John Bruton

Opinions & Ideas

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Boris Johnson said yesterday that there is an “abundance” of technical alternatives to the Irish Backstop. He added that “do or die” he would take the UK out of the EU by 31 October.

 He seems to believe that, between now and the end of October, he can persuade the EU to have such confidence in these unspecified alternatives that they will not insist on keeping the backstop. This is unrealistic, to put it mildly.

First, he has not put forward any detailed alternative to the backstop.

Secondly, there is no way anything meaningful can be negotiated between the time Mr Johncon would become Prime Minister and the end of October. After its experience with the failure of the UK side to ratify proposals it had previously agreed, there is no disposition on the EU side to take things  “on trust” from the UK. There is nothing necessarily personal about this. It is just common prudence.

All sides are agreed that the backstop is only a fall back provision to be used only if an alternative agreed solution cannot be found. 

If Boris Johnson was as confident, as appears to be that abundant alternatives exist, he would accept the backstop as an interim step, until his replacement alternatives have been worked upon and agreed. 

The fact that he is not prepared to do that makes one suspect that there are no ready or acceptable alternatives that would maintain open borders, and close North/ South cooperation based on compatible regulations. The European Commission recently published a document outlining all the areas of life, from health care to transport, where acceptance of common EU standards enables the private and public sectors to cooperate on a cross border basis. Brexit, without a backstop, would tear all this up.

Yesterday a 216 page document was published by Prosperity UK setting out a possible alternative structure that might replace the backstop. They envisage that their proposal would be added as a protocol to the Withdrawal Agreement. This would require  EU consent.

Its authors  also admitted that more work was needed on their proposal.  It is hardly likely to be ready, and agreed by the EU 27, before 31 October. So it does not solve the immediate problem and, in a sense, Boris Johnson’s recent commitment to leave, come what may, on 31 October means that Prosperity UK’s proposal could only be pursued if Jeremy Hunt becomes Prime Minister.

 Prosperity UK proposes to have border related controls, but not to have them at the border itself…. but to have them on farms and in factories and warehouses instead. 

But avoiding physical infrastructure on the border is only part of the Brexit problem.

 The other problem is the extra costs, delays, bureaucracy that will be imposed by Brexit on all exchanges across the border within Ireland. These would actually be worse under Prosperity UK proposals, and smuggling will be even more likely than if the controls were on the border itself. And smuggling can be used to finance subversive activities, as we know.

 To avoid checks on the border of the compliance with EU standards of food crossing from NI, Prosperity UK proposes that that, for food standards purposes, Ireland would leave the EU and join a Britain and Northern Ireland food standards union instead! 

 This idea has zero possibility of being accepted. It is naive. Irish agricultural policy would then be dictated by British interests, something we escaped from when we joined the EU in 1973.

That said, the Prosperity UK report does acknowledge the “supremacy” of the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process. This is a good rhetorical starting point.

  But no new thinking is offered as to how this supremacy would be reflected in future British policy in a post Brexit world.

 One would have thought that those who do not like the backstop would come forward with new and interesting proposals to deepen North/ South cooperation, and East / West cooperation, to compensate for the disruption that will inevitably flow from Brexit. That is where British negotiators should be putting the emphasis now. The idea that the Belfast Agreement structures can be frozen, by a refusal by the DUP and/or Sinn Fein to work together, is not acceptable.

 But at a deeper level, it seems that there is still no consensus in Britain as to the sort of relationship it wants with the EU, and what trade offs it is prepared to make to negotiate such a relationship. It seems that public opinion in the UK has not yet absorbed what leaving the European Union means. 

It wants the freedom but not to accept the costs.

He seems to believe that, between now and the end of October, he can persuade the EU to have such confidence in these unspecified alternatives that they will not insist on keeping the backstop. This is unrealistic, to put it mildly.

All sides are agreed that the backstop is only a fall back provision to be used only if an alternative agreed solution cannot be found.

If Boris Johnson was as confident as appears to be that alternatives exist, he would accept the backstop as an interim step, until his replacement alternatives have been worked upon and agreed.

The fact that he is not prepared to do that makes one suspect that there are no ready or acceptable alternatives that would maintain open borders, and close North/ South cooperation based on compatible regulations.

Yesterday a 216 page document was published by Prosperity UK setting out a possible alternative structure.

Its authors admitted that more work was needed.  It is hardly likely to be ready, and agreed by the EU 27, before 31 October. So it does not solve the immediate problem.

 It proposes to have border related controls, but not to have them at the border itself…. but to have them on farms and in factories and warehouses instead.

But avoiding physical infrastructure on the border is only part of the Brexit problem.

The other problem is the extra costs, delays, bureaucracy that will be imposed by Brexit on all exchanges across the border within Ireland. These will actually be worse under Prosperity UK proposals, and smuggling will be much greater.

To avoid checks on the border of the compliance with EU standards of food crossing from NI,  that I for food standards purposes, Ireland would leave the EU and join a Britain and Northern Ireland food standards union instead!  This idea has zero possibility of being accepted. It is naive. Irish agricultural policy would then be dictated by British interests, something we escaped from when we joined the EU in 1973.

