good Friday Agreement allows for referenda to decide the question. It posits a 50% + one vote as being sufficient to bring a united Ireland about. This is a deficiency in the Agreement.

 A united Ireland, imposed on that narrow basis, would be highly unstable. There would be a minority opposed to it that would simply not give up. 

As Mallon puts it

“I believe that if nationalists cannot, over a period of time, persuade a significant number of unionists to accept an Irish unitary state, then that kind of unity is not an option”

I agree.

The Irish and UK governments could find common ground here.

 But the two communities in Northern Ireland must first start talking to one another about what they really need and what they could concede to one another.

 There is no point blaming the politicians.  If the voters chose parties to represent them that are intransigent, then the voters themselves are ultimately responsible for the outcome.

This is something that Boris Johnson has to contemplate as he seeks a way to deal with the Irish backstop.



This letter is important because it sets out the thinking of the new UK Government. 

 It should be taken seriously and analysed.

It contains a number of internal contradictions which should be, politely but persistently, probed by EU negotiators.

I hope to explore some of these in this note.


Some of the terms used in the letter need to be defined.

For example, Mr Johnson claims the Irish backstop is inconsistent with the “sovereignty” of the UK as a state. 

All international agreements impinge on sovereignty. 

But the ultimate sovereignty of a state concerns the states monopoly on the use of force within its territory. 

UK sovereignty in Britain and Northern Ireland is not interfered with by the backstop, in that basic understanding of state sovereignty.


Mr Johnson’s letter says

“ Ireland is the UK’s closest neighbour, with whom we will continue to share uniquely deep ties, a land border, the Common Travel Area, and much else besides. We remain, as we have always been, committed to working with Ireland on the peace process, and to furthering Northern Ireland’s security and prosperity. We recognise the unique challenges the outcome of the referendum poses for Ireland, and want to find solutions to the border which work for all.”

It continues

“ I want to re-emphasis the commitment of this Government to peace in Northern Ireland. The Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement, as well as being an agreement between the UK and Ireland, is a historic agreement between two traditions in Northern Ireland, and we are unconditionally committed to the spirit and letter of our obligations under it in all circumstances – whether there is a deal with the EU or not.”

Boris Johnson recognises what he calls the “unique challenges” Brexit poses for Ireland.

It would be useful to ask him to set out in his own words 

  • what he thinks these “unique challenges” are, and to ask him to set out his own words
  • how he believes these can be met and
  • how his government might contribute to this.

I have the sense that neither he, nor his fellow Brexit advocates, have ever undertaken such a mental exercise.

Again, he says he is “unconditionally” committed to the “letter and the spirit “of the UK’s obligations under the Good Friday Agreement. 

It would be useful to ask Prime Minister Johnson to put in his own words what he considers these obligations to be, particularly as regards the “spirit “of the Agreement.


Later in his letter, Mr Johnson says 

“When the UK leaves the EU and after any transition period, we will leave the single market and the customs union. Although we will remain committed to world-class environment, product and labour standards, the laws and regulations to deliver them will potentially diverge from those of the EU. That is the point of our exit and our ability to enable this is central to our future democracy.”

This is the most revealing paragraph of the entire letter.

The whole point of Brexit, according to Mr Johnson, is to “diverge” from EU standards on environment, product and labour standards.

 This means Northern Ireland’s environment, product, and labour standards diverging from those of Ireland (as a member of the EU).


Although it has been promoting Brexit for three years now, the UK government has yet to say which EU standards it wants to diverge from, and why it wishes to do so.

Divergence, for its own sake, is what the UK wants, according to Mr Johnson.

Given that the Good Friday Agreement is all about convergence (not divergence) between the two parts of Ireland, and between Britain and Ireland, there is a head on contradiction between these two parts of Mr Johnson’s letter.

On the detail of the backstop, he says

“By requiring continued membership of the customs union and applying many single market rules in Northern Ireland, it presents the whole of the UK with the choice of remaining in a customs union and aligned with those rules, or of seeing Northern Ireland gradually detached from the UK economy across a very broad range of areas. Both of those outcomes are unacceptable to the British Government.”

This point has some validity in its own terms.

 If no alternative solution is found, and the backstop comes into effect, new EU rules, in the making of which the UK will not have had a hand, with apply either to the whole of the UK or to Northern Ireland.

So far the UK has been unable to come up with a credible alternative to the backstop, that would allow Brexit to go ahead, but also to avoid progressive divergence in regulations between the two parts of Ireland. 

That is the core problem, and Mr Johnson’s letter makes clear that “divergence” is the whole point of Brexit and “central to our future democracy”. It is important the UK public understand what their government is committing itself to.


