John Bruton

Opinions & Ideas

PADDY SHEEHAN RIP

I was deeply shocked to learn of the death of my friend, and long time colleague, Paddy Sheehan of Goleen, Co Cork. Paddy was a Fine Gael public representative in West Cork from 1967 to 2011.

Paddy lost his wife, Frances, only last week. This was a huge blow because Frances was central to every aspect of Paddy’s life. Although he bore this loss with great fortitude, it must have taken a great toll.

Paddy first entered public life when elected to Cork County Council in 1967.

He contested the General Elections of 1969, 1973 and 1977 without success, but he persisted and was elected  to the Dail in 1981. In so doing, he won a second seat for Fine Gael in South West Cork, an immense achievement in a 3 seat constituency.

He held the seat, with one interval, until his retirement from politics in 2011.

Paddy was a great advocate of the interests of rural Ireland and especially of  those who lived on the western seaboard. He was in constant contact with his electorate, running in Goleen what is now the only surviving general store and supermarket on the Mizen peninsula.

His journey to Dail Eireann each week was longer than that of almost every other TD, but he made himself heard in the Dail Chamber frequently and strongly.

 He had a great sense of humour and was beloved across all political divisions.

On behalf of all my family, I extend heartfelt sympathy to, his children, Diarmuid, Deirdre, Eucharia and Maebh in  the huge double bereavement they are suffering.

THE IRISH TRAPPED IN FRANCE BY THE SECOND WORLD WAR.

I had a personal reason for wanting to read “No Way Out, the Irish in Wartime France 1939-1945” by Isadore Ryan (Mercier Press).

This is because my aunt, Hilda Delany (1916-1956) from Culmullen was one of the Irish trapped in France, when the German Army  quickly over ran, and occupied the country in the summer of 1940.

Hilda had joined the Bon Sauveur Order of nuns in 1938 and was sent to France for training.

She spent the entire war in France, only returning to her convent in Holyhead in Wales in September 1945.

She died when I was only 9 years of age, so I did not get to know her well, although I do remember my mother bringing me to visit her in Holyhead on the Mail Boat. Conditions seem to have been very difficult in occupied France and food was scarce, and these privations may have contributed to her death at such an early age.

While my aunt is not mentioned in Isadore Ryan’s thoroughly researched book, there are many stories of other individual Irish individual people (including nuns), who found themselves trapped in France with minimal means of communication with, or receipt of support from, their families or communities back in Ireland.

The Irish Legation in Vichy France did its best to provide support but there were limits on what it could do. There were advantages in having a neutral Irish, rather than a British, passport at this time. The British passport holders were liable to be interned, whereas the Irish enjoyed some internal freedom of movement.

But the only way the Irish could get home to Ireland was by land to Spain and then by air or sea from Portugal to Britain. This was expensive, slow, and hazardous so very few attempted it.

Isadore Ryan ‘s book provides glimpses into the lives of many of the Irish, some of them well known like James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. He also describes the lives and troubles of others who were priests, businessman, teachers of English, governesses, entertainers and nurses.

Some, like Beckett and Janie McCarthy were active in the French Resistance. A small number fraternized with the Germans, to the extent that they were suspected of collaboration with them. 

Interestingly, very few returned to Ireland when the war was over, a sign of straitened condition of this country in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s.

Many Irish readers will find mention of families they know in this book.

It gives a glimpse into a more difficult time, which will put in proper proportion some of the constraints now imposed by the battle against Covid 19.

JOHN HUME RIP

John Hume was the pivotal figure of the twentieth century in the development of thinking about Ireland’s future.

 He reframed the problem from being one about who held sovereignty over land, to being one about people, and how they related to one another.

 Thus reframed, the issue became one to which violence and coercion became completely irrelevant. This was the intellectual basis of the peace process.

The issue was no longer one about winning or losing, but about sharing or choosing not to share.  

In practical terms, he won the argument. That is why we have peace today. 

ANN DILLON GALLAGHER RIP

Tribute by John Bruton, former Taoiseach

Ann Dillon Gallagher, who has died, was a Fine Gael member of Meath County Council from 1999 to 2014.

