John Bruton

Opinions & Ideas

Category: Ireland (Page 2 of 4)



The economist Jim O’Leary has circulated a postscript on the Irish General Election.
It is very good, says something new, and I am republishing it here so it gets a wider readership.
It shows that the description of the relative economic and fiscal policy positions of the two main parties, as set out in their manifestos, is completely different from the characterization of their policy stances during the campaign by the media and by one another.
It would appear that neither the media, nor the politicians themselves read, and added up the cost of, their own, and opposing party, manifestoes!
Here is what Jim wrote:
“I’ve just been doing a bit of digging into the election manifestoes of our two largest political parties in order to get a handle on how difficult it might be to bridge the ideological chasm between them. After all, Fine Gael is a party that sits firmly on the right of the spectrum and wants to slash taxes even if it means compromising standards of public service provision, while Fianna Fail has reinvented itself as a social democratic party with a more measured approach to reducing taxes and a much stronger commitment to the public sector. Or, at least, that’s how the narrative of the last few weeks would have it.

Well, the thrust of that narrative receives some slender support from the respective parties’ plans for government current spending.

FF proposed to devote €4.8bn to raising current spending over the next five years; the corresponding FG figure is €4.2bn. The difference between them hardly amounts to a whole hill of beans however, equating as it does to just about 1% of the current expenditure base. (Indeed, by this standard, the Sinn Fein plan to raise current spending by €6bn by 2021 doesn’t look dramatically out of kilter.)

On the other hand, FG is the more ambitious party in relation to investment spending having proposed an extra €4bn for the capital budget for the 2017-21 period, compared with FF’s €2.7bn.

So, if we just add current and capital together (and ignore their differential impact on the dreaded ‘fiscal space’), FG’s plans would result in higher public spending than FF’s. A slightly surprising conclusion when set against the prevailing narrative.
Much more surprising (indeed ‘surprising’ is an understatement of how it struck me when I discovered it a few days ago) is the comparison of the cost of the two parties’ proposals in relation to taxation.

The cost of the FF proposals? Just over €2.9bn.

And FG’s? A bit less than €2.5bn.

In other words, FF was proposing to devote almost €0.5bn more to tax cuts over the next five years than FG. If you don’t believe me, check the two sets of numbers in their respective manifestoes.

So much for FG being the ‘tax slashers’. The cost of their commitment to abolish USC, at  almost €3.5bn over the 2017-21 period, was to be offset by a net €1bn of increases elsewhere, including a 5% levy on incomes over €100k, a range of base-broadening measures for high earners, a steep hike in cigarette duties and a new tax on sugar-sweetened drinks. In contrast, FF’s more modest plans in respect of USC, costing €2.6bn, were to be accompanied by a net €300m of tax reductions in other areas.

It seems to me that FG’s proposal in relation to a single tax, the USC, was adopted as shorthand for its overall position on taxation (and was taken as emblematic of its attitude towards public service provision), and the rest of its tax platform was pretty well ignored.

Lazy analysis perhaps, but what else would one expect from hard-pressed(!) political commentators (not to mention political opponents).

What is bewildering is that FG made no serious attempt during the election campaign to counter what proved to be a damaging narrative.

Not once did a FG spokesperson say; ‘Hold on folks, Fianna Fail are actually proposing to cut taxes by more than we are!’ Or am I missing something?  “

Meath History


meathIt is a privilege to have been invited to speak at the launch of this enormously important publication about the history of Meath.

Meath people have a deep interest in their heritage. As is pointed out in the book, of 1000 or so voluntary societies active, some 500 are related to its heritage.

I am very pleased that the book starts with a major chapter on the Hill of Tara, recalling its symbolic importance as a unifying symbol for Ireland. Meath people tended to gather in Tara on important occasions, such as during the 1798 rebellion, the monster Repeal meeting there in 1843, and the major parade of John Redmond’s National Volunteers in 1915, at which my grand uncle John led the Dunboyne contingent.

The chapter by Eoin O’Flynn on the High King Mael Sechniall gives a valuable insight into an important, but neglected, historical figure.  Meath had its own Brian Boru.

The chapter ASK Abraham on the major landholders of the 15th century in county Meath is fascinating. It is interesting to note that some of the families he mentions survive to this day on their original holdings, but others have disappeared.  It would be interesting to study the reasons why some families survived, in prominent positions, while others did not.

This chapter also explores how the castles of these families served as a means of demonstrating their local political influence, as well as providing a residence for family members.

Meath, although on the border of the Pale, seems to have been a much more peaceful place in the 15th century than one might have thought.

Brendan Scott’s chapter on the failure of the Reformation in Meath in the 16th century deals with a subject that remains at the heart of Irish political history to this day.

Although Meath was under strong control of the Royal authorities in Dublin, and was dominated by Old English families, efforts to replace Catholic by Protestant belief failed, in contrast to experience in Britain where Royal control was not that much less than it was within the Irish  Pale. Why?

It seems that there were divisions of approach between the Archbishop of Dublin and the Bishop of Meath, both of whom were promoting the Reformation for the King, but could not get on with one another, and these divisions contributed to the failure of their efforts.

Another explanation may be that the church reforms, which were initiated in England by parliamentary legislation, were introduced in Ireland by Royal Decree. This lack of local involvement probably sealed the failure of the effort.

But this subject would reward further study.

Again, the chapter by Annaligh Margey, on the Wars of 1641-1654, brings out similarly fascinating questions.

The nationwide making of common cause between the old English gentry in Ireland, who had remained Catholic, and the Gaelic Irish gentry who were also Catholic, took place at open air conferences at Crufty and Tara in Meath.

