John Bruton

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Category: John Bruton (Page 1 of 6)


Europe is getting old.

This is happening for two reasons

  • We are living longer
  • We are having fewer children.

Life expectancy in the European Union countries was 67 years in 1950, now it is 80 years. In fact, life expectancy is increasing by 3 months every year.

In 1960, the birth rate was an average of 3 children for every woman. Now it is halved to 1.5 children for every woman.

There are small variations between countries, with a higher than average birth rate of nearly 2 in France, Sweden, Ireland and the UK (in declining order). The lowest birth rate in the EU is in Portugal, followed in order by Poland, Spain, Greece and Italy.

Interestingly, the proportion of woman with work outside the home does not lead to lower birth rates, according to these international comparisons.

Europe’s declining, and ageing, population has had, and is likely continue to have dramatic effects.

Whereas Europeans made up 13.5% of the world’s population in 1960, by 2060 Europeans will only be 5% of the world population. Political perceptions have yet to catch up with this reality.

In 2016, the fastest declines in population (in order) were in Lithuania, Latvia, Croatia, Belgium and Romania.  But there was some growth in Luxembourg, Sweden, Malta and Ireland. These changes are due to immigration within the EU.

The number of Europeans of working age will fall by 65 million people by 2060.

Unless people retire later in future, this will mean fewer people earning and in a position to pay taxes, and more people retired and receiving pensions and health services, paid for by someone else.

With fewer young people, EU countries will have fewer local people available to work in the health services, in social care, and providing minimal military and police security for European population.

To recruit these young people into services, much higher salaries will have to be paid and/or immigrants will have to be recruited to these jobs.

Human Services, already poor in many countries, are likely to disimprove, and become costlier, unless people providing services are replaced by robots.

Older people will have different priorities to younger people.

They will tend not to be as entrepreneurial as younger people, and to be more risk averse. They will tend to spend more of their income and save less of it.

So we could have fewer innovations, and less capital from saving available to fund them. This combination is a formula for lower economic growth, at a time when demand for the fruits of growth to go on healthcare and pensions will be increasing.

These trends are not, of course, entirely inevitable.

  • European birth rates could increase. In the last few years, they have stopped falling. Women could decide to have children at a younger age. French policy on this issue is worth looking at.
  • Improvement in educational methods and efficiency could mean that young people are ready to working productively, at an earlier age, rather than at progressively later ages, as is the present trend. One must ask if vested interests are behind the ever higher qualifications being required for certain jobs.
  • Retirement ages could be increased. Some countries have already done this. It is not popular because it is seen as reducing pension entitlements
  • Cultural change could lead to greater activity rates, and innovativeness in business, among older people. This could boost economic growth and reduce dependency.
  • Rather than resist immigration, Europeans could start to encourage it, on the basis that we need immigrants, of working age, to staff our hospitals, security services, and pay taxes. Germany is thinking along these lines. But the reverse is happening at the moment.

For example, the EU is entering into deals with countries like Morocco, Libya and Turkey to keep refugees out of Europe, at least until we have figured out a way to integrate the refugees we already have. These deals are in response to voters who have fears about immigration.

Public opinion is divided.  50% of people in Hungary and Poland regard refugees as a burden. But majorities in Germany, Sweden and Spain believe the refugees will eventually make their country stronger.

If immigrants are to help EU countries to maintain a healthy and balanced population structure, we are going to have to give a lot more thought to how best to help immigrants become fully integrated into society, with good links to the native born population.

Workplaces alone cannot bear the whole burden of integrating their workforces, as we see from experience in Northern Ireland of relatively little political and cultural integration between ”Nationalists” and “Unionists”. Work places have perhaps become more specialised and solitary, and opportunities for integration between workmates may be less as a result.

Local communities, and religious, sporting and cultural organisations must play a part too. Where these organisations receive support from public funds, they should perhaps get a little extra if they have a good record of integrating immigrants.

Schools are very important, especially where the language spoken in the home is different from that of the school.

Pre school outreach to mothers of future pupils has been effective in improving literacy, and subsequent school performance, so it might also help with learning English too.




I wish to pay tribute to the life and political career of Paddy Harte.

Paddy was first elected to the Dail in 1961 and quickly earned a reputation as an original, independent minded, individual who thought for himself about the political questions of the day.