That said, the Prosperity UK report does acknowledge the “supremacy” of the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process. This is a good rhetorical starting point.

But no new thinking is offered as to how this supremacy would be reflected in future British policy in a post Brexit world. One would have thought that those who do not like the backstop would come forward with new and interesting proposals to deepen North/ South cooperation, and East / West cooperation, to compensate for the disruption that will inevitably flow from Brexit. That is where British negotiators should be putting the emphasis now. The idea that the whole Belfast Agreement structures can be frozen by the refusal of the DUP and Sinn Fein to work together is not acceptable.

But at a deeper level, it seems that there is still no consensus in Britain as to the sort of relationship it wants with the EU, and what trade offs it is prepared to make to get it. It seems that public opinion in the UK has not yet absorbed what leaving the European Union means.

It wants the freedom but not to accept the costs.


I recently enjoyed “Jacobites, a new history of the 1745 Rebellion” by Jacqueline Riding.

Recently I visited Scotland and was at Glenfinnan, where Prince Charles Edward first raised the standard of his father, James III, as the legitimate King of the UK on 19 August 1745.

 I also saw and the battlefield of Culloden, near Inverness where his attempt to reclaim the throne came to bloody end on 16 April 1746.

 This was the last pitched battle fought on British soil, and ended a struggle that had involved Ireland at the battles of the Boyne in 1690 and Aughrim in 1691.

Riding’s book is timely, as it illustrates the close connection of Scotland with continental Europe, something the English sometimes fail to appreciate, as we see nowadays as Brexit unfolds.

There was also considerable Irish involvement in Charles Edward’s campaign.

The bulk of the small number of French troops, sent to aid him, came from Irish regiments in the French Army. The leading financiers of the campaign were French based Irishmen, Antoine Walsh and Walter Ruttledge. Of the small party that landed in Scotland with the Prince in 1745, the majority were Irish.  

Charles Edward was only 25 when he set out on what must have seemed a reckless endeavour, with little chance of success. French military help was modest, and designed more to create a diversion from other theatres of war (mainly in present day Belgium) that were more vital to French interests than was securing the British throne for James III.

Initially, Charles Edward had astounding success. He took Edinburgh (except its castle) without firing a shot. He then defeated a British army at Prestonpans.

He held court in Edinburgh for a few weeks, promising, among other things to grant religious toleration to all, and to repeal the Act of Union of 1707 between England and Scotland. While there he enhanced his mainly highland Scottish Army with lowland Scots recruits.

He then decided to lead a winter invasion of England, crossing the border at Carlisle, and heading for Lancashire where there was considered to be support for the Jacobite cause. But there was just one small, easily suppressed, rising on his behalf, by Catholics in the vicinity of Omskerk near Liverpool. The Catolic clergy advised their flock not to get involved. He was able to raise a force in Manchester, mainly among local Catholics, but practical English support for his cause proved very disappointing.

After an agonising debate, it was decided in December, at Derby, that he should not continue with his invasion but should lead his Army back to Scotland, and await more substantial help from France.  Most of the Scottish forces, on which he depended and who had much to lose, preferred to fight for their cause in their native country than to wait to be overwhelmed by superior forces gathering in what was, for them, in a foreign land.

The Prince himself wanted go on to London. But that endeavour could only have worked if there was a simultaneous invasion from France, which could not be guaranteed.

Prince Charles Edward’s army could move much faster than the more cumbersome English forces, and so evaded them to get back safely to Scotland, where he did indeed prove to have more solid support.

Once back in Scotland, he got local more recruits and help from France, and won another military victory at Falkirk.

But his position was never secure.

Hanoverian forces still held too many of the strong points in Scotland and the Prince’s Highland clansmen were more suited to short aggressive campaigns, than they were to a war of attrition. Money was also in short supply. And French help did not always get through because the Royal Navy was so strong.

He was finally defeated at Culloden, near Inverness, by the Duke of Cumberland, the son of King George II, and, like Charles, in his mid twenties. Large numbers of highlanders were massacred in cold blood after the battle, while those fighting for the Prince in French uniforms were spared.

The Prince eventually escaped to France, but was ejected from there when France made peace with England.

He had to return to Rome and the protection of the Pope and of his brother, Henry Stuart, who had become a Cardinal. He continued to seek a way to win back the throne, and in 1749 he became a Protestant, presumably to make himself more acceptable to English opinion.

He was a leader of immense flair, courage, and charisma when things were going well. But seemed unable to hide his feelings when things went wrong, which demoralised his supporters.

He lived out his life in Rome, never giving up on the hope of a return to the throne. He had a daughter, Charlotte, Duchess of Albany, who survived him by only two years. In terms of public achievement, his life was over, almost before it had begun.


The Backstop is not just about the border. It is not a technical matter. It is not just about what happens at 200 crossing points.

It is about the people of Northern Ireland, and giving all of them (not just a majority) the freedom to be who they are, and a sense of belonging.

But the present debate in the UK Conservative Party about replacing the backstop, seems to assume that it is all about technical fixes and invisible border posts , and that some yet to be discovered combination of IT and lasers would remove the need for physical customs posts, and that would then solve the entire problem. That is a mistake.

