John Bruton

Opinions & Ideas


Speech by John Bruton, former Taoiseach, at 9.35am on Saturday 22 February 2020 in City Hall Waterford at the opening of a seminar on the life of General Richard Mulcahy;

Mr Mayor, John Pratt, members of General Mulcahy’s family, ladies and gentlemen, it a tremendous honour to be invited to give this opening address.

Richard Mulcahy was born in Waterford in 1886 in Manor Street in the city.  He was educated here, and later in Thurles, by the Christian Brothers. 

Today’s programme will give us a full overview of the life of this patriotic Irishman. It deals with his role as a revolutionary, his role in the Civil War, and, more importantly perhaps , with his role as a constitutional parliamentarian,  Minister and Party Leader.

General Mulcahy spent ten years of his life occupied with military matters. He spent 36 subsequent years, engaged in peaceful, democratic, constitutional politics.

 The first 10 years have attracted quite an amount of biographical attention, but the subsequent 36 years less so. That continuing imbalance is being partially redressed today by the contribution of David McCullagh.

I encountered General Mulcahy twice…… once when, in 1966 when I was 19, he addressed  us in the Students branch of Fine Gael on the 50th anniversary of 1916 in the Shelbourne Hotel, and later when he addressed a Fine Gael Ard Fheis dance  in Cleary’s ballroom in the same year.

The speech to students went very well and was scholarly, reflective and informative. Sean McEoin and Miceal Hayes also spoke.

Unfortunately the General spoke at equal length on both occasions.

 As the attendees at the dance had other priorities, a shorter address on the latter occasion might have suited us better!

We will learn more about Dick Mulcahy, the human being, later today and I particularly looking forward to Jim Ryan’s talk about his wife and about his talented and interesting extended family.

In preparing these few words, I have tried to come to an understanding of Dick Mulcahy by reading some of his contributions to Dail debates, especially those he made towards the end of his parliamentary career, when he might be expected to have concentrated on the things he regarded as most important.

The first thing to say is that he seems to have been someone who sat in the Dail Chamber and listened to others, even when he himself was not planning to speak.

 This is evidenced by his numerous one line interventions often on procedural matters. One of these interventions was to invite the newly elected young Fianna Fail Deputy, Charles J Haughey, who was persistently interrupting one of Mulcahy’s colleagues, to “shut up”. I do not think he succeeded.

The second thing that comes across from his Dail contributions is his deep and abiding interest in the Irish language. His very last speech was entirely in Irish of the Estimate for the Department of the Gaeltacht. He was active in promoting education through Irish outside the Gaeltacht. He was particularly interested in Coláiste Mhuire in Dublin, where one of his successors as leader of Fine Gael, Alan Dukes, was to be educated.

Thirdly, one gets a sense of his deep interest in education generally. When he was leader of the largest party forming the government in 1948, and might have expected to become Taoiseach, he did not seek that job as he knew that, if he insisted, the multi party government might not have come together at all.

 In the circumstances, he would probably have had his pick of all the other Ministries. Significantly he chose Education. In 1954, when he again led the largest party forming the government, he again stood back from seeking to be Taoiseach and again chose Education. 

In one of his later contributions on educational matters, he argued that the curriculum was “vastly overcrowded”. 

He wanted young people to acquire skill that would get them work. As he put it in 1959

We may sing , dance, play music but until we get people skills for the work of life we will not progress.

The other characteristic that he shared with many of his generation was a deep religious faith. This influenced his educational philosophy. He felt we should approach education from a standpoint which 

unreservedly accepts the supernatural conception of man’s natural destiny

 and added the

 existence of a nation is a manifestation of God’s providence. 

These are views that are not widely held today. But they flow logically and inexorably from Mulcahy’s core beliefs about the nature and goal of  human life. Those who criticise his approach to Education should be equally explicit about their beliefs about the nature and goal of human life.

His later Dail contributions show he had a sense of Ireland’s vulnerability to international events. He served on the Council of Defence during World War Two. In his speech on the External Affairs Estimate in 1960, he reflected on the possibility of nuclear war. He said

Science has provided itself today with weapons that would be safe only in the hands of God.

He added that

It is emotions, not materialism , and not economics, that will dictate the world we live in tomorrow

Both statements are as true today as they were when Dick Mulcahy made them in 1960.

A study of Mulcahy’s life impresses the reader with a sense of his strong loyalty to causes greater than his own personal ambitions. 

As I have mentioned already, this is notable in his standing back, although party leader, to allow John A Costello to become Taoiseach.

It is also notable in the way he coped with his removal from office as Minister for Defence in the wake of the Army Mutiny in 1924. He found himself in deep and personal conflict with some of his colleagues in the Cumann na nGaedhael government, but he stayed in politics, supported the government in the Dail, and subsequently returned to office.