He was supportive of the late Declan Costello in promoting the ideas in the 1965 “Just Society” document, notably on social capital investment.

He was a resolute opponent of republican political violence. Working with Glenn Barr, he sought reconciliation between Nationalists and Unionists on the island, notably through the joint commemoration of the sacrifices both communities made during the First World War. This was often a lonely path for him to follow, and he showed great physical and moral courage.

Statement by John Bruton, former Taoiseach

Radio Interview with Sean O’Rourke


Peter Sutherland was a brave and highly competent Attorney General of Ireland.

He remained committed to this country and helped Irish causes through his exceptional generosity.

In 1984, he was appointed to the European Commission.

Peter was especially proud of his initiative in setting up the Erasmus Student Exchange programme, which has had a profound and beneficial effect on the lives of hundreds of thousands of young Europeans.

In the wake of the passage of the Single European Act, which allowed majority voting on measures needed to establish the EU Single Market. As Commissioner, he negotiated a new legislative procedure which allowed for this and enhanced the role of the European Parliament.

As Competition Commissioner, he was aggressive in pursuing cases of unfair state aid, an activity which sometimes brought him into conflict with the Commission President, Jacques Delors, with President Mitterand and with Mrs. Thatcher. He was unafraid and stood his ground, and vindicated the independence of the Commission.

His most remarkable achievement was, as Director General of the GATT in getting the agreement, at a meeting of 160 nations in Marrakesh in 1994, to the establishment of the WTO.

The WTO established supranational panels to arbitrate trade disputes. It built the foundation for the building of a rules-based international order, in international trade, which has contributed to a quarter century of global prosperity, because the rules protected the weak as well as the strong.

This concern to protect the weak inspired his work for asylum seekers and refugees in more recent times.

He was a man of faith, who showed, through his life, that faith and modernity can be reconciled. His talents brought him great success, but he was always conscious of his responsibility to help others and give back to society.


The United Kingdom Cabinet is, at last, getting around to discussing the sort of trade agreement it wants to have with the EU after it has left.

It intends to make up its mind by mid January, according to the Sun newspaper.  

The UK Prime Minister has ruled out staying on in the EU Customs Union (like Turkey) or in the Single Market (like Norway).

Although she has ruled out these “soft Brexit” options, Mrs. May has gone much further.

She has committed, in the Joint Report of EU/UK negotiations to “the avoidance of a hard border, including any infrastructure or related checks and controls” at the border in Ireland, and also to protect Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market.

Customs checks exist at the EU border with both Turkey and Norway, so Mrs. May’s promise in the Joint Report goes beyond either the Turkish or Norwegian options.

It is noteworthy that the UK has not just said that it will not, itself, ever erect a hard border on its own side.  It has committed itself to the “avoidance” of such a border, presumably on either side. That would mean that the UK has bound itself not to adopt any UK policies that would require the EU, under its existing rules, to impose such border controls.

That would rule out devising new and distinctive UK product standards, which Boris Johnson suggested over the weekend. It would also rule out Philip Hammond’s idea of the UK diverging from EU rules on certain technologies.  


After Brexit, Ireland will remain a member of the EU Customs Union.

There will be no customs controls between this state and the rest of the EU, at Zeebrugge or le Havre or anywhere else. So where will the customs controls be?

As a member of the Customs Union, Ireland will remain bound by the terms of the EU Customs Code.

The EU Customs Code was agreed in 1992, when the UK was a member of the EU, and the UK will have been fully aware, from the outset, of the obligations of EU member states under it.

Article 2(1) of the Customs Code says it shall “apply uniformly throughout the Community”.

This would seem to imply that it applies right up to the Irish border on this side, unless there is a derogation for Ireland, or the UK agrees, as a non member, to apply the EU Customs Code in its jurisdiction too.

It would be difficult for the UK to reconcile doing this, with the rhetoric used in the Referendum about the UK “taking back control”.

The Customs Code is quite strict. For example, it mandates  “customs offices of entry” at which documents may be lodged, opportunities for collecting information for risk management by the Customs, opportunities to check compliance with rules of origin, and provisions for the unloading of goods to check contents and take samples.

If the UK is to keep its promise not to do things, that would necessitate such controls at either side the Irish border, it will constrain itself in ways for which UK public opinion, and both Boris Johnson and Philip Hammond, are not yet be prepared.