The backstop is about far more than this.  It is a recognition of the fact that, in Northern Ireland there is a population some of whom feet they have exclusively British identity and allegiance, some of whom feel they have an exclusively Irish identity and allegiance, and some of whom combine these allegiances comfortably enough.

The backstop is a recognition of this fundamental divide, which has led to so much suffering in the past, and an attempt to sustain the arrangements that ended that suffering.

The Belfast Agreement of 1998 transcended these divisions through provisions for intense North/ South and East/West cooperation, that would allow all three groups, described above, to feel fully at home in Northern Ireland under any present, or future , constitutional arrangements.

This was easy to envisage as long as both parts of Ireland remained in the EU, because EU rules facilitated and underpinned free and easy cooperation both North/South and East/West.

In such a context, territorial “sovereignty” became less of an issue, because it was overlaid by structures of free cooperation enshrined in EU law.

Brexit changes all that in a radical way. It brings territorial sovereignty back into the centre of stage in a way that threatens the Belfast Agreement settlement in a deeply fundamental way. I believe that Theresa May came to understand this, and that that explains her acceptance of the backstop.

Most of those contending to take her place in the Conservative Party leadership do not seem to do so.

In the agreement of March 2019, the EU side has given the UK very strong assurance of its good faith in seeking to find an alternative to the backstop.

But that will only work if the UK side really understand why the backstop was put there in the first place.

I do not believe that the contenders for Conservative Party leadership have taken this on board.


Speech by John Bruton, former Taoiseach, in the Home Rule Club in John’s Quay Kilkenny City at 8 .30pm on Tuesday 4 June 2019

I am greatly honoured to be invited to speak here in The Home Rule Club.

It is a sign that John Redmond is not forgotten, that the cause to which he devoted his entire life, Home Rule, is still remembered in the name of this Club. In his lifetime, John Redmond was awarded the Freedom of Kilkenny City in 1916.

This Club was formed in 1894 in the wake of the Parnell split, of which I will say a little later on.

John Redmond had a political career of 39 years, and became an MP in January 1881, at the age of 25, at the height of the agitation for land reform.

Previous to becoming an MP, he had worked as a clerk in the House of Commons where his father had been a member. 

When his father died in 1880, Redmond had hoped to contest his father’s seat in Wexford town. The new Leader of the Irish Party, Charles Stewart Parnell, ironically as events turned out, preferred to have Tim Healy (later a bitter opponent of Parnell) contest the Wexford seat rather than John Redmond ( subsequently one of his most loyal supporters).

Not long after losing the Wexford town nomination, Redmond did secure a seat in Parliament, representing New Ross.

In 1885, he was re elected to Parliament, representing Wexford North.

In 1890, the Irish Party split, when Gladstone and the Liberal Party refused to do business with an Irish Party under Parnell’s leadership, because of Parnell’s extra marital affair with Katherine O Shea, and the bad impact that affair had had on some of the Liberal support base, on whom Gladstone depended to pass Home Rule.

Redmond was one of the minority of Irish Party MPs, who supported Parnell, in the split that resulted from Gladstone’s decision.

Redmond appears to have been motivated by personal loyalty rather than political calculation.

There is some evidence that Redmond tried to persuade Parnell to retire, voluntarily and temporarily, for the sake of the greater cause, but when Parnell declined to do so, Redmond gave him unqualified support.

He said that to sell out the leader, simply to preserve the Liberal Alliance, would compromise the independence of the Irish Party.

The resultant split was deep and bitter…a clash between loyalty and pragmatism.

After the split, the first test of Parnell’s support was in a by Election on North Kilkenny.

John Redmond spoke in support of Parnell’s candidate, Vincent Scully, but used conciliatory language, trying to heal the divide.

Michael Davitt organised the anti Parnellite campaign in favour of their candidate, Sir John Pope Hennessy, and, at one stage, Parnell had lime thrown in his eye when campaigning in Castlecomer.

Pope Hennessy won twice as many votes as Vincent Scully, and Parnell, and Redmond, thus suffered a major defeat.

When, less than a year later, Parnell died, in October 1891, Redmond decided to uphold Parnell’s memory by contesting his dead leader’s seat in Cork City. He lost, and was out of Parliament.

But, in July 1892, Redmond, as a Parnellite, contested and won a seat in Waterford City, against Michael Davitt, who was standing as an anti Parnellite. Redmond was to retain that Waterford seat to the end of his life, in March 1918.

What were the sources of Redmond’s interest in politics?

Obviously, the fact that his father and grand uncle had been MPs would have played a part.

At boarding school in Clongowes, from 1868 to 1874, Redmond excelled in drama and debating.

He went from Clongowes to Trinity College, but dropped out after two years.

He then worked as a clerk in the House of Commons, before becoming an MP himself. He later qualified as a barrister, and was called to the Bar in 1887, while already an MP.

His parents were separated, something that was uncommon, and difficult, at that time. Redmond, as the eldest son, often had to act as a conciliator between his parents, thereby developing diplomatic skills, along with a certain solitariness, characteristics that were to mark his political career. Redmond’s mother had come from Protestant and Unionist stock, although she converted to Catholicism on marrying Redmond’s father.