 The Army Mutiny highlighted the issue of the presence in the Army at the time of  secret an unaccountable organisations with political agendas, the secret IRB and the “Old IRA” or IRAO. 

Mulcahy and his ministerial colleagues, despite their differences, helped demilitarize society and establish unambigously civilian rule of this state. In 1932, he vetoed any military attempt to interfere with the transfer of power to Fianna Fail.

Mulcahy believed that party leaders should work at politics full time.  After he became party leader in 1944, on the resignation of WT Cosgrave, he travelled to country, alone on his motor bike, endeavouring to revive the Fine Gael Party. Indeed, if he had not done so, the party might not have survived at all.

He had a long parliamentary career. He was first elected in Clontarf in 1918 defeating the Irish Party candidate, Patrick Shortall.

He subsequently represented Dublin North West, and Dublin North, losing his seat there in the 1937 election but regaining it in 1938.

 He again lost the seat in 1943, but moved to Tipperary for the 1944 Election where he was successful.

 He held the Tipperary seat until he retired in 1961, making way for Surgeon Paddy Hogan, a TD I remember with great affection.

Of course, Dick Mulcahy is also to be celebrated as a successful revolutionary. This will be developed in the papers today by Pat McCarthy, Pat Taaffe and Anne Dolan.

His role in the fighting at Ashbourne Co Meath in 1916 showed he had a great grasp of military fieldcraft, and communications in battle. This stood to him in the fighting between 1919 and 1923. 

Ashbourne was the most successful engagement of 1916 from a Volunteer perspective. But the human cost was real. Eight RIC members were killed…. DI Gray, Sgt Shanagher, and Constables John Young, James Hickey, John Gormley, Richard McHale and James Cleary…all later laid out in eight coffins before the High Altar in St Mary’s  Catholic Church in Navan.

 Two local civilians died in the crossfire, 26 year old John Hogan and 24 year old James Carroll.

The volunteer casualties were John Crennigan and Thomas Rafferty.

All should be remembered, if we want future generations to be sensitive to the true cost of warfare.



There are increasing grounds for concern that the UK is backing away from the legal and political commitments it made last October in its Withdrawal Agreement with the EU. The Withdrawal Agreement was made before the UK General Election, when Boris Johnson led a minority government. Now he has an overall majority, and the prospect of four more years in office. He has more weight to throw around, at least in the short term. Some of the governments on the EU side are not in such a strong position.

 There is a suspicion that he may now be backing away from legally and politically binding commitments he gave to the EU last October in order to appear to “get Brexit done” before his General Election.

For example, the newly appointed Northern Ireland Secretary has stated that there “will be no border down the Irish Sea”.  Boris Johnson has made similar comments.


This could be interpreted as meaning that the UK was acting in bad faith when it agreed last October to the Withdrawal Agreement and to its legally binding protocol on Ireland.

In the Protocol, the UK committed itself to what amount to border controls between Britain and Northern Ireland.

While the word “border” is not used in the Protocol, the UK accepted in Article 5, that  EU customs duties would be collected on goods coming into Northern Ireland from Britain which if those goods were “at risk of subsequently being moved” to the rest of Ireland and thus into the EU.

It was also envisaged that goods would also have to check for the purposes of collecting the appropriate amount of VAT, and to verifying their origin. EU officials were to have a right to be present when this checking was being done, so as to assure themselves that the UK officials were correctly interpreting the EU laws that would apply in Northern Ireland.

The protocol contains detailed provisions for determining how UK goods, that were at risk of entering the EU through Ireland, might be identified and controlled, and how the customs duties on them might be collected. This was not to be done at the land border in Ireland, so it had to be done before the goods entered Northern Ireland, effectively on either side of the Irish Sea.

It is difficult to see how the new Northern Secretary’s comment the there would be no border in the Irish Sea can be compatible with the legally binding protocol agreed to by the UK, unless one interprets that the word “border”  as only applying to a border on land.

The UK Government also seems to backing away from the commitments, on ensuring fair competition, it made in the Political Declaration which it agreed with the EU as the framework for the Withdrawal Agreement.

This Political Declaration, while not legally binding in the same way as the Withdrawal Treaty itself, is part of the Withdrawal process under Article 50 of the EU Treaties, and it is referred to in the Withdrawal Treaty.

For either the EU or the UK to back away from what they had agreed in the Political Declaration would amount to bad faith, and could poison future relations.

One can accept that, once the UK leaves the EU, the EU should accept the autonomy of the UK’s decision making processes, and vice versa.

 It a legal sense, there should be a relationship of equals between the EU and the UK.

But if there is to be trade between the EU and UK, it is only common sense that there  be  basic compatibility of standards. Indeed most modern trade agreements are more about standards than they are about mere tariffs and quotas.

