John Bruton

Opinions & Ideas

Author: John Bruton Page 1 of 56


The Covid 19 outbreak, and its deep financial aftermath, will put the European Union under unprecedented stress over the next five years or more. Brexit will add to these tensions for some members, notably Ireland. It is a matter of vital national interest for Ireland, that the EU gets its response to the crisis right, and does not allow it to create dangerous social distancing between the states of the EU.

A crunch point will be reached next Tuesday when EU Finance Ministers must make vital short and long term decisions.

 The existing structure of the EU is unfitted to a crisis like this. The public expect the EU to act, but has not been given the EU the powers it needs to do so. 

Unlike the states of the EU, the EU itself has no capacity to borrow money, and no capacity to raise taxation. So it  often lacks the financial clout to take decisive action.

 The amount it is allowed to spend is a mere 1% of GDP, whereas EU member states can and do spend around 40% of their GDP.

Membership  of the EU has been enlarged to include populations who have radically different understandings of the obligations and responsibilities of EU membership.

 Some think EU membership is compatible with authoritarian systems of governance.

 Others think EU membership is about entitlements, without commensurate responsibilities.

 Yet others see the EU as a means of creating a sphere of influence and projecting national power. 

Some (like the UK) see the EU as just a trading arrangement, with few political obligations at all.

 Many see membership of the EU as a transaction, from which they should always gain more than they were giving up.

 The countries and regions that gain most from the EU Single Market, are either unaware of the gains, or mistakenly think it is all due to their own efforts.

 A recent study by the Berthelsmann Foundation showed that the big objectors to Eurobonds (Germany , Austria and the Netherlands) gain almost three times as much per capita from the EU Single Market as do the assumed beneficiaries of the Eurobonds, Spain and Italy!

 If the Single Market were to fail, the objectors would lose the most. But their national politicians fail to tell them this. Incidentally the study showed Ireland to be a big gainer from the Single Market.

Meanwhile the countries and regions that gain comparatively less from the Single Market resent this, and fail to acknowledge that they too are gaining from being in the EU Single Market, albeit a bit less than the others are gaining. Envy blinds some to reality.

Of course, these contradictory feelings are rarely expressed publicly, but they there under the surface, ready to emerge when a crisis happens and decisions have to be made quickly. 

Covid 19 has been such a crisis.

 The first reactions of some EU members were revealing, and deeply troubling.

On 4 March, France and Germany decided to block export of personal protecting equipment outside their own borders, even within the EU. This was done notwithstanding the fact that restrictions on export to other EU states are forbidden by Article 35 of the EU Treaty.

 Two days later, Italy requested an extraordinary meeting of EU health Ministers. This was declined, notwithstanding the fact that the health crisis was worse in Italy than elsewhere, and Italy (like Greece) had already borne the brunt of the refugee crisis, with little or no help from its EU partners.

 It took several days of pressure before the export bans were lifted, and 1 million German masks eventually did reach Italy. Meanwhile China scored a public relations coup by getting equipment to Italy, equipment that Italy’s EU partners had failed to supply. 

The Institute Montaigne, a French think tank said this episode will leave “deep scars” in Italy’s relationship with its EU partners north of the Alps.

The restrictions on economic activity, as well as the direct health and income support costs, arising from Covid 19 will dramatically increase the debts of all states in the EU. 

Assuming a 20% drop in GDP as a result of Covid 19, an economist in the Bruegel Institute in Brussels  has estimated that the Debt / GDP ratio of Italy could rise from 136% of GDP to 189%, that of France from 99% to 147%, that of Spain from 97% to  139%, and that of Germany from 59% to 94%. 

 As all these countries can expect their workforces reduce in the next 20 years, because of past low birth rates, this is a very troubling prospect. A way needs to be found to spread the  debt as widely as possible and as far as possible into the future.

One of the proposals made to do this is Eurobonds which would enable counties to borrow with a guarantee from all eurozone states. The interest rate might be lower but it is still just another form of borrowing. If Italy issued a Eurobond, it would still be increasing its overall debt, and might face a higher interest rate on its ordinary bond issues. Another objection is that it might take 18 months or more to get these Eurobonds up and running, and the markets need something quicker.

Another proposal is that distressed countries borrow from the European Stability Mechanism (ESM). Some believe that the ESM is too small for all that needs to be done. Others worry about the conditions that might be imposed.