She was Chairman of  the  Council from 2010 to 2011.

She came from a distinguished North Meath family and drew on a strong tradition of public service in her political career. 

She knew her own mind, and was never afraid to speak up for her beliefs.

 Although always cognizant of the needs of her own locality, she had a great sense of the potential of Meath as a whole, as she demonstrated so well during her successful chairmanship of Meath County Council.

I extend heartfelt sympathy to her husband Michael and all her family.

DE VALERA …..A TWO VOLUME BIOGRAPHY

I have recently completed David McCullagh’s two volume biography of Eamon de Valera, entitled “Rise 1882-1932”, and “Rule 1932-1975”.

 Both volumes are full of anecdotal detail that gives a good sense of the sort of person de Valera was. They are also the result of a thorough study of the archives.

De Valera was a man of apparent contradictions. 

He was infinitely charming and polite, but also wilful and self centred.

He  was creative, but wanted things done his way. He procrastinated, and obsessed over detail.

He was a magnetic personality, who could give a very dull speech, but still hold his audience in rapt attention. 

His personal story is a remarkable one.

Born in America, he was sent back to Limerick to be raised by his uncle and grandmother. A studious boy, he won a scholarship to Blackrock College and was to remain loyal to that college, and its rugby playing tradition, all his life.

He was introduced to physical force nationalism through the Irish Volunteers, established initially as a counterweight to the anti Home Rule Ulster Volunteers. 

He was condemned to death for his part in the 1916 Rebellion, but his sentence was commuted on 10 May 1916, two days after strenuous objection to continuing executions had been raised in the House of Commons by John Redmond and John Dillon, something de Valera never forgot.

He emerged as a major political figure through his role as a leader among the  post 1916 prisoners and as the successful Sinn Fein candidate in the East Clare by election.

When Dail Eireann was established, following the Sinn Fein success in the December 1918 General Election, de Valera became Priomh Aire (President of the Dail government) in April 1919. In this capacity, he left for the United States in June 1919, in an endeavour to win US support for Irish independence. His 18 month tour encountered some opposition from the American Legion, who resented the alliance of the 1916 rebels with Germany in the Great War.

His primary concern, in his political career, was sovereignty and independence from Britain. His secondary one was opposing partition and achieving Irish unity. He achieved his primary objective, but made little progress at all towards his second.

McCullagh deals extensively with de Valera’s role in the Treaty negotiations and the subsequent Civil War.

He presided over a chaotic Cabinet meeting to consider the British proposals on 3 December 1921, at which the exhausted negotiators got ambiguous instructions. When the negotiators were back in London, de Valera went touring his constituency and was substantially out of contact. 

When the negotiators came back with a Treaty he could not accept, he drew up an alternative to the Treaty (Document number 2), but did not address how it might have made been acceptable to the UK at that time.

De Valera had substantial moral authority in 1922, and if he had remained neutral or supported the Treaty, a Civil War might still have taken place, but it would probably have been much shorter.

When de Valera came to power in 1932, he built on the Treaty and the work of his predecessors in the 1920’s in enhancing Irish independence.

His major successes were the enactment of the 1937 Constitution, and the 1938 Agreement with Britain, which ended the Economic War and secured the return of the Naval Ports at Cobh and elsewhere to Irish jurisdiction.

This latter success enabled him to maintain Irish neutrality from 1939 to 1945. If Britain still had naval facilities on Irish territory, neutrality would have been very hard to sustain.

When he was Leader of the Opposition in the late 1940’s and the 1950’s, de Valera devoted a lot of time to campaigning around the world against partition, but he did not come forward with any concrete proposals that would have been likely to reconcile Ulster unionists, with their British heritage and allegiance, with the nationalism of the rest of the island of Ireland.

 Overseas public opinion was never going to unite Ireland. That work had to be done in Ireland by Irish people of both allegiances. It was not done by de Valera or his contemporaries because, like many Irish Nationalists, de Valera believed it was for the British government to press unionists to come into a united Ireland.

 That was not realistic in 1914, and even less so in 1948. There is little evidence that he thought this through. 

De Valera’s economic policies have been criticised. He did not see economic growth, or the accumulation of wealth, as ends in themselves.