John Redmond made few close friends, and even his close relationship with his long time deputy, John Dillon, was marked by formality and reticence.

His closest political friend was the MP for Kilkenny City, Pat O Brien, a native of Tullamore, who became MP here in 1895 and served the City up to his death in 1917.

Pat O Brien was almost a member of the Redmond family, staying with Redmond in his home in Wicklow for lengthy periods, including staying for ten days to console Redmond after the death of Redmond’s brother Willie.  When O Brien himself died shortly afterwards, Redmond broke down at the funeral.

Indeed, his life was marked by tragedies.

His first wife, Johanna Dalton, died in childbirth in 1889, after only six years of marriage.

Redmond had met Johanna, a native Australian, while fundraising for the National Land League in Australia shortly after he became an MP.

One of his daughters died as a young adult.

His brother, and close political lieutenant, Willie (MP for Clare) was killed in the Great War in 1917, at a difficult moment in Redmond’s career, when his brothers presence would have been of great support to him.

This loss was soon to be followed by the death of Pat O Brien.

John Redmond, a widower, married Ada Beesley in 1899, ten years after the death of his first wife.  Ada was English and, like Redmond’s mother prior to her marriage, a Protestant.

The fact that both his mother, and his second wife, came from Protestant backgrounds may explain why Redmond took a conciliatory line in respect of differences in Ireland which had religious roots.

Redmond also demonstrated a broad minded view in his condemnation of anti Semitism in Limerick in 1904, whereas others, like the Fenian, John Devoy were openly anti Semitic.

As I will argue, the crowning achievement of John Redmond’s career was the enactment into law of Irish Home Rule on 18 September 1914.

Other achievements with which he was closely associated were

+ the settlement on the land question, in a way which transferred ownership of the land of Ireland to those who were actually farming it,

+ the achievement of democratic Local Government in 1898,

+ the Universities Act of 1908 which established NUI,  

+ the beginnings of the welfare state, with the introduction of old age pension and social security, in 1909, and

+   the continuation of state support for denominational (Catholic and C of E) schools in England,

Apart from these legislative achievements, Redmond played a crucial role in 1900 in reuniting the Irish Party, after the Parnell split of 1891.

 John Dillon, who had been on the other side of that split from Redmond, described this work of reuniting the party, at a banquet in Redmond’s honour in 1908, as “one of the greatest works of reconciliation ever wrought for Ireland”.

Redmond’s conciliatory and consensual approach was the key to maintaining unity among a talented, but fractious, group of men.

Redmond did not have the same control over candidate selection as Parnell had had, because of the circumstances in which he became leader of the reunited Party in 1900. So his achievement in maintaining a reasonable degree of Party unity is all the greater.

As I have said, Redmond’s most important achievement was the passage into law of Home Rule for Ireland on 18 September 1914.

Before I turn to that, I would like to say a little more about the other achievements with which he was associated.

Land Reform was crucial.

The Land Act of 1881, enacted shortly after Redmond became an MP, was the first step towards the eventual transfer of land ownership, with compensation, from landlords to tenants, giving this numerous body of people, the former tenants, a stake in the country, a sense of shared ownership of Ireland.

It was really important that this was done, before Ireland became independent. It shaped the politics of independent Ireland.

To have tried to solve the land question after independence would have put an immense strain on Irish democracy.

It would have been either deeply divisive, or financially costly, or both.

It was easier to pay for Irish land reform drawing on the resources of the much larger UK Treasury, than it would have been if the cost of compensating landlords had to be borne by the much smaller Irish tax base.

Land Reform in Ireland was predominantly an achievement of parliamentary politics, not of physical force.

The introduction of social insurance in 1907, by the Liberal government had the support of the Irish Party.  It was intended to provide financial support for workers, who could not work because of illness or lack of a job. It was very advanced for its time.

Old Age Pensions were also introduced at this time, and Ireland benefitted more than most, because there were a disproportionate number of older people in Ireland, compared to the rest of the then United Kingdom.

Of course, this posed a problem for Home Rule advocates, in the sense that the pensions could more easily be afforded, if they were being paid for out of the larger UK wide tax base, than if they had had to be met from the much smaller tax base of a Home Rule Ireland.

This same type of dilemma arises today in respect of suggestions that Northern Ireland might opt to transfer sovereignty from London to Dublin by a referendum called under the terms of the Belfast Agreement.

The smaller Irish tax base would have greater difficulty, than the larger UK wide tax base, in supporting the external subvention of public services in Northern Ireland, which now brings in, from outside, 25% of the Northern Ireland GDP, as against the mere 7% of GDP that had to be brought in from outside to maintain NI public services in 1960.

Also in the 1906/08 period, the Liberal Party government wanted to abolish public support for denominational schools in England.  John Redmond and the Irish Party successfully joined with the Conservatives to oppose this, and, as a result, denominational schools continue to exist in England up to this day. The interests of the children of recent Irish immigrants to England were a concern for the Irish Party.