In preparing its proposed framework for a new UK relationship with the EU, the UK will also need to take account of the constraints under which the EU operates, in its relations with third countries.


The EU would have difficulty offering the UK better terms than it would offer another European country.

For example, Norway and Switzerland have access to the EU market.  They also make ongoing financial contributions every year to poorer regions within the EU.  Those agreements with Norway and Switzerland would be undermined, if UK got a similar deal, without similar contributions.

Furthermore, any EU/UK deal will have to comply with the Interlaken principles.

These principles govern all EU agreements with third countries and were formulated in 1978, with UK participation.  They have been followed ever since.

The first Interlaken principle is that, in developing relations with non-member states, the EU will always prioritise its own internal integration. The UK cannot expect the EU to agree to anything that would cause divisions within the EU.

The second Interlaken principle is that the EU must safeguard its own decision-making autonomy. For example, the European Court of Justice, and the legislative bodies of the EU, cannot be constrained in their decision making processes by any deal made with the UK.  The idea that a joint UK/EU court might have precedence over the ECJ would run counter to this principle.

The third Interlaken principle is that any relationship must be based on “a balance of benefits and obligations”. It is not for the non-member state to choose only those aspects of EU integration it likes.


There is another factor the UK will need to take into account. This is the “Most Favoured Nation Principle” of the WTO, which is the foundation stone for global trade.

It requires the extension, to ALL members of the WTO, of any “advantage, favour, privilege or immunity” that is offered to one.

Cherry picking in international trade could get the UK into trouble with all the countries with which it does business.

Formulating a UK proposal, which satisfies all these conflicting criteria, will be hugely demanding task, not only politically, but intellectually and legally.

“Taking back control” and  “no hard border” are hard to reconcile, to put it mildly.

The dilemma, in which the UK in which now finds itself, may be self created, but it is real.  Irish people should wish Teresa May well, in her immensely difficult task.

Her political weakness helps her move things forward, in the short term, but it makes it harder for her to make a permanent deal that will endure in face of the disappointed expectations of those who voted for Brexit.








“El Reino Unido ha puesto a Irlanda en una situación casi imposible”

El Mundo correspondent, Carlos Freneda, interviewed John Bruton for Spanish Newspaper. 

“El Brexit dañará más a la economía irlandesa que a la británica”, afirma el ex primer ministro irlandés John Bruton

Londres abonará entre 45.000 y 55.000 millones de euros como factura por el Brexit

John Bruton (Dunboyne, 1947) fue primer ministro irlandés en los “felices” 90: del mercado único que suprimió las barreras físicas entre las dos Irlandas, al Acuerdo del Viernes Santo que allanó el camino al proceso de paz. Bruton advierte ahora que los avances logrados en los últimos veinte años pueden saltar por los aires con el Brexit, que tendrá un mayor impacto económico y social en la vecina Irlanda que en el propio Reino Unido.

¿Hay alguna manera de soluciona el “problema irlandés”? ¿Se puede quedar una parte de isla dentro de la UE y la otra fuera?
El obstáculo está en la mente cerrada de la facción pro-Brexit del Partido Conservador. No entienden que los mercados abiertos requieren normas comunes, decididas democráticamente entre los países e interpretadas de un modo uniforme. Eso es lo que facilita la UE. La permanencia en el mercado único y en la unión aduanera podría ser una solución, pero los brexiteros (y los unionistas) no ven nigún valor en ello… El Reino Unido ha puesto a Irlanda en una posición casi imposible, tanto para preservar el proceso de paz como para asegurar el libre comercio entre las dos partes de la isla. Una vuelta a la frontera dura seriviría para aislar los nacionalistas del norte de una manera peligrosa… El Brexit dañará potencialmente más a la economía irlandesa que a la británica. El Reino Unido puede haber votado a favor de este acto de autolesión económica, pero los ciudadanos de la República de Irlanda no han votado, y los de Irlanda del Norte han votado por la permanencia.
El Gobierno británico ha llegado a sugerir una frontera “virtual” y sin fricciones, sin necesidad de volver a instalar aduanas y con los últimos avances tecnológicos…
Eso no es posible. Dos terceras partes de los cargamentos que atravesarán la frontera tendrían que ser inspeccionados en algún lugar, y eso crearía poblemas.
Usted ha llegado a decir que Irlanda debe hacer cuanto esté en su mano para evitar el Brexit ¿Lo cree aún posible?
Lo que creo que debería hacerse en prolongar el tiempo límite que fija el Artículo 50 y tener un margen de dos a seis años para intentar resolver las complejidades a las que nos enfrentamos. Así se daría tiempo a los británicos para cambiar de opinión si lo consideran, y eso haría innecesario un acuerdo de transición. El Reino Unido debería seguir siendo un miembro con derecho a voto durante ese tiempo.
¿Qué pasaría en Irlanda si el Reino Unido opta por marcharse de un portazo y sin un acuerdo con la UE?
Eso sería desastroso para nosotros a medio plazo, y a largo plazo dañaría considerablemente las relaciones entre Irlanda y el Reino Unido. En ese caso, Irlanda tendería los puentes económicos y culturas hacia otros países como Francia y España, como ocurrió durante los conflictos del siglo XVI y XVII (en la batalla de Kinsale, sin ir más lejos).
¿Reconocerá el Reino Unido el daño que el Brexit puede causar a sus vecinos más próximos?
Hay muy pocas señales de que quieran reconocer el daño, o que les importe lo más mínimo. En lo único que piensan es en sí mismos y en “recuperar el control”. El Brexit es un proceso más “psicológico” que económico, sobre el papel de Inglaterra en el mundo. No olvidemos que el Reino Unido es una idea puesta en marcha para asegurar y preservar los intereses estratégicos y militares de Inglaterra.
¿Qué sectores de la economía irlandesa se verían afectados por el Brexit?
El sector manufacturero sobre todo: las mercancías que no pueden ser transportadas fácilmente por avión para evitar el Reino Unido. Y también la producción de carne y de lana. La agricultura sufriría mucho si tenemos normas distintas en el norte y en el sur. El sector energético lo notará también.
¿Piensa que el Brexit puede en última instancia dar impulso a la unificación de Irlanda?
El principal obstáculo a la unificación es la hostilidad por una parte muy importante de la población en Irlanda del Norte. Las actividades en el pasado del IRA y el papel que juega ahora Sinn Féin refuerza esa falta de voluntad. Tampoco creo que la población en la República de Irlanda esté dispuesta a aceptar el peso de forzar a un millón de personas a integrarse contra su voluntad en una Irlanda unida. El coste no sería solo económico, sino en términos de sociales y de sectarismo. Por supuesto que habría mucho menos problemas si ese millón de personas cambiara de opinión, pero hay pocas señales de que eso sea posible.


I have just finished reading “First Confession, A Sort of Memoir” by Chris Patten, which is published by Allen Lane.

Chris was a Minister in Margaret Thatcher’s and John Major’s governments, and was the Director of Elections for his Party in the 1992 General Election, when the Conservative Party under John Major won an unexpected victory. But Patten himself lost his seat in Bath in the same election.

Patten writes in an easy conversational style.

I particularly liked his description of his childhood, his parents, and his school years. He received his secondary education in St Benedict’s in Ealing, from which he won a scholarship to Oxford.

His father’s family came from County Roscommon shortly after the Famine, and Chris Patten, to this day, identifies strongly with his Irish and Catholic roots. His childhood was a happy one and his love for his parents shines through in this book, as does his devotion to his wife and his daughters.

Chris Patten is comfortable in his identity, and sees no need to bolster it by any form of hostility to people with a different identity. Unfortunately the Brexit vote shows that not every English person is at ease to the same degree.

He is a political conservative in the sense that he is uneasy with grand theories and overarching generalisations, whether of the left, or of the right.

He served as the last British Governor of Hong Kong, and is not flattering about China.

While its rate of economic growth continues to be remarkable, this is, in a sense, a return to the natural order of things. After all, in 1800, China was the largest economy in the world. He believes the Chinese version of Leninism has allowed the rich to get richer, and that it has had to “fall back on nationalism to justify its control of everything”.

On the other hand, he has a very high opinion of India, reminding his reader that India “had already established a rich tradition of tolerance and debate when Europeans still believed in the divine right of Kings”.This may explain why Indian democracy has survived so well.

Chris Patten served as EU Commissioner for External Relations. He argues that the UK blames the EU for failings closer to home, that have reduced British productivity below its potential, like poor second level education and unduly restrictive planning laws. But he seems to be opposed to the euro, and claims the results have been “terrible” for most members of the euro zone….a view I believe to be seriously exaggerated, if not simply wrong.

He is comfortable in his Catholic faith, and says “As a Christian, I believe in an afterlife” and that this life is not the end of the story. He says that the attempt to use science to discredit religion often assumes that science itself is infallible.

Science deals with empirical issues, whereas religion deals with values, morality and meaning. There is no necessary conflict between them, he argues. I agree.

This a good book and well worth reading.


Liam Cosgrave gave great service to this state in extremely difficult times.

He was a pioneer in important ways.

At the age of only 28 in 1948, he became the  first ever Chief Whip  a Coalition government, a daunting task for which there was no precedent for him to follow.

At the age of 36, as Minister for External Affairs and following the removal of the Soviet veto, he led Ireland into the United Nations in 1956.

In 1965, he became Leader of Fine Gael and injected a strong element of badly needed professionalism into the party’s work.

In 1970, and again in 1972, he took vital political stands, as leader of the Opposition, to protect the integrity and security of the state. In both instances, he put the country’s interest before his own political advantage.

In 1973, he became Taoiseach in a National Coalition government with the Labour Party. He managed to coalition exceptionally well, and the two parties continued to work and campaign together right to the end. In this, he established an important precedent for future coalitions.

His government faced a severe economic setback arising from the Oil Crisis. Despite this he saw progressive social welfare changes introduced, which gave increased security to families. His tax policies were designed to ensure that the burden of recession fell on the broadest shoulders. The economy was recovering strongly when he left office. He lost the 1977 Election in face of demagogic promises from his political opponents.

In private and in public, he was the same… self effacing, modest and kind. He was authentic in every way.

As a public speaker, he could hold an audience like few others. Like his father, he was a  deeply convinced democrat,  who understood the fragility of democracy, and his speeches were full of respect for the institutions that make democracy possible. This, and his deep religious faith, made it easy for him to accept the defeats and setbacks that are part of political life.

He was devoted to his family, to his late wife Vera and to their three children. To them, I extend heartfelt sympathy of the passing of a great servant of Ireland.



Last week I was in Genoa on holiday. I came across the house on the Via Al Ponte Reale where the great Irish democratic leader of the nineteenth century died in 1847, on his way to Rome.

Daniel O’Connell, who knew he was dying, wanted to have an audience with the Pope before he passed away. Unfortunately his death came too soon, in Genoa, where he had had to disembark because he had become so ill.

The house where he died is marked by two plaques, one in Latin erected shortly after his death, and another on the fiftieth anniversary of his death, by the Catholics of Genoa, in appreciation of his work for religious liberty.

The fact that he would be remembered in this way, fifty years after his death, is a sign of his immense international reputation.

Throughout his political career from 1800 to 1847, O’Connell had a vision that extended far beyond Ireland.

As he said of himself “my sympathy is not confined to the narrow limits of my own green Ireland.”

In his first days as an MP after Catholic Emancipation allowed him to take his seat, he presented a petition from Cork against slavery in the colonies.

He suggested abolishing the practice of arresting people for debt without 

judicial procedure, and he spoke in favour of a petition supporting the rights of Jews (who, like Catholics, had been denied the right to be MPs).

He favoured the secret ballot and the reform of Parliament. He fought against the remaining duties on Irish exports of malt, coal and paper to Britain. He would not have been a supporter of Brexit.

Although he was not familiar with Ulster, he did try to reach out to Loyalists, even going so far as drinking a toast to King William at a dinner in Drogheda, a risky thing to do at any time!

He made big financial sacrifices for the causes in which he believed. He could have taken up high legal office, forinstance as Master of the Rolls, a highly remunerative legal office, but chose to stay in Parliament, as an unpaid MP, to fight on for the Repeal of the Union.

Like any good politician, he was assiduous in answering his correspondence. At one stage he was answering up to 200 letters a day, and the postage alone cost him £10 per day, at a time when a £ was infinitely more valuable than it is today.

He had a deep aversion to politically motivated violence, an issue on which he differed with Thomas Davis and others who romanticised the 1798 Rebellion.

He told Dublin Corporation that, for a political purpose, he would

“not for all the universe consent to the effusion of a single drop of human blood except my own”.  