The attacks that took place, when the rebellion was initiated in 1641, on the Loyalist community in Meath are explored considerable detail.

The author draws victim statements given afterwards, about their sufferings, by what the author describes as “British settlers” in the county

Looking through the names of some of those made depositions; I have to say many may have been descendents of people who would not appear to be “British Settlers”, but rather natives who had conformed to the Established Church.

For example, surnames  like Grace, Dowdall, Barnewall, O’Loughlan, Prendergast, Nangle, O’Gowen, o’Fanegane and Molloy, which appear among the deponents, seems like surnames of people whose ancestors  had been in Ireland for a long time. So perhaps Meath society in the 16th century was even more mixed than one might have thought.

The dramatic story of Elyn Ni Kelwey of Castlejordan, executed in 1647 for killing the infant child she had by a married man,Tirlogh O Doran, is one that could be taken up by a playwright with a sense of 17th century history.

I really enjoyed Padraig Lenihan’s chapter on the battle of the Boyne. He brings out the fact that the French were advising King James not to fight at the Boyne at all, to burn Dublin, and retreat behind the Shannon. It is to his credit, that James did not take this advice.

At the outset of the battle, William was very nearly killed, and it that had happened, the course of history might have been very different.

King William’s plan was to encircle and destroy James’ much smaller army by crossing upriver. In this William failed because James countered effectively,  and, while it was defeated, James’ army was able to retreat in relatively good order, and was not trapped by the Nanny river in Duleek, as it might have been.

But James’  retreating Army seems to have failed to make its appointed rendezvous in Dunboyne, and dispersed after that. It was a defeat, but not a terminal disaster, as it might have been.

Kevin Mulligan’s chapter on the big houses of the 18th century, shows that many of the families, who were on the losing side of the Battle of the Boyne, still were significant Meath land owners 100 years later, and some of them had not been required to change their religious belief.

Ruan O’Donnell’s chapter, on the lead up to the 1798 rebellion, describes a society in Meath that was in deep internal conflict over land, power and religion. Crime was rampant.

On the one hand, the Catholic Church, which had recently won the right to establish a National Seminary in Maynooth, wanted to adhere to a path of peaceful negotiation with the authorities. It was supported by many Catholics in this stance

On the other hand, the United Irishmen and the Defenders, inspired by the French Revolution, wanted to prepare for, and support, a French invasion of Ireland.

Given the way in which the French revolution had treated the Catholic Church in France, only a few years before, it is surprising that there was so much support for Revolutionary France in Meath, including among some Catholic priests. It would be interested more about why this was so, and how Catholic priests in Meath thought about the treatment of rebel Catholics in the Vendee by the French Revolutionary authorities.

There seems to have  been a lot of organised violence in Meath long before the 1798 rebellion, notably a major conflict between the Defenders and the militia at Coolnahinch in 1793.

It is interesting to discover that  Free Masons seem to have been involved in both the United Irishmen and the Orange Order.

There is a chapter on the War of independence by Ultan Courtney.

There is no entry on the effect of the Parnell split in Meath, where the county played a national central role. Meath’s role in the Home Rule agitation from 1900 to 1914 might also be covered in a future book, as well as the sufferings of the county during the influenza of 1919 and the Farm Workers Strike of the same year. The 1919 flu killed more people globally than the First World War.

I am delighted to note, and look forward to reading, chapters in the book dealing with

Agriculture (including material drawn from my great grandfather Edward Delany’s farm accounts!),

 the activities of the Land Commission,

 the Famine(from which some parts of Meath suffered gravely),

 the Human impact of the landscape of the County, and on

Church building

Literature and Learning in Mediaeval Meath

Lord Dunsany and Francis Ledwidge

Dick Blake

Jim Connell

The Naper family estate in Oldcastle

 as well as many more contemporary topics.

I commend Geography Publications, and Meath County Council, and all the authors, for a tremendous piece of work.  Well done, and Thanks!

Speech by John Bruton, former Taoiseach and Deputy for Meath from 1969 to 2004, at the launch of Meath History and Society, Interdisciplinary essays on the history of an Irish county (Dr Francis Ludlow and Dr Arlene Crampsie, editors) On Wednesday, 2 March 2016, at 7pm in Meath County Library, Railway Street , Navan


cropped-irish-flag.jpgThe possibility of a Dail being elected tomorrow, where no feasible combination of parties will be able to form a government, is unfortunately quite high.

Party leaders were incessantly pressed, by the media and others during the campaign, into ruling out coalition options.
There was no space allowed for “constructive ambiguity”, although Irish people know well that, without “constructive ambiguity” in the short term, we might have had no peace process in the long term. Media interest and public interest are not always identical.

The questions asked by moderators, in the leaders’ debates, seemed to focus heavily on catching leaders out about things they said, or did, in the past, rather than on their thoughts about the future, which is what is really important now.

Some of the issues pursued were trivial, like the appointment of a member to the board of an art gallery

It is almost as if the moderators, in the debates, wanted to ask questions about the past, because they were, themselves, uncomfortable dealing with challenges about the future, like

+ the ballooning cost of health services, relative to resources available
+ the looming pensions crisis, where numbers at work will decline relative to numbers on pension
+ the changes required of Ireland to meet its climate change obligations
+ what the leaders would do, next June, if the UK leaves the EU
+ the shape of the 2017 budget ( all the focus was on what might be possible in 2021!)
+ what the leaders would do if, when the Dail meets, no combination of parties, willing to coalesce with one another, could attain a majority
+ how long could we go without a government, if one is not elected on 10 March

These are not very original questions, but they are the ones voters should be thinking about.


Screen Shot 2016-02-20 at 20.31.20I have been doing quite a bit of door to door canvassing in the Irish General Election, mostly for my brother , Richard, in Dublin Bay North, but also for the 4 outgoing Fine Gael TDs in Meath, Damien English, Ray Butler, Regina Doherty and Helen Mc Entee.

Tonight I am speaking at a rally in Carrick on Shannon in support of Gerry Reynolds and his running mates, John Perry and Tony McLaughlin.

There is widespread committed support for all the five candidates I have canvassed for. They are well known for their consistent local work rate…..not just at election time.

There is also a high level of recognition of the fact that, in the past five years, 135,000 people have been added to the number at work, and that the growth rate of the Irish economy is now the highest in Europe. On the other hand, there is not enough recognition of the fact that keeping high economic and employment growth rates requires that we maintain competitiveness.

Some voters question whether the extra 135,000 jobs are well paid enough, and my answer is that many of them are well paid, and that the taxation contributed by all these extra workers is essential if there is to be an improvement in health and education services. Without that extra tax revenue, planned service improvements would be impossible.

Other voters complain that services in hospitals and schools are not good enough and mention particular cuts that have taken place. But these restrictions were the logical and necessary consequence of gradually getting the government’s budget back into some sort of balance. This was essential, if the country was not to follow the path of Greece.

Even as things stand, this year the government is still spending slightly MORE than it is collecting in taxes.

To reduce the debt to the sustainable level of 60% of GDP, we need to reach a point where revenue is growing faster than spending. Unless we do this, we are simply financing today’s services at the expense of tomorrow’s taxpayers.

A government that did that on an ongoing basis would eventually get into trouble.


The risk of political instability is not an abstract concept. If the government formed in the new Dail does not have a secure majority, that brings the possibility that annual budgets would not be passed, or could only be passed if all sorts of vested local interests, associated with “independent” TD’s, were bought off.

Lenders would worry about lending to a government that was in that situation.

Eventually that would lead to higher interest rates.

That would in turn feed through into mortgage and over draft rates, which are already too high for some borrowers.

Political instability, and uncertainty about budgetary policy of the Portuguese government, has already led to an 100 basis point increase in Portuguese bond rates.

Interest rates are currently being kept very low by the ECB……artificially so.

That policy is helping us, as a borrower nation, but it is also making it difficult for pension and insurance funds to invest profitably enough, to protect the interests of their policy holders and future pensioners.

We cannot count on that lax ECB policy lasting forever, so we should try to get our debts down to manageable levels, while the going is still good.

That is why it is right that the two government parties are emphasising fiscal prudence, and why a Dail full of independent TDs, pursuing sectional rather than national policies, could be a dangerous luxury for the country.


I would like to set out why I believe it is important that both Ray Butler and Minister Damien English are re elected to the Dail.

Both have worked hard as members for this locality and are deserving of support on that basis alone.

But, more importantly, their re election would enhance the possibility that the country will have a stable government from next month on.

Fine Gael is the party with the best chance of being able to form, alone or with stable partners, a majority government. That is important to everybody.

The lack of a stable government could drive up interest rates and derail the economic recovery, whose signs are visible everywhere.

As I know from personal experience in 1981/2, governments, without a majority, can have good ideas and clear plans, but, without a majority in the Dail, they cannot be sure they can put them into effect.

In particular they cannot be sure they can pass a budget, and without a budget , the affairs of the nation cannot be managed.

If government budgets cannot be guaranteed, interest rates are liable to soar, as they did in the early 1980’s, because that would make would make lenders nervous.

Thanks to errors of the 2002 to 2008 period, Ireland’s level of government and private debt is such that we must avoid that.

The global economy is not stable at the moment.

Global debts are greater that they were before the 2008 crash.

The European banking union is incomplete without mutual deposit insurance.

Investment in energy is being cut back, and energy companies are in trouble, which raises the possibility of oil prices being highly volatile, upwards as well as downwards.

The ageing of society in most of the western world, and in China, is going to put a dampener on growth prospects for countries, like Ireland, that export to those markets.  Slow growth would make debts that were sustainable unsustainable.

Ageing is also going to require us to spend progressively (and unfortunately incalculably) more on health.

In short, the economic future is uncertain.

In uncertain times, a country needs a government that is capable, in the interests of the people, of making quick decisions, and of implementing them, speedily. That means a government that knows it can pass laws and budgets, without needless haggling with special interests.

That is why is why we need a majority government, and why it is in the national interest, that Ray and Damien are both re elected to the Dail.

Speech by John Bruton, former Taoiseach, at the launch of the Fine Gael  General Election Campaign in South Meath by Ray Butler in Trim Castle Hotel at 10.30 am on Thursday 4 February


220px-Major_William_Redmond_bust,_Wexford_cityI have been asked to address the above topic.

If one scrutinises the record of debates in the House of Commons in 1916, one can get a sense of the perspective of the Irish Party members.

The remarkable speech of Captain William Redmond, the MP for East Clare, in March 1916 gives a sense of how he and other Irish soldiers fighting on the Western front , as they saw it to defend the violated neutrality of Belgium, would have seen things.

He spoke of their terrible conditions, but also of their cheerfulness. “The harder the conditions, the more cheerful they seem to be” be said. Willie Redmond, a man in his late 50’s, and 35 years an MP, was to die of his wounds later in the year. Willie Redmond  would have been  disappointed to think that, within days of his speech, a Rebellion would have been initiated in Dublinin alliance with Germany, against whom he and other Irish soldiers, all volunteers, were fighting on the Western Front.

 That would be one perspective….before the Rebellion.

During the Rebellion itself, the Irish Party leaders were dispersed and had difficulty communicating with one another. John Dillon was in Dublin, Joe Devlin in Belfast, and John Redmond and TP O Connor in London.

After the Rebellion, on 11 May, another perspective came to the fore, this time expressed by John Dillon MP in the House of Commons.

He spoke of his opposition to the Rebellion and of how Irish Party MPs had persuaded some of their constituents not to take part. He referred particularly to Thomas Lundon MP in Limerick. He said nine out of every ten Irish people were opposed to the rebellion.

But he went on to condemn the house searches undertaken after the Rebellion was over in parts of the country where there had been no trouble at all. He said it was “insanity” to leave Ireland in the hands of General Maxwell.  He said his prime object in his speech was to stop the executions. He said the river of blood was undoing the work of reconciliation.

He recalled that when the American Civil War ended, Abraham Lincoln did not execute anyone

He said Premier Botha had put down a pro German rebellion in South Africa without any executions. The Irish Rebellion was also undertaken in alliance with Germany so this comparison was apt.

John Redmond had also urged the Prime Minister to stop the executions the day before Pearse and Clarke were executed.

In his speech in the House of Commons, John Dillon drew attention to the stupidities of the post Rebellion repression by Sir John Maxwell.  He gave the example of the Commander in Chief of the Irish Volunteers, Eoin McNeill , who, by giving a clear military order that the the rebellion was not to take place, in Dillon’s words “broke the back of the rebellion on the very eve of it, and kept back a large body of men from joining it”. Despite this , McNeill was also imprisoned by the British.

Incidentally, given that a democracy relies on military discipline, the commemoration of actions taken in breach of orders, is inherently uncomfortable for soldiers and politicians alike.

In considering the overall policy record of the Irish Party, one must draw attention to a few important points.

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

A year and a half earlier, it had had another vital parliamentary achievement which invalidated the case for a Rebellion. The principle of Irish legislative independence for Ireland was  won from the Imperial Parliament, in September 1914, by the passage into law and signature by the King of the Home Rule Bill. That happened BEFORE any rebellion here, and, as Conservative leader Bonar Law subsequently admitted, there was no going back on Home Rule. The point of principle was won without a shot being fired.

This, along with the transfer of the effective ownership of the land of Ireland into the hands of those who were working it, were signal achievements of the Irish Party. Indeed it was the Irish Party achievement of land reform, which created an Irish rural middle class, that in turn enabled  Ireland to remain democratic in the 1920’s and 1930’s, when so many other new states became authoritarian.

The only open question was whether or how Home Rule might apply to Antrim, Down, Armagh and Derry (and perhaps Fermanagh and Tyrone). The open question was whether such exclusion would be temporary or permanent.

But if that exclusion was once accepted, there was no barrier in the way of the rest of Ireland progressively winning ever greater degrees of sovereignty. That could have been achieved by peaceful negotiation, if it was what the voters of the 26 or 28 counties wanted.

Indeed some of the exclusions from the powers of the Home Rule Administration(eg. Marriage law and tariffs) were only put therein the first place, to reassure Ulster Unionists, when  it was envisaged, as in the original Home Rule Bill, that  that all 32 counties would be fully included from the outset.

The same principle of legislative independence, conceded to Ireland in September 1914, was conceded b to Canada, Australia and other dominions.  We know now that they all of them proceeded to full sovereignty, without   the suffering and bitterness of war.

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

I believe the Irish Parliamentary Party would have been aware of this. They would have realised that once violence is introduced into the blood stream of politics, it is very hard to get it out again. So it has proved.

Given the value Irish people place on each human life, those who take life, have the primary burden of proof to discharge. It was for them to prove that no other way was open.  I believe that the Irish Parliamentary Party would have felt that that test was not passed by those who initiated the Rebellion in 1916.

They would have felt  that Home Rule, already law, could, once brought into force have led Ireland to the same position of Canada enjoys today, if that was the wish of the Irish people.

The Home Rule Parliament would have elected under the same wide suffrage that applied in 1918. Sinn Fein would have won significant representation in the Home Rule House of Commons, as would the Irish Labour Party and the group led by Tim Healy. All three groups would have pressed for ever greater degrees of independence, going beyond Dominion status.

Home Rule was not brought into force immediately on its passage into law because it was felt that it would distract from what was expected to be a short duration war effort. That postponement was not controversial in Ireland at the time .Indeed John Dillon had said “No rational man would expect the government to set up an Irish Parliament while war was raging”

Home Rule could have also come into effect in late 1916, and Carson had agreed to that on the basis that the six counties would be excluded for the time being and would be administered directly from Westminster. That did not happen because some Conservative members of government, Lansdowne, Selborne, and Long, objected because of the disturbed state of Ireland in the wake of the Rebellion and the fear that Germany, who had allied themselves with the rebels, would exploit the situation militarily.

But, regardless of that Home Rule would have come into effect at the end of the war, if that was the path the Irish people chose in the  December 1918 Election. They did not do so

It would not be  credible to say that the UK would have denied to a Home Rule Ireland, the powers it freely granted to dominions like Canada and Australia, under the Statute of Westminster of 1931, if that is what the Irish people really  wanted.

The suffering of the War of Independence was, I believe, not needed to achieve Dominion Status.

In the 1918 Election, the policy of the Irish Party, led by John Dillon, was Dominion Status for Ireland.

The policy of Sinn Fein, led by Eamon de Valera was complete separation of the 32 counties from the UK on the basis of the 1916 Proclamation.

Sinn Fein won the election but, after all the killing in the War of Independence, all they ended up with was Dominion status, the very policy of their defeated Irish party opponents.

Therein lay the roots of the Civil War from 1922 to 1923. After all the deaths of the War of Independence, the separatists had to accept, in the Treaty, the exact policy of their democratically defeated  Irish Party opponents of 1918.

It is said that Home Rule would have left British forces on Irish territory. But so also did the Treaty of 1921. It left the UK military in control of ports on Irish territory.

But these ports were handed back in 1938, through entirely peaceful negotiation.  The fact that those ports could be won back by purely peaceful negotiation on the eve of World War Two, shows that the limitations on Home Rule could also have been negotiated away, peacefully.

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

The choice to use force in 1916, and again in 1919, must be subjected severe reappraisal , in light of what  we can see  might been achieved, and was in fact achieved by other former British dependencies, without the loss of life .

Remarks by John Bruton at a Seminar on the 1916 Rebellion, organised by the Society of Former Members of the Dail and Senate,  in the Senate Chamber in  Leinster House Dublin at 2.15 pm on Friday 22 January.



Paper prepared by John Bruton, former Taoiseach, on what would happen if the UK votes to leave the EU, the procedures and options available, and the implications for Ireland , the European Union and the UK itself.  

Next June the people of the UK may vote to leave the European Union. At the moment, a narrow majority favours remaining in the EU, but a large group are undecided. That group could swing towards a “leave” position, for a variety of reasons, including what might be temporary EU problems with refugees. However temporary the reasons might be, a decision to leave, once made, would be politically irreversible.

So it would be wise for Ireland to give thought now to how it might react to a decision by UK voters to leave the EU , and how it would play its hand in the subsequent negotiations. A number of scenarios will arise and Ireland needs to identify its red lines in each one of these.


The negotiation of a UK withdrawal from the EU will be done under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. It will have to be a quick negotiation because Article 50 contains a two year time limit. In practice the negotiation of withdrawal arrangements will all have to be finished in about 21 months.

From the date that the UK Prime Minister informs the European Council of his/ her decision to implement the referendum decision, the two year time limit starts to run. Assuming a June 2016 Referendum, I calculate the Withdrawal Treaty would have to been negotiated, ratified, and brought into force by July 2018.

So the negotiations themselves between the EU side and the UK side would probably have to be finished at latest by April 2018, to allow time for parliamentary ratifications.

In the event that no agreement had been reached within the deadline, the EU Treaties “would cease to apply” to the UK. The UK would simply be out of the EU, without even a trade agreement.

This would be exceptionally disruptive of the UK economy, and of some, but not all, EU states’ economies. It would be particularly bad for Ireland. Our exports to the UK would be at risk, and the border would be deepened with incalculable consequences.


The two year limit could be extended, but only with the consent of all 27 members of the EU. If the negotiations had become contentious, or if the UK demands bore heavily against the interests of one or two states, one could see the required unanimous consent for an extension of negotiating time being withheld.

This risk of a single refusal to extend time for negotiation, adversely affects the dynamics of the negotiation, from a UK point of view, because the UK has more to lose from failure. It is not inconceivable that a populist government in a member state might hold a time extension for the UK hostage to obtain some other unrelated matter, such as debt relief. A European Parliament in election year could also be a source of uncertainty.

While a time extension would require unanimity, the actual negotiation of the terms of withdrawal would need a “Qualified Majority” within the European Council.


That means that the terms of the Withdrawal Treaty would need to support of 72% of the 27 EU governments, collectively representing at least 65% of the total EU population. Ireland, on its own, could not block a Withdrawal Treaty that contained terms that were against Irish interests. Nor could Ireland guarantee it would be agreed on terms that would adequately protect Ireland’s interests. For example, Ireland could not necessarily prevent passport controls or customs posts on the border in Ireland.

While 72% of EU member state governments must agree to the Treaty terms, 100% of the 27 national parliaments must do so, and ratification could become entangled in General Elections in some states in the interim.

While our fellow EU member states will undoubtedly recognise the Ireland will suffer more than any other EU state from a UK withdrawal, that does not guarantee that Irish interests will be taken into account in all cases. Quid pro Quo will apply, and that could cause difficulties on vital Irish interests on EU issues that have little direct bearing on the UK Withdrawal as such.

Given the short time involved, the UK will not have the option of pursuing a relaxed post referendum exploration of different types of external association with the EU. It will probably have to decide at the outset what form of relationship it is seeking. It will have to choose among options that do not require the EU itself to change its Treaties.

The options were well described in a recent paper by Jean Claude Piris, former legal advisor to the European Council.


The simplest would be to join the European Economic Area (EEA), while leaving the EU itself. The EEA allows Iceland, Liechstenstein and Norway to take part in the EU Single Market, but without being in the EU Agricultural, Fisheries, Judicial and Foreign Policies.

In the EEA, the UK would still have to contribute to the EU budget, to apply EU Single Market rules without having the say it now has in them, and to allow free movement of EU migrants to work in the UK on the same terms as locals.

Ireland’s problem with this option would be the departure of the UK from the EU Common Agricultural Policy which would raise issues of fair competitive access for Irish farm produce to the UK market. Management of Atlantic Fisheries would also become more contentious.


Less simple, would be for the UK to seek to make tailor made agreements with the EU, like Switzerland has. This negotiation would be a very complex process where tradeoffs would have to be sought between different sectors and national interests. The Swiss model has not worked well from an EU point of view, and one could expect EU negotiators to take an exceptionally tough line if this is what the UK seeks. The issue of access to the UK labour market for EU citizens would certainly be a demand from the EU side in such a negotiation.

In practice, if not in theory, the UK would have to implement EU law in all the areas for which it sought access to the EU market. This would be very problematic from the point of view of the financial services exports from London to Europe.

Once such a deal had been concluded, the EU side would be under pressure to tilt its own internal rules to favour financial service providers in the EU itself. If a system of mutual support and mutual supervision of financial service providers existed within the EU, and the UK was not part of that, there would then be valid grounds for objecting to UK financial service providers benefitting from a market they were not supporting on the same basis as EU providers.

This could hurt London, and Dublin could be a beneficiary. Outside the EU, the UK could do little to stop this. The European Banking Authority would have to leave London and there would be a good case for relocating it in Dublin.


Another option would be for UK just to seek a trade agreement with the EU, like Canada has. This option is favoured by some of those who want the UK to leave the EU, so it needs to be studied.

The first thing to say about this is that it would have to be negotiated within the two year time limit applying to a Withdrawal Treaty under Article 50, and would presumably have to be part of the Withdrawal Treaty. The existing Canada Agreement took 6 years to negotiate and dealt with a much less complex relationship than that between the UK and the rest of Europe. It is very hard to see how all this could be done in the time frame. The European Parliament would actively involve itself in the details. The UK would be excluded from the European council discussions on the topic.

A Canada type agreement would not necessarily mean continuing tariff free access to the EU for all UK goods. Some tariffs remain on some Canadian goods for the time being.

It is unlikely that a trade agreement like this, or even a Customs Union of the kind Turkey has with the EU, would allow the UK access to the EU financial services market and financial services are one of the UK’s biggest exports.

It is clear that under a Canada style agreement, the UK would have to comply with EU rules on any goods or services it wanted to export to Ireland or to any other EU member state. The UK would have no say in the framing of these rules, but it would still be bound by them.

Of course, the UK would be free to make its own rules for goods and services sold within the UK, but the downside of that would be that UK firms would then have to operate under two different rule books, one for the UK and another for the EU, thereby adding to their costs and damaging their competitiveness.

Once a Canada style agreement had been made, the UK would be out of the EU and would have no control over any further rules on new topics that the EU might need to make.

The Canada agreement is clear that it does not restrict the EU making “new laws in areas of interest” to it.

If the Canada model was followed there would be a Regulatory Cooperation Forum to cover this sort of thing. In the Canadian model, this Forum would allow

  • “exchange of information and experiences”,
  • “only provide suggestions and make no rules” and
  • “not have decision making powers”.

In other words the UK would be in a worse position than it is as a voting member of the EU.

If , after the UK had withdrawn, the EU deepened its service market further, allowing new access rights across border for service providers within the EU, the UK would miss out on this and would have to negotiate access for its service providers on a case by case basis.

The rights of the 1.8 million UK citizens now living in EU countries would also be less secure. UK citizens, living in Ireland or the continent, would enjoy only what Canadians enjoy.


Furthermore, the UK would have to start from scratch negotiating trade agreements with countries all over the world, to replace the trade agreements it now has with all those same countries as a member of the EU.

The UK Parliament would certainly be busy as well, in that it would have to pass new UK laws to replace all the EU regulations that are now part of UK law.

The only alternative to this would be for the UK to decide to leave all the “acquis” of EU rules and regulations, which are now supposedly so objectionable, on the UK statute book, as they are, for a long time to come.

One proponent of UK exit from the EU, Lord Lamont, admitted, in a debate with me recently, that this is what they would have to do.

Leaving the EU, only to leave EU rules on the UK statute book, seems like a lot of trouble to achieve very little!


There would be no second referendum on the final terms of any Withdrawal Treaty.

This has been made clear by Chancellor Osborne. That has to be his position because, if there was to be such a referendum, the choice would presumably be either to leave on the basis of the terms of withdrawal Treaty, or stay in on the basis of the EU membership exactly as it is today.

If such a second referendum was formally in prospect, it is hard to see that the EU side would have any incentive at all to offer the UK any concessions at in the Withdrawal Treaty negotiations. They would be mad to do so, because all the concessions would achieve, would be to make withdrawal more attractive.


I believe that the architects of the UK’s renegotiation/referendum strategy did not adequately consider how hazardous the voyage is, on which they have so casually embarked. They may have overestimated the EU’s political capacity to devise yet another special deal for the UK.

Ireland, for its part, will have to adopt a very tough, deliberate, and multifaceted negotiating strategy, as long as this avoidable uncertainty prevails.


Sunday Independent

An article in the “Sunday Independent” by Gene Kerrigan claimed that it was “nonsense” to claim that Home Rule, enacted into law in 1914 could have led, peacefully to Irish independence. Below is my response to this which the paper published on 17 January

Gene Kerrigan said on Sunday  3 January that does not think John Redmond should have supported voluntary recruitment to the UK Army in 1914, and, from that questionable proposition, he leaps to the conclusion that the 1916 Rebellion was both necessary and right.

These are two separate questions.  The killing, on the western front or at Gallipoli, did not justify the additional killing planned by the 1916 rebels, or vice versa.

Conscription was not imposed in Ireland during the Great War, although it did apply in Britain. All the Irish who fought in the Great War were volunteers. Conscription in Ireland was threatened in 1918, but it was not applied, because of mass political agitation, not because of the use of violence in Dublin two years earlier.

Redmond’s 1914 decision to support voluntary recruitment was made for a number of reasons, one of which was that Home Rule had just been passed into law. It was not just “promised” as Mr Kerrigan says, but passed into law and signed, after a long struggle which required Redmond to threaten to bring down the Liberal Government if it did not abolish the House of Lords’ veto.

It is wrong to describe the tough parliamentary tactics Redmond adopted as mere “mediating between rulers and ruled”. As did Parnell in his time, Redmond was willing to use the ultimate parliamentary weapon, bringing down the government and precipitating a General Election, to achieve his goal , the passage into law of Home Rule for Ireland.

Without that threat by Redmond, the UK Parliament would not have conceded the principle of Irish self government, when it irrevocably did so in September 1914, after three years parliamentary struggle, and in face of threats in Ulster.

Redmond was no mere mediator. He was a tough democratic politician who made the hard choices.

Mr Kerrigan may believe that big powers have no obligation to defend the neutrality of small countries, when the latter are attacked. Redmond did not agree with that approach. He accepted in his Woodenbridge speech that France and the UK had an obligation to defend the neutrality of Belgium when it was invaded, without any provocation at all, by Imperial Germany in August 1914.

Redmond believed Belgian neutrality should be protected.   I wonder what course Mr Kerrigan would have advised the Belgians to adopt, if he had been around in 1914.

He is , of course, right to say that our task today is to understand ” what the choices were for those who created this state”.

If so, the first thing one must do is accept that they did actually HAVE a choice.

They could have chosen not to start the killing and dying in Dublin in 1916. Most Irish people, at the time, did not think they made the right choice, including this newspaper.

The military commander of the Irish Volunteers, Eoin McNeill, also thought it was wrong choice at that time, a “mistake” in other words.

There are other reasons, apart from military discipline, to question the choice made. Mr Kerrigan himself suggested in his article on 3 January that the 1916 leaders, who went ahead against McNeill’s orders, deliberately and knowingly, sought to bring suffering on their own people, in order to achieve their political goals. Mr Kerrigan endorsed this calculated provocation of foreseeable, and foreseen, suffering imposed on uninvolved Irish people.

As Mr Kerrigan put it, the leaders of the rebellion had what he called a “pragmatic belief” that, if they staged a rebellion, the authorities

“would strike back viciously, its oppression undisguised, and thereby inflame nationalist feeling “.

He is not alone in this interpretation, but we should think very carefully about what it really means , before we decide that  the actions of the 1916 leaders are to be treated, from now on,  as  the seminal event of our modern, peaceful,  democracy.

 Mr Kerrigan’s claim is, after all, that the rebel leaders, coldly and calculatedly, to advance their political goals, foresaw, and even sought, the sufferings, that fell on the Irish people as result of their military actions. It would be difficult to reconcile that approach with any known concept of a just war.

The bulk of the suffering in Dublin in 1916 was not by the “Volunteers”,   but by I would call  the “Involunteers”, the  civilians and unarmed police, who did not choose to put their lives at risk, who were  just getting on with their daily work, but were killed  anyway.

The 1916 leaders made what Mr Kerrigan praises as a “pragmatic” choice to set in train events that, with foreknowledge, led to all those deaths, then and later between 1919 and 1923.

Now some will claim that Home Rule was inadequate. It was. In practice, I believe it would only have applied to a maximum of 28 counties.  There would not have been a United Ireland.

 But after three generations of some among our people continuing with   the sort of  “pragmatic” violence, that  your correspondent mistakenly praises, we do not have a United Ireland today either!

The fact remains that, through solely parliamentary methods, the principle of Irish legislative independence had been already won from the Imperial Parliament, in September 1914, BEFORE any rebellion here, and, as Conservative leader Bonar Law subsequently admitted, there was no going back on it.

The same principle of legislative independence was conceded b to Canada, Australia and to the other dominions.  We know now that they all proceeded to full sovereignty, without the necessity of a Civil War.

A Home Rule Ireland would have done the same, if that was the wish of the Irish people. After all, the Home Rule Parliament would have elected under the same wide suffrage that applied in 1918.

I believe Ireland would then have proceeded, by negotiation over time, to full independence on the basis of the votes, not the bullets, of the Irish people.

Commemoration is one of the ways by which a people defines itself, and tells itself what it regards as important now and for future generations.

I believe peaceful democratic achievements, like land reform, the enactment of Home Rule in 1914, the enactment of the 1922 and 1937 constitutions, and the declaration to the Republic in 1949, should therefore be commemorated, with equal or greater prominence than  military actions.



Revised article for “Irish Times”

We will only have an intelligent debate about spending and taxation, in the forthcoming Irish General Election, if we know that spending and revenue estimates for all the following five years, and if the policy choices that underlie them, are accurate and fully explained

The Spring Economic statement by the Irish Government was criticised, mainly because it contained “nothing new”.

This type of criticism showed how little had been learned from the recent economic crisis. A constant search for novelty in annual budgets is what got Ireland got into difficulty in the first place. New” initiatives” in budgets from 2000 to 2007 eviscerated the tax base, and led to unsustainable spending commitments.  In that deluded era , if the annual budget did not contain a  new and costly announcement , the Minister would have been accused of lack “vision”!

Now the same chorus is beginning to be heard again. Memories are indeed short.

In  the debate on the Spring Statement, Minister Brendan Howlin said  the government was “now planning expenditures on a multiyear basis”, and  that Departments are operating under “multi annual expenditure ceilings”.  

Although these ceilings are legally mandated, are they firm enough, or can they be  too easily raised without serious questions being asked?

Certainly, in the 2000 to 2006 period, the second and third year ceilings on spending were fictitious.  It turned out that spending in the second year exceeded the” ceiling” by 6%, and the third year by 12%. Low figures were put on paper, but the decisions needed to stay within the figures were not taken. This was politically understandable, but financially disastrous, as we now know.

Since 2011, three year spending ceilings have been much firmer in most Departments, but not in all. 

In fact, one Department, Health has been responsible for 70% of the breaches in the ceilings (which altogether totalled over 600 million euros ). 

This should not be. Health spending should be predictable.

When allowance is made for the relative youth of the Irish population, Ireland is nearly the highest spender on health in the OECD.  But health outcomes here are only average. We have the second highest number of nurses per 100000 people, and 5th highest number of physicians of 34 countries surveyed by the OECD.

As the population ages, pressures on health budgets will further increase. 

Brendan Howlin has pointed out that the ageing of Irish society will add 200 million euros per year to health costs and that high birth rate will necessitate the appointment of 3500 extra teachers by 2021.

Next year, the natural growth in demand for existing services public spending will on its own increase spending by 300 million euros, without ANY change in policy.

Furthermore, the  Government is obliged  to reduce public expenditure as a percentage of GDP up to 2020 by its Stability Programme published in April.

Under it, GDP is set to grow by 3%, but public spending by only 1%. The difference is needed to allow for reduction of debt, as required by the Fiscal Compact the Irish people approved in a Referendum.

In essence, demographics are pushing spending UP, while tough debt reduction requirements are pushing it DOWN.

Of course, taxation can be increased too, but not by much, without risking a flight of capital and talent to elsewhere in the mobile, globalised, world in which we live.

So expenditure ceilings, for the forthcoming five years for each Department, including Health, will have to be set with rigorous honesty and courage, and then kept to. There can be no optimistic under estimates, as there sometimes were in the past. 

This natural increase in spending, without policy change, needs to be spelled out for each Department, and separated completely from any increase (or reduction) that is due to a policy change.

The budget system should incentivise local managements, who know their services best, to make the necessary savings and reallocations in time. They know how to do it in the least painful fashion.  That job cannot be done as easily by Merrion Street.

If a Department or service  finds itself on track to exceed its published annual expenditure ceiling,  for the present year or a future year, Dail Eireann should be immediately alerted. There ought to be a special procedure whereby both the Minister, and the Secretary General, explain the deviation.

The same should apply to any tax concession that turns out to cost more than estimated.  The criteria for this should be formalised  in Dail Standing Orders .

The Minister would account for, and quantify any policy changes, unexpected events, or recalculations, that account for an excess, and the Secretary Genera would account for any lapses in expenditure management.

This would ensure that the costing of future spending and tax commitments would  be “evidence based”.  

A family has to plan its finances five years ahead, and take corrective action if things are getting off track. 

Government should do the same.

Note ; As Minister for Finance in 1981, John Bruton published ”A Better Way to Plan the Nations Finances”, which advocated multi annual budgeting by the State.


The Spring Economic statement by the Irish Government  has come in for criticism, mainly that it contains “nothing new”.

This sort of criticism is understandable from the point of view of a media ,for whom novelty is what gets attention. 

But  a search for novelty  is what got Ireland got into difficulty in the first place.

The persistent search for novelty and “new initiatives” in annual budgets, every year from 2000 to 2007,was one of the reasons Ireland overspent, and got itself into a crash. Novelties in annual budgets eviscerated the tax base, and led to unsustainable spending commitments. 

At that time, if the budget had not contained some sort of big new announcement every year , the Minister would have been open to the criticism that he lacked “vision” or “imagination”. 
Now the same chorus is beginning to be heard again. Memories are indeed short.

The Spring Statement does not contain any such novelties,  but from the point of view of the public, if not the media,  that is a very good thing. It restores an important sense of perspective.

The important perspectives  in the Spring Statement are that 

  • Growth in Ireland was 4.8% last year and will probably be 4% this year. This is the highest growth rate in Europe
  • 95000 new jobs have been added since 2012, and the IDA plans to attract a further 900 new investments by 2019, adding 80000 new jobs
  • net emigration is likely to cease next year, on present trends
  • The government deficit of spending over revenue was 15 billion euros, and it is now 4.5 billion euros

In his contribution o the Spring Statement, the Minister for Public Expenditure said again that the government is “now planning expenditures on a multiyear basis”, and  that Departments are operating under “multi annual expenditure ceilings”.

He also drew attention to the fact that the ageing of Irish society will add 200 million euros per year to health costs, and that the high birth rate will necessitate the appointment of 3500 extra teachers by 2021.

In fact, next year, the natural growth in demand for existing services public spending will on its own increase spending by 300 million euros, without ANY change in policy

This natural upward pressure on spending will mean that the setting of expenditure ceilings  for each Department will be a difficult task, requiring honesty and courage. 

This natural increase in spending, without policy change, needs to be spelled out for each Department, and separated completely from any increase that is due to a policy change.

In recent years, the expenditure ceilings for one or two major services have been repeatedly breached. A ceiling that can be too easily breached will not keep out the rain!  It certainly imposes no discipline on local management.

This sort of breach in an expenditure ceiling can, of course, be easily explained, if there has, for example,  been an unexpected increase in unemployment. It is less understandable if the demand for, or the cost of, normal health services has been underestimated .

It should be possible to predict the level of demand for, and the cost of, health services a few years ahead, on the basis of known facts about the age structure of the population, and to separate that from increases in spending that arise from unexpected one off factors. 

The budget system should incentivise local managements, who know their services best, to make the necessary savings and reallocations in time.  That job cannot be done as easily by Merrion Street.

If a Department exceeds its agreed annual expenditure ceiling, there ought to be a special procedure whereby both the Minister, and the Secretary General, of a Department, provides an early special statement to the Dail. This could be provided for in Standing Orders .

The Minister would account for, and quantify any policy changes, unexpected events, or recalculations that account for an excess, and the Secretary Genera would account for any lapses in expenditure management.

That procedure would ensure that future expenditure allocations would  be “evidence based”,  which is one of the  goals of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform.  It would add to the seriousness of the Estimates process and impose better accountability.

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