From an Irish perspective, the creation of the National University in 1908 was also a major achievement for Redmond and his Party. It’s very name, “National University”, underlines its importance in the progression towards economic and cultural independence.

The passage into law of Home Rule for Ireland in September 1914 was, of course, an Irish parliamentary achievement without equal in the preceding 200 years.

 Redmond, as Irish Party Leader, achieved something that had eluded previous Irish leaders like O Connell, Butt, Shaw and Parnell.

Home Rule granted Ireland its own legislature, something denied it since 1800. And that was won without violence, but in the face of threats of violence from those who opposed it.

The enactment of Home Rule may have been a purely peaceful achievement, but this is not to suggest that those who obtained it, the Irish Parliamentary Party of John Redmond and John Dillon, were mild mannered and non confrontational.

Two previous attempts to obtain Home Rule had failed, the first in the 1880’s because it was defeated in the House of Commons, and the second in the 1890’s because it was vetoed in the House of Lords. 

To get Home Rule onto the statute book in 1914, John Redmond had to

+ get a majority for Home Rule in the House of Commons, and also

+ get the British constitutional arrangements changed to remove the House of Lords veto. This veto applied to all legislation, and this veto could only be removed with the consent of the House of Lords itself. 

Before that, in the House of Commons, the Liberal party,  also had to be won back to the cause of Home Rule for Ireland. It had been committed to Home Rule under Gladstone, but had moved away from it under Lord Rosebery, Henry Campbell Bannerman, and Herbert Asquith.

In a masterly exercise of parliamentary leverage and constructive opportunism, Redmond achieved all these goals, in a very short space of time. 

He withheld Irish Party support for the radical 1909 Budget, unless and until there was a commitment both to remove the Lords veto and to introduce Home Rule.

He also, in effect, exercised pressure on the King, because the Lords eventually only were persuaded to pass the legislation to remove their own veto, by a threat by a reluctant King to swamp the House of Lords with new, Home Rule supporting, Lords.

This shows what Irish MPs can do by taking their seats, and using their votes, when the government of the day is in a minority….a lesson that seems to have been forgotten by nationalist voters in Northern Ireland.

All this was achieved from the position of being a minority party in the House, albeit a party whose votes were needed to avoid a General Election, which the Liberal Government feared they would lose.

Brinksmanship was involved, because, if the Liberals had to call an election and lost, the cause of Home Rule would be lost too.

Redmond did not have all the trump cards. He just played the cards he had very well .

On the other side of the House, the Irish Party faced a Conservative Party that was determined to force a General Election, and to that end, was prepared to incite Ulster Unionists to military insurrection, and to connive with elements in the British military to ensure that such an insurrection would not be prevented.

In Britain itself, Home Rulers had to overcome deep anti Irish, and anti Catholic, sentiment is some sections of opinion.  To counter this, Redmond had toured Britain, over 30 years, gradually preparing British opinion to accept Irish legislative independence.

In face of all these difficulties, getting Home Rule onto the statute book, without the loss of a single life, really was a remarkable parliamentary achievement. I believe the Irish state should have properly commemorated the centenary of that achievement on 18 September 2014.

Redmond had entered politics a relatively well off man, with substantial land holdings in Wexford, but had to sell off properties to meet the expenses of his political life as an MP. He died, at the age of 61 in March 1918, leaving an estate valued at just £1,878.00.

Was Redmond right to urge his supporters to volunteer to fight in the Great War?

The Woodenbridge speech of John Redmond, on 20 September 1914, urging Irish men to join the Allied cause in the Great War that had broken out six weeks previously, must be seen  against the background that Home Rule had at last been placed on the statute book, just two days previously.

Home Rule was law, but the implementation of it was simply postponed until the end of what most people expected would be a short war.

Redmond’s address to the Volunteers at Woodenbridge was not just a thank you for the passage of Home Rule.

Redmond also wanted to show that the passage of Home Rule into law had inaugurated a new and better relationship within Ireland, and between Ireland and its neighbouring island.

He wanted to show everybody, including Ulster Unionists, that things had changed.

As let us not forget, he was still aiming to persuade Ulster Unionists to come in under Home rule.  He felt he needed to say what he said about support for recruitment, if there was to be any chance at all that Ulster Unionists would, when the War was over, voluntarily take part in a Home Rule Parliament in Dublin.

He wanted to show to Ulster Unionists that, in existential matters, Unionists and Nationalists were now “on the same side”………something we have not yet achieved a century later.

Was Redmond’s call for volunteers crucial?

Irish men had fought in the British Army in the Boer War, notwithstanding Redmond’s and the Irish Party’s opposition to that war.  Many of the Irish men who volunteered to fight in 1914, 1915 and 1916, in what turned out to be the Great War, would have done so anyway, whether Redmond asked them to do so, or not.

Suppose Redmond had taken a different tack at Woodenbridge.

Imagine what would have been the reaction if , two days after Home Rule had been passed into law and signed by the King, Redmond had chosen instead to advise the Volunteers in Woodenbridge not to join the forces to defend neutral Belgium.

Belgium had been invaded by Germany a month previously.

Those in Britain and in Ulster, who had opposed Home Rule would then have felt they had been vindicated in their opposition to Home Rule, and that the Irish could not be trusted.