The Political Declaration, agreed by the UK last October, makes repeated references to the need for  provisions for a level playing field and fair competition in any future agreement between the UK and the EU.

 Article 17 says the Partnership between the UK and the EU should ensure

a level playing field for open and fair competition

 between UK and EU firms.

 Article 77 commits the UK and the EU to

uphold the common high standards applicable to the EU and the UK at the end of the transition period in areas of state aid, competition, social and employment standards, environment, climate change and relevant tax matters.

The common standards applying at the end of the transition period at the end of this year are the existing EU standards. The UK agreed there would be no rolling back of these  EU standards.

 But Boris Johnson said, in a speech in Greenwich earlier this month, that

There is no need for a free trade agreement to involve accepting EU rules on competition policy, subsidies, social protection, the environment or anything else anymore than the EU is obliged to accept UK rules.

Prime Minister Johnson’s EU negotiator, David Frost went further this week when he said

to think that we might accept EU supervise of so called level playing field issues simply fails to understand the point of what we are doing

adding that the UK must be free to “set laws that suit us” and that

 this is the  point of the whole project.

On the face of it, these statements appear to be a flat contradiction of what Mr. Johnson and his government agreed to last October in the Political Declaration.

The level playing field provisions in the Political Declaration clearly envisage mutual supervision of the EU by the UK, and vice versa, to ensure that neither side does anything that interferes with open and fair competition or rolls back standards.

There may be some room for benign interpretation.

Prime Minister Johnson could say he is referring to rules to be made in future by either the EU or the UK, and not to the rules in force now.

 But the Political Declaration is only says that the “common high standards “, in force at the end of the transition period, should not be reduced. It does not prevent new rules being made by either side, so long as they do not reduce these standards. So it is difficult to know what Mr. Johnson and Mr. Frost are talking about.

 The agreed Declaration does not require the UK or the EU to use exactly the same words to maintain those standards, just that standards should not be reduced.

The statement by David Frost, rejecting any EU supervision of what the UK does, could undermine the Political Declaration in a fundamental way.

The UK, if it wants good relations with all its immediate neighbours, should dial back the rhetoric. Trust needs to be rebuilt.

The EU should also be careful not to over estimate its own negotiating leverage, and not to look for certainty on everything.


The Irish electorate are too complacent about Brexit.  So too are the parties that precipitated the present Election.

A bad Brexit would threaten Ireland’s ability to earn the money abroad, that it will need to pay for the improved services, that the electorate is  so insistently demanding. 

All these services have to be paid for, by taxes raised from Irish people.  Our debt levels are already so high to do it any other way.

Ireland simply cannot afford a bad Brexit.

The trade negotiation with the UK, that the EU will soon start, will be the most hazardous part of the entire Brexit process for Ireland. 

Every other EU country will have interests to defend. Some of these will differ from Irish interests. Trade offs will have to be made around the EU Council table. If it makes negotiating errors, Ireland could find itself alone. An outcome that MUST be avoided

That will require immense diplomatic skill, and the use of an extensive network of contacts and understandings, at political, even more than at diplomatic level.

It will not be a job for ministerial novices, learning on the job, however bright they may appear.

Remember the negotiations will take place within an irresponsibly rigid, and short, time limit.

 There will be no time at all for learning through mistakes. That might be possible in a normal negotiation, but this will not be a normal negotiation, because of the time limit of October 2020.

This is why I believe it is in the national interest that Helen McEntee, and the existing government as a whole, continue in office. They need no apprenticeship period

We  really do need experienced people in office , if we are to navigate the challenges of 2020, which could prove to be the  most consequential year for a century.

 The existing government have learned the hard way.

 They have mastered their briefs.

 They know how the Irish civil service and the European Commission work.

Over time, they have learned how best to implement policy, not just how to make it.

It would not be in Ireland’s interest to entrust the Brexit negotiations of 2020 to well intentioned, but inexperienced, amateurs. 

The time lines are simply too short for us to afford that luxury.

This argument applies with greater force to Helen McEntee than to any other Minister. 

Helen McEntee has mastered every aspect of the forthcoming trade negotiation with the UK. 

She will know, better than anyone, who to call when a threat emerges during the negotiations. 

She knows the key people in every one of the 27 EU states. She has visited them all. She has built up a reservoir of trust. I saw this when I saw her meeting delegates at the recent EPP Congress in Zagreb.

She will be able to use her contacts, as a vice President of the EPP, the EU’s biggest party, to rally support for Ireland’s position, something that Irish diplomats are not able to do.

For these reasons, I hope the people of Meath East will re elect Helen McEntee. 

We need her now more than ever.

That would serve the national interest.

