John Bruton

Opinions & Ideas

Page 2 of 54


A few years back, very few Westerners would have been aware of the distinction between the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam. The aftermath of the invasion of Iraq changed all that.

In a timely book, entitled “A Concise History of the Sunnis and Shi’is”, John McHugo, who has also recently written a history of Syria, goes back to the beginning of the Muslim religion to outline its history, and explain the origin of the divisions between Shia and Sunni.

His book is well timed because the West now appears to be allowing itself to be drawn, on the side of the Sunnis, into what appears to be a religious war with the Shia in the Middle East. Does Western public opinion understand what it is getting itself into?

Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran are competing with one another in conflicts in many parts of the Muslim world. Israel has identified Iran as its number one enemy. President Trump appears follow the Israeli line. This is notwithstanding the fact that the 9/11 attackers came from Sunni Saudi Arabia and not from Shia Iran.

 As a result, in order to curb Iran, western companies are being permitted by their governments to supply arms to Saudi Arabia, which are being used against Zaydi Muslims in Yemen, who are being supported by Iran, against a Yemeni government supported by Saudi Arabia.

Some say the Zaydis are not Shia, they are in fact a sub division within Sunni Islam, others that they are a subset of Shia Islam. In fact there are many schools of thought within Islam, and lines between them are not all that rigid. Sectarian distinctions can be exaggerated for political purposes, as we know all too well in Europe.

The conflicts in Yemen and Syria can be looked at differently.  They can be presented as a power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran, that is between an ethnically Arab country on the one hand, and an ethnically Persian one on the other. That too would be an oversimplification. While most ethnically Arab nations line up with Saudi Arabia, some, like Iraq and Syria, lean towards Iran.

In Syria’s case the regime is Alawite, a sect which is neither Sunni nor Shia, but is closer to the Shia. In Iraq, the population, though ethnically Arab, is majority Shia. Shia Arabs in Lebanon have lined up on the Iran side in the Syrian Civil War and so on.

There are only four countries in which the Shia are a majority…. Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan and Bahrain.

But there are also significant Shia populations in the oil producing region of Saudi Arabia, and in Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan.

There is another strand of Islam, the Kharijis, who are a majority in Oman.

Within Sunni Islam itself, there are four different schools of thought, going back to very early times. These are the Malikis, Hanafis, Shafiis and Hanbalis.

The Maliki school are predominant in most of North Africa.

The Hanafi school predominate in Egypt, Turkey and Central Asia.

The Shafiis are strong in West Africa and Indonesia.

The Hanbali school is strongest in the Arabian peninsula

Wahhabism, a strict literalist trend within the Hanbali school, dates only from the eighteenth century, and is thus quite recent. From its origins, it has been closely associated with the Saudi royal family. It is promoted and subsidised throughout the world by Saudi Arabia.

The division between the two strands is not so much about theology as it is about the legitimacy of those who may govern the faithful, teach the faith, and interpret the Koran, and the legitimacy of the sources they may draw upon to do so. The question is both political and religious, with little distinction between the two. Both Shia and Sunni have the Koran in common, and believe its content is the word of God, coming through the Angel Gabriel and dictated to Mohammed.

But what authority may be used to interpret the Koran for life today?

Broadly speaking, Sunnis accept the authority of the teachings and writings of the companions of Mohammed, who were his immediate successors as leaders, and who knew his mind.

The Shia, on the other hand, look to Ali, Mohammed’s grandson, Ali, and to Mohammed’s  blood line more generally, as the legitimate interpreters of the Koran and supreme guides of the people.

Ali died in 661 after a power struggle, so these differences of opinion go back a long way.

In Sunni Islam, Shia veneration of the tombs of early imams is seen as idolatrous, and this explains the blowing up of some of these Shia holy places in recent wars.

Islamic scholars have always had  greater political authority in the Shia tradition, which explains the particular political system of Iran, where the Supreme religious leader has a veto on much of what the elected government may do.

In the Sunni tradition, the Caliph was both a religious and a political leader. For many years the title of Caliph was held by the Ottoman Emperor.

After its defeat in the First World War, the Ottoman Empire disappeared and was replaced by the secular Republic of Turkey. Turkey formally abolished the Caliphate in 1922. This caused deep disappointment among many devout Sunni Muslims at the time and this disappointment explains why Isis sought to restore the Caliphate.

For most of the last 1300 years, Sunni and Shia have lived together in relative peace. The Wars of Religion within Christianity in Europe, in the 150 years after the Reformation, were much more severe than anything that has, as yet, happened between Shia and Sunni in the Muslim world.

It is to be hoped that a reading of John McHugo’s densely informative narrative will encourage Western leaders to hesitate, before taking sides in a struggle that is not their own.

His book is quite compressed, and focuses heavily on the political history. It would have been interesting to know more about how the lifestyles  and thinking of Shia and Sunni faithful compare with one another.




I found an article published by Aaron Miller and Richard Sokolsky in Politico on the policy of the Trump Administration in the Middle East to be both alarming and convincing.

Miller and Sokolsky said;

  “ The administration is focused like a laser beam on irreversibly burning U.S. bridges to Iran and administering last rites to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

They say that these two policy changes will be irreversible by a Democratic Administration.


During his Presidential Election campaign, there were moments on the campaign trail when Donald Trump expressed interest in negotiating a better nuclear deal with Iran and brokering the “deal of the century” between Israelis and Palestinians, rather than killing prospects for both.

He even offered several times to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani without preconditions to negotiate a new nuclear accord.