 He wanted to build a harmonious and self respecting society in Ireland. This is why he prioritized independence over growth.

He wanted comfort to be distributed widely, hence his wish that all should live in “frugal comfort”, a phrase he used repeatedly and which has been unfairly mocked. His priorities were spiritual and moral, as much as economic, and drew on his religious convictions.

I met de Valera once, in 1973, as his guest at a dinner he gave in Aras an Uachtaran for Liam Cosgrave and the members of the incoming Fine Gael/Labour government. He was exceptionally courteous and aware of the significance and role of each guest.

These two volumes tell an engaging human story and deserve to be widely read. 

SIGNPOSTS TO A NEW AND VERY DIFFERENT EUROPE

Last week’s video conference Summit of EU Heads of Government was important.

BREXIT

The leaders received a report on the meeting of EU Presidents Von der Leyen, Michel and Sassoli with the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

They noted his decision not to seek any extension of the transition period.

Significantly, the EU leaders decided to make no change to the negotiation mandate given to the Commission for its negotiation with the UK on a future relationship with the EU. There had been suggestions in the UK media that the EU should loosen the mandate to facilitate the talks.

If a “No Deal” is to be avoided, the UK will now need to do some creative thinking about how it can give legally enforceable commitments to meet the concerns highlighted by the EU side on issues like

  • guaranteeing fair competition, if the UK is to have access to the EU Single Market, especially on state to business and quality and environmental standards
  • access for EU travelers to UK fishing grounds, if there is to be access for UK fish exporters to the EU consumer market for fish
  • human rights guarantees, if the UK is to have access to police cooperation with the  matters like the EU Arrest warrant
  • an overall partnership structure to govern the future EU/UK relationship.

If there is a “No Deal”, the relationship between the UK and its neighbours could deteriorate quite dramatically. There will be bitterness on both sides. This will not be confined to economics, but will affect every aspect of life.

POST COVID 19 ECONOMIC RECOVERY PROGRAMME FOR EUROPE

The post Covid 19 economic recovery proposals put forward by the European Commission are really ambitious.

For the first time, the EU itself will be borrowing substantial sums on its own account and passing the money on to member states.

Detailed allocations of funds for each country have been suggested. These allocations are based on an analysis of which countries, regions, and economic sectors that have been hardest hit by Covid 19.

It is interesting to note that there are wide differences in the economic impact of Covid 19 within countries. For example two regions of Italy are much worse hit than the rest of the country.

The analysis of need, on the basis of which the Commission proposed allocations have been prepared, takes no account of the impact of Brexit. Even if there is an EU/UK Deal, Brexit will do a lot of additional economic damage from 1 January 2021 onwards. The allocations will have to be revisited at that stage.

If fully implemented, it is estimated that the Commission proposals could, by 2024, add 2% to the overall GDP of the EU.

Member states will design their own programmes for spending the money.

There will be equity supports for viable companies.

It is important that the money be spent in ways that will enhance the sustainability and efficiency of the EU economy.

Since the financial crisis of 2008, the Commission has developed expertise in identifying what works and what does not work.

The judgement as to what is a “viable” business, that should get help, will not be an easy one. Objective criteria should be used. Some will be disappointed. There will be controversy and accusations of favouritism.

Eventually, borrowed funds will have to be repaid, or rolled over into new borrowing.

Interest rates will not always be as low as they are today, especially if the global economy recovers and there is an increased demand for funds in other parts of the world. So rolling over debts may not be wise.

Keynesian economics is not easy to implement in democracies.

Keynesianism encourages governments to run deficits and borrow, when times are hard. But that requires them to run budget surpluses and to pay down debt, when times are good.

 Politically, the first part is easy, but the second part is really difficult.

In good times, the expectations of the electorate of what governments should provide are very high and rise incessantly. There is no  electoral appetite for using the good times to pay off debts. We need to keep that in mind.

“Freedom is a Land I Cannot See”

Peter Cunningham’s latest novel “Freedom is a Land I Cannot See” is due for release by Sandstone Press on 24th June. It is one of his best. He shows great skill and sympathy in evoking living conditions of a century ago.