MrJohnson also claims that 

“ the backstop risks weakening the delicate balance embodied in the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement. The historic compromise in Northern Ireland is based upon a carefully negotiated balance between both traditions in Northern Ireland, grounded in agreement, consent, and respect for minority rights”

He is right to say that the Belfast Agreement is a carefully negotiated balance.

But Brexit, of its very nature, upsets that balance. Brexit, as Mr Johnson’s letter says, is about divergence. 

If there is to be divergence between jurisdictions, there must be border controls between those jurisdictions.

Brexit upsets the balance by forcing a choice between

  • having the divergence/border between North and South in Ireland (thereby favouring the  “unionist” position) or 
  • having the divergence/border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK (thereby favouring the “nationalist” position).

Brexit alone is responsible for forcing such a choice. And Brexit is a UK initiative, not something forced upon it,

The only way to preserve the “balance”, to which Mr Johnson says he is committed, would be to disaggregate the regulations into categories, and have half the controls North/ South and half on an East/ West basis within the UK. This would be clumsy and would take years to negotiate. But so also is Brexit.


Mr Johnson’s letter refers to

 “respect for minority rights”.

 The majority of people in Northern Ireland voted against Brexit, but their wishes are to ignored because a majority in the wider UK voted for Brexit. 

Brexit, as promoted by Mr Johnson, is a radical rejection of this minority rights aspect of the Good Friday Agreement.

Mr Johnson says

“The Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement neither depends upon nor requires a particular customs or regulatory regime.“

It is true that the Agreement does not say this in terms.

But, at the time the Agreement was negotiated, both the UK and Ireland were in the same customs and regulatory regime. That was taken for granted, and did not have to made explicit in the Agreement.

He goes on

“The broader commitments in the Agreement, including to parity of esteem, partnership, democracy and to peaceful means of resolving differences, can be met if we explore solutions other than the backstop.”

This is a strange sentence.

 It says the commitments “can” be met if we “explore” other solutions.

An exploration by its nature is uncertain, and the use of this term contradicts the confident statement that solutions “can” be found. In any event, Mr Johnson ought to have come up with the solution himself by now.


Mr Johnson goes on

“This Government will not put in place infrastructure, checks, or controls at the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. We would be happy to accept a legally binding commitment to this effect and hope that the EU would do likewise.”

This reads to me like a straightforward attempt by a UK Prime Minister to destroy the EU Single Market. 

Controls on what goods and services may cross its borders are essential to the EU Single Market.  This is especially the case if the UK decides to make trade deals, with different rates of tariffs to the ones applied by EU. 

Given that “divergence” from EU rules is what Mr Johnson says Brexit is all about, inviting the EU not to enforce its own rules, raises the suspicion that, like his fan President Trump, Boris Johnson would like to dissolve the EU!


Address by John Bruton, former Taoiseach at the Novena at Knock Shrine Co Mayo at 12 noon on 14 August 2019; This Novena takes place every year in the Basilica of Our Lady in Knock Co Mayo and is addressed by people from different walks of life.

I have been asked to talk about “Faith, Future and Europe”.

I will start with Faith. There is a deep need for faith in every one of us, even in those who have never believed in God or who have ceased to do so.

Archbishop Neary put it well when he said in Westport on Reek Sunday recently

“People don’t stop wanting God, because they stop believing in Him”. 

 The enduring hunger for meaning is there still. And in the absence of answers, there follows anxiety, depression and a deep sense of being alone. Without transcendent meaning, without faith, life can become a day to day  trek from one insignificant goalpost to the next.

Of course people have doubts. But as Archbishop Neary told the pilgrims in Westport;

“Faith is not primarily concerned with pinning down certitudes, but rather being open to a sense of wonder and awe, which will cut through our conservative certitudes and our liberal self righteousness”.

Faith challenges both of them…..conservative certitudes as well as liberal self righteousness. Faith asks us to look beyond our settled opinions. It asks us to abandon our lazy relativism, asks us to have the confidence and the courage to distinguish between what is true and untrue, good and evil, to recognise that some rights people have are more important than others, and that choices have to be made.

Of course this sort of thing is sometimes difficult for us, as Catholics, to speak up about even to our own families, and it is difficult for our Church to say to the wider public.

 It can be difficult to pass on the faith to our children and grandchildren.

 As Archbishop Neary said on another occasion, the Church, that is all if us, is being led

“ to newness, new awareness, new duties, new forms of mission, new possibilities that may puzzle us, which may scare us, and make us defensive”. 

Above all, Faith opens us up to something bigger than ourselves. Faith is something that transcends, and gives meaning, to everything else.

 In so doing, it answers a deep human need in all of us.

Faith is a gift. A gift from God.