Then last year, Secretary of State Pompeo laid out 12 extreme demands that Tehran would have to meet before the Trump administration would agree to re-engage with Iran.

These demands would have required Iran to give up all its rights under the Nuclear Accord it had reached with President Obama and to stop pursuing what Tehran sees as its legitimate interests in the region—for example, helping to stabilize Iraq and supporting the government of Adil Abdul-Mahdi to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq.

These orders were swiftly and angrily rejected by the Iranian government.


Miller and Sokolsky argue that the administration’s extreme demands have established a standard that will be used to judge any future nuclear agreement a Democratic, or different kind of Republican, administration might negotiate with Iran.

That means a president who fails to meet these standards would, they believe, be accused of appeasement, making a new agreement far more difficult.

The administration’s decision to designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, once done, will be nearly impossible to undo.

A successor US administration, if it were to try to undo the designation, would find itself vulnerable to the charges of enabling state-sponsored terrorism.

The imposition of the total embargo on Iranian oil exports, if successful, will inflict even more economic misery on the Iranian people, hardening the perception that the U.S. government is an enemy not only of the ruling regime, but also of the Iranian people.

Miller and Sokolsky even argue that the Trump Administration is doing everything they can to goad Iran into a military conflict with the U.S.

There is a growing risk that U.S. forces and Iranian IRGC units and Iranian-backed militias could stumble their away into an unintended conflict, especially in Iraq or Syria but also in Yemen.


Miller and Sokolsky also argue that the Trump Administration is doing all it can to kill and bury the long-standing policy of seeking a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians.

A  two-state solution would return  the majority of the West Bank to the Palestinians—based on borders from before Israel’s 1967 seizure of that territory—and a physically undivided Jerusalem hosting capitals of both states.

The two state solution would make it possible for Israel to be a Jewish state forever. A one State solution would turn Israel into a multiethnic state.

The US Administration is taking concrete steps that make the two state solution impossible, and the one state solution inevitable.

Over the past year, it has closed the PLO office in Washington, withdrawn U.S. assistance from the U.N. agency .

The administration’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and open an embassy there inflicted serious damage on U.S. credibility as a mediator, and marginalized the Palestinian Authority as a key U.S. interlocutor.


The long-standing diplomatic assumption—that settlement activity would be constrained during the period of negotiations and that 70 to 80 percent of West Bank settlers who are in blocs close to the 1967 lines would be incorporated into Israel proper in exchange for ceding other land to Palestinians—has been undermined.

After an initial drop during 2017, Israeli settlement construction activity in the Occupied West Bank has increased 20 percent in 2018.

There is zero chance that any Palestinian leader—let alone one as weak and constrained as Mahmoud Abbas—will accept these conditions on the ground as part of a deal.

So, if a two state solution is rendered physically and geographically impossible by Israeli settlement activity, the only remaining option is a one state solution.


This would mean Israel annexing the entire West Bank, and,  consequently, granting all the Palestinians living there Israeli citizenship and the right to vote in Israeli elections.

That is not something that either the Trump or Netanyahu Administrations want, but it is the logical outworking of the policies they are both following.

If Israel annexes the West Bank, I cannot see how it could deny all the residents there the right to vote.

 I do not see how the United States, with its Civil Rights principles and its long struggle for the right to vote by African Americans, could support such a denial by Israel.


I greatly enjoyed “The Ruins of Ireland” by Robert O Byrne, which has been published by Cico Books of London and New York.

Robert O Byrne gives a short description, with contemporary photographs, of about 60 buildings that were once stately homes or castles, but are now in varying states of ruination. Some were burned during Troubles, but most fell into decay simply because the owners could not afford to keep them up.

Many of them are places I have passed by often, over the years, without knowing what they were, who once lived in them,  or how they fell into their present state.

One such is Duleek House, on the edge of the village of the same name.

O Byrne tells us that Duleek House was once the residence of Thomas Trotter, the MP for the pocket borough of Duleek in the unreformed Irish Parliament. O Byrne was apparently unable to gain entry to the House, which is  in a dangerous state and, on the brink of falling down. So O Byrne could not say if the Neo Classical plasterwork that once graced the reception rooms (where Trotter might have entertained all his half dozen constituents), is still extant.

In some cases, he did gain entry to the interior of the houses and his photographs show scenes of desolation, but also , in some cases,  great potential for restoration. If these houses were in Britain, they might have been taken over by the National Trust, and be converted into dwellings, tourist attractions, or both.

Another place of  personal interest to me is Grange Castle in Co Kildare, near Edenderry.

Grange once belonged to the Bermingham family, who were the leading family in NW Kildare until the backed the losing side in the Wars of the Seventeenth Century. Grange was sold to another prominent Kildare family, the Tyrells, in 1735. They sold it to the Irish state in 1988, and restoration was attempted. But then, in 2003, that work stopped and the place now lies empty. A tragic waste.

Some of the buildings, like Grange, have only recently fallen into ruin. Others, like Roscommon Castle, have been unoccupied since the 1690’s, but still stand as impressive reminders of their glory days. Roscommon Castle was besieged by Hugh O Donnell for three months in 1599 and fatally damaged during the Williamite wars a century later.

This is a beautifully produced, and well written, book. I recommend it.


Lecture by John Bruton at the Institute of Theology of St Mary’s University, in the Notre Dame Centre, Suffolk Street, London


To say I was daunted by the invitation to give this lecture would be an understatement.