 The novel is set in the Baldoyle/ Sutton area of Dublin, 1924 when the new Irish Free State was coping with their aftermath of the successive internecine in wars of the 1919 to 1923 period.  To explain why the characters were as they were in 1924, the novel then switches back to 1920. This is at the height of the fighting between the IRA and the Army, Police and Black and Tans. The killings that happened then left a mark on the surviving characters that remained in 1924.

 The central character, and narrator in the book, Rose Raven, is the daughter of a Presbyterian, English born, ex soldier, who is married to an Irish Catholic woman and living in a cottage in Sutton. 

Rose’s mother believes Ireland would be safer staying in the Empire. Her father tries to keep his head down, but Rose’s friends are all nationalists of various hues, who want out of the Empire and are prepared to act in varying degrees to achieve that.

 In 1920, the risks run by  mixed allegiance families like the Ravens in 1920 are substantial. People were suspected of being “informers” on the strength of their religious beliefs and/or past service alone. Many left the country out of fear.

By 1924, the Free State had finally been established and was trying to stay afloat financially. It was highly sensitive to its credit rating, and worried about the dissemination of bad news that might damage confidence in the State’s creditworthiness.

 The plot of the novel revolves around the involvement of some of Rose Raven’s friends in endeavouring to pass some such damaging information, about conditions in the West of Ireland, to a US newspaper.

Peter Cunningham makes the reader feel he or she is living in North Dublin, alongside the book’s characters, as they navigate the successive crises of the 1920’s.

 Peter spent much of his own early childhood in Sutton and has a great eye for local detail. That said, the characters  he describes remain something of a mystery. This a good book and I recommend it.

IS IT TIME TO REASSESS THE ARMS TRIAL, AND THE ROLE OF JACK LYNCH?

“The Arms Crisis of 1970….the plot that never was”, by Michael Heney, published recently Head Zeus, challenges the received historical interpretation of the attempt IN 1970 to import arms to Ireland for possible use in Northern Ireland . 

Rather than seeing it as a plot undertaken by a faction within the then government, without proper authority, Heney argues convincingly that this was in fact an informally authorised operation. 

He believes that the then Taoiseach, Jack Lynch, knew what was going on, at least to the extent that he wanted to know.

 Heney is able to make this case by relying on state papers which were sealed from view until 2000, under the 30 year rule. 

He shows that Jack Lynch had been told by the then Secretary of the Department of Justice, Peter Berry, as early as October 1969, of offers of arms, or of money to buy them, being made by a serving Irish Army officer to nationalists from Belfast some days earlier at a meeting in Bailieboro.

He reveals that the Chief of Staff of the Irish Army minuted that, on 6 February 1970, he  had received a direction from the Cabinet to

 “prepare the Army for incursions into Northern Ireland”

 and to have arms

” in readiness to be available in a matter of hours”

 to be given to Northern nationalists for their protection.

The legal position was, however, that under the Firearms Act of 1925, arms could not be imported to Ireland without a licence from the Minister for Defence of the time, Jim Gibbons. No such licence was ever issued.

 That was the basis for the prosecutions in the Arms Trial of Charles Haughey, Neil Blaney, Captain Jim Kelly, John Kelly and Albert Luykx. 

Strangely, the decision to prosecute these men was taken by the Attorney General, Colm Condon SC, before all the relevant witness statements had been gathered, notably the witness statement of the Chief of Army Intelligence, Colonel Heffron.  Heffron’s testimony was to blow a big hole in the prosecution case. 

There is much forensic detail in this book to which this summary cannot do justice.

 The conclusion I draw is that, from mid 1969, the Lynch government was pursuing a twin track strategy,

+  a diplomatic one, that was openly acknowledged, seeking reforms in Northern Ireland. Jack Lynch’s Tralee speech (eschewing coercive means to achieve a united Ireland) was part of this and

+  a parallel , covert and deniable, strategy to give military aid to the nationalist minority for “self defence”,  in the event of a further intensification of Loyalist attacks on them. The attempted arms importation was part of this second track.