Speech by John Bruton, former Taoiseach, former Leader of Fine Gael, and a former TD for Meath, at a rally in support of the re election of Helen McEntee TD, in the Headfort Arms in Kells Co Meath on Thursday 30th January at 8.30pm;


Seamus said the necessary thing, rather than the convenient thing

I wish to add mine to the many, deeply deserved, tributes to the life of service to peaceful constitutional politics of Seamus Mallon.

A man with a deep and well understood sense of his own Irish nationalist identity, he made more effort than any other nationalist, living or dead, to understand the unionist identity of his neighbours, and to address their worries.

 He never stayed within his political comfort zone.

 He said the necessary thing, rather than the convenient thing.

 As his autobiography, “A Shared Home Place” shows, every day of his public life, he made the effort to reach out across the sectarian divide.

 For example, as a public representative, he attended the funeral of every unionist victim of (so called “republican”) violence in Armagh. 

He did so because he believed this was his duty as a representative of all the people in his electorate, notwithstanding the personal toll this must have imposed on him.

Seamus Mallon was a truly great man. 

Hopefully though, he will NOT prove to be unique.

 Ireland, and Northern Ireland, never  in recent history, has greater need of more Seamus Mallons.   


The UK government will shortly begin the negotiation of a free trade agreement with the European Union. The deal Leo Varadkar made with Boris Johnson, on the location of border controls, will be vital in keeping the UK close to the EU.

 Before the negotiations start, the EU will have worked out a detailed negotiating mandate, drawing on its experience of previous international trade agreement into which it has entered, of which there are many. 

Once finalised, the EU mandate will become public, making any departure from its terms difficult. 

This is especially important if, as is likely, the final agreement has to be approved by the national parliaments of each of the 27 member states. If the eventual agreement goes beyond a bare bones trade agreement covering goods, and includes services as well, ratification by all national parliament will be likely to be required.  

On the UK side, it is assumed that similar work is now under way. But the task for the UK is bigger than that of the EU.

 The UK also needs to negotiate replacement agreements with all the other countries, with which it now has agreements as an EU member, but which will lapse once the UK leaves the EU.

 In addition, the UK will also be hoping to negotiate an agreement with the US. 

The demands of the other countries, with which the UK will be negotiating trade agreements later, will not necessarily be compatible with what the EU will want in its agreement with the UK.  Chlorinated chicken from the US is a case in point. 

The UK will probably have to conclude it deal with the EU first, because of the very tight timelines that the UK has chosen to impose on itself in the Withdrawal Agreement. The UK may find itself having to make concessions to the EU at the expense of other potential future trade partners. Alternatively, the UK may gamble on getting a better deal from the US or someone else, and thus sacrifice markets in the EU, in favour of a yet to be agreed deal with the US, or someone else. In this, agriculture will be a key battleground, with vital Irish interests at stake.

 It will be high stakes poker played against a tight deadline. Until the negotiations are under way, it will not be clear exactly where all the difficult choices, may be.

The Agreement that the EU has with Canada is a model that may be followed. This Agreement provides for free trade in most goods, but not services. It has detailed chapters, accompanied by principles and dispute settlement mechanisms, on issues as diverse as technical barriers to trade, dumping, subsidies, public contracts, state enterprises, competition policy, intellectual property, environmental standards, telecoms, water quality, fisheries and agriculture.

As an EU member, the UK has settled understandings on all these matters with its 27 EU partners. Tt the end of this month, that will change.

Outside the EU, the UK will have the freedom, unilaterally, to depart from its present EU based standards, and make its own rules. Boris Johnson has said this is the “whole point” of Brexit.   

 The EU has no way of knowing what changes this, or a future, UK government might make in social, environmental, or product rules. Political assurances from the present UK government will be of little value. The EU side will demand legally binding assurances that will tie the UK down, no matter who is in power in Westminster. All sorts of hypothetical situations will have to be anticipated. Appropriate penalties will have to be agreed in principle.

Both sides will need to make new rules from time to time, as new challenges emerge.

 As an EU member, the UK has had a democratic say in new EU rules. Outside the EU, the UK will have  to rely on diplomacy, rather than democracy, to protect its interests. 

 If the EU/ Canada Agreement is a guide, a multiplicity permanent committees of EU and UK officials will have to be set up, on a permanent basis, the iron out disputes if standards diverge.  Arbitrators and judges will be needed. 

“Taking back control”   will not turn out to be as clean, or as simple, as Brexiteers expected.

 A huge challenge will be that of ensuring there is a “level playing field” between UK and EU firms, doing business in one another’s markets. If either side changes its labour, social or environmental standards in future,  in a way that reduces costs for its firms , there are liable to be complaints that the playing field is no longer level. The playing field will not be level if the value of sterling is kept artificially low, or if the UK allows the importation of cheap inputs, that the EU had banned.

 Level Playing field issues, like these, arise in every trade negotiation, especially between close neighbours. For instance, the US has recently insisted on changes the Mexican labour rules to protect US car makers from Mexican competition. It has complained about Chinese currency policy.