Some have criticised the limitations of the initial Home Rule Act of 1914, even though, unlike independence, it was achieved without loss of life.

 The powers were limited, in part, because Home Rule, as initially presented to Parliament, was designed to apply to all 32 counties of Ireland, encompassing thereby a reluctant Unionist minority.

And to get around the Lord’s veto under the Parliament Act of 1911, the Home Rule Bill had to be passed in the House of Commons in three successive years, in identical terms. Not a comma could be changed.

Although the possibility of temporary exclusion of some Ulster counties was conceded, by the time the Home Rule Act finally came to be passed a third time,  the Bill had to adhere to the exact form in which it had been framed originally, when it was to apply, from the outset , to all 32 counties of Ireland. Any temporary exclusion was to be provided for in subsequent amending legislation.

In the hope of Ulster Unionist acquiescence to coming in under Home Rule, either immediately or later, safeguards and limitations were deliberately inserted to protect or reassure the Ulster Protestant minority.

For example a provision was inserted whereby the Home Rule Government “could not endow any religion”. This safeguard was actually a worry to the Catholic hierarchy, who feared it might affect existing state funding for Catholic teacher training colleges, but it was put there to reassure Protestants in a 32 county Ireland.

For the same reason, marriage law was to be kept at Westminster, because the Vatican’s “Ne Temere” decree of 1907 on mixed marriages had caused alarm among Protestants.

Likewise, limitations were placed on the on the imposition of tariffs and customs duties by the Home Rule Government of a 32 county Ireland.

These were put there to assure the industrial interests in Ulster, that their trade interests would not be sacrificed to those of the majority, predominantly agricultural, economy of the rest of the country.

 In other words, to get Home Rule through, Redmond agreed that Ireland would stay in the UK wide Customs Union. So, under Home Rule, there would have been no customs posts between Britain and Ireland, or on any border there might be in Ireland.

Was that all that unreasonable?

Yes, we did take the power to impose customs duties under the Treaty of 1921, which Treaty also accepted the exclusion of the six counties. So the result, between 1920’s and the 1960s, were customs posts all along the border, and between this state and Britain, put there by an Irish government.

These customs controls, which would not have applied under Home Rule, led to higher prices, inconvenience, and economic under performance.

As it transpired, the safeguards, offered in the original Home Rule Bill of 1911 to Unionists, and retained in the final Bill that became law in 1914, were not enough to persuade them to be part of a Home Rule Ireland.

They continued to insist on exclusion from the whole Home Rule system, and backed their demand with the threat of force.

 Modern critics may claim Home Rule Act of 1914 was too limited. The Ulster Unionists of the time clearly did not think so! 

If John Redmond had wanted to maximise the powers of the Home Rule Government in Dublin, he could, perhaps early on, have accepted the exclusion from Home Rule of the 4 Ulster counties where there was a Unionist majority.

 Even the Conservatives would have given the Home Rule Parliament more powers on that basis

Redmond, unlike those who negotiated the Treaty,  the Anglo Irish Agreement of 1938, and the Good Friday Agreement of 1998  for that matter, felt he could not accept any open ended exclusion from Home Rule of any part of Ireland.

In that sense, John Redmond, in 1914, could be said to have been more idealistic than the physical force negotiators, who came after him, turned out to be, in 1921, when they reluctantly accepted partition. 

The American historian, Joseph P Finnan in his book, “John Redmond and Irish Unity 1912-1918”, has claimed that Redmond prized Irish unity more than he prized Irish sovereignty.

He said

            “Although he (Redmond) acceded to demands for temporary exclusion of northern counties, he never gave them up for lost. The Irish revolutionaries who negotiated the Anglo Irish Treaty of 1921 did just that. Even the anti Treaty forces led by de Valera based their objections on the loss of the republican ideal, not the loss of the northern nationalist population”

Redmond’s 32 county ideal has not been achieved.


There are many reasons. Fear and suspicion, generated by the use of violence on both sides, played a big role.

Charles Townsend said in his book “Easter 1916”

“The Rebellion played a part in cementing partition”

Indeed, the words of the 1916 Proclamation itself were  “oblivious” to the problem of resistance in parts of Ulster to any form of rule by Dublin.

The 1916 Proclamation said it was

“Oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien Government, who have divided a minority from a majority in the past” 

In effect, the 1916 leaders, like many other nationalists then and since, seemed  to think the Ulster Unionists did not have minds of their own, and were simply tools of the British. Redmond, on the other hand, took them seriously and negotiated with them.

There was nothing in the 1916 Proclamation that dealt with the fears of Ulster Unionists.  The Irish Republic was just deemed to include them. That was it.

Under the agreement by which Home Rule was passed into law in 1914,  its  implementation was postponed for the duration of the war, but there was no doubt but that it would come into effect, once the war was over, either for the whole of Ireland, or, more likely, for 26 or 28 counties.

There was an attempt to bring Home Rule into effect, while the War was still on, in late 1916, after the Rising.

Carson and Redmond were agreeable to this, on the basis that it would apply to 26 Counties initially.