 But it is also a decision. A decision that each one of is free to make, the decision to accept the gift….or not to do so.

 Like marriage, it is a commitment. Faith is a commitment.

What has this to do with Europe?

The late Pope, John Paul II, answered this question in an Apostolic Exhortation in 2003, addressed to the faithful in Europe. 

This was just after his own country had joined the European Union.  He was hopeful about many things.

He praised the new openness of European peoples to one another.

He was pleased with the growth of an European consciousness among people and he was pleased with the growing unity of Europe.

 He said 

“There is no doubt that, in Europe’s history, Christianity has been a central and defining element….the Christian faith has shaped the culture of the continent”.

He went on 

“Europe must recognize and reclaim, with creative fidelity, those fundamental values, acquired through Christianity,

 of the affirmation of the transcendent dignity of each person,

 the value of reason,



 the constitutional state and 

the distinction between political life and religion”.

He said he wanted Catholics, and Christians generally, to get involved with European institutions so as to help shape a European Social order respectful of the human dignity of each man and woman, and thus in accordance with the common good.

 He wanted them to understand that faith and reason are not antagonists, they complement one another.

 But he was worried about Europe’s loss of its Christian memory,   a loss which he feared would be followed by a pervasive fear of the future.  

He was right.  That fear of the future in Europe is greater now than it was in 2003.

Without a reference to its religious heritage, Europe is disconnected from the source of its most deeply held shared values, shared values that can give it confidence and courage.

 Without a sense of the” faith of their fathers”, Europeans lose some of their moorings.

At times, it seems as if relativism has become the real religion of the modern European.

 We incline to see no evil, so we don’t have to become involved.

 We are afraid to say what we believe is right, in case it might give offence.

We think everyone has their own truth, and there is nothing that is true for everybody. No such thing as absolute truth, such as revealed by Christ. No overriding value system.

Europeans should realize that democracy needs a value system, a value system to guide it in the exercise of its freedom.

As Alexis de Tocqueville, writing about American Democracy in the nineteenth century said

“Despotism may govern without faith, but liberty cannot”.

Without a higher order of values,  everything becomes subject to temporary  majorities. 

Let me take the example of human rights, is there any priority among the rights that humans ought to enjoy?

Is a child human before it is born? 

Ought that child enjoy any human rights?

 Is the right to life not superior to other human rights, in the sense that without life, a human cannot enjoy any other human right.

The teaching of our church offers clear, sustainable, rigorous and logical answers to deep and difficult questions like these.

 As it does, with equal rigour, to questions of peace and war.

 As we have seen recently on this country, democracy, if guided  only by relativism, offers no useful answers.

 All it can do is suggest for the PROCESS of decision making…a  citizens assembly or the like…. but it does not ,and cannot, answer the substantial moral questions around human life, and its rights. 

 The argument is only on the level of pragmatism at best, or of emotionalism at worst.

Our challenge, in this generation, is to convince young Europeans, young Irish people, of the modern value of their Christian heritage.

How can we do this?

Let me give one example of how young minds might be opened to faith.

 We can ask them to look at the churches and cathedrals of Europe, build over generations, with the savings of people who were immeasurably poorer and far fewer in number that we are today

 Through these beautiful buildings we gain a window into the value system of our ancestors, into what they regarded as important…..

Why did they make sacrifices to build churches and cathedrals that many of them would never see finished in their lifetime.  Why?

There is a five letter word that explains that….FAITH.

  • Faith in God.  
  • Faith in something greater than today.
  • Faith in something beyond their own lives, or even beyond the lives of their own great grandchildren. 
  • Faith in eternal life.

 A cathedral, or a basilica like this one, is more than just a landmark. 

It is a signpost to the future!

 We can regain that faith in the future that our ancestors had, we can regain that sense of transcendence, that sense of place in a greater scheme of things. And we can help others to do the same.

 That is why we are here in Knock today.

The laity will have a bigger role in the future of the Catholic church. 

 As Archbishop Neary might have put it, the laity, as it takes an increased role in evangelisation, will have to undertake

 “new forms of mission, new possibilities that may puzzle us, which may scare us, and make us defensive”.

 But that is so much more interesting than sticking to the old road of social conformism, of giving out, but of doing nothing much about it. 



The new UK Foreign Secretary , Dominic Raab, has claimed on Radio 4 that the UK would find it “easier” to negotiate  a good long term deal with Brussels , if it had first crashed out of the EU , than if it ratified the Withdrawal Treaty. 

Doing this would mean binning the entire content the Withdrawal Treaty, not just the backstop.

Settlements painstakingly reached in the Withdrawal Treaty  on transitional matters, like the rights of existing cross border workers, the recognition of existing professional qualifications, social security, mutual financial obligations, enforcement of contracts and judicial decisions, and a transition period up to the end of 2020, would all go into the waste bin.

