John Bruton

Opinions & Ideas

Page 3 of 50



May 25th may well mark a turning point for this country.

There is effectively only one question before us. Do we or do we not introduce a liberal abortion regime into this country.  This is not about some sing-song “ Repeal the eight “ day out at the polls.

For the most part, this is an agenda driven, ideologically led, media and youth focused attempt to allow for the extinction of the lives of thousands and thousands of our most vulnerable human beings before they have allowed to be born.

The rare cases upon which some pro choice advocates build their case, are really no longer the main issue. What is being proposed is beyond all expectations and has disturbed many middle of the road citizens.

Two leading female journalists, have unequivocally and chillingly stated that they accept that there is a baby in the womb but that that baby’s life must be trumped by a woman’s right to choose.

At least, one could argue, that they are accepting what many others will not accept and that is, what advances in science, have been incontrovertibly telling us for some time now. It is that we can no longer talk about a mere bunch of cells. That often, before a woman even knows that she is pregnant, there is a beating heart, and a rapidly developing little body, a little boy or a little girl.


This referendum is therefore challenging us as a society, to look at our basic moral vision and to examine our attitude to the value of human life.

It is making us ask ourselves the most fundamental questions of all – what does it mean to be human?

Are only some humans to have the most basic of human rights?

The breathtaking proposals that our legislators are envisioning, aided and abetted by the media, are at last stirring that still small voice of conscience in many who have up to now, being slumbering in a fog of moral ambivalence and misplaced, if well intentioned, compassion.

I was taught nearly forty years ago that there were two sorts of moral vision.

The first one saw human life as a spectrum from the moment of conception to death. At every point on the spectrum life is equally sacred. There can be no exceptions or justifications or obfuscations. We cannot modify it in the interests of other values. It is, undoubtedly a difficult path to follow. And often, in the case of abortion demands a heroism that none of us can honestly guarantee we could deliver with certainty. In other words we don’t know, in spite of our genuine respect for the unborn, how any of us might react in difficult circumstances. That fact, however does not alter or take from the prolife commitment to the unborn baby which they believe is truly human.

So powerful are those commitments and beliefs, that remarkable courage -real and genuine courage-has been the hallmark of many prolife groups, here in Ireland and around the world and in particular, of the members of the Iona Institute, headed by David Quinn.

The second vision calls for compromise in moral situations. The individual, views morality as something that pertains primarily to themselves and their own situation. Some prochoice feminists will say that they wish that abortion was never necessary but that women are often the victim of circumstances. Accordingly they advocate that they must look out for themselves and if others get hurt, or die, then it is really not a woman’s fault.  To sober this thought process up, to make this sound acceptable, language is changed, new moral codes are invented. Subjective concepts and feelings, inherently vague anyway, replace the notion of basic human rights. Old wine is rebottled. And compassion is invoked to justify all and sundry. Who could ever have known there was so much of it about?

We are by now well used to these linguistic developments.  We have debated most of the arguments. We depend on a subtly biased media to put forward our simple but uncomfortable and threatening views on the sanctity of all human life and on the human rights of all unborn babies.


There are some issues that I would like put out for further discussion here this evening.

These issues are difficult.

They are ones on which people have different, but often implicit and unstated, values.

But if this is to be an informed and democratic debate, these values need to be made explicit and discussed openly.

When it comes to constitutional rights, are all rights equal? Is the right to life inferior to the right to bodily integrity?

What is our understanding of humanity? Who is human and who should have human rights?

If we are a society that values life, do we accept that the taking of a life will leave emotional scars afterwards on those involved in that decision? Should we not acknowledge this openly before we change our constitution.

As a society, we proclaim our belief in equality as one of our fundamental values. So how can we reconcile that with removing the equal right to life of the unborn from our Constitution?

As a society, we agree that our policies, should” be child centred”. If so, how can we justify leaving the interests of the unborn child out of consideration to abort its life?

As a society, we insist that fathers, as well as mothers, take responsibility for the welfare of their children after birth.  If so, how can we say that fathers should count for nothing in a decision to end the life of one of their preborn children?

None of these are easy issues to discuss.  They can generate anger and hurt and sincere disagreement.

I offer my own views on these questions here ask those who take a different view to tease out the arguments with me and to share their values with me, so we can move forward in mutual understanding and respect.

There are three issues that I would like to develop for further discussion here this evening.


The first issue which has been pushed out of this debate, is the long term consequences of an abortion for the mother herself.

Regrettably, some of the dismissal of these effects by professionals, Doctors and Psychiatrists, over the last few months has been patronising.  It really is a bad reflection on their profession.

Yes, it is true that some people can bury these doubts, in the long and the short term. However, for many others, the consequences have been catastrophic. When I worked as a Counsellor, I have been, for better or for worse, a witness to a number of these traumas. They are not experiences that one would wish to have repeated.

The terrible guilt, the awful grief, the desperate if futile wish that all could be reversed. If only, they could go back. Yet, at every desperate mental and emotional turning, they are told that what they did was for the best. And more harshly, that it was their choice. So, move on!

Yet, in my experience, no one can move on from something that they suspect might not have been the right decision without confronting that decision and acknowledging that they might have made a mistake.

To forbid women to do this, is to place an intolerable burden on their already heavy shoulders. And they often have to carry that burden alone, for the rest of their lives, fearing the hostile judgemental admonitions of an oppressively business like sisterhood.

Our modern culture is a harsh environment for anyone struggling to come to terms with what they sincerely believe to have been an act of destruction, however pressurised or reluctant that decision may have been.

This is a real and genuine medical and health aspect of the abortion debate. Yet, for all the talk of the health of women of women over the last few years, the often long, tortuous road that a post abortion woman has to travel is relegated to a footnote or is simply not spoken about at all. We might well ask is this not, in some respects an echo of the past?

This aspect of her mental health, this constant suppression of a guilt that she may feel, this turning away by those women who have led the prochoice argument, is, in my view, something that we as a society ought to challenge.

Its interesting that, on the one hand, we encourage women to open up about their abusive past, about the trauma of a deprived background, about the loss of their childhood. We suggest that they speak of their adoption experiences and have sought government help for them to seek out their birth mothers. We have commissions and tribunals and even a weekly television programme on lost families. But we do not want to hear from those who regret an abortion.

It seems as if all this compassion and concern is selective, and sometimes self serving, in that it suits other agendas. And we dismiss the hidden distress of those who now find themselves truly alone. Is Closure to be only for the chosen? Are the rest to be deleted from memory? Is this because it does not suit the narrative?


The second issue that I would like to raise is the Gender issue.

Its extraordinary that our very vocal feminist journalists and academics seem blind to the fact that half of those babies they wish to allow to be aborted in Ireland are girls. How do they reconcile this with their notions of equality of treatment? Their own sisters are to be sacrificed on the altar of choice! Their mothers too? Because in time to come, this also will happen.

Drunk on the power of choice, it would seem that all human life is expendable. If we begin by extinguishing the life of the child in the womb, then, all rights ultimately fall.

Some argue that a life can justifiably be extinguished if it is not viable.

If life is not capable of being lived independently, is that a justification for supressing it?  We are getting into very dangerous waters here. What of all of us, who, one day, may not be capable of living independently? The pro abortion advocates like to dismiss this as scaremongering, but the logic is inescapable.  That debate is already underway, shelved for the moment. One step at a time.


The right to life is the first and most fundamental of all human rights, without which there can be no others. One cannot exercise any other human right, if one is not allowed to exercise the right to live. We cannot say this often enough.  Without being allowed to be born, one can have no civil rights, no free speech, no right to bodily integrity.

We must not forget that this drive to repeal the 8th Amendment is about taking away a constitutional right that is there already. This is unprecedented. The history of our constitution is that additional rights have been conferred either by amendments or judicial interpretation.

This is the first time in Irish history that a constitutional right is being taken away. A profoundly utilitarian view of human life is determining our ethical and moral understanding of what it is to be human.  


The third issue concerns the role of men in the abortion debate, or, to be more accurate, the non involvement or the non engagement of the fathers of our unborn babies. And the distancing of many husbands and indeed older men from the whole issue.

Its an irony that 40 years ago, men were able to walk away scot free from any responsibility towards their pregnant girlfriends. The Feminists railed furiously against this, and with justification.

Today, in an open and free society, where women are visibly involved in every walk of life, where more than one third of all births are to single women, where DNA testing can establish the paternity of unborn babies, it seems as if men have vanished off the face of the earth.

We catch an occasional glimpse of older men, or younger husbands in newspaper reports, muttering about this being a woman’s issue. “ No, they will leave it up to the women”!