 Permanent adjudication mechanisms will be needed established to decide if the playing field has, in fact, been skewed unfairly. Issues that are now ironed out informally in the EU Council of Ministers, or inside the Commission, may, in future, become the subject of high profile disputes. This will mean more uncertainty for business and may inhibit investment. Many of these disputes may involve Ireland.

The best hope of reducing disputes is if UK policy stays close to EU policy. The more UK rules diverge from EU rules, the more severe will have to be the controls that the UK will have to impose , within the UK itself but across the Irish Sea, on goods entering Northern Ireland, which might   eventually enter the EU Single Market through Ireland. The UK will want to avoid this. The UK government will have a strong political incentive to minimize the scale of these barriers within the UK .  

So thanks to Leo Varadkar’s deal with Boris Johnson in the Wirral, the UK will have a strong incentive to adopt standards close to, the same as, those of  the EU. That will be the ONLY way to avoid trade barriers within the UK. If so, Leo Varadkar will have earned an important place in European history.



The scandal of Northern Ireland’s Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) is one of bureaucratic failure, sloppy political oversight, and culpable procrastination, all leading to a colossal waste of public money. It is exposed in a book entitled “Burned” by Sam McBride, a well known Belfast based journalist.

 This book will be avidly read in the UK Treasury, from which a large overall net subsidy comes to maintain Northern Ireland’s excellent public services.

 The author draws heavily on evidence given to the Public Inquiry into RHI, which will publish its findings in the New Year.  

His book shows that simply restoring the Northern Ireland Assembly will not guarantee good governance. There must be a complete change in mindset among the civil service as well as among the politicians. Structural irresponsibility must be tackled head on.

 Sam McBride shows that, even when the power sharing Administration was working, there was no collective responsibility or proper communication among Ministers. Each government party ( DUP and Sinn Fein) treated the Ministries it held as independent fiefdoms. Checks and balances did not work. The opposition parties ( SDLP, Ulster Unionist, Alliance and others) did not call the government to account, until it was too late.

The RHI started with a good idea, that of incentivising businesses in Northern Ireland (NI) to use renewable fuels (like wood), rather than ones that would eventually run out (like oil, coal, and gas) to heat their premises.  It followed the model of a scheme already launched in Britain. That scheme was deliberately generous in the initial period, in order to promote a step change in business mentality about heating.

But the Northern Ireland version of RHI went further and contained some fatal flaws.

 The rate of subsidy was so generous that it exceeded the cost of the fuel! 

So the more heating used, the more profit was made.

 And the overall budget for the scheme was not capped. These were elementary errors. When firms discovered big upfront profits could be made from abusing the scheme, there was a huge rush of applications, and no limit on the UK taxpayer’s liability. 

The fact that such a flawed scheme could ever have been put forward by civil servants for approval by their Minister (Arlene Foster at the time) is a damning indictment of the culture of public administration in Northern Ireland. This book shows that that culture is characterised by an unwillingness to ask hard questions, evasion of responsibility, and poor record keeping. Restoring the Assembly alone will not solve that.

The motivation for the poor design of RHI in NI is even more troubling. The working assumption was that the full cost would be met by funds coming from London, and not from Northern Ireland’s own budget. So nobody bothered to look out for loopholes that could be abused. As money coming in from outside, so controls were not important.

 If the money had had to be raised from NI taxpayers themselves, much more care would have been taken, both by civil servants and by Ministers.

 In this sense, the careless attitude to money calls the current model of devolution into question. Devolving spending power, without equivalent tax raising responsibility, inevitably leads to poor decision making.

 This was also shown when the decisions on welfare reform had to be handed back by Belfast to Westminster, because the NI parties in the Executive could not agree or take responsibility.

Arlene Foster of the DUP was the responsible Minister when the flawed scheme was launched. When the scandal was uncovered, her party sought to delay the closing down of the scheme, because so many NI businesses were by then exploiting it.  When they found out, Sinn Fein Ministers were also slow in taking action. 

This book contains a mass of information. Its conclusions are deeply troubling, but it is not light  reading.

 It contains salutary lessons for all who would like to see responsible government restored in Stormont.


“The Retreat of Western Liberalism” by Edward Luce of the Financial Times is well worth reading.

It analyses the causes of the loss of trust in the modern world.

 Elites are under fire. Experts are not trusted. Business is not trusted. The media are not trusted.  The young do not trust the old, and vice versa.

 Increasingly, our societies seem to be torn, between the will of the people and the rule of the experts.

 The world has 25 fewer democracies that it had in 2000. Voters have become consumers of politics rather than active citizens. Political parties have become hollow shells.

International tension is rising, notably and dangerously, between the United States and China. Popular feelings are driving diplomacy.