While I have some knowledge of political life, my study of Catholic Social teaching has been rudimentary.

So I set to work and read, for the first time in my life, numerous of the documents of Vatican 11. I also revisited some of the important Papal Encyclicals on Catholic Social Teaching.

I found “Catholic Social Teaching, A Way in” by Stratford Caldecott, published by the CTS, to be a book that lives up to its title.

It is indeed “a way in” to the subject, that is lucidly written, brief, and accessible.

In all this reading, I discovered something that should not really have surprised me.

Although I might not have realized it at the time, Catholic Social thought influenced my views about political, economic and social questions, throughout my public life.

I will try to illustrate this in this lecture, and to do so I will refer to developments in Irish and European life over the past 55 years, in which I was involved to some degree.

The extent to which Catholic Social Thinking influenced my politics was not the result of abstract thought, or personal study of Encyclicals , because I did neither, but through day to day confrontation with difficult issues, and the Christian influence and example of other people on the way I looked at them.

I attribute the latter to my parents and extended family, to my teachers (Dominican nuns in Cabra and Jesuit fathers in Clongowes), to the priests in my parish in Dunboyne (to whom I probably was listening on Sundays more than I, or they, thought) and, more recently and importantly, to my wife, Finola.


I entered politics at the age of 18 when I joined the Fine Gael party in Dunboyne in 1965.

I was elected to Dail Eireann at the age of 22 in 1969, just as the conflict in and around Northern Ireland, was being transformed from a peaceful struggle for civil rights for PEOPLE, into an unwinnable sectarian war concerning sovereignty over TERRITORY.

Concern about something human and alive, was being replaced by a conflict about something arid and theoretical.

Argument was replaced by arson, and by other forms of deadly violence.

One of my earliest speeches in Dail Eireann, in 1970, was in criticism of the alleged  involvement of the Irish government Ministers in the importation of arms for use by nationalists in Northern Ireland, an illegal and reckless endeavour.

From the beginning I was suspicious of the then prevailing attitude in the South of Ireland to the Northern issue.

It was one sided.

“Nationalists right, Unionists wrong,” would a fair summation of it.

That attitude did not correspond to the Catholic idea that every human being has equal dignity with every other, nor did it correspond with the spirit of rational enquiry that had been encouraged by the education I had been privileged to receive.

The violence used by the, nominally Catholic, members of the IRA did not live up to the requirement of the Catholic Cathechism that

“the result of resorting to arms  must not produce evils and disorder, graver than the evil to be eliminated.”

The civil rights (the elimination of discrimination in housing, jobs etc.) that had been sought had largely been conceded, but the IRA violence continued.

The new goal was a coerced united Ireland.

The IRA campaign, and the Loyalist reaction to it, did not constitute a just war. It did not meet the well known criteria for a just war.  Put more simply, it was a breach of the fifth Commandment.

Its dire consequences were foreseeable, and foreseen.

Atrocity provoked atrocity, in a circle of pain. Trust was destroyed. It opened wounds that, notwithstanding the passage of time and the conclusion of political agreements, remain raw and painful to this day.


We are enjoined to love God and to

“love your neighbor as yourself”

More shockingly, we are even commanded to love our enemies.

Our neighbour is all humankind. These are central concepts in our Faith to which I will return later, is different contexts.

In the case of Northern Ireland, our neighbor is the person living on the OTHER side of the so called “peace line” in Belfast.

Loving one’s neighbor is not a matter of mere sentiment. To love one’s neighbor, one must go out of one’s way to understand him or her, to understand how he or she sees the world, his politics, and his deepest fears.

Too many in Northern Ireland fail to make that effort, and thus fail in their Christian obligation to love their neighbour. This failure is made too easy by the fact that two communities attend different schools (a Catholic church policy), follow different sports, and live in different neighbourhoods.

The obligation to love one’s neighbor derives from the understanding we have, as Christians, of what it is to be human, of the inherent dignity of each human being, created by God.

That global obligation was always there in the Catholic Church, but it took on a new universality in the declarations of Vatican 11 on “Religious Freedom” and on “relations with Non Christians”, issued just as I left school in 1965.

I have no doubt they shaped my thinking, albeit indirectly.

On relations with non Christians, Vatican 11 said

“all peoples comprise a single community”

It acknowledges the value of other religions. It says that these other religions, enumerated in Vatican 11, are helping people who are searching for answers to questions like

“What is a man?

 What is the meaning and purpose of our life?

 What is goodness and what is sin?……

 What is the truth about death, judgement, and retribution beyond the grave?”

It said

“the ground is removed from every theory or practice, which leads to a distinction between men and peoples in the matter of human dignity, and the rights which flow from it.

As a consequence, the Church rejects as

” foreign to the mind of Christ, any discrimination against men, or harassment of them because of their race, condition of life, or religion”.

This spirit of openness others, expressed in the religious sphere by Vatican 11, echoed the breaking down of barriers between nations exemplified by the  development, at the same time, of the European Communities, and of moves toward political integration in Latin America and Africa. Each of these are building blocks of the” single community” of peoples in the world called for in Vatican 11.

Vatican 11 recognised the globalization that was already under way in the 1960’s.

It said the world was, at that time,

“joined together more closely than ever by social, technical, and  cultural bonds”.

That “joining together” of the world is much more advanced now, than it was at the end of Vatican 11 in 1965.

A world that is interdependent, if it is not to destroy itself by destructive competition, or degradation of the natural world, needs a common set of rules. It is only through a commonly, agreed, interpreted and enforced, sets of rules, that we can really “take back control” .

