Opinions & Ideas

Author: John Bruton Page 1 of 67


 A century ago, events in Britain influenced Ireland far more than they do today. 

 So understanding British politics of that era, was more important  than now to understanding Irish politics.

 That is what makes“ The strange survival of Liberal Britain….. Politics and Power Before the First World War” by Vernon Bogdanor so interesting.

The book  is published by Biteback Publishing .

It is an account of the politics of the British Isles between 1890 and 1914, and is essential reading for a student of Irish history.

 It is comprehensive. It gives a good account of the Boer War, of the struggle for votes for women, the rise of the Labour Party, and of the introduction of unemployment and sickness insurance.  It deals with the evolution of British  Foreign policy, including the alliance with Japan and, the increasing, though not inevitable, rivalry with Germany. It covers the tragic events that led to the First World War.

 It is, in every sense, a big book.  

The title of the book is misleading, in the sense that  the book is about far more than the survival of Liberalism.

It explores the issue of tariff reform, forgotten today, but politically convulsive for the first  20 years of the  20th Century,

 In the 1890’s, a leading figure in the Conservative and Unionist Party, Joseph Chamberlain, committed his party to what he called “tariff reform”. 

 By this he meant something was quite radical, turning the British Empire, which spanned every continent on the globe, into an economic union, like the EU is today. 

 As with the founders of the EU in the 1950’s, Chamberlain envisaged giving trade preference to goods produced within the British Empire, over imports from elsewhere (like continental Europe and the US), and thereby strengthening the political unity of the Empire. 

In the 1890s , Empires were regarded as progressive concepts. They were seen as vehicles for the promulgation of civilized ideas, such as the rule of law. 

 Other powers, like France, the Netherlands and the United States, were also seeking to build their own Empires. Empires were seen as efficient, enjoying economies of scale that smaller powers could not match. “The Empire” was something that helped keep England, Scotland and Wales united in a shared endeavour.

 So Chamberlain’s proposal for Imperial trade preference was seen, at least superficially, to be going with, rather than against, the grain of history. 

As a result of Chamberlain’s advocacy, the Conservatives were to promote tariff reform, on an on and off basis, for almost 30 years.

  But it proved to be a vote loser.

 This was because the British Empire could not produce all the food that Britons wanted to eat, and tariff reform would have required a tax on food coming from outside the Empire.

 High food prices, then as now, were politically lethal for the Conservatives.  Chamberlain’s protectionist ideas also ran against the free trade, laissez faire, ideology that had dominated economic thinking in Britain for much of the nineteenth century. 

Winston Churchill, a young Conservative MP, left the party and became a Liberal in 1904, because he believed in free trade. Joseph Chamberlain’s son, Neville, would put some of his father’s protectionist ideas into practice, as Chancellor of the Exchequer in the 1930s.

Joseph Chamberlain was a dynamic force. A successful businessman, and Mayor of Birmingham, he was non conformist by religion, and was an early advocate of old age pensions and anti poverty programmes.  He was originally a Liberal MP, but left the Party because of its support for Home Rule for Ireland. He was never really a Conservative.

Tariff Reform is just one of the many themes explored in Vernon Bogdanor’s comprehensive history of the 30 years preceding the First World War. It is a history of policy making, rather than just of politics. 

The drama is there, but so also is the solid content.

The book covers developments affecting Ireland, just as it covers England, Wales and Scotland. 

Ireland was run by 29 different government Departments, each with its own board, and all supervised by a single non resident Chief Secretary for Ireland, usually an English or Scottish MP from the governing party in Westminster. 

By some measures, Ireland did well during this final period of British rule.

The amount spent by the UK central Exchequer in Ireland increased more quickly than the amount of tax raised here.

 In 1893, there was a surplus on the budget of the Irish Administration of £2million and Ireland was making  net contribution to the overall UK budget.

 In contrast, by 1912, the surplus was turned into a deficit of £1.5million. This was for two reasons……

  • the cost of old age pensions (introduced in 1909) for which a lot of Irish people qualified, and
  • the UK Exchequers subsidies to the transfer of Irish land from landlords to tenants under legislation passed in 1903.

Ireland was actually over represented in the House of Commons, with one MP for every 44,000 voters as one for every 66,000 in England

But that was not worth much.  The only input anyone, elected in Ireland, had to the process by which Ireland was actually governed was through the Irish MPs in the House of Commons .  But Irish MPs, other than a few Unionists, rarely became Ministers.

 This was totally insufficient,  and  it explained the growing demand  here for a Home Rule Parliament in Dublin , with its own elected Ministers, to take over the powers of the over stretched Chief Secretary for Ireland. 

The idea of Home Rule was resisted in Britain. It was seen as heralding the beginning of the disintegration of the Empire. As Lord Salisbury, Prime Minister at the beginning of the period, put it.   

”If Ireland goes, India will go 50 years later” 

The forces in Britain ranged against Home Rule were substantial and serious. 

This is why it is truly remarkable that Home Rule for Ireland passed into law, without a shot being fired, in September 1914.

 This peaceful achievement by Irish politicians in Westminster, like John Redmond, John Dillon and Joe Devlin, was largely ignored by the Government at the beginning of our recent decade of  Centenary Commemorations. It was ignored in favour of physical force nationalism.

Bogdanor deals with how Home Rule became law, peacefully, in 1914. 