We have anecdotally heard about others in shops, pubs, the local chemist, or from their wives, no less, that its do with women’s bodies and God forbid that they should interfere.

The same women who complained all those years ago about men getting off the hook, are actively encouraging them to stay out of this and mind their own…business.” MY body, My choice. “

There are, however, sadly another group of men for whom the silence must be deafening. The fathers who wish to take responsibility for the children whom they have fathered and are as yet unborn. The fathers whose DNA makes up 50% of that of all unborn babies. The fathers, who long to hold and nurture and cherish their children are forced to stand aside, or worse, accompany their girlfriends on a life ending voyage.

For them it’s truly a question of what’s,” His baby too,” is “Her choice only”. His baby, Her choice? Where is the equality in that? Is this not discrimination? It is almost impossible for those souls to speak up as they are knocked down instantly by a battery of, by now, culturally ingrained ideologies and prejudices, that only belong in the domain of the female gender.

We need to hear those male voices. We need to support them if and when they speak. They need to know that not all females will drown them out. They too have an ownership, in so far as it goes, of what happens to that child that they helped to create. They too have rights and responsibilities.


What are the basic beliefs of the Irish people?

Advocates of change in the last referendum on marriage equality, relied on two basic concepts to make their case. These were equality and opposition to discrimination. And, as we know, a majority of the Irish people agreed with them.

It is notable that, in this referendum, many advocates of change, of repeal, are not making their case on the basis of equality or on opposition to discrimination.

This is no accident. What they are advocating now are is inherently discriminatory. They want our constitution to discriminate against an unborn human life. They do not believe that an unborn human should have a right to live, ever to see the light of day, to breath air into its own lungs.

What concept of equality will the Irish people be endorsing if they vote yes to the repeal of the 8th amendment? It would seem that a very inconsistent version of equality is being granted to those who can make their voices heard but denied to those who cannot.


We had another referendum recently on Children’s rights.

That referendum was child centred.

We were told our existing constitution was insufficiently child centred, and needed to be amended to make it truly child centred. We were told that this was necessary so that the Constitution would reflect the values of modern Ireland.

There has been no such ”child centred” approach in this debate to repeal to repeal the 8th amendment. It is not child centred at all. The child is a forgotten entity.

There has been no focus, no emphasis, no mention of the unborn baby at all in the Oireachtas report. It was far from child centred!

In fact, since the 8th Amendment was inserted into our Constitution in 1983, the only focus has been on the mother. Her choices, her rights, her health. That would have been fine, if it had been balanced with the beauty and wonder and health and safety and rights and sanctity of the unborn baby. Sadly, thirty years of neglect, thirty years of the active cultivation of choice over life, thirty years of talking only about the Woman, has led us to this referendum.  


In light of the proposed legislation which the Government are framing, there is another question that must be asked.

What will happen when a child in the womb is on the cusp of viability at 23 or 24 weeks?

The Government has indicated that at this point the baby will be delivered alive, rather than killed in the womb first.

But is this really what a humane society does?

When a baby is this premature there is a high chance that the baby will be disabled precisely because it is so premature.

How could any government contemplate such a thing?

And who will look after this baby if the mother doesn’t want to do it?  Will the baby be put into state care, or will some heroic family step forward to adopt the baby?

What will happen just before viability, say at 20 or 21 weeks?

The Committee on the 8th amendment heard what happens in Britain. The baby in the womb is paralyzed first and then poison is injected into its little heart. How can any humane society do this?

What happens to the corpse of the baby? We know that in Britain thousands of foetuses – aborted and miscarried – have been disposed of in hospital incinerators. Will we do that? If not this, then what?  Could a mother bring the body home? What would she do with it?

I would like to know the answers to these questions.

The Irish people need to know the reality of voting Yes.

And how can it be acceptable that the baby in the womb can be a bunch of cells at 11.30 on a Tuesday night and a human being at just past midnight on the Wednesday morning?

These are some of the hard questions that the pro repeal side have not, so far, answered. But they are the questions, that we, the Irish people must all ask, on and leading up to May the 25th.


I cannot conclude without making reference to another area being neglected in this debate.

That is the topic of Adoption.

Why has it gone out of fashion? Because out of fashion it has gone!

I have spoken to young people who say “OH, I could never give my baby away”.  It seems easier for many to extinguish its little life instead. Fidelma Healy Eames initiative, ‘ADOPTION INSTEAD’, that she launched very recently, is a very welcome development in this debate.

Of course, the sad reality is that it can never come back to ask why it was let die. Yet, many, as already mentioned are haunted by bitter regret after making such a decision.

An adopted child offers a peace, even if tinged with great sorrow, that an aborted baby can never offer.

Adoption exists under our law and it is a child centred, as distinct from an adult centred, solution to an unwanted pregnancy.


There are many other aspects of this debate upon which discussion is needed. Unfortunately, the media conversations have largely been in and around procedures and political fallout.  We need to insist on our being given time to deal with what essentially this referendum is all about. A baby, a defenceless little girl or boy, a human being whose life we believe is worth more than a mere choice.

This human being is truly one of us, as the Billboards from The Iona institute around the country remind us.

If the Irish people vote yes, there will be no going back. That is the history of abortion everywhere.

We ask the Irish people to vote NO, to reflect on the life ending consequences of voting YES.

There is and can be no fudge here. Its, ultimately, either YES or NO to the destruction of precious human lives.

For Ireland, this is the most important social justice issue of our times.



Ireland will soon be entering the period of commemoration of the conflict that took place in this country between 1919 and 1923.

It is customary to refer to the conflict between 1919 and 1921 as the War of Independence, and that between 1922 and 1923, as the Civil War.

In fact, both were Civil Wars. In the 1919 to 1921 war, the first victims were Irish members of the RIC, and Irish members of the Judiciary.

The first police victims were RIC constables James McDonnell and Patrick O Connell, killed at Soloheadbeg Co Tipperary on 21 January 1919.  Both were Irish born Catholics, as were many RIC victims.

The first Magistrate to die was James Charles Milling, a Mayo native, shot through the front window of his home in Westport in March 1919. He was a member of the Church of Ireland is buried in the Holy Trinity cemetery in Westport.

These Irishmen were supporting the then existing legal order as they saw it, and paid the supreme sacrifice in so doing.

The tragedy of these conflicts is reflected in two books I read recently.

One is “The Irish War of Independence” by Michael Hopkinson, published by Gill and Macmillan.

The other is “The Redmonds and Waterford, a political dynasty 1891 -1952” by Pat McCarthy published by Four Courts Press.

Hopkinson’s book shows how the threat of the introduction of conscription in Ireland, in March 1918, radicalised Irish opinion and laid the foundation for the Sinn Fein electoral victory over the Irish Parliamentary Party nine months later,  in the General Election which took place when the Great War was over.

Sinn Fein won the election on a manifesto of abstaining from Westminster and seeking recognition for Irish independence from the Peace Conference in Versailles.

The Manifesto claimed that

“the right of a nation to sovereign independence rests on immutable natural law and cannot be made the subject of compromise”

This rejection, on principle, of compromise was reckless. It made conflict of some kind inevitable.

But the Sinn Fein Manifesto did not seek an explicit mandate for armed insurrection, although it did speak of the

“use of any and every means available to render impotent the power of England to hold Ireland in subjection”.

It is hard to argue that, by voting for Sinn Fein in 1918, the Irish people gave a clear democratic mandate for the waging of war.

From the beginning, the preferred IRA tactic was the shooting of policemen (whether armed or not, whether on or off duty) and of Magistrates.

Policemen and Magistrates were, and still are, the executors of state authority in every locality. Killing them was designed to undermine that authority.

Hopkinson claims that both Griffith and de Valera were opposed to the shooting of policemen and would have preferred more conventional warfare. But their policy of appealing to the Versailles Peace Conference yielded no results, despite de Valera’s efforts to rouse opinion in the US.

The struggle was evenly balanced.

Despite many IRA successes, by July 1921, there were 4500 IRA internees, compared to around 2000 active in the field. Shortage of ammunition was a problem for the IRA.

Shortage of manpower was a problem for the authorities. The British had other military priorities, in places like Egypt.

The possibility of Partition had been a main reason for the rejection, by Sinn Fein and wider Nationalist opinion, of the Home Rule policy of John Redmond in the 1916 to 1918 period.

But when it came to negotiation a Truce to end the hostilities in 1921, partition was no longer so central. Hopkinson claims that Lloyd George was told through intermediaries that

“the Dail would accept the exclusion of the six counties provided that fiscal autonomy was granted to the twenty six”.