This is recognized in many Papal Encylicals.

Hence the support of the Church for the growth of  multinational rule setting institutions like the WTO, the WHO, the IMF, the Bank for International Settlements, and  , of course, the most advanced democratic rule setter of them all, the European Union.


The church has given important guidance here.

As then Cardinal Ratzinger said, in a phrase that, in my view, sums up better than any, what the EU is all about said;

“It is the specific task of politics to apply the criterion of law to power……it is not the law of the stronger, but the strength of the law that must hold sway”

One of my first political interventions was in 1966, and concerned what transpired to be an abortive attempt by Ireland to join the European Common Market.

I turned up uninvited at a public meeting, organized by Sinn Fein to oppose The Common Market. The meeting was chaired by a man reputed to be the Chief of Staff of the IRA!  From the floor, I challenged the platform speaker. The chairman, to my surprise, insisted I be given a fair hearing , and to my delight, I was able to get a scripted version of my pro Common Market views into the local paper. My political career was under way!

I know some sincere Catholics in this country will disagree with me, but I believed then, and I believe now, that the work of bringing European nations together in peace in the EU, is, as a former party colleague of mine Joe McCartin said  to me once, the nearest thing in politics, to God’s work.

The EU is a democratic multinational rule maker.

But it will not be held together by rules alone. Nor will any nation or society be held together  by rules alone.

There must be a shared moral sense, and a spirit of solidarity based on that, to give life and meaning to the rules. That shared moral sense can cover things that cannot, and should not, be regulated by public authorities.

Individualism, and the promotion of individual rights, is never enough. An individual can only achieve fulfillment by working for, and with, other people.  My individual Rights are nothing, if other people are not there, who are willing to spend their time and their money, to ensure that my rights are respected.

As the then Cardinal Ratzinger put it;

“Today we ought perhaps to amplify the doctrine of human rights with a doctrine of human obligations and of human limitations”.

Just because we can, does not mean we should.

Science may tell us what we can do, but it cannot tell us what we ought to do.

Science cannot give birth to an ethos. That is something that religion does.

Catholic Social teaching reminds us of these things.


Without getting directly into politics, the church can make a huge contribution to the well being of  Europe and the world by reminding people of their ethical responsibilities, ethical responsibilities that go alongside their rights.

The church can help set the tone of society, which is as important as any law.  It reminds people of the sense, deep in the conscience of all human beings that there is an objective right and wrong, that there are moral facts, objective rights and responsibilities, that are just as important as any scientifically uncovered empirical facts.

This “natural law”, this moral sense, is there in all humans everywhere, and Catholic teaching is one way of uncovering it. It is this moral sense that makes us human.

The examination of conscience is the door to the natural law that is within each of us. It is an exercise that assures ethical behavior in business, sport, politics, and life.

It precedes all law, and is more effective than any external auditor. The need for repeated examination of conscience was never greater, than it is today in a business world beset by widening income inequalities, narrow pursuit of shareholder value, and sometimes by scandals.

Laws alone will never stop all abuse. Informed, muscular and repeated examination of conscience can do so.

That is what will build trust between people. And numerous studies have shown that a society in which there is mutual trust will be happier and more prosperous.

A society is not a collection of social atoms held in check by government acting as some sort of mutual insurance policy. A society is a set of overlapping communities, with obligations to one another, and trust between them.


Returning to my own journey, I became Minister for Finance in 1981 at a time when the Irish state was on the brink of a financial  abyss, because of the coincidence of recklessly expansionary fiscal policy from 1977, then followed by a deliberate and sudden hike in international interest rates by the US Federal Reserve, which left us cruelly exposed.

In face of this, I had to introduce some hard budgets increasing direct and indirect taxation.

I have to say that I did not fund Catholic Social thinking particularly helpful in confronting this budget crisis.

It was, and remains, rare to find church leaders pronouncing in favour of fiscal prudence, or of matching ends with means, even though that is a moral, as well as a political, issue.

The church advocates financial solidarity with the poor, particularly in times of fiscal crisis, which is right.

But it is too often silent on the necessity for financial solidarity with future generations, which is the main argument for avoiding excessive accumulation of debts, deficits, and pension obligations, for which future generations will have to pay.

Too often the church takes the easy route and leaves that particular moral question to politicians on their own.

The church should apply to fiscal policy, the same concern about the inheritance we pass on to future generations, as it applies in its critique of the present generation’s degradation of the environment and the malign inheritance we are passing on in that respect.

But the church is right to say that the market has limits. Indeed a market can only exist if there are rules, or limits. But rules are not enough, they cannot cover everything. We also need trust and ethics, phenomena that church teaching strengthens on a daily basis.


Although I did have to introduce budgets that increased taxation dramatically, I am pleased to say I also introduced the largest ever increase in pensions and benefits for the less well off, a 25% increase in one year in 1982.

I was also able to introduce incentives for all workers in a firm to own share in the business in which they worked, something advocated by Pope John XXII in his encyclical “ Mater et Magistra”.

Unfortunately this good concept of employee shareholding has been applied selectively in many firms. It has been used to give disproportionately large increases in remuneration, through stock options, to just a few employees at the very top of some large firms.  This works against the sense of solidarity, among all working in an enterprise, that should exist. It has enabled the gap in remuneration to get ever wider, especially so in US firms. These so called compensation policies are a deep structural flaw in modern capitalism, that may eventually undermine the permissive consensus among the public, on which capitalism depends.


