John Bruton

Opinions & Ideas


I am deeply saddened to learn of the death of my old friend, louis j Belton.

Coming from a family that has members in the Oireachtas almost since the foundation of the state, louis brought his own distinctive style to politics.

His contributions at meetings of the Fine Gael parliamentary party were particularly noteworthy. He mixed self-deprecation humour, with the fruits of serious reflection on the political issues of the day.

He was a formidable grassroots campaigner. One of my happiest political memories is of campaigning with him in Ardagh, in the 1992 general election, when, against the national trend, Lois regained his seat.

I extend heartfelt sympathy to all the Belton family, and to the people of Longford on their great loss.


I am reprinting below a brilliant article published by Tony Connelly on the RTE website.

It deserves to read and read over again.  It brings out how difficult it will to resolve the present conflict. As he did on Brexit, Tony  sets out the history fairly, and gets to the heart of the problem.  The work Tony does is a powerful argument for public service broadcasting.

I am putting a few comments of my own on the issue before the full text of Tony’s article. When I was EU Ambassador in Washington from 2004 to 2009, I met as many as I could of the Think Tanks focussed on the Middle East. Serious efforts were being made to resolve the issue at that time. But, in private, the prevailing stance was one of passive pessimism.


Like everyone else, I have been thinking and worrying about the atrocious war that is going on in Gaza following the attack by Hamas on innocent civilians in Southern  Israel. 

It is difficult to say anything useful about a solution to the present situation without first having studied the history of the area going back at least as far as the Balfour Declaration on 1917. But history can also become a resource from which one can draw,   to feed one’s own prejudices. 

Irish nationalists of all hues tend to sympathise with the Palestinians. This is because a shared feeling of having been dispossessed . This happened to Palestinians in the first half of the  20th century. Something similar happened to Irish Catholics in the Seventeenth Century.. Both  jobs were done by a combination of military conquest and  legal artifices. 

Less convincingly, Anti British feeling also influences Irish Nationalist feeling on the issue , because the British are accused of favouring Jewish  over Palestinian interests in the inter war period.In fact, by the late 1930s the British leant more towards the Palestinian side.


Identity politics is also playing a part. 

People can wave their personal flag as being “pro Palestinian rights” or “pro Israel”. Once having comfortably taken a side, they often  absolve themselves from thinking about what might solve the problem, a more fifficult exercise because it would involve making or supporting concessions by ones own  “side”.

I would ask pro Israeli demonstrators the question 

    “What do you think Israel should do to give Palestinians  peace , security and freedom?”

I would ask pro Palestinian demonstrators a similar question

    “What do you think Palestinians should do to offer Israeli Jews peace, security and freedom?”

These are hard questions. But they are not trick questions. It is only by thinking oneself into the mind of one’s adversary that one can turn an adversary into a partner.  

There is an added difficulty in this case. That is that Israel wants to be a Jewish State. Palestinians, on the other hand, would accept a secular state, or an Arab state.  

A one state solution would be difficult for Israel to accept because Jews might not be a majority within such a state. There would have to be very robust minority protections in any one state system and these could prove to be difficult to enforce, in the wake of recent atrocities.




I wish to pay tribute to the life and work, of David Sweetman, retired Chief Archaeologist in the Office of Public Works. He was a native of County Meath, and has died recently. David specialised in medieval castles.

Meath was a hotly contested territory from the 12th to the 17th centuries, so many land owners and felt the to necessity to fortify their homes and farm buildings protect their lives and  their livestock.

David had a natural enthusiasm for the specialist subject, fortified castles and outbuilding, of which his native county of Meath was, and is, richly endowed.

David was a leading figure in the restoration of Trim Castle, which is of huge economic benefit to Meath tourism, and to the branding of “Ireland’s Ancient East”.

He  understood both urban and rural archaeology. He wrote about the medieval town of Drogheda and about field boundaries, focussing on rural Clonard.

David comes from one of Meath’s distinguished families and his writing is of lasting value. I extend heartfelt sympathy to his wife Roseanne and their children.



There is a tendency, in the media reporting of crimes, to mix up retribution with justice. 

In my view, the punishment of the crime should be designed to deter or prevent, future crime .It should never  be designed to fulfil an emotional wish for retribution or revenge.

These considerations should apply to crimes committed against peoples and nations, as well as individuals. 

States have a responsibility to defend themselves, and to help build a credible international order that will deter future crimes against peoples and states. Revenge and retribution should never motivate state action.

Hamas has made a callous calculation. They reckoned that the  Israeli response would be so severe that it would strengthen Hamas’ position in Arab public opinion. 

Unfortunately, Israel looks as if it is playing the role Hamas cast for them. 

Is there another way to build peace ?

We need to find a practical compromise between Israelis and Palestinians. This will require rigorous thought. Slogans will not suffice.


The international community advocates a “two state “ solution. 

It is far too easy to advocate  a two states “solution” without thinking through the practical details. The devil will be in the detail.. 

“Two States” will not be  a formula for  peace, unless

  1. the proposed boundaries between the  two states are delineated,  and
  2.  there is a clear statement of the obligation each state will have towards the other, and the means whereby  these obligations might be enforced.

These  two issues should be put the every advocate of a two state “solution” by media interviewers. 

The answer given may not be definitive , but we would then be moving the debate away from evasive cliches, and towards difficult practical issues that cannot be avoided in the real world.

If a two state solution cannot be found, we will be left with three  even more difficult options…..

   a one state solution, 

   perpetual war, or 

   complete defeat of one side or the other.


According to figures released by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) , the number of people subjected to punishment shootings in Northern Ireland almost tripled in the past year.

These attacks were perpetrated in both Loyalist and Republican areas. It is probable that the identity of the perpetrators is widely known, including by the victims.

These victims have undergone acutely painful and life diminishing injuries. But it is probable that neither they, nor anyone else, will come forward to give evidence in court and help eliminate this scourge.

Basically, people are not taking responsibility as citizens. There can be no “New Ireland” as long as this continues



I have just finished reading the “Civil War in Dublin” by John Dorney. Dorney describes himself as an independent historian.

I have a minor quibble with the title of the book, which refers to “THE” Civil War, suggesting that there was only one Civil War.

I would argue that there were in fact two Irish civil wars……the first one from 1919 to 1921, and the second one from 1922 to 1923.

I would argue that the 1919 to 1921 War, the War of Independence, was also an Irish civil war.  I say this because Irish people fought on both sides in both wars.  In fact, I believe most of the people who died on both sides were also in fact Irish.

The members of RIC, who opposed the IRA, were predominantly Irish (and Catholic too if that matters). Failing to recognise the Irishness of the many natives of this 32 county island, who fought on pro Union side in the War of Independence, is a barrier to reconciliation of all the communities on this island.

If one looks up the excellent book “The Dead of the Irish Revolution” by O Halpin and O Corrain, covering the period 1916 to 1921, one can confirm that those killed by the IRA were predominantly Irish, such as magistrates, RIC members and supposed informers. Some of these people were Protestants, and wanted Ireland to remain part of the UK, but THIS does not makes them any less Irish!

The fact that Irish people fought on both sides in the 1919/1921 war, makes it an Irish civil war.

Those killed in the first military action of the War of Independence in January 1919,  were members of the RIC, James McDonnell from Belmullet, Patrick O Connell from Coachford Co Cork,  and both were Irish Catholics.

The first magistrate to be killed, Jack Milling from Glasson Co Westmeath, as an Irish Protestant. He was shot through the front window of his house on the Newport Road in Westport Co Mayo, when he was winding up the clock. In his front room. His family subsequently settled in Armagh.

I make these points, not as a criticism of John Dorney’s book, but as a reminder that if we want reconciliation on this island, we must recognise those born on this island, who profess allegiance to King Charles, who feel British, also have an Irish birthright, and are fully Irish. Some will find it difficult to come to terms with this, but it will have to be done.

The political vandals, who opposed the idea of recalling by name, on a wall in Glasnevin cemetery the people  who died on BOTH sides in the 1919/21 war, were promoting a version of what it is to be Irish, that is deeply exclusionary.  They were saying that , if you supported a continuing link with Britain during the  1919/21 War, you were not Irish and did not deserve to be  remembered by name on a wall. They were telling the Irish people , who fought on the other side,  that they and their beliefs were to be cancelled (to use the modern term.) If this attitude persists we will never have lasting peace  or reconciliation  on this island

We need a fair minded presentation of painful historic events, that forces people to reflect on their own prejudices. John Dorney does that in regard to what I will call the Second Irish Civil War, from 1922 to 1923.

 John Dorney is a graduate in history and politics from UCD and is a native of Rathfarnham. He manages a website on Irish history called “The Irish Story”.

The interim period between the Truce of 11 July 1921 and the opening of the Civil War almost a year later, was one during which there was no clear and well-established authority in the state.  People took the law into their own hands. Order had broken down and, without order, laws cannot be enforced. The longer that continued, the more respect for laws would be eroded.

Something had to be done to restore unitary authority across the full territory of the state. To my mind, the civil war was fought to restore order and thereby make laws meaningful.

What led to this situation?

A peace Treaty had been signed between the UK government and an Irish Delegation, led by Arthur Griffith, representing Dail Eireann in December 1921. This Treaty was approved by a majority in Dail Eireann on 7 January 1922.  

That should have settled matters. But a large part of the IRA membership did not accept the decision of Dail Eireann to accept the Treaty.

The biggest objection to the Treaty was that it required TDs to swear an oath of

  “allegiance to the constitution of the Irish Free State” (which was established under the Treaty.)  and to be “faithful to King George and his successors.”

It seems to me that the wording here creates the stronger tie to Ireland and its constitution, than does the “faithfulness” to King George. In any event, it was not worth falling out over.

We know now, with the benefit hindsight, that the Treaty was capable of being amended (as are all treaties), and that capable of being a steppingstone to greater independence, as Michael Collins said at the time.

As the argument raged in the early months of 1922 over the wording of the Treaty, the IRA broke down into two factions, and each scrambled to occupy key installations in the capital and around the country. Attempts to heal the split failed.

Generally speaking, the anti Treaty side seized installations in the southern half of the country, and the National Army took control elsewhere.

 In Dublin, Anti Treaty forces, led by Rory O Connor, occupied the Four Courts and made it their headquarters. They also seized the Kildare Street Club, of which many Anglo Irish gentry were members, and the hall where the Orange Order used to meet in Dublin.

One has the sense that these buildings were chosen for their propaganda or symbolic value, rather than for their military defensibility. Indeed a preoccupation with symbolism underlaid the problems of Anti Treaty political thinking.

As said earlier, the majority of the IRA opposed the Treaty. This was the case in Dublin too. Only 1900 of the 4400 IRA members in Dublin were pro Treaty.

Yet when the fighting started , the National Army were able to dislodge the anti Treaty from their strongholds in Dublin quite quickly. The Four Courts was taken with the aid of artillery.  The buildings, held by anti Treaty forces in the vicinity of O Connell Street, were taken in a few days of, building to building fighting, not unlike the fighting in Stalingrad 20 years later.

Why was the war in Dublin over so quickly, but dragged in the rest of the country for 10 months?

The National Army may have been outnumbered at the outset of the war, but they were better equipped, with material supplied by the British. They also had much more support from the general public, which meant they had better intelligence.

They were better led too. The Free State government had a clear sense of purpose, that of establishing the institutions of a new European state.

The  anti Treaty side were, both militarily and mentally, on the defensive from the beginning, holding positions and waiting to be attacked, rather than advancing to take positions held by the Free State.

The Military wing of the anti Treaty formation, led by Liam Lynch, made the key decisions and the civilian leadership of Eamon de Valera was almost completely sidelined. They were also fighting to defend something ephemeral, a Republic proclaimed at the GPO in 1916, which had no government, no visible or tangible existence. It was an idea, not a reality.

In contrast, the Free State was established the basis that civilian leadership was paramount over the Army.

When Michael Collins took over as Chief of Staff of the Army, he handed over his position as President of the Executive Council to WT Cosgrave. Even when Michael Collins himself was killed in action in August 1922, there was a seamless transition of responsibilities.

Soon, as a result of intensive recruitment, the National Army would have a huge numerical advantage over the Anti Treaty side.

Why was the Free State able to recruit so many troops, so quickly?

Only a small proportion of the population had been involved in War of Independence, and not everybody had voted for Sinn Fein in the 1918 Election. This left a large pool from which soldiers could be recruited by the National Army. The National Army was also able to recruit among those that were unemployed, including those who had fought in the Great War.

This was a brutal and cruel civil war. The anti Treaty forces wanted to bankrupt the Free State by blowing up its infrastructure. One such plan was to blow up all the road and rail bridges leading to and from Dublin. This was a failure and numerous  anti Treaty prisoners were taken.

This book gives an account of the execution without trial of anti Treaty soldiers. Some of these executions were part of a planned campaign to intimidate the opponents of the Treaty  and get them to give up their armed resistance to it. The policy on executions without trial may have shortened the civil war, but it undermined the case that the Free State was fighting. It was hard to justify and no one was held to account for it.

Other actions were undertaken , on an unauthorised basis , by groups within the National Army, who were out of control.

The worst case, in my mind, is the killing of Edwin Hughes, Brendan Holohan and John Rogers. These were unarmed teenagers caught distributing a leaflet in Drumcondra calling for the killing of Free State soldiers. The bodies  of these young boys were found the next day in a quarry near Clondalkin.

All urban centres had been secured for the Free State by the end of August, but the fighting continued on hit and run basis well unto 1923, using tactics refined in the war against the British between 1919 and 1921. Unarmed civilians were targeted by both sides.

 The Anti Treaty forces finally gave up in May 1923, and they dumped their arms.

Although this book is sub titled the Civil War in Dublin, it gives a fairly full account of developments outside Dublin.  It is a comprehensive piece of work and I recommend it.

I believe the civil war flowed from the War of Independence which in turn flowed from 1916 which was a response to the militarisation of politics by the Ulster Volunteers. Violence begets violence. It rarely serves any useful purpose.


The President of Ireland , Michael D Higgins, chose the address he was invited to give at the National Ploughing Championship  in Co Laois to attack the UN for failing to do things that the member states of the UN had given it neither the authority, nor the means to do.

The President had  not been invited to give his personal opinions on a topic of his choice.

No,  The Ploughing Championship is a  major public event, at which Mr. Higgins was speaking in his official capacity as President, and he was speaking for the Irish people as a whole.

The President’s remarks about the United Nations was such that the Tanaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs, who is the address the United Nations General Assembly on behalf of Ireland,  felt it necessary publicly  to disagree with the President.

This is  not something that should happen. 

It is the Minister for Foreign Affairs, not any other office holder, who is charged under the Constitution, with primary responsibility for articulating Irish foreign policy, including on the UN. He does so in collective responsibility with his cabinet colleagues. Articulating foreign policy is not among the Presidents constitutional responsibilities.

Ireland cannot have two foreign policies, one expressed by the government , and another expressed by the President.

We need to have a united policy.


Jacksons Hole is a valley in the Rocky Mountains in Wyoming. It has a number of ski resorts and is one the most exclusive, and expensive, tourist resorts in the United States.

Every year if hosts a symposium in which the world’s top Central Bankers, and  its most highly regarded economists share insights on questions such  as

  •   What factors will accelerate  or slow/ economic growth? How can national economies be made more efficient?
  •   Should interest rates be increased/reduced in light of prevailing rates of inflation?

While the discussions in Jackson’s Hole do not lead to common policy positions, they do lead towards a  better common understanding of the facts.

I had a chance to look at some of the papers that were put before the symposium last month


Charles Jones of Stanford said the average growth rate of the US economy since 1880 has been 2%.

The factors that determine economic growth are capital investment, population growth and skills. These factors are predictable and the levels to economic growth associated with them are also to a degree predictable. One growth factor that is unpredictable, and does not follow any economic cycle is what Charle Jones calls IDEAS. Ideas can arise through conversation, reading, responses to crises.

The development of ideas  often , though not always, requires spending on R and D, and collaboration between places where R and D is carried out. Brexit cut UK universities off from subsidised collaborative R and D with EU universities…..a big mistake by British voters.

Jones drew attention to something called Moores Law which says a country must INCREASE its level of R and D just to maintain its rate of growth. I do not understand this,


Nela Richardson delved into the economics of caring for those who are too old or too young to care for themselves.

The average nurse in the US earns $84000 and the average teacher earns  $58000.

I am surprised at his differential.

I would have expected teachers to be paid more. I wonder what the equivalent differential is in Ireland.

Attention is only paid to care provided for pay.

Unpaid care, given out of love, or of religious or moral responsibility, is defined out of existence. So policies that might encourage unpaid care are not  even considered.


Looking at the relative efficiencies of construction in different countries,

I saw some statistics for the cost of building a mile of tunnel. The differences are startling. They are

  • Spain …………$113 million
  • Italy…………..$348 million
  • UK……………$ 676 million
  • USA…………$1248 million

These relative costs should be explored


Another presentation to the symposium was by Barry Eichengreen…. about public debt.

He was not optimistic that debt levels would be reduced because he felt voters would not allow governments to run the necessary budget surpluses.


“Checking my notes on Tom Garvins book with the help of my grand daughter, Ophelia”
“Checking my notes on Tom Garvins book with the help of my grand daughter, Ophelia”

Ireland 1760 to 1960

I have just finished reading “The Evolution of Irish Nationalist Politics” by Tom Garvin.

Tom is a distinguished Irish historian and political scientist.

The book was published in 1980, and covers the period from 1760 to 1960.

It traces the organisational development of political groups agitating for change in Ireland during that long period.

On one side ,  there were parties agitating for control  of agricultural land to pass  from the legal owners (the land lords) , to the tenant farmers (who did the actual work on the land). This struggle  for control of the land was most intense from 1879 to 1903 , ending with a victory for the tenant farmers.

 Essentially, the UK taxpayers bought out the landlords.  It was good that this issue was settled before Irish independence came in 1921. The new democratic Irish Free State, created by the Treaty of 1921, had more than enough financial and other problems on its plate in the 1920s and 1930s, without having had to deal with a huge land transfer programme as well.

In close alliance and overlapping with those looking for land reform, were those agitating for a greater degree of independence of Ireland from Britain.

Demands here ranged from

  • Home Rule (devolution) within the UK,
  • a dual monarchy (whereby Ireland and Britain would be separate states but have the same King) to a third option,
  • a completely independent Irish Republic.

In opposition to all moves towards independence this were Irish Unionists.  Irish Unionists were divided on the land issue, but strongly united in insisting that they would not be ruled by a Nationalist majority parliament in Dublin, whether it be a Home Rule Parliament, or the Parliament of an Irish Republic.


Another big controversy about acceptable methods to be used to achieve political goals.

Should the methods used be confined to peaceful and parliamentary agitation,  or should physical force ( involving the taking of human life) also be permissible?

There were strong practical arguments in favour of using exclusively peaceful methods

The Land Reforms were, after all, been achieved by exclusively peaceful by methods.

Home Rule was also achieved by peaceful methods in 1914. This is forgotten nowadays because of the subsequent, and to my mind ill advised, celebration of the violence from 1916 onwards.

Home Rule within the UK was voted into law in September 1914. Implementation was deferred until the end of the World War which had started a month before Home Rule became law.


There was one big  outstanding issue

Should Home Rule would apply to all 32 counties of Ireland as one unit , or could the  6 predominantly Unionist counties in the North East be excluded, temporarily or otherwise? 

Behind this demand   for exclusion was a threat of the use of military force by the Ulster Volunteer Force,  and even of a mutiny of pro Unionist officers in the British Army.

In this, it could be said that it was unionism which introduced the threat of violence into Irish politics, although it was a faction of nationalism that actually fired the first shots  at Easter of 1916.

Tom Garvin’s excellent book crams a range of fascinating material into 137 pages. He covers  the sociology, the competing ideologies, the role of secret societies, of mass political agitation , and organisational methods, and their cumulative impact on the course of Irish history.


Garvin also shows the impact of changes in the right to vote on who would be the MPs representing Irish constituencies in Westminster.

 The Franchise was very limited in 1860. Only significant property owners had a vote. If that had persisted, there would not have been a majority for either Home Rule or Land Reform. The successful British agitation ( by groups like the Chartists) for a wider franchise across all parts of the UK was a huge help to Irish causes.

From 1867 on the property qualification for the votes was eased. In 1872, the right to vote in secret and this stopped landlords attempting to control how their tenants voted.

These changes had immediate effects.

In 1868, 69% of the 105 Irish MPs in Westminster were landlords, but by 1874, that percentage had fallen to 49%, and proportion who came from the professional classes had risen from 10% to 23%.

Thanks to a further extension of the franchise introduced during World War One ( abolishing property qualifications and giving the vote to women for the first time) , the electorate in Ireland who had a vote in the 1918 Election was three times the one that had a vote in the previous election of 1910.


Garvin also describes the close linkage between the development of the GAA and that of physical force nationalism as represented by the Irish Republican Brotherhood (the IRB). As an oath bound secret society , the IRB was under a ban by the Catholic Church.


Garvin also compares the political parties active in the independent 26 county Ireland, at the time of his writing in the 1970s, with the range of parties active in the earlier period. 

An edition updating Garvins’s book to include changes that have occurred since the 1970’s would a very worthwhile project.


One of the ongoing problems of Irish Republicanism was a preference  for political symbols in the promotion of the ideal of an Irish Republic. The decision to use violence blotted out the time and space in which practical issues might have been explored before the shooting. The use of violence required the over simplification of the issues at stake.

Symbols got priority  over explanations of how the Republic might be structured, how relations with Britain and other countries might be organised and how minority rights might be protected .

The neglect of a debate of these questions meant that sections of the electorate was disappointed by what was actually be achieved. They were not ready for the necessary compromises.

Sean O Faolain, who took the anti Treaty side in the Civil War ,and was its Director of Publicity, admitted that in 1922

“ We had no concept of the State we wished to found” .

So Irish Republicanism tended to be defined more by what it was against ,  rather than by what it was for.

This remains so to this day.


Since Garvin finished this book, Ireland has experienced huge economic, demographic and political change.

Population had been declining up to 1960, but has been growing since then. Over 7 million people now live on the island.

 While the birth rate, which peaked in 1980, has fallen substantially, emigration had been replaced by immigration. This is how the population has risen.

Economic growth has been rapid. There were debt crises in 1980 and again in 2010, but these were overcome quickly because the the underlying productive base of the Irish economy is modern and flexible.

In terms of party politics, Sinn Fein has emerged as the largest political party, thanks to its ability to exploit the debt crisis of 2010. Its advance has been mainly, though not solely at the expense of Fianna Fail.


Sinn Fein continues to defend its support for the IRA campaign of bombing, murder and torture from 1968 to 1998.

Sinn Fein assures us that the IRA no longer exists.

But it is hard to give weight to that assurance while Sinn Fein justifies past IRA activities and the political assumptions which underlay them.


Stephen Roach, a senior fellow at the Yale Law School and former chair of Morgan Stanley Asia, is author of ‘Accidental Conflict: America, China, and the Clash of False Narratives’ has made a commonsense proposal in the Financial Times of 18 July.

It deserves to be read by anyone who values world peace and want to avoid a nuclear Armageddon between the US and China.
US/China relations are in a worse state now than they have been for many years.

A Republican former US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, describes China as an “enemy.

President Biden has described his Chinese counterpart as a “dictator”, language which may be accurate but which is not helpful to efforts by members of his own Administration (Blinken and Yellen) to put a “floor” under US/China relations ie. prevent them from getting even worse.
Each side is paranoid about the other.

Roach argues that the Biden Administration is using the same failed approach to China as the George W Bush and Obama Administrations.
 This consisted of two Summits each year between the leaders. These Summits were triumphs of event management, but did not lead to any progress. In fact, relations got worse.

This was inevitable in the absence of an institutional architecture underneath the Summits to work on a year round basis to remove misunderstandings and develop constructive proposals to give substance to the Summits.

Roach proposes that US/China Secretariat be established, located in neutral country, to monitor all aspects of the relationship, military, political, technology, trade, climate and all other relevant issues.
I endorse this proposal.

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