If , after that, the UK then decided it wanted to negotiate a new Agreement with the EU, these issues would have negotiated all over again from scratch.

That extra workload would be on top of the negotiation of the future EU/UK Agreement, which, given the range of subjects to be covered and the intricacies of arrangements being replaced, would probably be the most complex trade negotiation ever undertaken in human history. 

Binning the Withdrawal Treaty now, would delay the finalisation a future Agreement by several additional years because of this extra workload. 

And that is just on the legal side of things.

 The psychological damage to UK/ EU relations caused by a willful choice of “no deal” by the UK would have to be repaired. A prudent Foreign Secretary would consider these matters more carefully than Mr Raab appears to have done so far.

 It is, of course, true that that the backstop in the existing Withdrawal Agreement constrains the UK’s negotiating options for a future Trade Deal, because it requires the UK to take account of its obligations under the Belfast Agreement as well. 


 But that backstop is only there because Mrs May, in late 2016, drew three red lines for the  UK’s future relationship with the EU….

  • no customs Union, 
  • no Single Market and 
  • no ECJ jurisdiction….while still remaining a party to the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement.

As was pointed out at the time, these three red lines conflicted with the Belfast Agreement, into which the UK freely entered in 1998, with the approval of the Parliament.

The Belfast Agreement was the basis of which Ireland changed its constitution. No minor matter.

 The three red lines, by their very nature, require the UK to “take control” of its borders. That means  controls at the border, and the only land border the UK has with the EU is in Ireland .  


 Border controls were always the essence of Brexit. 

 Yet the man who led the Brexit campaign in 2016, Boris Johnson, is  now saying the opposite, he is saying that the UK will not impose any border controls in Ireland, and that any controls there might be will be someone’s else’s fault. 

In fact, under WTO rules, the UK itself will almost certainly have to have border controls of its own once it leaves the EU.

Meanwhile EU law, the EU customs code, requires any EU state, if has a border with any state that is not in the EU Customs Union and Single Market,  has to have border controls . The UK knows this well, because its officials helped draw up the EU Customs code. They are familiar with every comma and full stop in it, and know all the customs obligations a no deal Brexit will impose on Ireland.  


 Last week in Belfast, Prime Minister Johnson said that he respects the “letter and the spirit “ of the Belfast Agreement. 

 The Belfast Agreement calls for close cross border cooperation on issues like the environment, health, agriculture, electricity, education and tourism. It stands to reason that this sort of cooperation will be made much more difficult, if the Northern Ireland and Ireland are no longer part of the same market for goods and services. The UK red lines  will also lead to diverging professional qualifications, diverging quality standards for goods and services, and diverging standards of consumer protection, between North and South, and between the UK and Ireland. 

Even without physical border controls, that divergence, by its nature, pulls the two parts of Ireland further apart from one another, and pulls Britain and Ireland apart too.  It thus upsets the subtle balance between Unionist and Nationalist identities in Northern Ireland, that the Belfast agreement created. 

Unfortunately Brexit, of its nature, contradicts the spirit of the Belfast Agreement, to which Boris Johnson says he is fully committed.


 The backstop was an attempt to build a bridge between these two radically contradictory British positions, Brexit and the Belfast Agreement. 

It was not trap set to tie Britain to the EU, but rather an attempt to help the UK reconcile the two contradictory positions it  itself had taken up, the one it took in 1998, and the one it took in 2016.  

 At first, the backstop was to apply to Northern Ireland alone, but it was the UK that requested that it be extended to island of Britain as well. 

The fact that it was the UK that asked for this extension of the backstop to Britain, belies the idea that the backstop was some sort of Brussels conspiracy to keep Britain in the EU orbit, a theory promoted in pro Brexit circles. 

The UK Parliament has now thrice rejected the Withdrawal Agreement and, with it, the Irish backstop. But the underlying conflict between Brexit and the Belfast Agreement, remains unresolved. The new UK government has no solid proposals of its own for reconciling the basic contradiction. Instead the UK wants to fix responsibility for its own dilemma on Dublin and Brussels.

  Against this background, Dominic Raab is wrong to think that it would be easier for the UK to make a future Trade Agreement with Brussels, after it had walked away from the EU, without paying its bills, and without sorting out the details of the divorce it had initiated. 


 A crash out Brexit is bound to create ill will and could not possibly make the negotiation of a future Agreement easier.

  Indeed a moment’s reflection would tell Mr Raab that it would not be in the EU’s interest to give better terms to a country, that had willfully crashed out, than to one which had stood by commitments made by its Prime Minister. To do so would set a dangerous precedent for the EU. 