This is, in fact, how things turned out. Ireland got fiscal independence but partition remains.

The key issue in fiscal independence was the ability to impose tariffs.

One of the perceived inadequacies of the Home Rule proposal had been that Home Rule Ireland would have remained in the UK Customs Union, and would not have been able to impose tariffs on British goods. Fiscal autonomy, under the Treaty of 1921, enabled the Free State to impose tariffs.

When the war was started in January 1919, Home Rule was on the statute book, but remained unimplemented because of differences over the exclusion of some Ulster counties.

But Northern Ireland had not been created, and partition had not been formalised.

That happened in 1920, when the UK Parliament passed a  new Government of Ireland Act, creating two Irish Home Rule Parliaments in place of one , a Parliament  for Ulster (which became Stormont) and another for the rest of Ireland(which was boycotted by Sinn Fein and was stillborn).

This is where the theme of Pat McCarthy’s book, on the Redmonds, intersects with Hopkinson’s book on the Civil Wars.

When the new Government of Ireland Act, setting up Stormont, came before Parliament in London, there were very few Irish Nationalist MPs there to oppose or amend it. This is because the constituencies in Southern Ireland had elected Sinn Fein MPs, who declined to take their seats.

There was one exception, Captain Willie Redmond, who had defeated the Sinn Fein candidate and  won his father John’s old seat in Waterford City.

Along with TP O Connor, who represented a Liverpool constituency Patrick Donnelly (Armagh South), Joe Devlin (Belfast West), Edward Kelly (East Donegal), Jeremiah McVeagh (South Down), Thomas Harbison (Tyrone NE), he was there to speak against the Government of Ireland Act.

But this small Nationalist Party in Westminster did not have the votes to insist on amendments that might have protected the minority in Northern Ireland from what were to be the discriminatory excesses of the Unionist dominated Stormont Parliament.

Pat McCarthy’s book explains how it came about that a city in the south east of Ireland could resist the Sinn Fein tide that swept over the rest of the South in December 1918.

It was due to a devotion to John Redmond in Waterford City that lasted long after his death.

John Redmond had protected the economic interests of Waterford City, bringing it funds for housing and bridge building. He forged an alliance with the local pig buyers association and with the trade unions. Like Redmond, Waterford City had remained loyal to Parnell unlike most of rural Ireland and this Parnellism added to Redmond’s appeal in Waterford.

After 1922, Captain Willie Redmond was elected to Dail Eireann and founded his own party, the short lived National League.

He later was re elected as a Cumann na nGaedhael TD in 1932. He died later that year and his young widow, Bridget Redmond continued to represent Waterford City in the Dail as a Fine Gael TD until she died at a young age in 1952, just after having got her largest ever vote in the 1951 Election.

Because it is concerned with a particular family and locality, Pat McCarthy’s book is full of human interest. But is also a serious and balanced work of history.

Hopkinson’s narrative and analysis of the War of 1919 to 1921 is necessarily more superficial, but it is well worth reading too.


I find it very hard to predict where the Brexit negotiations will end, or indeed if they will ever really end.

UK public opinion is shaped by images from the Second World War era, when Britain was able to stand alone, at least until the United States entered the war on its side.

It is also shaped by a sense that, together with the US, the UK was at the centre of an English speaking world, which had shared interests and affinities that transcended economics.

But in that era, countries were much more self sufficient than they are today. Being an island conferred much more security in 1940 than it does today.

Living standards in the UK and elsewhere were also much lower than they are now, to an extent we find it hard to imagine. So expectations were much lower too. People are less patient nowadays.

The UK was a free trade advocate in the nineteenth century, whereas the US was protectionist.

It was not a golden era. It ended tragically in July 1914.

Prosperity has since made countries far more dependent on one another than they were then. And that interdependence requires a shared set of rules, and one of the rule makers is the EU.

The rhetoric that characterises the UK political debate has not adapted itself to the reality of rule based inter dependence. Nor has the rhetoric of the US debate.

My feeling is that the decision to opt for Brexit was based on a deep seated wish to assert an English sense of identity.

Just as Irish nationalism in the nineteenth and twentieth century defined Irishness as being  in contrast with “Britishness”, Englishness today is being defined, in the minds of many in England, as being in contrast with continental Europe, as reflected in the European Union.

I spend a lot of time in book shops, when I am in Britain, and I am constantly struck by the number of books on the shelves about the Tudor era (when Henry XIII rejected continental dictation on who he might marry) and about the Second World War (when Britain stood alone). Books about eras when Britain was comfortable as a part of a wider European system (100 BC up to 1500 AD) seem not to sell as well, or to occupy as much shelf space.

My conclusion from all of this, is that Brexit is an emotional manifestation, rather than a rational calculation.

In the absence of a major crisis, or of an heroic exercise of political leadership in Downing Street, rational argument, on its own, will not reverse the course towards a progressively wider gulf between the UK and the rest of Europe, during and AFTER Brexit.

Part of the problem is that the UK politicians, who argued for EU membership, did so, on grounds of tactical advantage. The EU was presented just one of the many ways the UK used to exercise global influence. The UK never presented itself to itself as fully committed to, or at the heart of, Europe.

Arguments about how Britain was a truly European country, and had made supreme sacrifices to protect the European order in 1914 ,and again in 1939 ,were not presented as examples of how  Britain’s destiny is entwined with the destiny of Europe. The reality of Britain’s geography was forgotten.

The present Brexit negotiation will not be the end of the drama.

Once the UK is outside the EU, and has no vote in EU decisions, the gap between the EU and the UK will become progressively wider.

Post Brexit UK governments will find it all too easy to continue to blame the EU for any setbacks they encounter, especially as they will no longer have any vote in the EU.  If the UK could persuade itself it was a victim of the EU, when it actually had a direct say in EU decisions, it will be all the easier to blame the EU for things that go wrong when it  no longer has a say,

That will lead to constant renegotiation and friction between the EU and the UK, which will be fed by the Euro hostile press in the UK.

England needs an emotional reconciliation with Europe.

European solidarity with the UK over the Russian activities in Salisbury is an example of the sort of thing that can help Britons feel more European.

The crunch moment will come in November.

That is when the full political, strategic, and economic cost of Brexit will become clear.

If the UK is to reverse course, it will need time. An extension of time under Article 50, whereby the UK would remain in the EU while negotiations continued, might be considered. It would be much better than a Transition deal, where the UK is outside but has to apply all EU rules without any say in them.

One might also consider if there are gestures than can be made toward the UK, that do not damage the integrity of the EU, but which would make the UK feel more at home as a member.

Umbrella organisations, like the Commonwealth, may have creative uses here if there is a willingness to use them. The UK itself is a Union of different nations, with certain important unifying symbols. Can similar unifying symbols be found that would enhance England’s sense of belonging in Europe?


Speech about John Redmond MP at a meeting in the Houses of Parliament in Westminster

I wish to thank Sir Jeffrey Donaldson MP, and Conor McGinn MP, for organising, with the support of Cooperation Ireland and the Irish Embassy in London, this commemoration of the life and service of John Redmond. I thank Christopher Moran, Chairman of Cooperation Ireland, for making this commemoration happen. When Christopher decides something is going to happen, it happens!


John Redmond was as an MP here from January 1881 right up to his death on March 6th, 1918.

He worked briefly as a clerk in the House, before he became an MP.

His father had been an MP from 1872 to 1880, and his uncle, and namesake was a member from 1859 to 1865.

His brother, Major Willie Redmond, served alongside him in the House of Commons from 1883 until 1917 when he died, as a 56-year-old volunteer in the Royal Irish Regiment, from wounds he suffered in the Battle of Messines Ridge.

John’s son, also William Redmond, who also later served on the Western Front, had been elected as an MP in 1910. He successfully defended his deceased father’s seat in the Waterford by Election of 1918.

He won the  Waterford seat again in the General Election of the same year, becoming the only elected Nationalist MP from Southern Ireland to take his seat here, which he did until the Treaty of 1921.  He later became a member of Dail Eireann.


In a recent biography, Alvin Jackson, Professor of History in Edinburgh University describes John Redmond as

“patient, careful, consensual-but occasionally capable of necessary anger, who held together, from a position of weakness, a national enterprise (Home Rule) which he brought to the cusp of victory in 1914.”

Dermot Meleady, my fellow speaker at this event, and the author of a comprehensive two volume life of Redmond, has recently edited Redmond’s vast correspondence. This correspondence illustrates the huge practical difficulties Redmond faced, in holding together, and servicing, the numerous constituencies he had to mobilize to achieve Home Rule.