The Secretary of the Department of Justice, Peter Berry, saw the danger in the second track approach, hence his warning to Jack Lynch in October 1969.

 The notion that weapons, once supplied, would or could only be used for “self defence” was ludicrous. The Irish State would have had no control over how they might be used, once outside the jurisdiction.

 Such an involvement by the Irish state in military actions across the border would have exposed to attack isolated nationalist communities far from the border. The situation would have become far worse even than it became.

 The effect on relations with the UK would also have been potentially disastrous. Imagine how one might react if the British Army was supplying arms to a political group in this jurisdiction!

 Jack Lynch did not seem fully to see these risks, until Liam Cosgrave went to see him on 6 May 1970 with information he had received from an anonymous Garda source naming the Ministers supposedly involved in the plot to import arms (including the Minister for Defence, Jim Gibbons).

 Michael Heney argues that this second track approach (of the Irish state preparing to arm Northern nationalists) might, by reassuring them that they were not alone, have forestalled the re emergence of the Provisional IRA.  I do not believe this at all. It is dangerous historical nonsense.

 The Republican ideology, dating back to the Fenians, is based on the false idea that Unionists can be coerced into united Ireland, and that nationalist have a moral right to use force to that end, and that only pragmatic considerations should inhibit them from doing so. 

This is  still a widely held view among “Republicans”, so the Provisional IRA Republicans would have gone down the cul de sac of violence, no matter what the Irish state did, or did not, do in 1970.

Michael Heney does show, however, that the prosecutions in the Arms Trial of 1970 were unjustified. This is principally because the accused believed sincerely that they were acting with formal or informal government authority. 

How then ought the matter have been resolved, if not by the Arms Trial?

 Jack Lynch should have put a stop to the whole arms importation exercise much earlier, when first warned of it by Peter Berry in October 1969. He should have done so long before May 1970, when he did eventually act by sacking some of the Ministers involved.

 After all, Jack Lynch had already won an overall majority in the Dail in June 1969, and had the political authority to assert himself. By October 1969, reforms in Northern Ireland were under way. The B Specials were being disbanded and effective security powers were being withdrawn from Stormont.

 He should have concentrated all his efforts on the diplomatic track, in the United Nations, the United States and among the Irish in Britain, in pushing for much more rapid reform in Northern Ireland. Instead he allowed the covert strategy to continue in parallel…….a big mistake.

The use of weapons, by whomsoever supplied, and for whatever ostensible purpose, was always a waste of time and of lives.

“SAY NOTHING”

….THE DECEITS THAT FLOW FROM THE USE OF VIOLENCE FOR UNACHIEVABLE ENDS

“Say Nothing” by Patrick Radden Keefe was recommended to me by two friends whose judgement I respect.

Radden Keefe is a writer with the “New Yorker” magazine.  His book is published by William Collins. A native of Boston, Keefenow lives in New York. He has an arresting writing style.   It is hard to put his book down.

 It starts with the 1972 murder of Belfast widow, and impoverished mother of ten small children, Jean McConville. It ends by naming the female IRA member the author believes shot Mrs McConville.

 Jean McConville was suspected, on flimsy grounds, of having given information the British Army. She was a Protestant, married to Catholic and living in Divis tower, in the heart of Republican Belfast. 

Her religious background would have drawn suspicion upon her.

 The author names the senior Republican, who claims never to have been in the IRA, who ordered her murder, and the “disappearing” of her remains across the border.

“Say Nothing” expands from this sad story to delve into IRA violence in Belfast and the response of the security forces to it. 

Things need not have turned out as they did.

 In 1968, the IRA had actually sold off some of its remaining weapons to the Free Wales Army. 

Then came the Loyalist attacks in 1969, and the start of an intense cycle of violence that lasted over 30 years, and which was only ended by a series of convoluted ambiguities that satisfied no one.

It all had its origin in the Proclamation of the Irish Republic on Easter Sunday 1916. 

The terms of this Proclamation made compromise by its sincere adherents impossible.

 The Proclamation claimed a “fundamental right” to a 32 county Republic. No one had a right to compromise that right.

 As the author of the Proclamation, Patrick Pearse, wrote, justifying the rebellion;

“We go in the calm certitude of having done the clear, clean, sheer thing”.