Mr Raab might also remember that any future EU deal with the UK will have to be approved by every EU Parliament, including by Dail Eireann, and by the European Parliament.

A No Deal Brexit now will not finalise anything on 1 November. It will just be the start of years of painful non productive negotiation. This negotiation will be unavoidable because geographically the UK is in the continent of Europe, rather than any other continent that it might prefer to be in. The UK will have to live with the EU and vice versa, because of geography.

 A no Deal Brexit on 1 November will poison and prolong what will, in any event, be an essential, but incredibly difficult, negotiation between the UK and the EU on their future relationships.


The desire for free and fair elections, through which politicians can be held to account, is widespread in the former Communist world.  We have seen this with the arrest in Moscow of over 1000 people, demonstrating against the arbitrary disqualification of candidates for local elections in the city of Moscow, including of a candidate who won 27% of the vote in the last  election.

Corrupting elections was part of the armoury of the Soviet state, and it is a habit that has persisted, long after Communism itself has fallen .

 After the more hopeful Yeltsin years, Russia, the biggest Republic of the former Soviet Union, is reverting to Soviet electoral habits. But the second biggest former Soviet Republic, Ukraine, is taking a  very different course.

 Recent free and fair elections in Ukraine are undoubtedly being watched closely by opposition figures in Russia.

 If Ukraine can make a successful democratic transition, it becomes harder for President Putin to argue that Russia must retain a more authoritarian system. Another neighbour of Ukraine, Viktor Orban of Hungary, will also have to take note.

I have recently had the opportunity of spending a week in Ukraine, as one of a large number of international observers of their Parliamentary Election on 21 July.

The consensus among observers was that these Elections, called early by the newly elected President Zelensky, were both free and fair.

 Votes  in Ukraine are cast in secret, and when the polls close, are counted openly, in the local polling stations themselves. From my observation, these tasks were carried out conscientiously and transparently.

This is not to say that Ukrainian democracy is free of problems.

On a per capita basis , Ukraine is the poorest country in Europe. Even Moldova is slightly better off. The country’s growth rate is well below potential.

The country is at war, a war that has cost 13000 lives so far. In response to Russian armed interference, Ukraine has had to develop a large army of its own, almost from scratch. 

Yet it depends for income, on transit fees for Russian gas, being piped through Ukraine to customers in the EU. Its  public finances are not in good order, it has had to get help from the IMF, and has had to increase fuel prices to its own citizens as part of the IMF programme.

Like many former Communist states, including ones already in the EU, it suffers from endemic corruption.

 Fighting corruption is one of the goals of the new President. He is handicapped in this effort by the lack of a professional non political civil service, and  of an independent, properly resourced, courts system. These deficiencies inhibit foreign direct investment, because investors need to know honest and efficient courts will be there to protect their legal rights, before they put their money at risk

 MPs are immune from legal proceedings while serving as MPs, and this privilege has attracted some people into politics in pursuit of their private interests, rather than the public good. The President has promised to end this immunity, but he has got to get the MPs to vote for this.

While the election itself was free and fair, the television coverage of the campaign was not. Ukrainians rely heavily on television to inform themselves about politics. Television stations tend to be controlled by rival oligarchs, and these oligarchs often are politicians in their own right. Rules requiring balanced coverage during election campaigns are not properly enforced. 

Ukraine has an Association Agreement with the EU, which is described as “the most ambitious the EU has with any non EU member state”. Indeed this agreement may serve as a model for a future UK Agreement with the EU, whenever the tortuous Brexit process in concluded.

But there are clear signs that Ukrainians will not be satisfied , in the long run, with a mere Association Agreement with the EU, however ambitious it may be. Their goal is to be a full voting member state of the EU.  When they signed the EU Association Agreement, they rejected President Putin’s offer to join his proposed Eurasian Union. Indeed it was that rejection that triggered the Russian invasion of Crimea and of parts of eastern Ukraine.  So Ukraine has paid a high price for its EU choice

It also is a very big country, with over 40 million people.

 It may have been a privileged “vassal”, or first daughter, of the Russian Empire in the past. But it has decided to turn its back on  that and has set itself the goal of joining the EU instead, and not in a secondary role. Its leaders are using the goal of EU membership as the spur to get their voters to accept uncomfortable reforms.

But the prospect, however long term,of EU membership for Ukraine is far from simple for the EU.

 In 2001, the EU enlarged itself very quickly and took in many new member states in central and eastern Europe. Some of these countries had unresolved  post Communist problems of the kind still besetting Ukraine…corruption, weak courts, poor public administration, organised crime and oligarchical control of the media.