 Luce claims that the secret of any nation’s diplomatic character is embedded in its popular imagination, as illustrated by British popular attitudes to the EU, and Chinese attitudes to Taiwan. 

Popular opinion in China and the US holds very different notions of fairness in international relations and trade. National pride can induce people to make foolish decisions.

 In the US and the UK, income inequality has risen dramatically, although this trend is less marked in other free market economies.

 There is no one to speak for those left behind because, according to Luce, the

 “Western Left has abandoned the politics of solidarity to embrace that of personal liberation”. 

 Individual rights trump solidarity with neighbours.

The author identifies what he call “welfare chauvinism” in Western Europe as being behind hostility to immigration.

 Europe has only 7% of the world’s population, but over 40% of the world welfare spending, and its voters are reluctant to share the welfare benefits with newcomers. 

 He says the 

“link between benefits and citizenship should be restored”.


The strongest glue in society is economic growth. Choices can be made without anyone losing, when the economy is growing. For example it is very hard to introduce pension reforms when the economy is stagnant as President Macron is discovering..

Since the crisis of 2008, the notion that it is natural and inevitable for the economy to grow, once set free, is under deep challenge. Even negative interest rates are not enough to get firms to invest as much as they used to. Productivity per worker is suffering.

 Luce writes of the “toil index”, the number of hours an American worker must work to pay the rent, and says it has risen from 45 hours per month in 1950, to 101 hours today. I suspect the toil index has risen in most countries, as more and more people move to cities.

 Growth, purchased at the cost of a loss of security and community, is unacceptable to many, especially to those who lose their jobs.

 Luce feels that the elites in Western countries do not empathise with these popular anxieties, and this is creating a divide in society. He is right.

Growth purchased at the cost of climate damage has become unacceptable to many others.

 Indeed it is hard to see how there can be ANY overall growth in global income per head, if the rapidly growing populations of Africa and Asia are to be accommodated at an acceptable living standard, in a carbon neutral world. 

Windmills and solar power will not be enough. The intense rhetoric about climate change is not matched by realistic plans, that people might actually vote for.

That has huge implications for domestic politics in western countries.  Once the rate at which the cake is growing gets slower, the more bitter become the disagreements about how to divide it up. 

Luce says the technological advances that sustained rapid economic growth from 1870 to 1970 have run their course. They were an abnormality. The world economy hardly grew at all in the 1500 years prior to 1800.

The lack of economic growth lies behind the bitter partisanship in politics in some countries (notably the US and the UK). Luce’s critique has its greatest relevance to the United States, where he works, and to the UK, from which he originates. It is slightly less relevant to continental European countries where there is greater social security. But the underlying forces he describes work there too.

 He prescribes no readymade solutions. That is for the politicians!


In his recent confirmation hearing in the European Parliament, the new EU foreign policy chief and Spanish socialist politician, Josep Borrell spoke of the security threats to the EU.

He said that the rules based international order was being threatened by a logic of power politics. He added that recent unilateral moves by the US that “go against decades of cooperation” with Europe.

He said that, collectively, EU states spend more on defence than China does, but do not get value for money from it because of fragmentation and duplication. 

There is no sign that the international tensions to which he was referring will ease in the near future. China has become more assertive, the Iran nuclear deal has been undermined and the United States is putting in doubt the security umbrella under which Europe has prospered for the past seventy years.

So inevitably, out of financial and political necessity, the next five years will be marked by increased activity and debate in the European Union about defence and security. This is unavoidable. 

Defence is already provided for in the EU Treaties, which say that common security and defence policy shall be an integral part of the common foreign policy of the EU. 

The Treaty says that EU members shall have an obligation of “aid and assistance by all means in their power” to any other member state which is attacked.

 But there is an exception to this obligation for Ireland, because the Treaty adds that this commitment is not to prejudice “the specific character of the defence policy of certain member states” ie. military neutrality in the case of Ireland.

But what is the “specific character” of Irish defence policy?

Irish defence policy was defined, in a recent publication by Patrick Keatinge for the IIEA, as 

“non membership of a military alliance and non participation in mutual defence.”

In a sense, it is defined by what it is NOT, rather than by what it is.

 That seems to be something with which Irish public opinion is content.

 But it may not be enough, if the world becomes more unstable because of great power rivalry, or following the breakdown of the rules based international order. This needs to be thought through.

 Ireland’s  present policy is to await a resolution of the UN Security Council (UNSC) to validate any overseas mission involving Irish forces. This gives disproportionate influence to the “veto powers” on the UNSC. Beijing or Moscow could veto any Irish overseas military mission if they decline to support the relevant UNSC resolution. This impinges on Irish sovereignty.

Ireland’s unwillingness to take part in any alliance, or mutual defence commitment, means that the Irish state takes on full responsibility for, and must bear alone the full cost of, all aspects of the defence of our territory and of the seas around it. 