To exercise influence in Westminster, he had to spend a lot of his life in London.

To mobilise, occasionally dubious, British Liberal opinion behind Home Rule, he had to address meetings all over the rest of Britain. Forinstance, in 1907, he addressed the Oxford Union on a motion favouring Home Rule. After his address, the local Oxford newspaper said

“It is doubtful if the Union has ever heard, or will hear again, a speech that will have such influence on its hearers.”

In this work in Britain, he was greatly assisted by an Irish Party MP, who represented a Liverpool constituency, TP O Connor.

To bring Irish public opinion along in the compromises he needed to make to achieve Home Rule by constitutional methods, he had to spend a lot of time in Ireland . Here the role of his Deputy Leader, John Dillon, who spent more time in Ireland that Redmond could, was vital. They complemented one another.

To raise funds and exert pressure on the UK government, he had to travel often to the United States and Australia.  In fact it was on a fund raising trip for the Party that he met and married his first wife, Johanna Dalton.

All this travel and stress eventually took a toll on his health, and contributed to his death, at the relatively young age of 61.

Born to a well off family, John Redmond lived modestly, but died a comparatively poor man,  because he put public service ahead of his own and his family’s financial interests.


Travel and communications were much more difficult then, so a lot of Redmond’s negotiations were done by letter.

The correspondence Dermot Meleady publishes shows how Redmond was instrumental in seeking to avoid, and eventually in healing, the damaging split between Parnellites and anti Parnellites.

In 1890, Redmond stood by Parnell, a stance that Carson always admired.

But, by 1900, he was the one chosen lead a reunited Irish party, the majority of whom had been opponents of Parnell and, by extension, of Redmond himself.  Redmond was able to succeed in this because he had won the trust of his opponents, as well as of his friends. These same qualities enabled to win over sceptical British opinion to the idea of Irish self government.

Redmond’s career is sometimes presented as a tragic and unlucky failure.

This is not so.  Taken as a whole, his career was a success. He achieved much.


In the 1909 to 1914 period, he successfully used his pivotal votes of his Party, on which the survival of the Liberal government depended, to insist upon the end of the parliamentary veto of the House of Lords, a major constitutional achievement.

When one considers the slow progress made by successive UK governments since then, often with large parliamentary majorities,  in Lords Reform, one gets a sense of the scale of achievement by Redmond, who led a Party that was always in a minority.

To end the Lords veto, Redmond needed nerves of steel in his negotiations between 1909 and 1911. Such was John Redmond’s success that the Daily Mail, with its characteristic understatement when it comes to Irish matters, described him as “the Dictator from Dublin”. He had to exert discipline in his party, and recent academic analysis shows the Irish Party to have been the most  active, disciplined, and cohesive party in the House.

Of course, the abolition of the House of Lords veto was not an end in itself.


It was a means to an end, and the end Redmond sought was Home Rule for Ireland.

Under the terms of the Parliament Act of 1911, which ended the Lords veto, Redmond had to ensure that the House of Commons passed a Home Rule Bill, in identical language, three times in three successive  parliamentary sessions in 1912, in 1913 and again in 1914.

Again this required the consistent application of parliamentary pressure.  He had to ensure that the Liberal government did not take his support for granted, but equally he also had to ensure that the Liberal government survived, for, if the Liberals fell, the replacement government would have abandoned Home Rule .

Through this application of democratic parliamentary pressure, Redmond and his Party succeeded, on 18 September 1914, in having Parliament to enact Home Rule for Ireland, and in having it signed into law by the King.

It is very important for Irish people to remember, in this centenary week of Redmond’s death, that previous Leaders of Irish Nationalism, O Connell, Butt and Parnell had not succeeded in having Home rule become law. Redmond did.

And, unlike them, he faced the real prospect of unconstitutional armed resistance in Ulster.

The enactment of Home Rule, and its signature by the King, meant that the UK Parliament, and its Sovereign, had consented to the principle of Irish legislative independence. This was done long before a shot was fired, long before the first unarmed policeman was shot at gates of Dublin Castle on Easter Monday of 1916, and long before the killing of policemen recommenced, on a much larger scale in 1919.

The principle of legislative independence had been won before a shot was fired.


By 1915, all parties in Westminster, including the Conservatives, had come around to accepting that legislative independence, for at least 26 of the counties of Ireland, was both inevitable and necessary. As a result, Home Rule was the policy of all the major parties, including the Conservatives, in the General Election of 1918.

All this was done without taking anyone’s life.


One of the big controversies surrounding Home Rule was about whether the Home Rule government would have power to set and collect Customs duties, as well as other taxes. In other words, would Home Rule Ireland leave the UK Customs Union, or not?

Just as the UK is now finding that leaving the EU Customs Union has costs as well as benefits, Redmond found that leaving the UK Customs Union, one hundred years ago, would not have been without political difficulty.

Industrialised North East Ulster argued strongly, in the debates about Home Rule, that a government in Dublin should not be allowed to leave the UK Customs Union. They feared that if it did, it might use customs tariff powers to favour other parts of Ireland, to Belfast’s disadvantage.

Indeed, if the Home Rule Act had included customs powers, one might have had the same controversies, about checks at ports and borders a hundred years ago, that we are having today

Redmond wanted to avoid partition, and wanted to minimise differences with Unionism, so he was prepared to cede ground on the customs issue, and accepted that Home Rule would not include customs powers.

Other nationalists took a harder line and, in the end, they got their way.

After the violence of the 1916 to 1921 period, the Treaty of 1921 took the 26 counties out of the UK Customs Union. The Free State government took on the power to impose protectionist tariffs.  That inevitably meant border posts.

Home Rule was not brought into immediate effect in September 1914, after it was enacted, because holding an election to the new Irish legislature and setting up a new government  would have been difficult, given the distractions caused by the outbreak of the First World War in the previous month. Initially, this postponement was not controversial at all.


But the possible exclusion from Home Rule, either “temporarily”, “provisionally”, “indefinitely” or “permanently”, of four, or six, Ulster counties was also postponed, and this WAS controversial.

As we know, in the end, Redmond and his Party did not prevent the eventual exclusion of six Ulster counties from the jurisdiction of the Parliament meeting in Dublin. They were much criticised for that at the time, and since.

But the campaign of violence that followed the defeat of Redmond’s Party in the 1918 Election, did not prevent partition either!

In fact, it entrenched it. And it is with us to this day.


All attempts to coerce Northern Ireland into a United Ireland, whether by the attempted incursions across the border in 1922, by the propaganda campaign in the late 1940s, or by IRA  campaigns in the 1950’s, and from 1969 to 1998, all failed, because they were based on a faulty analysis of the Ulster Unionist mind.

Redmond was the first Irish Nationalist leader to make a serious attempt to understand, in a respectful way, the genuineness of the concerns,  the fears, and the aspirations of Ulster Unionism.

For Irish Nationalism today, this is the most salient aspect of Redmond’s heritage.

Initially, like many today, he was among those who thought  Ulster Unionists were bluffing and could be over ruled, but gradually he changed his mind. In late 1914, he said clearly that

no coercion shall be applied to any single county in Ireland  to force them against their will to come into the Irish (Home Rule ) Government

His approach was persuasion. He was pragmatic.


Two days after Home Rule became law, and a few weeks after the First World War had broken out, in a speech at Woodenbridge, John Redmond supported recruitment in Ireland to the Armed Services to fight in the Great War. He did so

+  partly because he believed that defending the neutrality of  Belgium, a small country, was a just cause, which Ireland should support on its merits, (Remember he OPPOSED the Boer War on similar grounds)  and

+ partly to persuade Ulster Unionists that, on this issue, he, and they, were on the same side. He wanted to stress loyalties that Unionists and Nationalists could share, as a means of minimizing and eventually healing divisions on the island of Ireland.

Inevitably, this lost him support among more extreme Irish Nationalists.

These people had no idea of persuading Unionists of anything. They thought Unionists were bluffing, and that Unionist views were best ignored.

Such people were wrong then, and they are wrong today.

While Redmond supported recruitment, he resolutely opposed any attempt to introduce conscription in Ireland.

In 1915, the Irish Party had, by political methods, prevented conscription being applied in Ireland, even while it was being applied across the entire island of Britain.

Given the huge losses being experienced by conscripts from the other parts of the UK, and the acute need for manpower at the front, successfully resisting conscription in Ireland, while it was being applied everywhere else, cannot have been easy.


Redmond was pragmatic on the Ulster question. In this he was ahead of his time. Neither O Connell, nor Parnell had to face the dilemma of what to do, if Ulster Unionists said “No “, and meant it.