 The EU is, in its essence, a set of uniform rules, on the basis of which its citizens enjoy freedoms across a whole continent. But, if the enforcement of these rules can be corrupted through weak or politicised courts or by bad administration, these EU wide freedoms cease to mean anything.

 So until the EU is satisfied it has got on top of  the corruption and rule of law problems it already has among  some of its own existing members, like Hungary, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria, it will be very  slow in admitting new members, like Ukraine, where the same problems are unresolved.

 The EU is in a stronger position to insist of high standards in a country, like Ukraine, which is still looking for membership. It is harder to insist with countries that are already full voting members of the club.  Existing members can and will used their votes in the Council of Ministers to block EU sanctions for rule of law, or related, breaches of EU standards.

 Getting these rule of law issues right will be the number one priority of the new Von der Leyen Commission, even ahead of Brexit.

Until it does that, the EU cannot credibly offer hope of membership to countries like Ukraine, Northern Macedonia and Albania. Without such hope, these countries could turn away from the EU,  and other global players, such as China, Turkey or Russia, could take the EU’s place.


The fact that Dail Eireann voted yesterday to reject an EU Trade and Investment deal with Mercosur, that took 20 years to negotiate, and that few members could have read,  shows that Irish politics is not immune to the Brexit disease that has infected British politics. 

This disease consists in thinking that there is no need to make concessions in international relations and that, instead, one “can have it all”, without paying any price.

This delusion has led the UK into a deeply destructive position on Brexit.

I will not go into the details of the Mercosur trade deal here. Commissioner Phil Hogan dealt with these in an interview he gave to Sean O Rourke on RTE 1.  

The Dail vote showed a poor understanding of the importance of trade agreements to the very existence of the EU.

The EU is not a military power. It is a commercial power. That commercial power is exercised through agreements through which the EU can promote its values, and can protect the commercial and strategic interests of its member states, including smaller ones like Ireland.

 In recent times, the EU has made Agreements with Canada and Ukraine, and both had great difficulty being ratified, because one or two national parliaments took a similar line on them to the one taken on Mercosur by Dail Eireann yesterday.

If the EU cannot make and ratify Trade Agreements, it will gradually wither away, and member states will be forced  to find other ways of protecting their national interests. 

That might work for big states like France and Germany. But it will not work well for smaller states. The members of Dail Eireann should keep that in mind when they next come to consider the Mercosur deal.


Boris Johnson said yesterday that there is an “abundance” of technical alternatives to the Irish Backstop. He added that “do or die” he would take the UK out of the EU by 31 October.

 He seems to believe that, between now and the end of October, he can persuade the EU to have such confidence in these unspecified alternatives that they will not insist on keeping the backstop. This is unrealistic, to put it mildly.

First, he has not put forward any detailed alternative to the backstop.

Secondly, there is no way anything meaningful can be negotiated between the time Mr Johncon would become Prime Minister and the end of October. After its experience with the failure of the UK side to ratify proposals it had previously agreed, there is no disposition on the EU side to take things  “on trust” from the UK. There is nothing necessarily personal about this. It is just common prudence.

All sides are agreed that the backstop is only a fall back provision to be used only if an alternative agreed solution cannot be found. 

If Boris Johnson was as confident, as appears to be that abundant alternatives exist, he would accept the backstop as an interim step, until his replacement alternatives have been worked upon and agreed. 

The fact that he is not prepared to do that makes one suspect that there are no ready or acceptable alternatives that would maintain open borders, and close North/ South cooperation based on compatible regulations. The European Commission recently published a document outlining all the areas of life, from health care to transport, where acceptance of common EU standards enables the private and public sectors to cooperate on a cross border basis. Brexit, without a backstop, would tear all this up.

Yesterday a 216 page document was published by Prosperity UK setting out a possible alternative structure that might replace the backstop. They envisage that their proposal would be added as a protocol to the Withdrawal Agreement. This would require  EU consent.

Its authors  also admitted that more work was needed on their proposal.  It is hardly likely to be ready, and agreed by the EU 27, before 31 October. So it does not solve the immediate problem and, in a sense, Boris Johnson’s recent commitment to leave, come what may, on 31 October means that Prosperity UK’s proposal could only be pursued if Jeremy Hunt becomes Prime Minister.

 Prosperity UK proposes to have border related controls, but not to have them at the border itself…. but to have them on farms and in factories and warehouses instead. 

But avoiding physical infrastructure on the border is only part of the Brexit problem.

 The other problem is the extra costs, delays, bureaucracy that will be imposed by Brexit on all exchanges across the border within Ireland. These would actually be worse under Prosperity UK proposals, and smuggling will be even more likely than if the controls were on the border itself. And smuggling can be used to finance subversive activities, as we know.