On another occasion he said

“Human blood is no cement for the temple of human liberty.”

It was because of his fear of the loss of life that he called off the monster meeting at Clontarf, a decision which the Young Ireland leaders consented to at the time, but subsequently criticised.

Asked  afterwards to name the act of his political career of which he was most proud, he said it was not  Catholic Emancipation, but the decision to cancel  the mass meeting at Clontarf, and thereby prevent the

“plains of Clontarf being, for a second time, saturated with blood”.

He knew violence, once commenced, soon get beyond the control of its initiators, as we learned in the 1916 to 1923 period.

He believed in passive resistance, and was innovative in devising ways to use it. He pioneered mass meetings, and parish level political organisation. In that sense he was ahead of the rest of Europe. He was the founder of mass political participation, and this was recognised in other countries at the time.

He worked for human rights across the globe. His opposition to human slavery was not confined to the colonies of the British Empire.

He opposed slavery in the United States, unlike the Young Irelander, John Mitchell, who subsequently actively supported it.

His opposition to slavery in the United States was deeply appreciated by those agitating within the US itself, for the abolition of slavery.

He refused political donations from slaveholders in the US.

He attacked the attempt to establish Texas as an independent slave owning state seceding from Mexico.

He criticised George Washington for owning slaves.

He clashed with the, Irish born, Catholic Bishop Hughes of New York who criticised him for his “intolerable interference in American affairs”.

O’Connell’s most recent biographer, Patrick Geoghegan says his declarations on slavery were a key factor in alienating the Young Irelanders, who believed the Repeal Association should only address domestic, not foreign, affairs.

I believe that, to be true to O’Connell’s legacy, Irish people in the twenty-first century, must take their share of responsibility for facing up to the big international moral issues of our time.  They must not confine their concern to their “own green Ireland” .

I will be taking up this theme in an address I have been invited to give to the O’Connell Summer School, which takes place in Cahirsiveen Co Kerry close to O’Connell’s home in Derrynane. This address will take place in the Library in the town at 3 pm on Friday 25th August 2017.



© By Eric Jones, CC BY-SA 2.0

A century ago on Tuesday, on 25th July 1917, the Irish Convention convened in Trinity College to make what would prove be the  final, non violent, attempt to agree a basis for relations between Ireland and Britain on an All Ireland basis.

Some of the issues the Irish Convention tried to settle one hundred years ago still divide us today….

  • Should partition be temporary or permanent?
  • To what extent should education be denominational?
  • Should Ireland be free to set its own tariffs on imports, or should Ireland and Britain be in a Customs Union?
  • In a 32 county Ireland, what protection might there be for Unionist interests?

The Convention was widely representative.

The biggest group in the Convention were the Irish Parliamentary Party, and John Redmond was among the members.

It was he who had suggested a Convention, when he rejected a suggestion by  the UK government that Home Rule be introduced for the 26 counties only, with the position of the 6 counties left aside for the time being.

The Ulster Unionists were present, led by one of their MPs , JM Barrie.

Southern Unionists also had representation, and their leading figure was Lord Midleton.

There were six representatives of the Labour movement.

The members included the  Mayors of the major cities, including Belfast, the chairmen of a number of County Councils (including I noted Meath County Council), four Catholic Bishops , two Church of Ireland Bishops and the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church.

The President of the Belfast Chamber of Commerce, Mr Pollock, and William Martin Murphy, the Dublin employers leader and owner of the” Irish Independent” , were also among the members.

Seats were allocated to the Sinn Fein Party, of Eamon de Valera and Arthur Griffith, but they refused to take them up because the terms of reference of the Convention did not allow for complete separation between Ireland and Britain.

Although Sinn Fein was not there, the Convention was a unique gathering together of Irish people of widely divergent goals.

Whereas previous attempts to resolve the “Irish Question” had taken place in Westminster in negotiations with British politicians, this was a meeting of Irish representatives, trying to resolve the outstanding issues between themselves, without direct external involvement.

In that sense, it was arguably inconsistent of Sinn Fein, with their “ourselves alone “ philosophy, not to take part, because it would have given them an opportunity to put their case to their fellow Irishmen, without what they would regard as British interference.

Although the constitutional struggle for Home Rule had been going on for 40 years, and Home Rule had passed into law three years before, the relationship between the Unionist parts of Ulster and the proposed Home Rule Government in Dublin remained a matter of deep contention.

 Ulster Unionists had, six years earlier, armed themselves to resist Home Rule and they were encouraged in this by the UK Conservative Party, who even tried, in 1911, to persuade the British Army not to take any action against the Ulster Volunteers. It could be argued that this had been a treasonable course for the Conservatives to take.

Notwithstanding this activity, the UK Parliament had passed the Home Rule Bill into law in September 1914, but its operation was postponed because the Great War had started a month earlier, and it had been felt at the time that all energies should be devoted to winning what many hoped would be a short war.

Three years later, when the Convention convened to discuss how Ulster might fit into the Home Rule scheme, the Great War was still going on. Large numbers of Irish soldiers had been killed on the Western Front and in Gallipoli.

Conscription had been imposed in Britain and in most belligerent countries , but not in Ireland. This was resented by some in Britain.

Also resented in Britain was the  Rising against British Rule, supported by Germany, that had taken place the previous year. Many of those involved were still in prison.

So the atmosphere was fraught, not just in Ireland, but in Britain too.

The Conservative Party, which had gone to such lengths six years previously to oppose Home Rule was now a predominant part of the UK government, although the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, was a Liberal.

Despite all these difficulties, Irish Nationalist ambitions were high.

Partition was rejected on principle, but no very practical ideas were advanced on how to overcome the opposition to the imposition of Home Rule from Dublin in the counties of North East Ulster.  There seems to have been an assumption that Britain would force Ulster Unionists to accept Home Rule, although the practicalities of doing this, especially during a war in Europe, were never addressed.

The new leader of Sinn Fein, Eamon de Valera, and recently elected Sinn Fein MP for East Clare offered some remarkably simplistic solutions.

He told his supporters in Killaloe that, if Ulster Unionists did not come in under Dublin rule, they would

“have to go under”

Later, in Bessbrook Co Down, during a by election campaign which his party lost, he said

“If Ulster stood in the way of Irish freedom, Ulster should be coerced”.

By attending the Convention, Mr de Valera could have tried persuasion, before resorting to the coercion he was threatening.

He apparently felt  was simpler for him to blame the British for not coercing Ulster,  than it would have been to sit down in the Convention and try to persuade his fellow Irishmen of North East Ulster to accept some form of agreed Ireland.

John Dillon, the deputy leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party warned de Valera of what attempt to coerce Ulster would entail. Speaking in Armagh, of de Valera’s idea that Ulster be forced to “go under”, he  said ;

“Against such a programme Unionist Ulster will fight to the last man living; and to all the other horrors of the situation would be added a civil war as bitter and relentless as that which reduced the country to a desert in the seventeenth century”

A similar, but less lethal, air of unreality prevailed in Southern Unionist circles. They wanted no partition, and no Home Rule.

The Convention was an attempt to reconcile these irreconcilables positions, and , given the unpromising  conditions, it made some progress.

It found a solution to the Land Question, that subsequently was enacted by the Free State government in the 1920’s.

A serious effort was made to agree some form of united Ireland. Ulster Unionists put forward a federal approach whereby an Ulster regional government would have substantial autonomy but within an all Ireland framework. Nationalists were not in favour of this. Nationalists suggested extra representation (appointed or elected) for Unionists in an all Ireland Parliament.  Unionists were not keen on this because they feared they would still be outvoted, particularly on the issue of tariffs.

Ulster industry wanted continued free trade with Britain, whereas nationalists want the power to impose customs duties on some British goods to protect Irish industries. This issue is arising again in the Brexit negotiations.  In effect Unionists wanted to be in a Customs Union with the UK, whereas Nationalists did not.

John Redmond was prepared to accept immediate Home Rule, without the power to levy customs duties, but his supporters were not and he had to back away from his proposal.

The Convention came close to agreeing a majority report with significant Nationalist and Unionist support, but this was stymied by the big German offensive of 1918 which led the UK government to propose imposing conscription in Ireland. This threat of conscription led to a crisis which destroyed any hope of agreement.

Looking back, the pity is that a Convention of this kind was not attempted in 1911, when Home Rule was first mooted. It might not have led to agreement but it might have contributed to a better understanding of the Ulster problem by all shades of Irish Nationalism.


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