Against Redmond’s pragmatism, we have the absolutism of the Proclamation that launched the Rising of 1916 in Dublin.

It said an Irish Republic of 32 counties existed, not on the basis of the votes of the Irish people, but as of right, a right proclaimed outside the GPO in the name of “God and the dead generations”.

In this, almost other worldly, absolutism of the 1916 Proclamation lay

a resistance to compromise,

an abstention from reality, and

the roots of the Irish Civil War.

This same absolutism explains why the Nationalist voters of Northern Ireland have no one here today to cast a vote for them, when this House decides on the sort of Brexit they will have to accept.


Returning to constitutional politics, a last great attempt was made by Lloyd George to find a formula for immediate Irish legislative independence, on a basis acceptable to both Nationalists and Unionists, in June 1916.

This agreement reached then, if implemented, could have resolved the Irish question.

In that month, Redmond and Sir Edward Carson, the Unionist Leader, reached a crucial agreement.

It involved the immediate implementation of Home Rule for the 26 counties, but with the six counties excluded for the duration of the war, when an Imperial Conference would be called to consider the matter.

Carson persuaded the Ulster Unionist Council to accept this formula, although it meant abandoning Unionists in Cavan, Donegal and Fermanagh.

Even more remarkably, Joe Devlin and Redmond persuaded an Ulster Nationalist Convention to accept it by 475 votes to 265, despite the opposition of the Catholic bishops.

But the UK government did not implement the agreement on which Carson and Redmond had reached an historic compromise.

Southern Unionism, represented by Walter Long MP and by Lords Midleton and Lansdowne, was sufficiently powerful in the Liberal/Conservative Coalition Government in the summer of 1916, that they were able to veto the plan. This should not have been allowed to happen, and Lloyd George, who induced Carson and Redmond to make their deal, by saying he would resign if it was not implemented , did not live up to the promise. Trust was irreparably damaged.

This was a tragedy, and the reasons for it deserve to be explored by historians.

Why did the Southern Unionists stop a plan, that would have protected their interests so much better than what eventually transpired, and why  did the UK government succumb to their threats?

Why did the Catholic bishops oppose any form of partition, when they had no constructive alternative to offer?

Both were attempting to protect the interests of minorities, southern Protestants in one case, and Northern Catholics in the other, but both minorities were ill served what eventually happened when the compromise was not implemented.

This failure, and the subsequent doomed attempts to introduce conscription in Ireland to assuage British opinion, undermined constitutionalism with the Irish public, and opened the door to the wars,  to the suffering, and to the bitterness of 1919 to 1923.

But that disappointment should not blind us to the fact that the principle of Irish legislative independence had already been won, in 1914, without a shot being fired. There might be delays, but there was no going back.

But winning consent to legislative independence was not the only success of John Redmond.


In the period from 1885 to 1910, Redmond and his Party, transformed the system of agricultural land holding in Ireland, and ended landlordism. This was perhaps the biggest transformations of property ownership in Irish history.

It created a rural middle class, which underpinned Irish democracy in the first half of the twentieth century, when many comparable European countries, where a landlord system had persisted, succumbed to authoritarianism, in the absence of a strong  and politically active middle class, with a stake in democracy.


Redmond and the Irish Party also helped

+ establish the National University of Ireland,

+ enact Old Age Pensions and National Insurance, and,

+ through the Labourers Acts, make provision for the first ever programme of public housing in Ireland.

During most of the nineteenth century, Ireland was “overtaxed”, in the sense that more was collected in taxes in Ireland, than was spent by government in Ireland.

Old Age Pensions and National Insurance changed that, because Ireland benefitted from them proportionately more than Britain did.

Indeed Redmond expressed concern that additional insurance entitlements, proposed by Lloyd George, could not be afforded by an Irish Home Rule government, reliant on the limited Irish tax base. The Free State inherited this problem, and in 1924, it had to reduce the old age pensions it had inherited.

It is also worth mentioning that Redmond and the Irish Party played a role in preserving state support for Catholic, and Church of England,  schools in England , when the Liberal government, with whom the Irish Party normally allied itself, wanted to do away with it after the 1906 Election.


I again thank Jeffrey Donaldson and Conor McGinn for hosting this commemoration. It is right that they should do so, particularly at this time.

Redmond is a better model for a twentieth first century world, than are those did not accept the necessity for compromise, and who failed to make an adequate effort to understand the aspirations of  their traditional opponents.

When passions are inflamed, absolute demands backed by violence, are actually the easy way. No intellectual, or imaginative, effort is required. In these circumstances, compromise is harder, riskier, and more painful.

Redmond chose the hard way.

He took big political risks, while others sat on their principles….or hid behind them.

Redmond was a Democrat, who showed by his substantial achievements, that parliamentary democracy worked. It is partly because of the example of the Irish Parliamentary Party here in Westminster, that independent Ireland remained a strong democracy, drawing on the Westminster model in many respects (though not I am glad to say on its electoral system).

Redmond won the consent of British democracy to Irish legislative independence. Others, without acknowledgement, built on the platform he had created.

No other Irish leader, with the possible exception of Daniel O Connell, was as committed as Redmond was, to reconciliation between Ireland and Britain.

Some defined their Irish Nationalism as confronting Britain. Redmond defined Irish Nationalism as complementing Britain.

He did not see Ireland as fulfilling its destiny simply by “taking back control” on an “ourselves alone” or “Sinn Fein” basis.

He saw Ireland and Britain as being best able to fulfil their destinies, as part of something bigger than either Britain or Ireland. He saw a self governing Ireland working together with  Britain, and with the self governing countries of what became the Commonwealth, in a great multinational organisation that would work to the benefit of all.

While Ireland eventually left the Commonwealth, we realised Redmond’s aspiration, for a structure of constructive cooperation, including Britain and Ireland as equals, when Britain and Ireland joined the  European Common Market together in 1973.

Sadly, relations between the European Union, Ireland, and Britain are not as good today, as they could be.

Redmond’s example of courtesy, sincerity, and creative compromise is the best model, for all of us in this small  European continent to follow, as Europeans of all nationalities seek to protect ourselves in an increasing dangerous and protectionist world, of whose population we constitute a diminishing minority

“Ourselves Alone” is not the best way.


Speech by John Bruton, former Taoiseach and vice Chairman of Cooperation Ireland, at a meeting in the Houses of Parliament in Westminster at 6pm on Tuesday 7th March, commemorating the  centenary of the death, on 6th March 1918, of John Redmond MP, Leader of the  Irish Parliamentary Party .


My first reaction, watching Theresa May’s speech, was that The UK is going to put itself, and all the other EU countries, to a lot of trouble, so that it can leave EU, and then simultaneously rejoin it in selected areas.

It wants a partnership with the EU on Customs, on state aid and competition, on transport, on energy, broadcasting, financial services, atomic power, aviation,  on the enforcement of court judgements and a long list of other fields.

As an EU member today, it already has a partnership with the 27 countries of the EU on all these things. This was worked out painstakingly over 45 years of UK membership of the EU. It now wants to tear that up and negotiate a new partnership on all these different questions. And it wants to get the job done within two years.

All this is being done in the name of “taking back control”, but it looks to me that, in many areas, control is being taken back, only to be given away again immediately. A lot of work, for very little product!

Just as Gordon Brown had five “tests” for joining the Euro, which were so loose that he could interpret them any way he liked, Theresa May has five tests for an acceptable Brexit outcome, which will mean different things to different people. In fact, they sounded more like the introduction to an election manifesto, than a prism through which to measure the success of a negotiation on some of the most technical and specialist of legal topics.

Originally the UK was promising a frictionless border in Ireland. Yesterday, Mrs May seemed to retreat from that, speaking of a border that would be

“as frictionless, as possible”.

Her idea of a Customs Partnership, to avoid a hard border in Ireland, seemed like a smuggler’s charter.

She envisages the UK having different rates of tariffs on goods entering the UK, to the tariffs charged on goods entering the EU.  That is the whole point of leaving the Customs Union. She then suggests that the UK would charge the UK tariff on goods “intended” for the UK, and the EU tariff on goods passing through the UK but “intended” for an EU country (most likely Ireland).

In this way, she hopes no customs checks would be needed at the Irish border, or in Irish ports. The scope for abuse, and exchanging of goods, seems to be unlimited here.  Consignments could be substituted for one another, and there would be no check on them when they crossed the Irish border. Such an arrangement would very difficult to police, and is unlikely to satisfy the EU Customs Code.

If the EU and the UK are to have different rates of tariff,  her idea of exempting what small businesses along the Irish border from any control at all seems like an invitation to smuggle.

Presumably, Mrs May will want the EU Customs Code amended to take on her ideas. But if that is done, similar concessions will be demanded along all the other borders to which the Customs code applies, such as the EU borders in Eastern Europe. Mrs May should not forget that whatever she negotiates will have to be approved by all 27 EU countries

The most valuable test that Mrs May wishes to apply to a Brexit agreement is that it should be one that would endure, and not require constant renegotiation.

But she said things elsewhere in her speech that will make it very difficult to pass that test.

She stressed that any Trade Agreement with the EU could be changed afterwards by the UK Parliament. That is a recipe for instability. At the moment the UK Parliament cannot over rule an EU rule to which the UK had previously agreed. After Brexit, that would longer be so, and, as result, business would know that everything about any future UK/EU trade agreement would be subject to the vagaries of British politics. British politics has already forced the UK to renege on 45 years of Treaty based agreements with the EU. So a mere Trade Agreement in future will not be a solid base for investment.

Every time the UK Parliament tries to go back on something in the Agreement, there will have to be a new negotiation.

Furthermore, Mrs May ruled out the UK Courts accepting the decisions of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) on many disputed matters. The best she could say is that the UK Courts would “look at” ECJ rulings, before making their own British decisions.  That means that UK interpretations will gradually diverge from standard EU/ECJ interpretations. When that happens, renegotiation will be inevitable.  

She advocated, instead of accepting ECJ jurisdiction, the idea of an “arbitration mechanism” that would be independent of the EU and the UK. That might work for a country which trades a limited number of products with the EU.  But Mrs May herself said that she wants an agreement with the EU that would cover more subjects that any trade agreement anywhere else in the world.

An arbitration mechanism, covering the vast range of EU’s dealings with the UK, if it is to be truly independent, would soon become a rival to the ECJ. It could develop a different interpretative philosophy to the ECJ.  That would undermine the common legal order of the EU, and is unlikely to be accepted.

One of the tests that Mrs May set for an acceptable Brexit, was that it would be one that would strengthen the Union between the four “nations” that make up the UK.

But the process of Brexit itself is having the opposite effect.  In the way the referendum was set up, a majority of English and Welsh “leave” voters were allowed to overrule “remain” majorities in the two other “nations”, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The Brexit Referendum was a crude exercise for English power, to satisfy a purely English political agenda.

There is growing dissatisfaction in the devolved Assemblies, including even in Wales, about the way Westminster is making decisions on EU related matters, that are the prerogative of the Assemblies in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast.

It is good that Mrs May’s speech, at last, got into some detail in her speech. This will have had some educational value for her Party. But the text of the Withdrawal Treaty is not yet agreed, and that must be done before the substantive negotiation can begin.

But the fact that the UK has not come up with a legal text of its own, to reflect the agreement Mrs May made in December  on the Withdrawal Treaty with Michel Barnier, but is still criticising the EU version virulently,  shows that we have long way to go on this unproductive and time wasting road to Brexit



The 6th March 2018 is the centenary of the death of MP, who was the Leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party from 1900 to his death.

He was instrumental in healing the damaging split between Parnellites and anti Parnellites.

He succeeded, on 18 September1914, in getting the British Parliament to enact Home Rule for Ireland, something which previous Leaders of Irish Nationalism, O Connell, Butt and Parnell had not been able to do.

He overcame the veto of the House of Lords. This was possible because he had won the trust of his opponents as well as his friends, and because he used the pivotal votes of his Party in the House of Commons skilfully.

In addition to this, he, and his Party, transformed the system of agricultural land holding in Ireland and ended landlordism of the kind which had existed for most of the Nineteenth Century.

They also helped establish the National University of Ireland, enact Old Age Pensions and National Insurance, and, through the Labourers Acts, make provision for the first ever programme of public housing in Ireland.

All this was done without taking anyone’s life.

It is true that Redmond did not prevent partition, but the campaign of violence that followed the defeat of his Party in the 1918 Election, did not prevent partition either. In fact, it entrenched it.

Events to mark the centenary of Redmond’s death, which I hope to attend, include



A seminar on Redmond, and the laying of a wreath onJohn Redmond’s grave in John Street graveyard in Wexford town.



A symposium in the Royal Irish Academy on the Irish Parliamentary Party



A seminar on the Redmondite tradition in Waterford.

This will cover the work of John Redmond himself.  It will also cover the careers of his son William and his daughter in law, Bridget.

John Redmond was  first elected to represent Waterford in the House of Commons on 7 July 1892 and continued to represent it there until his death in March 1918

William represented Waterford in Westminster from 1918 to 1921, and in Dail Eireann between 1923 and his death in 1933.

Mrs. Bridget Redmond, William’s widow, represented Waterford in Dail Eireann from 1933 until her death in 1952.




Can the forced march, towards a hard and deeply disruptive Brexit, be stopped?

Part of the difficulty with the Brexit crisis is that the two sides are approaching the negotiation with radically different assumptions.

For the UK government, it is a purely political exercise. This explains why the UK government is setting out its negotiating position, to the extent that it has one, in political speeches and briefings. It is as if the whole thing was a PR exercise. Thus UK leaders are attracted to ambiguous political buzz words like “bespoke solutions”, “frictionless borders” and “imaginative thinking”

For the EU side, things are very different.  For the EU, the issue is a legal one, where understandings reached with the UK must be converted into legal texts, which will be watertight, and able to stand scrutiny in the European Parliament, and in Ministries of all 27  EU states. The EU will insist that precedents not be created for the UK, that would lead to similar demands either from existing or from prospective new, EU member states

The EU sees the European Treaties, which the UK signed 40 years ago, as a contract between nations. The EU sees them as similar to a contract between private parties. Withdrawing unilaterally from a private contract is not something you can do for free, especially if the other parties to the contract undertook costs expecting you would keep your side of the contract. In private business, the party unilaterally pulling out of contract would be the one offering compensation.

The UK does not see it this way at all. It sees the EU as a sort of club, where one can just decide not to renew one’s subscription and leave. The UK sees things like this because the nature of the EU, and of the political obligations the UK undertook when it joined it, have never been explained to the British public by British politicians.

Any country wishing to join the EU, and there are numerous candidates, is told, at the outset of the negotiation, that it must bring all its relevant legislation, including its customs rules, into full compliance with the EU “acquis”. So a precedent, that granted exceptions from this, to a country that was voluntarily leaving the EU, would undermine the EU position in future enlargement negotiations.

The UK approach to the issue of the border in Ireland illustrates the UK’s superficial understanding of the EU Customs Code, even though the UK had a hand in drafting it. For example, some in the UK think one can comply with the code, simply by checking electronically the number plates of goods vehicles crossing the border.

As I understand it, the Code requires that a sample (2/3%) of goods, crossing into the EU Customs Union, must be physically examined.  Whether this happens at the exact geographic border, or some miles away at a depot, the effect will be highly disruptive.

Many cargoes will contain a mixture of components, from different countries to which different rates of EU tariff may apply, so these cargoes of mixed goods will have to be checked.

Food imports to the EU will have to be examined with particular care, to see that they comply fully with EU rules in regard to pesticide residues, additives, GMOs and hygiene. Food safety is a highly sensitive issue politically.  Even if the UK, once it has left the EU, has the same, or similar, rules on food safety, it will no longer be subject to EU enforcement of these rules within the UK.

So the EU will have to check UK originating goods rigorously for itself, on its own territory. “Good faith” will not be enough, because the EU writ will no longer run in the UK.

The tragedy of what is happening on Brexit is that it is an abandonment of a fundamental UK constitutional principle, which is the ultimate sovereignty of Parliament.

Under this principle of parliamentary sovereignty, no Parliament can bind its successor.  There is thus an inbuilt capacity for Parliaments to change their minds over time, in the same way as voters can change their minds. This flexibility, inherent in Parliamentary sovereignty, used to be an expression of historic British pragmatism.

Now that is gone.

A referendum decision, taken without a full understanding of what a “Leave” vote meant, is being deemed by both major Party leaders in Westminster, as holding Parliament in a vice like grip.

MPs are no longer free. They will be presented with a fait accompli, and told by the two leaders, on pain of deselection, that they may not reopen the referendum decision.

The only place in which this fateful march towards disaster can be stopped is in Westminster itself. It cannot be stopped in Dublin or in Brussels.

Here the politicians of Northern Ireland bear a heavy responsibility, on which they will be judged by history.