The Liberal government of the day depended on the Irish Party and the Labour Party to stay in office.

 The Liberal Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George introduced a radical budget. This budget was rejected in the House of Lords, creating a constitutional crisis. In response the Liberal government introduced a Parliament Bill to curb the power of the Lords to veto legislation passed in the Commons. 

The Irish Party then told the government that they in turn would oppose the budget, unless the Parliament Bill removed the Lords’ indefinite veto on Home Rule. 

It was brinkmanship, but it worked. 

If the Lords had not rejected the budget in the first place, Home Rule might have been postponed by a Liberal Government, who had only a half hearted commitment to it.

The book also deals with the lead up to the First World War.

Joe Chamberlain in the 1890s had favoured a Teutonic (Protestant) alliance between the UK, the US and Germany. But majority opinion in Britain preferred closeness with France and Russia.

 The British Cabinet seems to have had little discussion of foreign and defence policy in the years before the War. Exaggerated reliance was placed on the Royal Navy, and the Army was neglected.  In general, the Cabinet had no agenda, no regular meetings, and no minutes in this period!

  It was the German invasion of Belgium, in August 1914, that enabled the UK to enter the War, as a united country on the allied side.

 If Germany had avoided Belgium, the UK would have been deeply split on whether to support France militarily, or stay out.

 As far as war guilt is concerned, it was the belligerent and irresponsible demands of Austria on Serbia, that dragged Russia and Germany into war with one another.

I strongly recommend this book. The reader will find that many of the problems we sense as being unique to our era were around in our grand parents time too.


I have just finished reading “Traitor King by Andrew Lownie. It covers the activities of King Edward the Eighth after his abdication in 1936.  Ostensibly he abdicated because he insisted on marrying a divorced woman, Wallis Simpson. But there were worries in government circles about his political views and his temperament.

As Prince of Wales, and briefly as King, he had led a full life, with plenty to do, and plenty of time for affairs and entertainments as well.  He had spent his entire life as heir to the throne surrounded by servants who attended to his every whim. He became used to adulation.

After he abdicated, all this changed.  He was no longer a King, just the Duke of Windsor. His wife was not a Queen, and was not allowed to describe herself with the prefix HRH (a matter about which he became obsessed).. Initially he lived in Paris and the French Riviera with Wallis Simpson.

 He doted on her and became dependent on her. But she found him boring. She found it difficult living up to the legend of a romantic love she did not feel.

He no longer had anything useful to do, no prearranged programme. Their days were filled with private dinners and lunches and little else.

As time went by, he wanted to be back at the centre of things. This desire for attention led to his entanglement with Germany.

His Fascist and pro German sympathies had been well known even before he abdicated. The British Union of Fascists even held a demonstration demanding that his abdication not take place until there had been a referendum on it.

His first formal trip, after his abdication, was a high profile visit to Nazi Germany.  He wanted to make a similar high-profile trip to the United States. But the reaction to his German trip was so bad that this had to be called off.

He soon became convinced that Britain could not defeat Germany in a war, and should reconcile with the Nazi regime.

When the War broke out in 1939, he was given a role inspecting the defences on the French and British fronts facing Germany. His report identified the weak point in the Ardennes, which Germany was to exploit to spectacularly a few months later.

 But in his private conversations, he was a defeatist, talking in direct contradiction to the foreign policies of his own government.

When France fell in May 1940, he fled to Spain and later to Portugal.

 Lownie’s book documents his indirect, but extensive, contacts with German agents while in Madrid and Lisbon. He was scheming to get Britain out of the war, and himself back onto the throne.

While he did want peace for its own sake, he also saw either a German victory, or a negotiated peace, as routes towards getting himself back to the throne of England, and a means  of his wife becoming Queen.

 It is pretty clear, from the documentary evidence cited in this book (including German archives discovered after the War), that his activities while in Spain and Portugal in 1940 amounted to treason.

His stay in Europe was cut short when he was sent as Governor of the Bahamas, where he intrigued with isolationists to keep the United States out of the war.

Edward the Eighth was not a stupid man. He had some administrative ability which he demonstrated as Governor of the Bahamas from 1940 to 1945.

 So how could he have allowed himself to become drawn into what he should have seen were treasonable activities?

I suspect the atmosphere in which he grew up, as heir to the throne, led him to believe that normal rules did not apply to him.

This is a highly readable book.


Brexit is not the only problem challenging the integrity of the EU’s single market.
Last week the European Court of Justice(ECJ) ordered the Polish government to stop appointing new Judges.
In December the Venice Commission, a body set up by the Council of Europe (which is independent of the EU), said that elements of the reform of the judiciary being undertaken by the present Polish government 

“ bear a striking resemblance with the institutions that existed in the Soviet Union”

One of the authors of that report was the distinguished Irish barrister, Richard Barrett, who worked at one time in the Irish attorney General’s office.
The EU is a system of rules and the EU can only survive if its rules are fairly and uniformly enforced by the courts of the 28 member states.
The European Union is a common market precisely because it has a common system for