Returning to my personal narrative, I became Taoiseach in 1994, as a result of the breakup of the previous coalition government. Coming to office without having had a General Election immediately previously, was a blessing. I was able to take up the work of my predecessor, but without the burden of manifesto promises, which, as we see in the UK today, can be a constraint on common sense.

Looking back, it is fair to say that one highlight of my term of office was the agreement in 1995 with the UK Prime Minister, John Major,  of a Joint Framework Document, concerning Northern Ireland.

The story of the Framework Document of 1995- in what it sought to do and in what flowed from it- will throw some light on the issue of a Irish backstop, which is so controversial today.

The Framework agreement of 1995 between our two governments was later reflected, in a somewhat watered down form , in the Belfast Agreement of 1998, but to which there was also All Party Agreement, as well as just agreement between the two governments.

The Framework said both governments would ;

“respect the full and  equal legitimacy and worth of the identity, sense of allegiance, aspiration, and ethos of both unionist and nationalist communities”

in Northern Ireland.

In return, the Irish Government agreed that it would seek to change the Irish constitution to remove Ireland’s territorial claim on Northern Ireland,

“while maintaining the existing birthright of everyone, born in either part of Ireland, to be part of the Irish nation”. This was and remains crucial.


To give effect to this birth right, we agreed  to set up detailed arrangements for North/ South cooperation, which, because the UK and Ireland were both then in the EU , were completely compatible with Northern Ireland remaining part of the United Kingdom. The issue was not about the hardness or softness of the border, it was about ensuring mutual recognition and ease of cooperation, regardless of lines on a map.

In the Framework Document, the two governments agreed that proposals for North/ South cooperation could include, at the executive level, a range of functions, including infrastructure, marketing and promotion activities and culture.

 We further agreed the Governments would make proposals, at the harmonising level, for a broader range of functions, including agriculture and fisheries; industrial development; consumer affairs; transport; energy; trade; health; social welfare; and economic policy.

This harmonising of policy was to give practical effect to the commitment we had made, that all in Northern Ireland who wanted to, could be part of the Irish Nation, but without leaving the United Kingdom.


It does not require much insight to see that the Brexit proposal, that UK and Northern Ireland leave  the EU Single market, and thus begin to make progressively different, and potentially incompatible, rules from those south of the border ,  would undermine the harmonising approach the two governments had agreed in 1995 to give

“full and equal the identity and allegiance”

of both communities in Northern Ireland.

Instead of converging, Brexit without a backstop would mean the two parts of Ireland are deliberately diverging.

Standards and qualifications are to become different, in the name of taking back control.

Brexit without a backstop would involve the dismantlement of a painfully constructed, but still half built, structure of peace on the island of Ireland.

 The decision on Brexit was, I fear, undertaken, without sufficient thought to the effect it would have on Britain’s nearest neighbours.

As I said earlier, to fulfil one’s Christian duty to love one’s neighbor, one must go out of one’s way to understand one’s neighbour, to understand how he sees the world, his politics, and his deepest fears.

That obligation of charity applies to nations and states, to statecraft, just as it applies to individuals.  As I said earlier it is inconsistent with that duty of love, to fail properly to consider the effects of one’s actions on others, particularly on one’s nearest neighbours.

It is important that the British people understand what they are doing by Brexit, and thus why there has had to be a so called Irish backstop.


Returning to my own narrative, when my time as Party Leader ended, I was fortunate to be appointed in 2002 as one of the representatives of Dail Eireann to the Convention on the Future of Europe, the body charged with revising the EU Treaties. I was elected to the Praesidium of the Convention.

One of the ideas I promoted there was the inclusion in the Treaties, of a reference to belief in God as one of the sources of inspiration for the European Union, using a wording derived for the Polish constitution. This was not acceptable to the Liberal and Social Democrat members and had no majority.

Another proposal which did get support was one that recognised the special position of the churches in Article 17 of the Treaty. This has formed the basis for a dialogue with the churches. It also safeguards their independence. Like families, churches are a necessary mediating structure between the individual and the state.  This Treaty Article means EU law cannot be used to supercede the protections given to churches in national law.


In 2004, I was appointed to be the Ambassador to the European Union to the United States of America. The US is very different from Europe. The vast majority of its population are the descendants of recent immigrants, of strangers who arrived, often friendless and lonely, in a strange land. The sense of rootedness, that we take for granted here in Europe, has had to be constructed anew in America. This explains the brashness of American culture. It also explains it religiosity.

Churches, provided, and continue to provide, a focus for community and for setting down roots for Americans, in way that is not so necessary here in Europe. That is why Americans are much more open about their religious affiliations than we are.

This highlights an important role the church can play in alleviating the problems of modern, urbanised, society, not just in the US but all over the world.

This work of community building that churches perform is still needed, now more than ever. Let me illustrate why I say this.

The Global Risks Report of the World Economic Forum says that mental health problems affect 700 million people in the world.

It says that, since 1990, depression has increased by 54%, and anxiety disorders by 42%. There is an especial problem among young people.

This development seems to be linked with increasing materialism among the young. I also believe it is associated with loneliness among young people, and a lack of involvement with social organisations, like churches

The Report says that in one US study

“81% of 18 to 25 year olds said getting rich was their generations top or second from top goal, compared to 62% of 26 to 39 year olds who said that”.

It refers to the increased stress factors in young people’s lives…violence, poverty and loneliness.