Unfortunately some Conservative members of the War cabinet vetoed it. They were apparently fearful, while still at war with Germany, and in the wake of the 1916 Rebellion which had  had German support, of German influence on a new Dublin Home Rule government.

But, once the War was over, Home Rule was to come into effect. That is clear because the Lloyd George Coalition Government’s re election manifesto in the December 1918 Election stated bluntly

“Home Rule is upon the statute book”.

There was thus no going back on it.  

That was John Redmond’s achievement of 1914, before a shot had been fired in 1916.

He had got all major parties in Britain to accept legislative independence for Ireland…before a single policeman was shot!

One has only to observe the low level of knowledge about Ireland, in current UK politics, to see how great an achievement that was, in 1914.

My belief is that Home Rule, like the Treaty, could have been a stepping stone to full independence, but without the loss of life.

Under the 1914 Home Rule arrangement, if Ulster counties opted out, they would have continued under direct rule from Westminster. 

There would have been no Stormont.

That was not the way things turned out.

The executions following the 1916 Rising, the failure of the negotiations to introduce immediate Home Rule for 26 counties in its immediate aftermath, the failure of the Irish Convention in 1917 to forge an agreement between Unionists and Nationalists on customs controls, and the threat of conscription in 1918, all gradually eroded support for Redmond’s Home Rule policy, and for his party.

But by the end of 1917, John Redmond was already ill. He was contemplating resignation as leader of his Party. He was suffering from gallstones. His doctors advised surgery. The operation was initially a success. But then his heart weakened. He died in the early hours of Wednesday 6th March 1918.

After his death March, in Dublin Corporation, the Sinn Fein member and later President of Ireland, Sean T O Kelly described John Redmond as

“ an honour to his country”.

The leader of the Irish Unionists, Edward Carson, described him as

“invariably an honourable and courteous opponent”

The Freemans Journal described Redmond’s character as

“ a rare combination of  inflexible will and genial humanity”.

It emphasised that “He would have been an ideal first Prime Minister of an Irish Cabinet, skilled in bringing men and parties together”.


Who will be the next President of the European Commission?

This is a decision that could set the European Council of heads of government on a collision course with the recently elected European Parliament and set France on a collision course with Germany. The present system is flawed in that it only gives voters an indirect, rather than a direct, say in who is Commission President, and is not truly representative in that it rewards only the biggest party.

Article 17 of the European Union Treaty says

“Taking account of the elections to the European Parliament, and after having held the appropriate consultations, the European Council shall propose to the Parliament a candidate for President of the Commission”.

It goes on to say that the nominee must then obtain a majority in the European Parliament, and if he or she does not, the European Council must then, within a month, propose a new name.

In 2014, and again in the recent European Parliament elections, the Parliament decided to go further.

It endorsed a process whereby the major parties would nominate a “lead candidate”, who would then be supported as President of the Commission.

In a sense this preempted to role of the European Council in picking the nominee.

In 2014 Jean Claude Juncker was the nominee of the EPP and, when the EPP emerged as the biggest single party (219 out of 751), he was nominated. Only Hungary and the UK opposed him in the European Council. He was then elected by a majority vote in the Parliament.

This “lead candidate” system was devised, so as to allow each voter to have a say, through their choice of party in the European Election, in who would be President of the Commission. It was a form of indirect democracy.

For the 2019 election the same process was followed.

The EPP proposed Manfred Weber as their nominee for President of the Commission.

The Social Democrats nominated Frans Timmermans .

The Greens nominated Ska Keller.

The Liberals, who do not like the lead candidate process, group put forward a “team” of candidates including Guy Verhofstadt and Margarete Verstager.

Weber won last week, in the sense that his group has most MEPs (180). So he has a good case to be the nominee. But 180 is even further from an overall majority of the 751 member Parliament  than Jean Claude Juncker was with 219 MEPs in 2014.

A system which says the party with the most MEPs shall have its nominee as President of the Commission  has the deficiencies of the British straight vote, it is a “winner take all” electoral system.

Second preferences do not count.  All one needs to be is the biggest party, to claim the job.  Like the British electoral system that is polarizing by its nature.

Some argue that the lead candidate system also upsets the balance of power between the Parliament and European Council, in that it purports to tie the hands of the European Council on who it may nominate, and also it politicizes the Commission unduly.

Under the Treaty, the Council must “take account” of the results of the results of the European Election in choosing its nominee, but the lead candidate system in not in the Treaty. It does not oblige the Council  to pick the nominee of the biggest party.

On the other hand, credibility will be at stake if the Council now rejects Manfred Weber.

The Council cannot simply ignore the fact that the election was fought on the basis of the lead candidate system, and many voters were genuinely led to believe that, in voting for a particular party, they were also voting for that party’s nominee for President of the Commission.  

Presidential debates took place between the lead candidates, on the assumption that one of them would become President of the Commission.

To replace that open, if flawed, system with a  backroom deal to put forward someone whose name was not before the electorate  at all would be a hard sell, no matter how well qualified the new nominee might be.

And that alternative nominee would still have to win a majority in Parliament, to be elected. The outgoing European Parliament, in a formal resolution, said the Parliament would be “ready to reject” a nominee who had not been a lead candidate.