He said on another occasion;

“We have the strength and peace of mind of those who never compromise”.

It is remarkable that the 1916 Proclamation is officially celebrated in Ireland , given that the Irish State is BASED on a compromise, and  that the Good Friday Agreement IS a compromise.

 The  ritual annual incantation of the words of the Proclamation every Easter, gives a false  and deeply misleading message to Ireland’s school children, and to future generations.

The absolutist and uncompromising nature of the 1916 Proclamation went against human nature.

 It helped make compromise by the Four Courts garrison impossible in 1922, and it made decommissioning of weapons, in more recent times,  much more difficult to acknowledge or admit by those who based their republicanism of the Proclamation. 

 There was nothing that was “clean, clear or sheer” about the civil wars in Ireland from 1919 to 1923.

Nor was there much   that was “clear, clean or sheer” about the so called Armed Struggle of the IRA in Belfast, as Radden Keefe’s book shows.

 And there was nothing clear or sheer about the British security forces response to it, either. They were mirror images of one another.

Radden Keefe’s claims the IRA hunger strikes of the 1980’s were deliberately prolonged by the IRA leadership, because they were yielding electoral dividends for Sinn Fein.  An offer acceptable to the prisoners had been made by the authorities, but the outside IRA leadership vetoed acceptance of the offer, and six more prisoners died, all for electoral considerations the author claims.

He also explores why many ex IRA people had difficulty with the peace process.

 He says that Dolours Price, who was involved in many IRA actions including the abduction of Jean McConville, felt a sharp sense of moral injury from the peace process and the compromises it required.

 He says she believed that it had

“ robbed her of any ethical justification for her own conduct”.

This is the sort of sadness that inevitably flow from the use of force to obtain goals on which there can be no compromise.

NOT QUITE SUCH A DECADENT AGE, 1880-1914

“The Age of Decadence, Britain 1880 t0 1914” by Simon Heffer is an ideal book to have tackled during the Covid 19 lockdown.

It consists of almost 900 closely typed pages, and covers every aspect of this eventful period, from the rise of organised labour to naval rearmament, from the campaign for votes for women to that for Home Rule for Ireland.

An overriding political constraint on elected governments in this period was the veto the unelected and unrepresentative House of Lords had on all legislation. A Crisis over this had been avoided for many years by the Lords exercising restraint in its use of the veto. Once the Liberal Party came to power in 1905, a clash between the Commons and the Lords was inevitable.

The crisis came in the 1910 to 1914 period, as a result of a combination of two phenomena.

 The first was the fact that the Irish Party, demanding Home Rule, held the balance of power in the House of Commons from 1910 on.

The second was the contents of Lloyd Georges’s budgets of 1909 and 1910, which proposed very progressive taxation (to pay for naval rearmament). 

A  majority of Lords took violent objection to both Home Rule and the tax policies.

 The Lords saw their property in Ireland under attack from Home Rule, and their investments in England under attack from the budget.

 They wanted to stop both.

 Eventually the King had to threaten to appoint hundreds of new Lords, drawn from the Liberal Party, to overwhelm the Conservative majority in the Lords. This forced  the Lords to climb down and pass the legislation.  Home Rule became law on 12 September 1914.

But this is a social history as much as it is a political history.

 Simon Heffer draws on the novels of authors like John Galsworthy, Virginia Woolf and HG Wells to show how different classes of society inter acted with one another.

 I am not sure he justifies the claim in the title of the book that this was an age of decadence.

 Certain members of the aristocracy did indeed live idle and extravagant lives, but there were major advances taking place in medicine, housing standards, social welfare. Old Age Pensions and the Social insurance were introduced.

 It could be argued that more radical social reform was made by the Liberal government before the First World War, than by the Labour government after Second World War.

 People could imagine the future. The writings of HG Wells in this period foresaw many of the technological developments of the following hundred years. Eugenics were advocated by George Bernard Shaw and opposed by GK Chesterton.

Heffer’s book is full of pen pictures of the interesting characters who populated this period of rapid change.

 He tells their story well and holds the reader’s interest.

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