22% of people here in the UK feel lonely either sometimes, often, or always.

In the US, people report having fewer close friends, on average 2.1 friends in 2013, as against 2.9 in 1985.

Living alone is associated with urbanisation. Solitary living has reached 60% in Stockholm, 50% in Paris and 94% in mid town Manhattan.

Loneliness is associated with poorer sleep quality, and thus less personal resilience in face of the challenges of daily life.

Meanwhile use of social media has led to declines in empathy, the ability to put oneself in the shoes of another. This is something the church directly addresses in its daily work.

Technology may also begin to devalue work, as a means of developing a sense of self worth.

These development are illustrated in opinion polls quoted in latest edition of the Atlantic monthly suggests that, among 18 to 34 year olds in the United States, self assessed “happiness” has declined, most dramatically among males.

This happiness recession is associated, among other things, with a decline in the rate of marriage, and a decline in religious attendance.

Married young adults are 75% more likely to report that they are very happy compared with their peers who are not. The share of young adults who are married has fallen from 59% to 28% since 1972.

The decline in happiness is also associated with a decline in religious involvement. Young American adults who attend a religious service at least once a month are 40% more likely to report that they are happy, than those who do not. Religious attendance among young adults has also fallen since 1972, from 38% to 27%.

Interpreting all this data is challenging. It is not always clear what is the cause  and what is the effect.

But the data does suggest that there is much work for the church to do,  that there are many modern challenges to which Catholic Social thinking must respond.  How?


I will sum up what I am saying very briefly.

At its most minimal, the church offers a sense of belonging, an antidote to loneliness through participation in religious services and activities.

More importantly, it offers a sense of the value of each human life, from conception to natural death, a rational basis for keeping a sense of proportion about contemporary problems in life, in light of our eternal destiny.

It helps us to puts suffering and setbacks in their proper context, and not to obsess about them. We must not be consumed by the things of this world, and by our own short lives.

Most importantly, the  message of the Resurrection is absolutely essential to our faith. Christ died and rose again, so we may live eternally.


Avoiding a No Deal Brexit is going to require a radical change in the way the House of Commons makes decisions.

Now that the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated with the EU has been rejected twice by the House of Commons, MPs must now turn to discovering what alternative approach might find find actually support. Only then can to UK engage meaningfully with the EU.

This process must be completed by 10 April, the date of  a possible special meeting of the European Council on Brexit.

Otherwise the UK will simply crash out of the EU with no deal on 12 April., with dire consequences for us all.

So how might the House of Commons organise itself to make the key decisions?

And will the May government facilitate, or deliberately hinder, the process?

There have been suggestions that the Prime Minister might call a General Election, if support is gathering for a solution that she does not like, or which might split the Conservative Party irrevocably.

The options for decision making in the House of Commons have been analysed in an excellent paper published last week by the  Constitution Unit of University College London.

One proposed way (e.g. by Kenneth Clarke and others) of organising the question is to offer preferential voting, a Proportional Representation system of choosing between options.

This method is already used for choosing the chairs of committees in the House . It would avoid the problems of the yes/no voting system, and encourage  more sincere voting.

But the choices to be made are complex, and contingent on other choices by other people. MPs may find themselves needing to know how other MPs will vote on other questions, before they feel they can decide how to vote on the question that is actually in front of them.

To address this problem, the Constitution Unit suggests that two separate ballots might be held.

The first ballot would ask MPs to rank preferences,(1,2,3) as between:

  • Moving straight to Brexit on the existing deal without a referendum
  • Accepting a Brexit deal, but on condition that it is put to the people for approval in a referendum
  • Ending the Brexit process and revoking Article 50 and stay in the EU on existing terms as a  full voting member( an option that still exists up to 12 April).

These options are incompatible with one another, so the result of the ballot would clarify matters. The option that got  the most support would then be the basis for a second ballot.

If MPs do not vote in the first ballot to revoke Article 50 and stay in the EU, a second ballot might then ask them to rank different options for a Brexit deal on a 1, 2, 3,4th preference basis.

They would have to say their order of preference between four options:

+The Prime Minister’s current deal, including the backstop and proposed ‘customs arrangements’

+The current Withdrawal Agreement, including the backstop, with significantly looser customs arrangements (the ‘Canada’ model) which in practice would make the backstop more likely to be brought into effect

     + The current Withdrawal Agreement alongside significantly closer arrangements (the ‘Norway’ model or ‘Common Market 2.0’) which would in practice make use of the backstop unnecessary

+ A ‘no deal’ Brexit.

The result of this ballot would establish the wishes of the House.

Obviously the process would have to be public so each MP’s ballot paper would have to be published. But the whole process could be completed in a day.

But it would be necessary to have a government in place that would intend to fulfil the preferences of the House in a sincere and constructive way. 650 MPs cannot negotiate with Michel Barnier. Only a government can do that.

Paving the way for a PR type ballot will be very difficult.

The UK Conservative Party  has a deep dislike of the whole idea of PR. But PR may be the only way out of  its present dilemma.

It is also important that the issue be decided on the basis of free votes, although it has to be recognised that an MP ,who is threatened with possible de selection by his/her constituency association, is not entirely free.

If the present Prime Minister refuses to allow some such system of discerning the will of Parliament, or if she declines to accept the result in a sincere spirit, the question would arise as to whether she should continue in office.

Ultimately, the House of Commons holds the power – and hence the threat – of removing the government from office.

Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, a vote of no-confidence does not immediately result in a general election, but triggers a 14-day period during which a new government can be formed.