So the European Council would be taking a big risk if, at this stage, it decides to reject the lead candidate system.

There is a wider argument.

Despite the improved voter turnout, many EU citizens still feel EU decision-making is remote.  

The European Council would need to come up with something much better if it decides to go against the lead candidate method of selecting the Commission President.

In 2001, the EU heads of government asked the Convention on the Future of Europe (of which I was a member), to look at new ways to create a “Europe-wide democratic public opinion” when it drew up a new EU Treaty.

The heads of government specifically asked the Convention to consider the direct election of Europe’s Commission President, not by the Parliament,  but by the voters of Europe themselves.

They also asked  the Convention to consider whether some MEPs should be elected in Europe-wide, rather than in national, constituencies.  This would have given voters an opportunity to vote on European policies, rather than just on the national ones, that tend to predominate in European elections at present.

I regret to say neither of these proposals got serious consideration by the Convention.

I argued strongly there for the direct election by the people of the President of the Commission, on the same day, but on a different ballot paper, to MEPs.  Separating the two votes would preserve the vital separation of powers between Parliament, Commission ,and the Council

The proposal failed to get support because many members of the Convention felt that a  President of the Commission, directly elected by the people, would be politically too powerful, even if his or her legal prerogatives were no more than those of the existing Commission President.

The other idea,  that of electing some of the MEPs on a Europe wide list did not get support either, chiefly because some of the existing MEP seats  would have had to be given over to the Europe wide list, and some existing MEPs might have lost out.

The looming impasse over the Commission Presidency shows we need to devise a better system.

I believe the best solution would be to have the President of the Commission directly elected by the people of the EU, under a proportional representation system with a single transferable vote (PR.STV). It is a simple system, once you get the hang of it.

It is used in by elections in Ireland. It was considered as the replacement for the present UK system, in a referendum in the UK during the Tory/ Lib Dem coalition, but unfortunately rejected. If it had been accepted Brexit might never have happened.

Under PR.STV, people’s second and third preferences are taken into account, if their first choice does not win. The importance of second preferences encourages candidates to appeal to as broad an electorate as possible. This reduces the sort of destructive polarization we now see in UK and US politics.

But the system involves several counts after the elimination of lower candidates. To introduce PR.STV for EU Presidential Elections would need the introduction of a standardized  electronic system for the casting and counting of votes all over the EU, which would require a substantial investment.

But I believe it would be the best, and fairest, way forward for European democracy.


There is concern about the impact of “populism” on rational decision making in many western democracies.

But there is no agreement on what populism means.

All politics appeal, to some extent, to people’s self interest, and to their preference for advantages being given to themselves, to the area in which they live, or to a group to which they belong.

The concern is not so much about this form of populism, as it is about a populism that seeks to radically overturn the rules of the game by which conventional politics is played out.  As the EU is, above all, a rules based organisation, this form of populism represents a particular threat to the EU.

For example, by proposing to leave the EU, British populists sought to change the rules of UK politics, rules which constrained what the UK could do, so as to protect the UK’s relations with its neighbours.

Polish populists sought to overthrow the rules of Polish politics by undermining the independence of the Polish courts.

Hungarian populists did something similar by dominating the media and by defying EU policies on refugees.

America’s populist President is seeking to overturn the rules of international trade by undermining the WTO and placing new tariffs on imports, and withdrawing from non proliferation and arms control Treaties.

Generally, the existing rules, that populists want to overturn, are portrayed by them as benefitting an “elite” or foreigners, to the disadvantage of “the people”.

By overturning these rules, the people are supposed to be allowed to ”take back control.“

But there is often no underlying consensus about what to do with the control, once it has been taken back. This is most obvious in the case of Brexit. Populists can articulate what they are against, but generally fail to give equivalent detail on what they are for. If everyone pursues national self interest, the conflicting national interests will cancel one another out.

Ray Dalio, the founder of the investment firm Bridgewater has described populism as a

“ political and social phenomenon that arises from the common man being fed up with

1) wealth and opportunity gaps,

2) perceived cultural threats from those with different values in the country and from outsiders,

3) the “establishment elites” in positions of power, and

4) government not working effectively for them. “

These sentiments lead that constituency to put strong leaders in power.

Dalio says that Populist leaders are typically confrontational rather than collaborative, and exclusive rather than inclusive.

As a result, conflicts typically occur between opposing factions (usually the economic and socially left versus the right), both within the country and between countries.

 These conflicts typically become progressively more forceful in self-reinforcing ways.

The results of the European Parliament have revealed some breakthroughs for populists, in France, the UK, Italy, Hungary, Slovakia and Poland.

But they have suffered setbacks in Germany, Netherlands, Spain, Austria, Denmark and Ireland (Sinn Fein losses).

The centre has held, but its composition has changed. Greens and Liberals have gains while classic Christian Democrat, Social Democrat and Conservative parties have lost some ground, although they remain dominant.

The biggest difficulties will be in EU relations with the UK and Hungary, where radical populists won large mandates.  Once has to ask whether the political culture of these countries is such that they belong in the EU at all.


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.

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