 To avoid checks on the border of the compliance with EU standards of food crossing from NI, Prosperity UK proposes that that, for food standards purposes, Ireland would leave the EU and join a Britain and Northern Ireland food standards union instead! 

 This idea has zero possibility of being accepted. It is naive. Irish agricultural policy would then be dictated by British interests, something we escaped from when we joined the EU in 1973.

That said, the Prosperity UK report does acknowledge the “supremacy” of the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process. This is a good rhetorical starting point.

  But no new thinking is offered as to how this supremacy would be reflected in future British policy in a post Brexit world.

 One would have thought that those who do not like the backstop would come forward with new and interesting proposals to deepen North/ South cooperation, and East / West cooperation, to compensate for the disruption that will inevitably flow from Brexit. That is where British negotiators should be putting the emphasis now. The idea that the Belfast Agreement structures can be frozen, by a refusal by the DUP and/or Sinn Fein to work together, is not acceptable.

 But at a deeper level, it seems that there is still no consensus in Britain as to the sort of relationship it wants with the EU, and what trade offs it is prepared to make to negotiate such a relationship. It seems that public opinion in the UK has not yet absorbed what leaving the European Union means. 

It wants the freedom but not to accept the costs.

He seems to believe that, between now and the end of October, he can persuade the EU to have such confidence in these unspecified alternatives that they will not insist on keeping the backstop. This is unrealistic, to put it mildly.

All sides are agreed that the backstop is only a fall back provision to be used only if an alternative agreed solution cannot be found.

If Boris Johnson was as confident as appears to be that alternatives exist, he would accept the backstop as an interim step, until his replacement alternatives have been worked upon and agreed.

The fact that he is not prepared to do that makes one suspect that there are no ready or acceptable alternatives that would maintain open borders, and close North/ South cooperation based on compatible regulations.

Yesterday a 216 page document was published by Prosperity UK setting out a possible alternative structure.

Its authors admitted that more work was needed.  It is hardly likely to be ready, and agreed by the EU 27, before 31 October. So it does not solve the immediate problem.

 It proposes to have border related controls, but not to have them at the border itself…. but to have them on farms and in factories and warehouses instead.

But avoiding physical infrastructure on the border is only part of the Brexit problem.

The other problem is the extra costs, delays, bureaucracy that will be imposed by Brexit on all exchanges across the border within Ireland. These will actually be worse under Prosperity UK proposals, and smuggling will be much greater.

To avoid checks on the border of the compliance with EU standards of food crossing from NI,  that I for food standards purposes, Ireland would leave the EU and join a Britain and Northern Ireland food standards union instead!  This idea has zero possibility of being accepted. It is naive. Irish agricultural policy would then be dictated by British interests, something we escaped from when we joined the EU in 1973.

That said, the Prosperity UK report does acknowledge the “supremacy” of the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process. This is a good rhetorical starting point.

But no new thinking is offered as to how this supremacy would be reflected in future British policy in a post Brexit world. One would have thought that those who do not like the backstop would come forward with new and interesting proposals to deepen North/ South cooperation, and East / West cooperation, to compensate for the disruption that will inevitably flow from Brexit. That is where British negotiators should be putting the emphasis now. The idea that the whole Belfast Agreement structures can be frozen by the refusal of the DUP and Sinn Fein to work together is not acceptable.

But at a deeper level, it seems that there is still no consensus in Britain as to the sort of relationship it wants with the EU, and what trade offs it is prepared to make to get it. It seems that public opinion in the UK has not yet absorbed what leaving the European Union means.

It wants the freedom but not to accept the costs.


I recently enjoyed “Jacobites, a new history of the 1745 Rebellion” by Jacqueline Riding.

Recently I visited Scotland and was at Glenfinnan, where Prince Charles Edward first raised the standard of his father, James III, as the legitimate King of the UK on 19 August 1745.

 I also saw and the battlefield of Culloden, near Inverness where his attempt to reclaim the throne came to bloody end on 16 April 1746.

 This was the last pitched battle fought on British soil, and ended a struggle that had involved Ireland at the battles of the Boyne in 1690 and Aughrim in 1691.

Riding’s book is timely, as it illustrates the close connection of Scotland with continental Europe, something the English sometimes fail to appreciate, as we see nowadays as Brexit unfolds.

There was also considerable Irish involvement in Charles Edward’s campaign.

The bulk of the small number of French troops, sent to aid him, came from Irish regiments in the French Army. The leading financiers of the campaign were French based Irishmen, Antoine Walsh and Walter Ruttledge. Of the small party that landed in Scotland with the Prince in 1745, the majority were Irish.  

Charles Edward was only 25 when he set out on what must have seemed a reckless endeavour, with little chance of success. French military help was modest, and designed more to create a diversion from other theatres of war (mainly in present day Belgium) that were more vital to French interests than was securing the British throne for James III.

Initially, Charles Edward had astounding success. He took Edinburgh (except its castle) without firing a shot. He then defeated a British army at Prestonpans.

He held court in Edinburgh for a few weeks, promising, among other things to grant religious toleration to all, and to repeal the Act of Union of 1707 between England and Scotland. While there he enhanced his mainly highland Scottish Army with lowland Scots recruits.

He then decided to lead a winter invasion of England, crossing the border at Carlisle, and heading for Lancashire where there was considered to be support for the Jacobite cause. But there was just one small, easily suppressed, rising on his behalf, by Catholics in the vicinity of Omskerk near Liverpool. The Catolic clergy advised their flock not to get involved. He was able to raise a force in Manchester, mainly among local Catholics, but practical English support for his cause proved very disappointing.

After an agonising debate, it was decided in December, at Derby, that he should not continue with his invasion but should lead his Army back to Scotland, and await more substantial help from France.  Most of the Scottish forces, on which he depended and who had much to lose, preferred to fight for their cause in their native country than to wait to be overwhelmed by superior forces gathering in what was, for them, in a foreign land.

The Prince himself wanted go on to London. But that endeavour could only have worked if there was a simultaneous invasion from France, which could not be guaranteed.

Prince Charles Edward’s army could move much faster than the more cumbersome English forces, and so evaded them to get back safely to Scotland, where he did indeed prove to have more solid support.

Once back in Scotland, he got local more recruits and help from France, and won another military victory at Falkirk.

But his position was never secure.

Hanoverian forces still held too many of the strong points in Scotland and the Prince’s Highland clansmen were more suited to short aggressive campaigns, than they were to a war of attrition. Money was also in short supply. And French help did not always get through because the Royal Navy was so strong.

He was finally defeated at Culloden, near Inverness, by the Duke of Cumberland, the son of King George II, and, like Charles, in his mid twenties. Large numbers of highlanders were massacred in cold blood after the battle, while those fighting for the Prince in French uniforms were spared.

The Prince eventually escaped to France, but was ejected from there when France made peace with England.

He had to return to Rome and the protection of the Pope and of his brother, Henry Stuart, who had become a Cardinal. He continued to seek a way to win back the throne, and in 1749 he became a Protestant, presumably to make himself more acceptable to English opinion.

He was a leader of immense flair, courage, and charisma when things were going well. But seemed unable to hide his feelings when things went wrong, which demoralised his supporters.

He lived out his life in Rome, never giving up on the hope of a return to the throne. He had a daughter, Charlotte, Duchess of Albany, who survived him by only two years. In terms of public achievement, his life was over, almost before it had begun.


The Backstop is not just about the border. It is not a technical matter. It is not just about what happens at 200 crossing points.

It is about the people of Northern Ireland, and giving all of them (not just a majority) the freedom to be who they are, and a sense of belonging.

But the present debate in the UK Conservative Party about replacing the backstop, seems to assume that it is all about technical fixes and invisible border posts , and that some yet to be discovered combination of IT and lasers would remove the need for physical customs posts, and that would then solve the entire problem. That is a mistake.

The backstop is about far more than this.  It is a recognition of the fact that, in Northern Ireland there is a population some of whom feet they have exclusively British identity and allegiance, some of whom feel they have an exclusively Irish identity and allegiance, and some of whom combine these allegiances comfortably enough.

The backstop is a recognition of this fundamental divide, which has led to so much suffering in the past, and an attempt to sustain the arrangements that ended that suffering.

The Belfast Agreement of 1998 transcended these divisions through provisions for intense North/ South and East/West cooperation, that would allow all three groups, described above, to feel fully at home in Northern Ireland under any present, or future , constitutional arrangements.

This was easy to envisage as long as both parts of Ireland remained in the EU, because EU rules facilitated and underpinned free and easy cooperation both North/South and East/West.

In such a context, territorial “sovereignty” became less of an issue, because it was overlaid by structures of free cooperation enshrined in EU law.

Brexit changes all that in a radical way. It brings territorial sovereignty back into the centre of stage in a way that threatens the Belfast Agreement settlement in a deeply fundamental way. I believe that Theresa May came to understand this, and that that explains her acceptance of the backstop.

Most of those contending to take her place in the Conservative Party leadership do not seem to do so.

In the agreement of March 2019, the EU side has given the UK very strong assurance of its good faith in seeking to find an alternative to the backstop.

But that will only work if the UK side really understand why the backstop was put there in the first place.

I do not believe that the contenders for Conservative Party leadership have taken this on board.

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