There is no necessity that any new Prime Minister be one of the party leaders. Any MP could become Prime Minister.

Instead it would be crucial for any new Prime Minister to command the confidence of the House of Commons – beyond the confines of the Conservative Party – to deliver the next stage of the Brexit process.




The underlying organising principle of the UK constitutional system has been that Parliament, not the monarch, and not people by referendum, is sovereign.

This principle may not be contained in a written constitution, but it is longstanding.

It was established in the seventeenth century by the outcome of the Civil War 1646/9, where Parliament defeated the monarch (Charles I) and his ministers, and by the Revolution of 1688 whereby Parliament deposed the legitimate monarch (James II).

In contrast, in Ireland, the Houses of the Oireachtas are not sovereign, in the sense that, since 1937, it is only the people who, by referendum, can change the Irish constitution.

The developing clash this week between the government of the UK (the Queen’s Ministers to use 17th century terms) and the majority in Parliament, over the latter’s rejection of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, is creating a crisis in the UK constitution.

This crisis is derived from the fact that the UK government intentionally ran down the clock and delayed voting on the Withdrawal Agreement, so that it could use the Article 50 deadline, and the threat of a No Deal crash out, to force Parliament’s hand.

It is arguable that this level of pressure on Parliament by the executive is contrary to the UK constitution.The government of the UK should, in accordance with tradition, act as a servant of Parliament, not the other way around.

But, instead, the government is demanding that Parliament vote, over and over again, on the same question, citing the idea that it would be undemocratic to have a second Referendum on Brexit, and claiming that to respect the referendum result, PM May’s Withdrawal Agreement must be voted through by Parliament.

If Parliament is to be asked to change its mind, there is no logical reason for the people, in a referendum, should not also be allowed to do the same.

The UK may also need to revise its unwritten constitution, to define more clearly the respective roles of government and Parliament, in regard to international negotiations.This is a problem for the EU. The EU is going to have to negotiate with UK, whether it wants to or not.We do not need to be going through this week’s drama over and over again in the discussion of the various trade and other agreements, that the UK is going to need to make with the EU over the coming years, if/when Brexit goes ahead. This is no mere academic issue.


I would like to add a word to the many well deserved tributes that have been paid to the career of Richie Ryan, who died yesterday.

He was the most radical Minister for Finance ever. His commitment to social justice was realistic, rather than rhetorical.

 The changes he made in extending the tax base, through capital and other taxes, and his simultaneous widening of social welfare coverage, were not equalled by any other Minister for Finance.

To have undertaken such changes at a time of economic contraction due to the aftermath of the 1973 oil crisis, was truly remarkable.

 He managed to turn the economy around, and growth had returned by 1975. But the political dividend from growth was, as to be expected, delayed. It was not reflected in the result of  1977 Election. Richie Ryan did not get the credit he deserved, at the time, or since.

He was deeply loyal to his party leader, Liam Cosgrave , and was one of his most combative defenders.

He had a very serious accident later in life, and showed immense courage in the way he faced, and overcame, the challenges it brought. He did not let it stop him being a cheerful and friendly presence at party gatherings.

He will be missed. I extend heartfelt sympathy to his family.


To get my mind off Brexit, I recently read “The Last Highlander, Scotland’s most notorious Clan Chief, Rebel and Double Agent” by Sarah Fraser.

 It is it life story of Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat, who was beheaded for treason at the age of 80 in 1746.

Fraser was a Gaelic speaking chief of the Fraser clan which occupied a huge territory in the vicinity of Inverness.

His first allegiance was to the Fraser clan, and to the Clan system.

 After that his allegiance was to Scotland.

Subject to these two primary allegiances, he switched his loyalty from the Jacobite Kings to the Hanoverians, and then back again.

 He spent time in the Jacobite Court in France, and  died a Jacobite.

 But he was on the Hanoverian side in 1715 when the first Jacobite rebellion took place in Scotland, then on the Jacobite side in 1745, when Bonnie Prince Charlies raised his standard.

At various times Lovat was gaoled by both dynasties.

 When not in gaol, he lived and entertained extravagantly, to keep up his status as a Chief. He had a complicated private life, to put it mildly.

Sarah Fraser’s book tells an exciting story well.

For an Irish reader, it shows how the Gaelic clan system survived in Scotland up til 1745, 130 years after it had been destroyed in Ireland, by the Ulster Plantation and the Flight of the Earls.


I have really enjoyed reading “A Short History of Brexit, from Brentry to Brexit” by Kevin O Rourke.

O Rourke is a UK based, but Irish born and resident, academic, who also has a house in France.

His father, Andy, is a distinguished former Irish diplomat, and his mother is Danish.

He brings this varied hinterland to his aid, in probing the forces that shaped the British decisions

 first to join, and then to leave, the European Union.

Behind this inconsistency he identifies the existence of two  conflicting strands of thought, in the UK Conservative Party, and more widely.

The first is idea of “Imperial Preference”, that of giving better trade access to the UK market to the Empire than to other countries. This has deep roots in the Party.

 It was championed by leaders like the Chamberlains and Baldwin. This policy was implemented, in 1931 by Neville Chamberlain, when he became Chancellor of the Exchequer.

In contrast, Churchill, although a strong Imperialist, opposed protectionism all through his career. He advocated a “United States of Europe” in a speech in July 1945.

 Macmillan, who shed the Empire and had been wounded seven times in the First World War,, understood the need for the UK to build its future, and a structure of peace, in Europe.