  •  making,
  •  interpreting, and
  •  enforcing

common rules that apply directly to the citizens of its member states. These common rules are interpreted, in the first place, by the national courts in each of the member states. So the integrity of national courts is vital for the EU.
This issue lies at the heart of the  difficulties the UK is experiencing, as it tries  to leave the EU,  still enjoy the benefits of the EU’s common market for goods, but without taking part in the common system for making, interpreting, and enforcing the rules of the  common market.
In a very different way, this same issue is at the heart of the disputes, between the European Commission and the governments of Poland and Hungary, about the independence of their judicial systems.
If one is living or doing business in Poland, the only way one can get one’s Common Market rights is by going, in the first place to the Polish courts. This course should be open to you, whether you are  a Polish citizen or not, and whatever political opinions, or status vis a vis the  government of Poland.
The EU insists that courts be independent so that everyone can enforce their EU rights, as equal EU citizens, anywhere in the EU, at all times.
 This rigorous insistence on the rule of law is one of the reasons many European countries want to join the EU, so that they can get the EU seal of approval for the rule of law in their county, and thus be attractive to overseas investors and other visitors.
 I visited Serbia recently , and heard that country’s Prime Minister, Ana Brnabic, stress that accession to the EU was the number one priority for countries in her region. She said that the rule of law and transparent administration, demanded as preconditions for Serbian membership of the EU, are  crucial to winning foreign investment and access to cheaper finance for Serbia.
 So, if the Polish courts were to be allowed become politicized, and were perceived to no longer be  objective in all circumstances in interpreting EU law, and Poland  still tried to continue to enjoy all the privileges of EU membership, that would damage the EU as a whole, as well as Polish citizens. It would discourage investment in Poland. Worse still, it would remove part of the reason for the existence of the EU…the rule of law.
The European Commission started proceedings against Poland under article 7(1) of the EU Treaties over aspects of the restructuring of the Polish judiciary. It was on an application to it by the European Commission, that the ECJ ordered the Polish government to stop appointing a large number of new judges to its Supreme Court in recent weeks.  The ECJ feared the new appointments might politicize the Polish courts.
 The Polish government is able to propose this large number of new appointments because it is compulsorily retiring up to 40% of existing judges, on the basis of newly introduced upper age limits.
 The well founded fear is that it will replace these compulsorily retired judges, with judges sympathetic to the views of the present government. The age limit will not, indeed, be applied uniformly. The government will be able to grant discretionary extensions to some judges, presumably those whose judgments it likes.
This comes on top of a merger of the offices of the Minister for Justice and the Public Prosecutor. This merger creates a fear that prosecutorial decisions will also be politicized. The independence of the DPP’s office in Ireland was one of the important reforms made in Ireland in the 1970’s, and it has been carefully protected by successive Taoisigh since then. 
The Polish “reforms” also provide that the President of the Republic, not the court itself, would establish the rules of procedure for the Polish Supreme Court, determining which categories of judge would hear what sort of case. Again this is unacceptable political interference.
In the Venice Commission’s report, coauthored by Richard Barrett from Ireland, the Commission concluded that the Polish government’s proposed mechanism for an extraordinary review(and possible reversal) of past judgments was

 “dangerous to the stability of the Polish legal order”

and said it was “problematic”  that the mechanism is retroactive,  and allows the reopening of cases decided  before the proposed law was to be enacted. This is an understatement.
The Venice Commission concluded that the proposed legislative and executive power to interfere in a severe and extensive way in the administration of justice

“pose a grave threat to judicial independence as a key element of the rule of law”.

It is very important for the EU that the Polish government realizes that it is not enough just to have free elections. A country cannot enjoy the benefits of EU membership, or of democracy, unless it respects the rule of law which is enshrined in Article 2 and Article 7 of the EU Treaties.
The credibility of the EU, and the integrity of the EU Single Market, is at stake in Commission’s  dispute with Poland, to an even greater extent than it is  with the UK’s attempt to “have its cake and eat it” on trade!


Over the Christmas holiday I read “Poland, a history” by Adam Zamoyski.

The book was published in 2009, and thus predates the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It offers very up to date insights into the vulnerabilities and fears of all the peoples (Poles, Belarussians, Prussians, Ukrainians, Tatars, Lithuanians, and Polish Jews) who live, or lived,  in the area that is now, or once was,  Poland,

It is an area that is witnessing  the most severe and prolonged war conditions in Europe since 1945.

Some centuries ago, Kiev, Lviv and Kherson (now Ukraine) were all actually part of the then Polish/ Lithuanian Commonwealth.

At the time, many western European countries, such as France, were absolute monarchies.

 But the Polish/ Lithuanian Commonwealth was different. It was a limited monarchy, where the King was elected from among  people who were either notable Poles or Lithuanians, or  were  members of the royal family of another European country.

 For example, James, the Duke of York, who went on to become King James the Second of Britain and Ireland, was considered as a candidate to be King of Poland at an earlier point in in his career.

There was no permanent state apparatus in the Commonwealth , and the King could only get things done by operating through the elected Sejm, where unanimous agreement was often needed for big decisions.

 This veto system worked surprisingly well, as long as there was a broad consensus among the Polish and Lithuanian peoples. But when the consensus broke down, the veto was exploited by outside powers , and by over ambitious Poles who wanted to paralyse the state. This eventually led to the carving up of Poland by Russia, Austria and Prussia.

The Commonwealth was designed to limit state power, in line with ideas that popular during the Enlightenment of the 18th century. These ideas of a limited state still find favour among some conservative Republicans in the US.