Meanwhile the ECB continues to buy the bonds of member states. For example it owns 26% of all German government bonds and 22% of all Spain’s bonds. This bond buying by the ECB enables governments to continue borrowing, but its support is confined to members who are in the euro. It is using monetary policy to achieve the goals of fiscal policy, which is controversial.

I suggest a better solution would  be to allow the European Union itself to borrow, up to a limit of (say) 0.5% of the EU GDP, to spend exclusively on Covid 19 related expenditures. 

Article 122 of the Treaty already makes provision for the EU to give aid  to help states suffering from “natural disasters and exceptional occurrences” beyond the control of a member state or states. Covid 19 meets this criterion.

 But the EU is not using this power, because its budget is fully committed to other things. It has no room to respond to sudden emergencies.  It would have such room if it was allowed to borrow. This power could then be activated to allow direct transfers of funds to a state in acute distress because of Covid 19 or the like, without adding to the recipient state’s debt.

Doing this would require an amendment to Article 310 (1) of the Treaty. This article presently requires the EU always to run a balanced budget. This could be amended to allow borrowing  that was confined to spending on matters, like Covid 19, that had arisen suddenly and were beyond the control of the state looking for help. Such a limited borrowing authority would command a lot of support from the electorate.

It would also be borrowing under the democratic control by the Council of Ministers and  European Parliament, something that does not apply to bond buying by the ECB.

The EU faces is an unprecedented situation which justifies unprecedented actions.


It is welcome that, at last, the G20, representing the world’s most important countries, and 90% of the world’s population, is getting together in a teleconference to discuss the health and economic crisis caused by the Covid 19 virus. It has been obvious for several weeks that coordinated international action was going to be needed.

 Given that the G20 was brought into being in 2009 to deal with precisely this type of global crisis, the banking crisis of 2008, it is amazing that it has taken the Saudi Presidency of the  G20 so long to convene at meeting. They were pressed into doing so by India. 

In 2009, when the G20 was first convened, there was a reasonable relationship between the two biggest world powers, the US and China. Gordon Brown of the UK was in the chair and substantial programme of action was agreed and implemented. The Financial Stability Board was set up, and a global programme of actions to stabilize banks was agreed and put into action.

 China led the way in stimulating its economy through infrastructure spending and this helped get the global economy going again. Germany and Europe benefitted from this through exports.

Now that lives, and not just livelihoods, are at stake an even more vigorous programme of action from the G20 is needed.

 The US and China need to stop sniping at one another and start cooperating. The US and China coming together to work on this global threat would give hope to the world.

 Japan set a good example that the US might now follow, when the crisis first  broke out in Wuhan. It donated protective equipment to Wuhan and Japanese MPs donated 5% of their personal salaries to the virus containment efforts in China. This was a remarkable gesture in light of the previous public hostility between these countries, going back to World War Two.

The Covid 19 crisis has revealed how much we all depend on the chronically underfunded World Health Organisation(WHO). The WHO will be part of  this teleconference convened by the Saudi Chairman of the meeting, King Salman.

 In recent budgetary proposals, the US White actually proposed halving the US contribution the WHO. Instead ALL G20 members should agree to double their contributions to the WHO.

Trade barriers, many of them recently erected, are also hindering efforts to save lives.

The international Chamber of Commerce in Paris has said

“the recent escalation of trade barriers is now wreaking havoc in key medical supply chains”.

 For example, restrictions on exports of life saving equipment, including masks, test kits , disinfectants and ventilators, have been introduced by some countries. The global trade in test kits is worth $186 billion and that in disinfectants is worth $308 billion. 

 The Global Trade Alert Team in Switzerland say that damaging export bans have been introduced by a list of countries including  Bulgaria, France, India, the UK, Korea, and even by Saudi Arabia itself!

 In the case of ventilators, export restrictions would be particularly damaging. There is no firm on the entire continent of Africa, and only one in Latin America, that is capable of manufacturing ventilators. And even the countries, that do have manufacturing capacity, will have to import some of the components.

Even soap and disinfectant have to be imported by most countries. 78 countries impose tariffs on soap and 23 impose tariffs on disinfectants.  This is crazy in present circumstances.

The G20 should decide that all barriers to trade in goods, including soap, that the World Customs Organization(WCO) has said are critical to fighting the virus, should be removed straight away.

 The EU should abolish its  own export authorisation system for ventilators because it will slow down production and cost lives, especially in the poorest countries of the world.

The G20 also needs to consider the longer term economic effect of the shut down in global economic activity.

 Big countries with big tax bases can protect themselves and their firms. Germany has introduced a big package of aid for German firms.  But an Italian firm, producing the same product as a German firm, may not get the same aid as its German competitor, and this could destroy the level playing field of the EU Single Market.

 No country derives as much benefit proportionately as Ireland does, from the existence of fully fair and open EU Single Market. So Ireland should support EU coordination of all business supports to ensure that all firms, whether from big or small countries, can compete fairly.  

The ECB has taken welcome steps to help Italy, and other heavily indebted countries, that have been hit by the virus, to borrow at reasonable interest rates. But that simply adds to their debts.

 Collective EU action, financed by collective EU borrowing, in support of particular health related spending should be undertaken. At the moment, the EU can neither raise taxes nor borrow, and that means it is unable to cope with crises like this one.

I propose

  • the immediate elimination of all tariffs and restriction on the export or import of goods identified by the WCO as vital to fighting Covid 19
  • a mutual assistance programme to help countries with the greatest shortage of equipment and  intensive care beds
  • the exemption of medical staff, who have been tested, from immigration restrictions to allow them go where they are most needed

Discours au Club 41 à Bondues

Je parle ici en tant que citoyen d’un petit pays membre de l’Union Européenne.

En face du drame du Brexit, et toutes les difficultés qui suivent le Brexit  pour mon pays, j’ai ressenti une énorme solidarité de la part de nos partenaires européens, notamment de la part de la France. 

Parfois, les habitants de petits pays pensent qu’ils pourraient être engloutis s’ils adhéraient à des grosses organisations comme l ‘UE.  Mais ce n’était pas le cas dans l’UE. L’exemple du Brexit montre que c’est vrai. Il montre que l’EU est une Union des nations et des peuples, petits et grands, une Union dans laquelle les petits Etats sont protégés et respectés. 

Nous (Irlandais) regrettons que le Royaume Uni quitte l’UE. Le Royaume Uni et L’Irlande ont rejoint l’UE le même jour (le 1er janvier 1973) .

Nous avons trouvé que L’UE a toujours été un lieu de dialogue sans complexe avec tous nos voisins, mais en particulier avec le Grande Bretagne. 

Les relations bilatérales entre des états, qui ne sont pas de la même taille, peuvent devenir difficiles. Quand les mêmes états sont membres d’une organisation qui est plus grande que les deux, les difficultés diminuent. 

I’UE est un lieu de réunions occasionnelles entre ministres, entre fonctionnaires, et entre des organisations professionnelles, ou ils  peuvent développer sympathie mutuelle, ou ils peuvent anticiper les problèmes futurs, ou ils peuvent promouvoir un sens de solidarité. Je regrette que le Grande Bretagne soit en train de perdre ces avantages.

Je crois que l’appartenance commune à l’UE, de l’Irlande et le Royaume Uni a ouvert la possibilité de faire un accord, comme l’Accord du Vendredi Saint d’avril 1998, entre nos deux pays. Des événements comme celui-là, seraient plus difficiles dans le futur.

Les bénéfices de notre adhésion à L’UE ont été ressentis de façon concrète par des citoyens qui vivent le long de la frontière, entre L’Irlande et L’Irlande du Nord, longue de plus de 480 km et traversée par plus de 200 routes, actuellement  ouvertes et invisibles. Cette frontière invisible est d’abord et avant tout une réussite de l’adhésion du Royaume Uni et de l’Irlande au Marché Commun de L’UE,  en combinaison avec le processus de Paix en Irlande du Nord.

Ce processus de Paix  repose sur l’Accord du Vendredi Saint de 1998, qui a mis fin à plus de trente ans de terrorisme entre les deux communautés en Irlande du Nord, et entre les soi-disants « républicains » et « loyalistes ».

L’idée fondamentale de l’Accord du Vendredi Saint est très ambitieuse et très difficile. Il est de permettre la coexistence des deux identités, et des deux allégeances nationales, dans le même espace géographique…l’allégeance irlandaise et l’allégeance britannique.

Les structures de l’Accord envisagent, à la fois, des liens étroits entre l’Irlande du Nord et le Grande Bretagne avec des liens étroits entre l’Irlande du Nord et l’Irlande.

L’Accord cherche à éviter l’isolement de l’une ou de l’autre communauté en Irlande du Nord de leur foyer de loyauté.

Il cherche de rendre confortable les unionistes et les nationalistes, à la fois, et pour toujours. Il démontre un esprit d’Etat, imaginatif et ambitieux. Il est menacé fondamentalement par le Brexit.

La suppression des infrastructures frontalières fut partie intégrante du processus de paix et de réconciliation, qui se poursuit.

Mais il a été aussi partie intégrante de la création du marché unique de l’UE

Les deux processus renforçaient les uns les autres. 

Des citoyens traversent la frontière chaque jour librement pour travailler, étudier, rendre visite à leur famille ou  pour accéder à des services de santé. Cette mobilité facilite les bonnes relations et la réconciliation entre les communautés sur l’ensemble de l’ile.

Depuis que Le Royaume Uni a voté pour le Brexit, le gouvernement irlandais a placé la protection de cette paix au cœur de son approche. I’UE s’y est également engagée et nous sommes reconnaissants du soutien de la France et de nos partenaires européens. 

L’accord de retrait,  finalisé en Octobre 2019 et approuvé par les parlements européens et britanniques, contient un protocole sur L’Irlande qui est le résultat d’une négociation détaillée entre l’UE et le Royaume Uni. Du côté du Royaume Uni le négociateur en chef fut Boris Johnson.

Par  l’Article 5 de ce protocole, le Royaume Uni accepte que les  recouvrement des taxes douanières  auraient lieu entre le Grande Bretagne et l’Irlande du Nord, et pas sur la frontière entre l’Irlande du Nord et L’Irlande, si  les biens sont destinés à l’Irlande en tant que membre de l’UE.

Cela est très clair.

C’est écrit en toutes lettres  dans un Traité international, approuvé par la Chambre des Communes. 

Après tout cela, ces derniers jours,  le gouvernement britannique tente de nier cet aspect contraignant du traité. 

Il  est difficile de discerner la motivation du gouvernement britannique. 

Peut être  veut il que les négociations du libre échange s’effondrent ? 

Peut être  voit il un avantage politique dans une rupture totale avec  l’UE pour mieux mobiliser les électeurs nationalistes en Angleterre ?

Ou peut être  est ce un outil de négociation, pour gagner autre chose, peut être  l’accès au marché financier de l’UE ?  Mais la bonne foi est nécessaire pour une négociation productive. En tentant de nier le contenu de l’Accord du Retrait, le Royaume Uni sacrifie la bonne foi. 

En plus d’avoir des répercussions sur le processus de paix, le Brexit aura également  un impact important sur le commerce et l’économie de l’Irlande. L’Irlande est une des économies les plus ouvertes du monde.  

Bien que nous  ayons réussi à diversifier les exportations de biens et services vers les autres marchés, un grand nombre de nos exportations des biens et services est destiné au Royaume Uni. De plus, ces exportations proviennent des secteurs locaux et des régions défavorisées de notre pays. Le Brexit accentuera les difficultés internes. Le secteur  agricole sera particulièrement touché par le Brexit. Près de la moitié de nos exportations alimentaires est destinée à la Grande Bretagne ou à L’Irlande du Nord.

Nous dépendons aussi beaucoup du Royaume Uni pour nos importations….près d’un quart de  nos importations.

Nous dépendons aussi du Royaume Uni pour le transport de nos  exportations via le Royaume Uni qui est notre pont terrestre vers les autres marchés de l’Europe. 

Tout ca explique  pourquoi l’Irlande  veut un accord profond de libre échange entre l‘UE et le Royaume Uni, et pourquoi nous sommes disproportionnellement troublés par la  possibilité d’un échec des négociations.

Pour les mêmes raisons, nous voulons aussi une compétition loyale entre le Royaume Uni et l’UE.

Nous voulons protéger  l’intégrité du marché unique de l’UE. 

 Si la frontière terrestre entre L’Irlande et L’Irlande du Nord reste ouverte, comme convenue entre le Royaume Uni et l’UE, il sera essentiel que le Royaume Uni respecte son accord avec l’UE dans le protocole sur l’Irlande. 

J’ai parlé des problèmes de l’Irlande et du Brexit. Je dois dire quelques mots au sujet de l’Europe.

Nous avons des défis sérieux.

Le budget de l’UE est trop petit pour surmonter les problèmes de sécurité, de recherche, de l’innovation, de l’agriculture, des refugieé,  et de la solidarité entre les régions riches et les régions pauvres.

 Nous devons créer un esprit de solidarité entre les peuples de l’UE, une espèce de patriotisme européen. 

Mais l’UE reste sur des valeurs comme la primauté du droit et du pluralisme politique. 

Nous avons énormément de  choses à faire pour garder notre maison en paix en Europe.


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!

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