Brexit changes the constitutional status of Northern Ireland, without the consent of its people. But the politicians that Northern Ireland voters elected to Westminster, either refuse to take their seats, or back Brexit uncritically, in defiance of the balance of opinion in Northern Ireland.

There is no voice or vote in Westminster for the majority of Northern voters who voted to remain.

If Sinn Fein took their seats in Westminster they could change the dynamic of Brexit  and of the future these islands for generation to come. This is what Irish Nationalist MPs were able to do in 1910.

Just as today’s historians still debate who did what, between 1910 and 1922, similar questions will be asked for years to come about who rose to their responsibilities on Brexit in 2018 and 2019.

Do Sinn Fein MPs really want to be asked, in twenty year’s time,

“Where were you in 2018, when Westminster broke its word, and voted to reimpose a border in Ireland, because it insisted on leaving the EU Customs Union?”

and to have to answer,

“I was sitting at home, because my principles would not allow me to use the vote that I had”.?

The welfare of the people of this whole island, at this critical moment in history, is at stake.

 That should prompt rexamination of republican abstentionist doctrine. Of course this is not easy. But  the policy has  been changed before, for arguably far less immediately important reasons.



Europe is getting old.

This is happening for two reasons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Older people will have different priorities to younger people.

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

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

These trends are not, of course, entirely inevitable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Bruton calls for Brexit negotiating extension

John Bruton, Speaking to RTÉ’s Morning Ireland today.

Former taoiseach John Bruton has called for the two-year Brexit negotiating period to be extended.

Mr Bruton, who is also a former EU Ambassador to the United States, said the time limit is too short and any agreement reached will have to be ratified by the UK and EU parliaments, which also takes a lot of time.

Speaking to RTÉ’s Morning Ireland, Mr Bruton said that pressure for negotiations is too great and that mistakes are inevitably made, when insufficient time is given to negotiations.

Mr Bruton added that the time pressure is adding to a “fevered atmosphere” in British politics, with just over a year left before the negotiating period ends in March 2019.

He warned that Ireland would suffer as much as the UK, if the right deal was not reached.

Mr Bruton said there is a provision for the extension of the two-year negotiating period in Article 50.

He said that there are some downsides to the idea of extending the period and it would have to be reached unanimously.

However, he said the possibility of extending the period would allow for more rational discussion and a better outcome.




I am delighted to be invited to speak at this important launch.  I congratulate Skoda on the recent rapid growth in sales in the Irish market.

I would like to talk this morning about Brexit.

I believe that Brexit will do disproportionate damage to the motor industry, which is one of Europe’s premier industries. It depends for its efficiency on complex supply chains, and these will be disrupted if the UK Government persists with its intention to leave the EU Customs Union and Single Market.

The risk of the UK simply crashing out of the EU remains high. The fact that Mrs May has had to postpone her planned speech on Brexit, points in that direction.  So does her slap down of Philip Hammond for saying that the changes in the EU/UK trade relationship would be “modest”. That slap down is hardly consistent with her promises in regard to the Irish border, which still have to be converted into Treaty language.

The gap between popular expectations and practical possibilities remains dangerously wide.

The two year time limit to conclude the negotiation of the terms for UK withdrawal from the EU is, as we are slowly learning, far too short.

The implications of UK withdrawal have not, even yet, been fully discovered by the negotiators on either side. New complications and hypotheses are emerging every day. These arise because we are only now digging down into 40 years worth of trade deals, memberships, and understandings, which the UK can only be part of, so long as it is in the EU.

It would be in the interest of Ireland if the UK were to decides either not to leave the EU at all, or, failing that, decides to rejoin the EU, on terms acceptable to Ireland.

How might this happen? This is the question I am attempting to answer in a paper to be published today by the Institute of International and European Affairs.

The UK hopes to leave the EU on 29 March 2019 but to continue to have access to the EU market for a two year Transition Period, ending on 29 March 2021.This date was presumably chosen because it is before the scheduled date of the UK General Election.

I believe this Transition Period approach is a mistake. I believe it would be simpler and wiser for the UK and the EU to agree to extend the period for negotiation under Article 50 by two or more additional years. This can be done by unanimous agreement.


At the moment, the UK is seeking a two year transition period, after March 2019, during which, having left the EU as a member,  it would still enjoy the benefits of membership of the EU Single Market, and Customs Union. Some in the European Parliament have said the longest Transition the UK might be granted is 3 years.

If this is conceded, the U K, for the duration of the Transition, would not then have any say in the making, and in the interpretation of the rules of the Single Market and Customs Union, with which it would have to comply. It would still be subject to ECJ jurisdiction, and would still be contributing to the EU budget, on the same basis as if it was a member.

The UK Prime Minister calls this proposed transition period an” implementation” period.

Businesses in the UK and in the EU, and particularly Irish businesses trading with the UK, would presumably be expected to be implementing changes in their business practice to accommodate themselves to the sort of arrangements that would apply, in March 2021, when the UK had actually left both the Single Market and Customs Union, as Mrs May desires.

The difficulty will be that no one would know for sure what to prepare for.

The Transition would be more of a Postponement than a Transition!

This is because the  EU and the UK could only start substantive negotiations of the terms of a future UK/EU trade deal at the beginning of transition period, because the UK must first become a non member of the EU, before it can negotiate a trade deal with the EU.

On the other hand, as a non member and during the Transition Period, the UK would also have to negotiate replacements for the hundreds of  Trade and other Agreements it has with third countries as an EU member, which would cease once the UK had left the EU, on 29 March 2019.

Negotiating the terms of a Transition Period may prove to be very difficult, almost as difficult as negotiating a final agreement. Perhaps more, because there is no precedent to follow.

Of course, the political outlines of a  possible trade arrangement with the UK might have with the EU would be referred to in the “Framework for a future relationship” that, under Article 50, should accompany the Withdrawal Treaty.

The Withdrawal Treaty itself, and presumably the Framework, can be agreed by a qualified majority in the European Council.

But a future trade deal with the UK would face more difficulty. Depending on its content, and whenever it is eventually finalised, it  will  almost certainly require the  unanimous agreement.

If it covered services, many of which are regulated at national as well as EU level and which the UK wants included, it would have to get ratification from all the national parliaments.

So any outline of the trade deal, promised in the Framework accompanying the Withdrawal Treaty, might not survive the substantive negotiation that would take place after the UK had already left the EU

The Framework to be full of good intentions, but not full of the sort of bankable legal commitments that businesses will need to make investment decisions.

So two years may be too short a Transition period for business.

It will also be too short for trade negotiators, who say that a deal as complex, as the one the UK is seeking, would probably take 6 years to finalise, not just 2.

But, politically, a two year Transition, may be as long as the UK can live with, because its government is in such a political rush to leave.

By the time of the next election, the Conservative Party will not be comfortable ,if the UK is still in “transition”, implementing EU laws, contributing to the EU budget, and under the jurisdiction of the ECJ.  So it may be willing to pay a high price to finalise a Framework deal and end the Transition within the two years.

On the other hand, the likelihood is that, in those negotiating circumstances, the deal will be a “bad one” for the UK. But rejecting that “bad” deal will  not be attractive either because without a deal, the UK will be out of the EU, and will only be able to trade with the EU on “WTO terms”, which would be really bad for the UK, and appalling for Ireland.

All of this will be happening on the eve of the UK’s 2022 General Election.

In these circumstance the UK government might be tempted to look for an extension of the two years  Transiion and leave it to a post General election government to take the blame for an unsatisfactory Trade Agreement.

I believe one such time limited prolongation of the Transition Period, if requested by the UK, would be granted by the EU 27. But that would be it.

An indefinite prolongation, or a series of prolongations, would not be offered.

There is so much uncertainty surrounding the content and timeline of a UK/EU Trade deal that the Transition Period will not provide a reliable basis for planning by business.

All the same, the longer is the Transition, the better it will be for Irish business.

But a long Transition will be exceptionally difficult to sell in the UK.

It would offend against the principle of democratic representation. The UK would have to implement and abide by EU regulations, in the making of which it would have had no part. It would have no representation in the European Parliament,  Council or Commission. Any financial contribution it might make during the Transition would be represented by some as “taxation without representation”.

So, I conclude that, as the UK explores the difficulties of its proposed Transition or Implementation Period, it may find itself forced to look at other options.

The only other option on offer is an extension of time under Article 50 (3)


Article 50 (3) of the Treaties, under which UK withdrawal is being negotiated, says a country that has applied to withdraw from the EU and given notice of intention to do so under Article 50 (2) shall cease automatically to be a  member

“ two years after the notification referred to in paragraph (2), unless the European Council, in agreement with the member states concerned, unanimously decides to extend that period”.

Extending the two year period is a matter for the member states. There is no provision requiring the consent of the European Parliament to such an extension of the two years.

At the moment, there is no official sign that either the UK, or the EU 27, would contemplate using such an extension, or even talking about it.

It is too early. To do so would signal weakness, and would be a poor negotiating tactic.

But the provision for an extension of the two years was put there for a practical reason.

Even with the best will in the world, trade negotiations can take longer that all sides want.

There can be unexpected technical and legal difficulties.

General Elections and government formation delay can prevent decisions from being taken. Look at the example of Germany at the moment.

Rigid time limits can also be exploited by forces that have another agenda, and simply want to maximise chaos.

Politicians can even change their minds, but need more time, than is provided with in the two year limit, to adjust the expectations of their supporters.

Time limits create a fevered atmosphere in which rational calculation becomes more difficult.

Time will have to allowed, at the end of the  two year period, for ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement, and of the Framework for Future Relations by both the British and European Parliaments, and both may look for time for debate and deliberation on the merits of rejecting, or accepting, the proposed Treaty

. Neither Parliament may wish to be confronted with a proposition, which says “take it or leave it, and do so now”.

Allowing time for Parliamentary ratification , on its own, might necessitate an extension of the two years.

An extension of the two year period, under Article 50 (3) would be different, in its effect ,from an extension of the Transition period.

Under Article 50 (3), the UK would continue, for the duration of the extension, to be a full voting member of the EU, except on issues to do with Brexit.

It would still be a member of the ECJ and a British Judge would continue to sit there.

The UK member of the Commission would continue his important work in that capacity.

The UK MEPs would continue to sit in the European Parliament, although from 2019 there would be different MEPs from some of the constituencies.

The UK would continue to be bound by EU law, but that will also be case during a Transition. But in the Article 50(3) scenario, the UK would enjoy democratic representation.

In these senses, an extension under Article 50 (3) would be a better deal for the UK than a Transition Period.

But the Referendum decision to leave the EU would not yet have been implemented. It would still be under negotiation.

An extension of time under Article 50(3) offers a greater degree of certainty to business. The UK would definitely retain all the obligations and advantages of membership for the duration of the extension.

Article 50 (3) offers no guidance on, and does not limit, the period of an extension that could be granted. Nor does it place a limit on the number of extensions that might be granted.

Given that every EU state, and the UK itself, would have to agree, the likelihood is that the initial period of any extension could be quite short.

But if, during that extension, negotiations were going forward in a good and constructive spirit, further extensions could become possible

Under the Article 50 (3) approach, the UK would still be a member of the EU.

Thus, while it could agree a framework for its future relationship with the EU and this could cover trade matters, the UK could not negotiate and finalise a trade deal with the EU or anybody else.

That would be a big negative from the point of view of those in Britain who believe there are attractive trade deals waiting to be concluded.

But, on the other hand, the UK would continue to benefit from existing EU trade agreements, and the extra time would allow it to put much greater flesh  and detail into the Framework for Future Relations with the EU, than will be possible in the time between now and March 2019.

I believe the two year time limits has created a fevered atmosphere in the negotiations. It  has politicised them in a way that makes rational calculation of mutual interest more difficult.

An early agreement to a substantial extension under Article 50 (3) would remove this problem, and would give the negotiators more time and space.

I have the sense that some in the UK are open to this possibility, but there is little appetite for it in Brussels.

If the EU side were unilaterally to offer an extension of the time period, under Article 50 (3), that went beyond the time of the UK General Election, it would thereby place a heavier responsibility for a bad negotiating outcome on the current UK government.

The UK government might want to reject such an offer, but it might not be able to persuade the UK Parliament to agree.

This would not be easily done.

There is a feeling in some continental EU countries that the UK has already taken up too much of the EU’s time. For example, the David Cameron’s decision to prevent the Compact for the Fiscal governance of the Eurozone being incorporated in the EU Treaties, even though they had nothing to do with the UK, has left a very sour taste.

There is a fear that any extension of UK membership under Article 50 (3) could be exploited by the UK to block other EU reforms, and/or to improve the UK’s position in the competition between the EU and the UK post Brexit.

Granting the UK, which had decided to leave and chose the timing of its Article 50 letter freely, an extension of the time limit, would be seen by many as encouraging other sceptical EU states to use the threat of withdrawal as a bargaining tactic, or a means of getting votes in Elections.

In this context, taking a tough line with the UK is not seen as “punishment” of the UK, as much as being “self preservation” by the EU.

An extension of time under Article 50 (3) would mean that UK MEP’s would still be eligible to sit in the next European Parliament, at least until the extension period had expired and the UK was out.

A European Parliament Election in 2019 in the UK would allow the British people to debate the issue of UK withdrawal from the EU in a much more informed manner than was possible in the Referendum of 2016. The campaign, and the result, of the European Parliament in the UK in 2019 would give valuable guidance to negotiators.

It might confirm the decision to leave, or it might signal a willingness to change course.

Either way, under the Article 50(3) time extension scenario, this would happen before the UK had actually left the EU. So the outcome of a European Parliament Election, in the UK in 2019, would be politically meaningful.

If the result was decisive vote in favour of Remain candidates, the UK might have the option of withdrawing its Article 50 letter and staying on in the EU, under existing terms.

An extension of time under Article 50 (3) would facilitate a second Referendum, if that is what the British people want.

The choice would be much clearer than it was in 2016, because Britain would still be in the EU at the time of the Referendum. So staying in the EU in existing terms would be the clear alternative to accepting the Withdrawal Treaty and accompanying Framework document that would be presented in the Referendum.

Reapplying to join under Article 49, which would be the only option if the change of heart took place after the UK had already left the EU would be much more difficult. It would mean a whole new negotiation and different, and less favourable terms of membership, for the UK.

On the negative side, UK MEPs continuing in the European Parliament after the 2019 Election could play the role of spoilers. They could ally themselves with nationalistic and anti system MEPs from other countries, who simply do not want the EU to succeed.

A disadvantage of a time extension under Article 50 (3) is that it would interfere with the plans of a number of European leaders, including the Taoiseach and President Macron, to allocate some of the seats to be vacated by UK MEPs, to MEPs who would be elected from a constituency of the entire European Union. In the European Parliament itself, work is already being done on the allocation of the vacated UK seats, and some existing member states could get more seats. Beneficiaries might be inclined to resist an extension of time under Article 50 (3), but the European Parliament’s consent is not required. But keeping the UK in the EU is more important.


If an individual wants to withdraw from a contract, he can do so, but he would normally expect to have to compensate other parties to the contract for the damage his decision might cause. No consideration at all was given, during the referendum in 2016, to the impact, UK withdrawal would have on other contracting parties, notably on Ireland.

For all these reasons, I believe the UK, and the EU 27, need to take time out to think about where we are going with Brexit. Two years is not enough.

The confrontational atmosphere, engendered by the artificial time limits in Article 50, prevents a quiet discernment of mutual interests. It imposes a dangerous straight jacket.

As I have shown there are advantages but also profound difficulties, with all the options I have considered.

But, on balance, I believe the best way to reach a sensible outcome in the negotiation, that will do least damage to the political and economic relations between the UK and the rest of Europe, would be to forget about the Transition option, and agree a time extension under Article 50 (3).

That may not seem politically feasible at this stage, but I believe it will be seen in a different light by next October.

As I said earlier, if the EU side were to offer such an extension, at a moment when the full difficulty of the Transition option was becoming clear, it would change the dynamic in British politics.

If it rejected the time extension option in favour of the Transition option, the UK government itself would have to take the full responsibility

  • for entering what some Brexiteers have described as “Vassal status”,
  • for implementing rules they had  no say in making, and
  • for entering a period in which the UK would paying into EU funds, with no say in how the money was spent.

The rush for an early Brexit, that motivated Mrs May to write her Article 50 letter before her government had done its homework, was driven by a deep fear among the architects of Brexit that, if they did not leave quickly, they, or their voters, might change their mind about leaving at all.

This is, quite literally, an irrational basis for deciding the future of Britain.

It is a deeply dangerous basis on which Britain would impose the costs of its mistakes on Ireland.

It will leave deep and lasting scars.

I believe that an extension of time under Article 50 (3) of the Treaty is the best way to minimise, and possibly to eliminate, the damage.


Speech by John Bruton, former Taoiseach and former EU Ambassador to the United States, speaking at the Skoda  Fleet Business event at 8 am on Monday 29th January in Bellinter House Hotel, Navan Co Meath;


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