The current Polish government, which has tried in recent times to limit the independence of the Polish judiciary, is thus pursuing policies that are contrary to Polish democratic and constitutional traditions.

The same Polish government, having freely joined Germany as a fellow member of the EU in 2000, now wants to sue Germany for damages caused by the German invasion and occupation of Poland in the Second World War. This is shocking.

This war was over well before the EU was formed. If Poland was serious about this claim for World War Two damages, it should have made resolving the issue, a requirement of Polish membership of the EU . It did not do so.

 Now, too late, it is exploiting historical grievances to whip up nationalistic sentiment in Poland. This is deeply destructive. If we go down this road the EU will not survive for long.


I really enjoyed reading “Great Hatred, the Assassination of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson MP” by Irish Times journalist Ronan McGreevy.

Henry Wilson was assassinated on 22 June 1922 outside his London home.

A truce in hostilities between the IRB/IRA and the UK had been agreed in July 1921 and was still in force in June 1922.

A constitution for the Irish Free State, based on the Treaty of December 1921 agreed between Irish and British delegations including Michael Collins and David Lloyd George, had been published on 16 June 1922, a week before the assassination of Henry Wilson. 

Wilson was disliked in Ireland, but he was revered in England. He was considered there to have been a key figure in the allied military strategy that saved France in the Great War.

Henry Wilson had been born and raised in Currygrane, near Ballinalee in Co Longford, on a large farm. His family had come to Longford from Ulster in an earlier generation, and Wilson felt himself to be an Ulster man more than a Longford man. David Trimble came from similar Longford stock.

The men who killed Henry Wilson were Reginald Dunne and Joseph O Sullivan. 

Both were native born Londoners of Irish ancestry, and had been active members of the IRB. In London they grew up in deeply Irish culture.

The Supreme Commander of the IRB, at the time of the assassination, was Michael Collins, who was simultaneouslyalso President of Provisional Government of the Irish Free State.

Meanwhile, IRA members opposed to the Treaty and to the Provisional Government, had occupied the Four Courts in Dublin, and other strong points around the country. This was an unsustainable situation for the new state, from a law and order point of view.

When news of the assassination broke, the immediate assumption in British government circles was that it had been ordered by these anti Treaty forces. McGreevy dismisses this theory. 

Another theory was that there had been a standing order from the IRB to assassinate Wilson, and that this had not been withdrawn, notwithstanding the truce and the Treaty. McGreevy does not believe this theory either.

He says O Sullivan and Dunne were scrupulous followers of military discipline who would not have acted on a free lance basis, without clear and current orders.

The author concludes the assassination was actually authorised by Michael Collins himself, in his capacity as commander of the IRB. There is no written evidence of this , as the IRB was a highly secretive society, and left no paper trails.

Why might Collins have issued such an order?

Wilson, who had just retired from the Army, had taken on a role as military advisor to the Northern Ireland (NI) Government. He had recently become a Unionist MP. 

During this time NI security forces had colluded in attacks on Catholics. Apparently Wilson was not involved, and was noteven in Northern Ireland for much of the period. Wilson’s political opinions were, however, well known and highly bigoted. In 1914, as a serving soldier, he had colluded with the Tory Opposition in an attempt to block Home Rule .

But none of these things would seem to rise to a level that would justify the authorisation of an assassination, in 1922during a truce, and while a peace Treaty was in course of ratification.

Collins’ top role in the IRB is very hard to reconcile with his Presidency of the Provisional Government of the Free State.

In this short review, I have focussed on one just one aspect of this multilayered story.

McGreevy gives a sympathetic account of the Wilson, Dunne and O Sullivan families, and their changing fortunes. Heexplains the shifting politics of the time, and of the friendly links between the Wilson family, and their Longford neighbour, General Sean McEoin, “The Blacksmith of Ballinalee”.

Reading this book, I am reinforced in my view that once the gun is introduced into Irish politics, it is very hard to get it out again.


The Secretary General of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, warned last week that in  respect of  the War in Ukraine

 “if things go wrong, they could go horribly wrong”

 and could eventuate in a full fledged war between NATO and Russia.

This is an alarming statement from a man who is not given to alarming statements.

While this is a war of aggression by Russia, the aggression was  driven, at least in part, by fear. 

Russia feared being encircled by NATO and EU countries, that were hostile to it. Yet these same countries  had clamoured to join NATO because of their fear of Russia.

 For its part, the US   pushed the expansion of NATO into central Europe,  because it feared a China/ Russia alliance dominating the Eurasian land mass.

 My direct experience is that security issues dominate diplomatic thinking in Washington DC,  in a way that they do not dominate thinking in Brussels. 

The loss of life that has already taken place as a result of the Russian invasion is enormous. The physical infrastructure destroyed by Russian missile will take 10 years, and tens of billions of euros, to replace.

There are 8 million Ukrainian refugees in EU countries, and that number is bound to increase. The EU is directly helping a country at war, something it never did before in its 70 year history.

 The war could widen. The possibility of Russian forces using Belarus as jumping off point for a new front in Western Ukraine is being discussed. This would bring the fighting much closer to NATO members, Poland and Lithuania. It could set off a chain reaction.

The preparedness of EU countries for such a wider war is not great. EU countries have significant and well equipped forces, but getting these forces to the front, where they would be needed, is something for which Europeans rely on America. Airlift capacity is a major European weakness.

 The road and rail systems in Europe have not been designed for the swift transportation of heavy military equipment. 

There is a lot of duplication and waste in European armies. 

Between them they have 170 different (national) weapons systems,  whereas the US, with a much bigger military, has only 30 different systems.

 Meanwhile the weapons that have been supplied to Ukraine from European stocks have not all been replaced. Money has been allocated but orders have not been placed.

The war has penetrated every aspect of daily life in Ireland. 

The dramatic increase in food prices, and in the price of inputs necessary to produce food ( fertilizer and energy),  is a direct consequence of the Russian invasion. Over 10% of the world population is already facing hunger. The FAO estimates that the number of people facing “acute hunger” has multiplied 2.6 times since 2019. 

Wheat prices will stay at 250 euros per tonne for the next two years, as against an average of  175 euros per tonne over the previous 20 years. The price increase for cereals since 2004 has been almost twice that for meat and dairy.

The world is facing an escalating, war driven, food price crisis.  What can Europe do?

I would make a few suggestions to the EU

  •  It should reconsider the policy of subsidizing leaving arable land lie fallow. 6 m hectares of land are lying fallow for this reason
  •  It should not encourage the use  of land , that could produce food, to produce biofuels. 9m hectares are currently in use for this purpose
  •  It should encourage farming systems that maximize the efficient conversion of sunlight into consumable calories. 
  •  It should discourage food waste. 17% of food is wasted , mostly by house holds,  because of  over purchasing and poor meal planning.

Meanwhile a concerted effort must be made to identify the fears that are fanning the war like atmosphere in the world today. While it may be impossible to do business with the current regime in Moscow, Russia will still exist when the war is over. The West needs to think through the sort of post war relationship it might have with a Russia that was willing to respect the territorial integrity of all its neighbours.


Latest predictions suggest the Republicans will narrowly win control of the United States House of Representatives but that Democrats will have a one seat majority in the Senate.

This is a significant win for President Biden because many expected a large Republican victory in both Houses of Congress.  That said, the Democrats seem to have lost their majority in the House, which will make it harder for the Administration to pass its favoured legislation.

 Counting is continuing in many places and there will be a run off election for a Senate seat in Georgia. Having won Senate seats  in Arizona and Nevada, Democrats have a Senate majority, even if the run off in Georgia does not go their way.

 It is not surprising that the Democrats lost some ground in the House of Representatives. In the past half century, the party opposing the sitting President has made gains in the Mid Terms three times out of four.

The 8% annual rate of increase in the cost of living in the US also drove voters towards the Republican Party. Inflation is wiped out some of the advantage Democrats should have got from record rates of job creation, and from the passage of some important infrastructure legislation. On the other hand, the abortion issue increased the turn out among women voters and this worked to the advantage of Democrats.

 While voters may rank inflation as their number one issue, it is unclear what Congress can do about it. Indeed some of the fiscal stimulus, given by Congress last year to mitigate the effects of inflation, may have actually over heated an economy that was already running up against capacity limits.

 Not for the first time in history, anti inflation measures have probably added to inflation.

 Donald J Trump played an outsized role in the Republican campaign

He personally endorsed individual Republican candidates in 200 individual races. These candidates did not do particularly well.

  It appears that Donald Trump can mobilize parts of the Republican base, some of which may not have voted at all in past elections.  But meanwhile he has driven away centre ground voters by his divisive rhetoric.

While he has suffered a setback last week, Trump is a formidable, spontaneous, and instinctive campaigner, who gives a voice to deep seated anxieties and prejudices shared by many Americans.

 His ideas will probably shape the Republican message in the 2024 Elections. That would hearten President Putin of Russia. It would encourage him to persist with his war of attrition in Ukraine.

 The bulk of the military aid to Ukraine has come from the US, rather than from Europe, even though Europe has more to lose from Russian success in Ukraine.

President Biden has said he intends to run for a second term. If so, we can expect a Republican majority in the House to launch hostile enquiries into his administration, which will absorb a lot of time unproductively. Already to legislative output of Congress is half what to was 30 years ago.

Rather than seeking a second term, President Biden might be better off seeking to promote his legislative agenda for the next two years, and  devoting time to healing the deep ideological divisions that are weakening the Democratic Party.

A change of control in the House will  lead to some modest changes in US Farm policy.

Climate change mitigation will take a lower profile, but commodity price supports will continue, as will nutrition support programmes for poorer families, which provide a market for US farm products. Indeed more than half of the so called US “Farm Budget” goes on nutrition supports for poorer people living in urban areas.

 One area where Republicans will be conflicted is immigration.

The majority of US farm owners are Republicans. The Republican party nationally takes a hard line against immigration. But 75% of the hired workers on US farms are immigrants, and half of these are illegal.

If Republicans were to implement their rhetoric on immigration, many farms would have to close their present operations

The new Republican Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee will probably be Glen Thompson for Pennsylvania. Interestingly, he does not come from a farming background. He worked in the health sector before being elected to Congress in 2008.

The Chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee will be Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat. She is Senator from Michigan, and a career politician, standing for election for the first time while still in college, and has served at every level of government.

The results of the Mid Term elections have been so close that neither Party has a mandate for radical change, which may be reassuring for America’s allies.

RIP Brigid Hogan O Higgins

I am deeply saddened to learn of the death of Brigid Hogan O Higgins. I extend deep sympathy to all he family.
Brigid was a warm and engaging person and preserved  her youthful enthusiasm to the end of her life.
She was a brave and effective representative of the people of Galway in the Dail , carrying on a tradition established by her father . Had she had the opportunity to serve in government, she would have done so with the same spirit of selfless service, as he did as Minister for Agriculture.
Her family can be very proud of her


I have just finished reading a book with the above title by Stephen Collins, the noted columnist with the “Irish Times”.

It tells the story of how Irish governments led by Enda Kenny, Leo Varadkar and Miceal Martin,  dealt with fall out from the UK decision to leave the EU. There are so many twists and turns in the narrative that a summary is impossible within the scope of a short review. 

The Irish Foreign Minister at the time of the Brexit Referendum in 2016 was Charles Flanagan, and he reacted to the decision with commendable speed and thoroughness.

 He briefed his counterparts in all 26 remaining EU states about Ireland concerns, namely that of keeping the border open between the two parts of the island and preserving the Republic’s position as a full member of the EU Single Market. This laid the foundation of the consistent support Ireland has had for its position from all the EU institutions.

One political figure who does not emerge with much credit from Collins’ account is the current leader of the UK Labour Party, Keir Starmer. 

In her final days as Prime Minister, Theresa May tried to assemble a majority in Parliament for  deal that would have kept the entire UK in the EU Customs Union, thereby mitigating or removing the need for customs post either in  ports, or on the land border. For this, she needed the support or abstention of the opposition Labour Party. 

As Stephen Collins puts it

“ Corbyn was relatively open the deal, but Keir Starmer, who was in theory strongly pro EU, raised obstacles at every turn .”

This was the last chance of a soft Brexit.  Defeating the Tories took a higher priority for Starmer than preserving good international relations. The story does not create much confidence about the level of responsibility one can expect from a Labour government in the UK.



I have just finished reading an excellent book on the partition of Ireland, entitled “The Partition, Ireland divided 1885 to 1925”, by Charles Townshend, published by Penguin.

It is highly topical. There are increasingly loud calls to prepare for a border poll, one outcome of which might be the unification of Ireland, the end of partition, and  the end of UK sovereignty over Northern Ireland.


These calls rely on the provision in the Belfast Agreement of 1998, which says that, if the British Secretary of State is of opinion that a majority in Northern Ireland would support unification with the rest of Ireland, he or she shall hold a poll in Northern Ireland, to allow the electorate there to make that choice.

Apparently, this clause in the Agreement was not the subject of close scrutiny in the final days of the negotiation in 1998. The focus in that week was on North/South institutions, decommissioning of weapons, and prisoner releases.

As a result of this lack of scrutiny, the Agreement provides little guidance as to how, and on what criteria, the Secretary of State might make such a momentous decision.

 Nor is the role of the Irish Government, who would have to absorb Northern Ireland given much attention in the Agreement. The Secretary of State is not even required to consult the Irish government.

 The Irish government would have to decide what special arrangements, if any, they might make to ensure that both communities in Northern Ireland, especially the one that is currently in favour of Union with Britain, is made to feel at home in a united Ireland.

 Nor does the Agreement set out how the public finance and tax implications of such a move would be dealt with. Northern Ireland currently receives a net subvention from London, which, if voters opted for a United Ireland, would thereafter have either to come from Dublin, or be rendered unnecessary by spending reductions on NI services.

 Incidentally, while a large majority (67%) in the Republic told opinion pollsters in 2021 they would vote for a united Ireland, only 41% said they would be prepared to pay higher taxes to accommodate it, and even fewer would be willing to change the national flag or the national anthem to accommodate the British identity of the unionist population. Of course answers to hypothetical poll questions about remote future possibilities are not reliable.

The Good Friday Agreement requires whichever government is sovereign over NI, to exercise its powers “with rigorous impartiality” and  to ensure “just and equal treatment” for the “identities, ethos and aspirations of both communities in” in NI. 

 “Aspirations” is the key word here.

 By definition, unionists and nationalists have different aspirations. One aspires to a united Ireland, the other aspires to continued union with Britain.

 The provision in the Belfast Agreement for border polls seems, in an important sense, to contradict the ” parity of esteem” between “aspirations” that is the underlying motive force of the Agreement.

This is because it provides for a one way street to Irish unity, with no possibility of a reversal of that decision.  While there could be several border polls, where the option of a United Ireland is offered and rejected, if that option is once chosen, in the last of those polls, that would be it. There would be no further Referenda.  The decision in favour on a united Ireland would be final. In that sense there is no parity between the aspirations. I am surprised this anomaly has not got more attention in unionist circles.

If a majority in Northern Ireland voted for a united Ireland in border poll, there would probably still be a significant minority in Northern Ireland who might continue to aspire to rejoin the United Kingdom.

 That aspiration is treated less favourably in the Agreement than is the aspiration of nationalists for a United Ireland.

 One aspiration, once achieved is irreversible. The other possible poll result (remaining in the UK) is reversible, no matter how many border polls confirming it, have taken place.


This border poll issue is, and thus will remain, contentious.

 Indeed the constant publicity about the possibility of a border poll is unsettling.

 It heightens the tension around the Northern Ireland Protocol, which Ulster Unionists wrongly see as a stepping stone to a United Ireland.

Calling for a united Ireland is seen as patriotic and popular in the Republic, even though repeating such calls may actually be a barrier to practical reconciliation between the communities in Northern Ireland.

Under the border poll provisions of the Agreement, a united Ireland could come about by a majority of a mere 51% to 49%,  Once it has happened, it would be irreversible, at least under the terms of the Agreement. This simple majoritarianism seems to me to run counter to something the then Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, said in the 1993 Downing Street Declaration.

He said

“Stability and wellbeing will not be found under any political system which is refused allegiance or rejected by a significant minority of those governed by it”.

If a united Ireland is carried by 51/49, there would likely be a significant minority in Northern Ireland, who would refuse allegiance to the decision.  This would be geographically concentrated in parts of the province, where they might constitute a local majority. Experience suggest that policing such areas could become difficult for the United Ireland government.

 The framers of the border poll provisions of the Belfast Agreement do not seem to me to have taken sufficient account of Albert Reynolds wise words in the Downing Street Declaration. He saw further than they did.

Those who are interested in the issue of partition, border polls, and reconciliation between the tradition in Ireland should read Charles Townshend’s book.

 This book shows that the partition of Ireland grew out of genuine political difficulties, and out a sincere conflict of allegiances between nationalists and unionists. These are differences that have been mitigated only slightly, and continue to exist today.


Townshend traces the history and origins of the idea of dividing Ireland into

  + a bigger portion which actively wanted Home Rule and freedom from British domination, and

+  smaller portion, in North East Ulster, where a geographically concentrated population wanted continued British rule and rejected rule from Dublin.

Up to 1800, Ireland had had a Parliament of its own, sitting in Dublin.

 But Catholics, the majority population of the island, could not sit the Irish Parliament and the franchise was confined to the very wealthy.

Under the Act of Union of 1800, the Irish and British Parliaments were merged, Ireland having 100 seats and the rest of the now United Kingdom approximately 500 seats.

Catholics eventually were allowed to sit in the Union Parliament in 1829, but the franchise continued to restricted on property grounds.

 Irish MPs in Westminster continued to be a relatively powerless minority, and rarely were Ministers in UK governments.

 The British, or Union state, never truly integrated Ireland into a political unit with England, Scotland, and Wales. It is questionable whether it ever had the capacity or willingness to do so.

 Ireland continued to be administered by a local administration in Dublin which took its orders from London governments, in which Catholic Irish MPs rarely had any say. It was a form of colonial administration, similar to the one in India.

 This failure to integrate Ireland into the Union with England, Scotland and Wales was partly due to the fact that these nations were Protestant in religion, whereas Ireland, outside NE Ulster, was predominantly Catholic.

 The disastrous potato famine of 1845 to 1850, which cost millions of lives in Ireland, and to which the laissez faire economic policies of the Liberal government in London were a totally inadequate response, added to the sense of alienation.

From 1840 onwards there was agitation in Ireland either to repeal the Union, and restoration of  the Irish Parliament or, at least, to grant Ireland Home Rule and a Home Rule Parliament in Dublin with limited powers (excluding foreign affairs, defence and customs).

 Both these proposals envisaged Ireland having a single Parliament for the whole island, without any exclusion of NE Ulster.

From early on, opponents of Home Rule argued that allowing a Dublin Parliament to govern the 4 or 6 counties in NE Ulster, where a majority Protestant population did not want to be ruled by a Dublin Parliament, would be unfair or unworkable.

” Unionists” in NE Ulster did not want to find themselves being continually outvoted in a Dublin Parliament, in the same way as Irish Catholic MPs had become used to being continuously outvoted in the Union Parliament in London.

The first attempt to grant Home Rule to Ireland was put forward by William Gladstone in 1886.

Nationalism was a popular doctrine in the nineteenth century, and John Bright, the British Radical and Liberal statesman opposed Gladstones Home Rule proposal for all Ireland on the ground that there were two nationalities on the island of Ireland.

He said

“Ulster may be deemed a nationality differing from the rest of Ireland as much as Wales differs from England”.

Charles Stewart Parnell recognised there was a problem here. He said

“It is undoubtedly true that until the prejudices of the (Protestant and unionist) majority are conciliated….Ireland can never enjoy full freedom, can never be united”.

He was not, however in a position to put forward a solution to the dilemma that he acknowledged existed. In a sense that dilemma remains unaddressed to this day.

A Third attempt to introduce Home Rule was made in 1912 by a Liberal government led by Herbert Asquith.

Responding to Asquith’s Bill, one of his Liberal backbencher MP s, Thomas Agar Robartes, said that Ulster unionists and Irish nationalists were two different nations with

“different sentiments, character, history and religion”

 and that it would be impossible to fuse these two “incongruous elements” together.

 He proposed an amendment to the Home Rule Bill which would have allowed certain Ulster counties to opt out of Home Rule and continue to be ruled directly from London.

A similar argument was made by the Conservative leader, Arthur Balfour, who also opposed Home Rule for the whole island of Ireland, who said that the Unionists of NE Ulster and the population of the rest of Ireland had

 “two (different) sets of aspirations, two sets of ideals and two sets of historic memories”.

It is hard to say that Balfour was wrong. Shared ideals and  shared historic memories are what shape and sustain nations in difficult times.

Irish nationalists, supporting Home Rule, rejected these arguments.

 John Redmond described the notion that there were two nations on the island of Ireland

“revolting and hateful”.

 But neither he, nor most Irish nationalists, devoted enough thought, or imagination, to devising ways in which the incongruous elements, of Ulster unionists on the one hand, and Irish nationalists on the other, might be fused together in a single nation.

 In fairness to Redmond, it must be said that his support for recruitment to the British Army in 1914 and 1915 was a form of indirect response to Unionist sensibilities. He wanted to show that nationalists and unionists had some aspirations and allegiances in common.

That said the overwhelming majority of nationalists believed that no part of Ireland had a right to opt out.

Ireland was a geographic unit, an island, so, ipso facto, it should be one nation. This put physical geography ahead of human geography.

The only Irish nationalist who took Ulster unionist concerns seriously was the vice President of Sinn Fein, Father Michael O Flanagan, who admitted that

“in the last analysis, the test of nationality is the wish of the people”

And admitted that the Ulster unionists

“had never transferred their love and allegiance to Ireland”

 and said that Irish nationalists

“claim the right to decide what is to be our nation, but refuse them (Ulster Unionists) the same right”.

I am not sure how much influence Father O Flanagan on subsequent Sinn Fein policy although he continued to be active in the party. He seems to have been an eccentric individualist. He opposed the Treaty of 1921.

Going back a bit in time, many nationalists did not take Ulster unionist objections to Home Rule seriously at all.

They thought it was bluff, even when Ulster Unionists, opposed to Home Rule, armed themselves, and set up a Provisional Government to resist Dublin Rule.

The working assumption of Irish nationalists seems to have been that the Liberal government in London would coerce all of Ulster into accepting Home Rule. With hindsight, this seems quite unrealistic. The morality of such a course does not seem to have been explored by nationalist thinkers.

Nationalists argued that the resistance in Ulster to Home Rule was being fanned by elements of the British Conservative Party for domestic purposes. There was truth in this, but it was not determinative, in my opinion.


Irish nationalism also adopted a rhetoric that did not include Ulster unionist aspirations.

For example, the language of the Irish Gaelic was to be the national language of Ireland, and while some Ulster unionists would have been able to speak Irish, they would not have seen as part of a nation building project that belonged to them.

One nationalist writer, DP Moran said the

“foundation of the Irish is the Gael”

which excluded Ulster unionists (who are not of Gaelic stock) explicitly. 

Symbols, like the monarchy, which meant , and mean, a lot to unionists, were explicitly rejected by Irish Republicans.

 Indeed establishing an Irish Republic, and thus getting rid of the monarchy, seemed to be more important than avoiding partition. 

For example, Eamon de Valera, speaking in the Dail in 1921 during the Truce and before the Treaty negotiations commenced, said that if the Irish Republic was recognised, he would be in favour of

“giving each county the power to vote itself out of the Republic”.

In such a scenario, it is probable that, at the time (1921), Antrim, Down, Armagh and Derry would have voted to exclude themselves.

Back in September 1914, Home Rule for all Ireland was passed into law, but with a reservation that its implementation would be postponed until the World War, that had started a month earlier, was over.

 The issue of excluding parts of NE Ulster from Home Rule was left open to be dealt with in possible amending legislation.

 As a result of the 1916 Rebellion and development in British politics, Home Rule, as enacted in 1914 for all Ireland, was superseded 

+  in 1920, for the 6 counties of Northern Ireland, for the 6 counties of NE Ulster , with a local Parliament with similar powers to those that All Ireland Parliament would have had  under the original Home Rule plan and

 +  in 1921,  for the remaining 26 counties, by the Anglo Irish Treaty of that year whereby the rest of Ireland became a  Free State with its own army and freedom to set its own foreign and defence policy (Dominion status)

These arrangements have survived for the past 100 years. The Free State, now Republic has made good use of its independence, especially since it joined the EU.

 Northern Ireland has had a more difficult time because of a combination of bigotry, insecurity, discrimination, and terrorism.


In looking, objectively and clinically, at the possibility of a border poll, people on both sides of the Irish border should ask themselves some difficult questions.

 They must ask themselves honestly if the ideals, historic memories and allegiances of Northern unionists can realistically be reconciled with the ideals, historic memories and allegiances of Irish nationalists. The gap remains wide.

 Can these disparate elements be fused into a new civic patriotism, an identity that all can share?

If people do not believe that is possible, a united Ireland will not work, and it should not be supported in border polls.

The priority now should be reconciliation within Northern Ireland.

The work of reconciliation must be done, in the first place, by the people of Northern Ireland themselves, but with the active support of the Dublin and London governments. It should be seen as an end in itself and not as a preparation for either in united Ireland or continuance of the Union.

This can be brought about by shared achievements, of which all can be proud, which become part of a new shared historic memory, to replace gradually the divisive memories of the past.

Shared ideals must be forged by negotiation at every level among the people of Northern Ireland.

Unionists must begin to imagine themselves into the minds of Nationalists, and Nationalists into those of Unionists.

This requires a conscious and structured effort of the imagination, among every age group among the people of Northern Ireland.

 Instead of being boosters for one side or the other in the constitutional debate, artists, actors, poets and writers in Northern Ireland should lend their talents to this very demanding exercise of the imagination.

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