In the past, the fact that Ireland is an island meant that we were difficult to attack. This was important in the Second World War.

 But our island status would no defence against cyber attacks, and actually makes Ireland MORE vulnerable to the disruption of electricity, gas and telecommunications services from overseas, services without which modern Irish life would become unliveable.

Good relations with the UK are of vital importance. It is the only country with whom we have a land boundary.

 Were relations to deteriorate either between Ireland and the UK, or between the EU and the UK in the military sphere, Ireland would be vulnerable. This is unlikely, but not impossible. The Brexit process could become highly fractious and leave lasting wounds.

Military neutrality has been invested, in the minds of many Irish people, with an emotional content. 

Rather than being seen as a tactical and practical matter, and thus subject to adjustment in certain contingencies, it has been made part of our national identity, and put outside the realm of pragmatic discussion.

 As long North Western Europe remains politically stable, this approach is not an issue of much practical consequence. We can afford it. And it is convenient.

 But, if as a result of the forces unleashed by Brexit, the security situation in this part of the world were to change, and that could happen quickly, Irish defence policy would have to be re examined. 

Future warfare will focus on the disruption of supply chains, rather than directly on human casualties.

 Over the past 70 years, Ireland has built its economy on the basis in intimate involvement in global supply chains, supply chains of goods, of power, and of data. This is what “Global Ireland” means.

 If we decline any mutual commitment with other nations, we take on the full responsibility to protect these supply chains, in and out of Ireland, ourselves. 

But we can use our membership of the EU to exercise that responsibility in an effective way.

We can and must learn from the work of others and, on a case by case basis, take part in  joint initiatives in areas like 

  •  cybersecurity,
  •  secure software design,
  •  threat intelligence,
  •  maritime surveillance, 

the protection of telecoms, electricity and gas pipelines and

drone surveillance.

Ireland must take a positive and proactive approach. We have considerable expertise in this country in the technologies that would be relevant to these defensive tasks. But we cannot do all the necessary R and D on our own. So we must work with our EU partners to protect ourselves against all contingencies (even the apparently unlikely ones!). 


A book I greatly enjoyed this year was Fergal Keane’s “Wounds, A Memoir of War and Love”(William Collins).

It is a story of the Troubles of 100 years ago in North Kerry, and is built around the killing of RIC inspector, Tobias O Sullivan, on Church Street in Listowel of 30th January 1921.

 O Sulllivan was from Connemara and his wife was from near Westport and she had worked in Gibbons’ grocery in the town before she married Tobias in 1915. 

His family were farmers on the shores of Lough Corrib and family had it that an ancestor had fought on the Jacobite side at the Battle of Aughrim.

 Tobias joined the RIC in 1899, shortly after the GAA had banned RIC from GAA membership in 1897.

 He was talented and came second in Ireland in the sergeant’s exam. He was an effective and brave policeman.

He was a Catholic, as were the men who killed him, when, unarmed, he walked home for his lunch. 

The killing of members of the RIC was one of the methods used by the IRA to undermine the authority of UK institutions in Ireland.

 It is only now that the story of RIC victims of this war is being heard, thanks to books like this one.

 Tobias O Sullivan’s wife died of tuberculosis shortly after Tobias was killed. Some of his orphaned children stayed in Ireland, and one of his grandsons was in the FCA guard of honour outside the GPO on Easter Sunday in 1966. 

Fergal Keane’s family are from Listowel, and some of them were involved in the IRA in the locality, and their side of the story is told with sympathy too.

 One of those involved in the killing of O Sullivan said he prayed for him every day he lived, but felt he had done what had to be done.

This well written book shows that the War of Independence of 1919-1921 was almost as much an Irish Civil War, as was the subsequent fighting between pro and anti Treaty forces in the 1922-23 period.  


“Let’s get Brexit done” is Boris Johnson’s election slogan. His implication is that, once he gets a working parliamentary majority to ratify his revised Withdrawal Treaty, Brexit will be quickly done and dusted. 

This is over optimistic, to put it mildly.

There are three realistic outcomes to the Election, 

  • a Tory majority ( the most likely scenario at this stage),  
  • a Labour led government with the support of other parties, or   
  • a  hung Parliament in which no one can command a majority and form a government.

Even if Boris Johnson wins a majority, to get Brexit done he will still have to conclude a very complex trade negotiation with the EU, within an almost impossibly tight self imposed time line, by December 2020 (the end of the post Withdrawal Transition period).

He has tied himself be a commitment to Nigel Farage that there will be no extension of the December 2020 deadline. This is how he got the Brexit Party withdrew its candidates in all Tory held constituencies.

Reneging on that promise, because the negotiation need more time, would be costly for Boris Johnson, especially as it would  also extend the period in which the UK would have to continue contributing to EU funds.

If he were to change his mind and look for an extension of the post Withdrawal transition period beyond 2020, he will have to give notice of this by July of next year. The Withdrawal Treaty (Article 132) only allows for one extension of either one or two years. This is different from Article 50 extensions on which there is no legal limit.

If the deal is not done before the end of the (very short) transition period, then the UK crashes out of the EU with no deal at all. Remember this Trade deal will have to be ratified in the parliaments of all the EU member states, unlike the Withdrawal deal which only needed ratification by the European Parliament. So a crash out/no deal scenario is a major risk.

The implications of this for Ireland, and for the UK itself would be grave. 

This is only one scenario, the Tory majority scenario

The other  scenario concerns  what happens if Boris Johnson fails to get a majority.

Obviously if he fails , the next steps will  have to be decided by a replacement government. 

But who will head such a government, and what will be their Brexit policy? Neither question can be answered at this stage.

It is unlikely that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party can have a majority on its own.  But Labour might be able to form a majority with support from the Scottish National Party, in return for a pledge to hold a referendum on Scottish independence.

Another possibility is that Labour could make an arrangement with the Liberal Democrats, but they would want a Prime Minister other than Jeremy Corbyn.

That could happen. If a majority of MPs said, in writing, that they wanted as Prime Minister, an alternative named Labour Party MP, not the leader , the Queen would call on that MP to form a government.

Either of these Labour led alternative governments would hold another referendum on Brexit . It might also seek amendments to the existing Withdrawal Treaty before holding that referendum.

This process would take a year or more to complete, so a lengthy extension of Article 50 would have to be sought. Meanwhile to UK would continue to contribute to EU funds.

All this would be quite messy, but it would be  preferable to a crash out, no deal, Brexit a year from now, which might occur if a majority Tory government were to make unrealistic trade demands of the EU.

A third possibility is that no potential Prime Minister could be assured of a majority in Parliament. Given that the UK now has a 5 party system, rather than the 2 party one it had for the past century, this is a real possibility. The Fixed Term Parliament Act requires the calling of another Election, 14 days after a no confidence vote, if no  government can secure the confidence of Parliament within those 14 days.

But let’s acknowledge that, at the moment, the most likely outcome is a Tory majority government. What happens when it proceeds to implement the revised Withdrawal Agreement and negotiate a Free Trade Agreement(FTA) with the EU? 

Given that the new Tory Parliamentary Party will be more radically pro Brexit than the old one, the UK negotiating position on the FTA   could be very demanding and very difficult for the EU to accept. Some of the new Tory MPs might even prefer a “no deal” on ideological grounds.

 Before negotiations with the UK begin, the EU side will have to secure a negotiating mandate from the 27 member states. 

 This will not be easy. Many states will have sensitive issues vis a vis the UK, for example

  • fisheries for Spain, 
  • agriculture for France, 
  • rules of origin for all members, and crucially,  
  • the maintenance of a level playing field for competition between firms inside the EU and those in the UK. 

Boris Johnson has said that, for him, the UK being able to have different environmental, social and product standards is the “whole point “of Brexit.  

There are real fears that UK would try to undercut the EU in these fields. 

So the EU will demand firm justiciable guarantees in the FTA that this will not happen. They will not take anything on trust. They will want a court to decide.

 Likewise, the EU will want justiciable guarantees that the UK will not give subsidies to its industries, of a kind that would not be permitted in the EU. 

The EU demand of binding arbitration will raise an allergic issue for Brexiteers.  The idea, that a “foreign court” might tell them what to do, is anathema to them.

If that is not agreed, it is hard to see how the EU could give up the possibility of introducing tariffs on UK exports to the EU, to level up the playing field.

Similar problems arise for agriculture and fisheries. The UK needs to decide what sort of farm policies it will have and if these will depart radically from EU norms.

If the UK tries to stop access for EU trawlers to its fishing grounds, it cannot expect tariff free access to EU markets for UK fish exports. Physical confrontations at sea are a real possibility.

There will also have to be a negotiation about cooperation between UK and Europol, and about money laundering. 

The position of Norway, will have to be considered. It contributes to EU funds in return for access to the Single Market. The UK cannot expect more, for a lesser contribution, than Norway makes. 

The position of countries like Japan and Canada, who have trade agreements with the EU , will have to be considered. They will look for any concessions the UK is given, other things being equal.

The earliest that the two sides would even be ready to start negotiating these difficult questions would be March 2020. On that basis, it is hard to see how it could all be wrapped up by December of next year. 

Remember the Canada Agreement with the EU took eight YEARS to negotiate, and the political atmosphere between Canada was much better, and the stakes much less, than is now the case between the UK and the EU.

Brexit is far from done. It is entering its dramatic second Act.

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