 In contrast, a later Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron is quoted as saying it was “a myth” that European integration was the result of the lessons learned from two world wars.

There is much that can be divined from this well written book.

The 2016 Referendum can be traced back to a decision, in 2010, by 81 Tory MPs to defy their Whip and vote for a Referendum on leaving the EU.

Then , when Cameron set out to renegotiate UK membership. he recklessly announced that he would not “take no for an answer” on restricting free movement of people within the EU Single Market. He was never going to win that concession.

The book also analyses the history of the Irish and European economies in the 20th century.

 Ireland was a late developer, mainly because it waited until the 1970’s, to open its market to foreign competition. Even Portugal and Greece moved faster.

O Rourke highlights the importance of the common EU VAT regime, and the sharing of information between EU states on VAT, as the means of avoiding hard borders within the EU.

As the author says,

time is money and border controls cost money



 The terms of Brexit are vital for Ireland.  But so also is how Ireland locates itself in the EU AFTER Brexit. President Macron has written to the Taoiseach setting out his post Brexit agenda. The Finnish government has just published an 125 page report on the implications for Finland and the EU of the changing global order. Ireland should do the same.

 Brexit could change Ireland’s geostrategic position.


If the US guarantee of Europe’s security through NATO were to be diminished, and/or if the UK were to become estranged from its continental European allies, Ireland would be in the geostrategic frontline.

 The UK/European/US security alliance has provided security for Ireland since 1945, at modest cost.

It will be in Ireland’s interests that this security alliance survive Brexit. A clash on security policy between the UK, and the continental members of the EU, would hit Ireland, particularly its communications, energy and cyber security.


Stresses in European security will be caused five global forces. These are

  + A richer, but older, human race, reluctant to change, and nostalgic for a past that never really existed. The EU and the UK are part of an ageing continent, with declining population, but close to Africa which is a young and potentially dynamic.

  + The increasing vulnerability of globalization and the of norms that underpin it. The WTO is at risk.

  + Climate change and intensifying competition for scarce material resources, not just energy but water, phosphates and rare earths.

  + Distrust of political leadership, and of experts could lead to a paralysis in necessary decision making in the EU and other multinational institutions.

  + The economic rise of China and India and their associated political ambitions, and declining interest of the US in guaranteeing Europe’s defence.

 All these forces will leave Europe, and Ireland, increasingly vulnerable to outside pressures.


Meeting them will not be the responsibility of the EU alone. Member states themselves have far more spending power than the EU has. They spend 40% of GDP whereas the EU only spends 1%. Cooperation with the UK, especially after Brexit, will help.

 If European countries want to have maximum impact on most of these huge challenges , they will need to act together, and in good time .While the absence of the UK from the EU will be a handicap,  fractious and prolonged arguments among EU states themselves could be an even greater one.

 Irish policy should be that, by acting within or through the EU, rather than on their own, EU states can do more, at less cost.

 But will that approach get the unanimous agreement among all 27 EU members? If not, smaller groups of EU states may decide to go ahead on their own, using Title IV of the Treaty, which allows for this. To the extent that a member state then declines to take part in a Title IV activity, it may find itself in an EU “slow lane”. Ireland should avoid being in any EU slow lane. Brexit has made us geographically peripheral, so we should avoid being politically so too.


 That said, the EU may only act within the limits of the powers given to it in the Treaties.  If necessary, pragmatic, case by case, amendments to the EU Treaty, to enhance EU competences, should be made. That would, on balance, be better than an EU of first and second class members.

  After Brexit , Ireland must concern itself with the worries of ALL its 27 EU partners, even if these are not of immediate concern to Ireland. The more Ireland does this, the more will those states be willing to support Ireland when Ireland has a problem.

 Ireland should be proactive on all the continents big problems, and should seek solutions to its own problems within the context of a wider EU interest, rather than just look for exceptions. It should avoid alignment with sub groups of states within the EU, who could be seen as divisive or negative .


 Ireland should be positive in support of Banking Union, Energy Union and the completion of the EU Single Market in services. This will sometimes involve standing up to France and Germany, but it will enlarge opportunities for all.

 We will not always get our way, and when trade offs have to be made, these should be explained fully  to the public and the Oireachtas . Ireland should learn from the UK’s mistake on Brexit, of failing  to educate its electorate on the compromises it would have to make.


Populism in central Europe must be confronted. Maintaining the rule of law, and an independent judiciary, are vital to the survival of the EU. EU rules are meaningless if they are not enforced by impartial courts.

The EU is the most advanced multinational, democratic, rule making body in the world. It can be made even more democratic. One way to do this would be through the direct election, by the voters of the EU, of the President of the European Commission. Another is through the Citizen’s panels advocated by President Macron.

The further enlargement of the EU should be supported on a case by case basis. It is important to the consolidation of democracy, in countries like Serbia and North Macedonia. But democratic standards must continue to be insisted upon AFTER a country has joined the EU, as well as when it is applying.


Ireland is the EU country with proportionately the greatest amount of US investment. If stresses arise between the US and the EU, these will be felt disproportionately in Ireland. Some of President Macron’s ideas could cause difficulty here. Skillful Irish diplomacy and foresight will be required.

As well as the terms of Brexit, these are the issues that must be discussed during the forthcoming European Elections.  The EU has strong institutions which have proven their worth. But it is the people who operate the institutions that will make the difference. That is why the choices voters will  make in choosing MEPs are so important.

Page 2 of 54

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén