Opinions & Ideas

Author: John Bruton Page 1 of 63

PRESIDENT KENNEDY……A NEW BIOGRAPHY

“JFK”, by Fredrik Logevall, (Penguin Books) is the first volume of a two volume biography of the US President who was killed in Dallas in 1963. It covers the period up to 1956 with a lot of personal and family detail.

Kennedy was a moderate student, but one who read widely. He was serious and introspective, but he also used people without much concern for their feelings. This was particularly the case in his relations with women.

 He came from an unnaturally competitive family and displayed great physical courage, both in his wartime service, and in his battle with illness throughout his life.

While his father, Joe Kennedy, supported appeasement and isolationism in the 1930s, JFK , in contrast, supported US military activity abroad, and criticised President Truman for the  “loss” of China to the Communists.

This is a very readable, if slightly long, book.

AUSTIN CURRIE RIP

I am shocked and deeply saddened to learn of the death of a great Irish Democrat, Austin Currie. I am proud to have known and served with him.

As a very young Nationalist MP in Stormont, and later as a founding member of the Civil Rights movement and of the SDLP, Austin showed immense physical and moral courage.

He, and his devoted wife Annita, were subjected to grave intimidation and harassment by paramilitaries from both sides during that time.

His first cause was that of ensuring fair access to public housing in Northern Ireland. 

When he later joined Fine Gael, and contested elections on this side of the border, he brought with him the same passion for justice. 

 He was a very good Minister of State and served simultaneously in three government Departments coordinating services for families and children.

He may not have been successful in his quest to become President in 1990, but , if he had succeeded, he would have been a very good President .

MYTHS ABOUT HISTORY CAN LEAD TO FUTURE ERRORS

An unrealistic understanding of the past can lead popular opinion, and politicians, into tragic errors.

Felix Larkin has recently published a collection of essays, entitled “Living with History”, that deals the use and abuse of historical commemorations,  and of official versions  history, in Ireland. 

 Popular opinions about history frequently involve mythologizing certain events, and over simplifying  the choices that were available to decision makers at the time. 

For example, Felix Larkin robustly challenges the popular view, endorsed in his recent book  by the historian Diarmaid Ferriter, that the border was “imposed “  on Ireland, against its will, by the British in 1920.

 Larkin points out that Redmond and Carson had accepted some form of partition in principle in 1914, and again in negotiations after the Rising in late 1916. So also did the majority of TDs, who had been elected under a Sinn Fein banner,   when they accepted the Treaty of 1921 by a vote in the Dail. 

 On each occasion the Irish leaders in question shrank from the prospect of a prolonged and bitter sectarian war, and even more deaths, that would have been necessary to impose a united Ireland on a resisting unionist population. 

 They were realists, facing their unpleasant responsibilities, and realists are rarely suitable subject for romantic historical commemorations.  We are being reminded of this by recent events. I am not sure much has changed. There is still a widespread view that unionists will cease to be unionist once there is a border poll. 

As Larkin sees it, the role of the historian is to debunk myths about the past.

 The historian’s role is to recognize that nothing that happened in the past was necessarily inevitable.  History is the result of an accumulation of a series of individual decisions, each one of which could have been different.  Politicians and citizens are, and always were, the shapers of their own destiny within the constraints that existed at the time.

So the study of history, and the well chosen commemoration of past events, should enable us, by learning from the consequences of   past decisions, to make better decisions in the future.

 It should encourage the taking of responsibility, rather than undue submission to victimhood, nostalgia or the blaming of others.

Larkin’s book covers many other topics, the contrast between the ideologies that inspired the 1798 and 1848 rebellions, the successes and failures of the Irish Parliamentary Party, and the varying attitudes of the Catholic Hierarchy to political violence.

 It also explores the appropriation of the religious feast of Easter by the faction of the IRB that launched the Rising, including through the use of religious imagery and notions of blood sacrifice in the Proclamation . 

 Even to this day, in secular Ireland, the 1916 Rising is commemorated on Easter Sunday, whenever that falls under the Christian calendar, rather than on 24 April each year, which is the actual anniversary.  This purely secular commemoration should probably not be conflated with the Resurrection of Christ. Each should be recalled by modern Ireland on their own merits.

Larkin believes democracy should infuse commemoration, so the foundational event of this state should be recognised as the anniversary of the meeting of the duly elected First Dail in 1919. This was a democratically sanctioned event, whereas , as a matter of historical fact, the  1916 Rising was not.

Felix Larkin’s book deserves to be widely read. It gives a very personal perspective, and offers insights that will help all residents of this island, whatever their allegiance, shape a peaceful  future,  free of grievance and myth.

He is a former senior official in the Department of Finance and later in the National Treasury Management Agency. 

All the while, he has also been an historian writing about many topics, most notably the history of Irish newspapers, something he first took up as a graduate student as far back as 1971. 

Felix Larkin’s work on newspapers has given him a unique window into contemporary Irish public opinion, over two centuries.

AN AIRLIFT OF SURPLUS VACCINES TO POORER COUNTRIES COULD SAVE MANY LIVES

Statement by John  Bruton, Former Taoiseach

I am happy to be one of the signatories of a letter to the G20  leaders, meeting in Rome this weekend,  calling on them to  airlift surplus  Covid 19 vaccines, unlikely to be used  in high income countries,  to low income countries, where vaccine rates are dangerously low.

Gordon Brown estimates that 240 million unused vaccines will accumulate in the EU, the US , Canada and the UK, by the end of the year, and that 100m of these will have passed their  ”use by” date by then.

It is calculated that, for every 100m vaccines administered, 120000 lives will be saved.

The more vaccines that are administered in Africa, and in other low income countries, the less likely will be the development of new variants of Covid, which could spread back into better off countries.

Gordon Brown’s proposal is a sound one.

MERVYN TAYLOR

I wish to pay heartfelt tribute to the life and work of Mervyn Taylor. I extend deep sympathy to his wife Marlilyn at this time of immense loss.

As a solicitor he gave really valuable service to thousands of clients, always in his characteristic sympathetic and reasoned way.

He will also be missed by his former constituents  in Dublin South West whose interests he served with similar dedication.

He gave outstanding service as Minister for Equality and Law Reform in the Rainbow government that came to office in 1994.

 He was a pleasure to work with as a Cabinet colleague.  We worked together on the Divorce Referendum. He was dedicated and committed to his goals but had a great ability to work together across party lines.

I was surprised when he retired from politics in 1997. I believe he enjoyed his retirement and it was my pleasure to meet him from time to time.

He will be missed.

ARMAGH CHURCH SERVICE……..IRISH STATE SHOULD HAVE A SINGLE POLICY ON CENTENARIES

(Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

For the President of Ireland to stand together with Queen Elizabeth at a church service in Armagh next month would convey a strong emotional message. 

It would underline the simultaneous Irishness and Britishness of Northern Ireland. It would show that both views of sovereignty can be reconciled. 

 In fact, it would be a big step away from the exclusive territorial expression of sovereignty that underlies the Brexit policies of the current UK government.

 The Queen, by standing as an equal beside our President, would be symbolically underlining the treaty based interest this state, that he represents, has in protecting the rights and privileges of people living in Northern Ireland, regardless of which power is technically sovereign over the territory. It would represent a major step away from the traditional unionist way of looking at what Northern Ireland is.

 It should be welcomed by people on this side of the border. The vivid image of the two heads of state standing together in harmony, in a place of Christion worship, in the ecclesiastical capital of Ireland, would symbolise something really important, in a way that no amount of words on official papers ever could.

This is why I believe the President, who as a poet, understands the power of imagery, should think again about his decision to decline the invitation he received to worship God together with the Queen in Armagh on 21 October.

 I understand the invitation to the President was dated 20 May, five months ago, so there was ample time for the President, in consultation with the government , to iron out any protocol difficulties that might have inhibited the President’s acceptance of the invitation.

 I do not know when or how the President replied  to the invitation he received five months ago and why his rejection of it emerged only this week. 

It is very clear that the invitation was not to attend to any form of celebration, or self congratulation. It specifically calls for an “honest reflection” on the past 100 years and for the acknowledgement of “failures and hurts”. 

I understand the invitation, which was from The Church Leaders Group (Ireland) , was addressed to

 “The President of Ireland, Aras an Uachtarain, Phoenix Park, Dublin 8.

The invitation was to a “service of Reflection and Hope” to mark the centenary of the “partition of Ireland and the formation of Northern Ireland”. The President found these words unacceptably political. I do not see his point.

 Partition is a reality and so is Northern Ireland.

 The Irish people, in endorsing in a referendum the Good Friday Agreement, accepted that  the existence of Northern Ireland represents the “present wish” of the people living there. The provision for a possible future border poll is the corollary of that acceptance of that in the Good Friday Agreement. They go together.

A rejection of an invitation  to mark the centenary of Northern Ireland could be seen as suggesting  that we in this state are not reconciled, at a deeper level , to things we have formally accepted in the referendum on the  Good Friday Agreement, namely that Northern Ireland is, for the time being anyway, legitimately  part of the UK.

It is true that the President has a measure of discretion as to the invitations he accepts or rejects. 

But he is our head of state, not a private individual , and the decisions he takes to accept or reject particular invitations are decisions that have implications for the state and government of Ireland. 

If the Irish government is seeking to reach out to both communities in Northern Ireland, that outreach should be reflected in the President’s decisions. 

The State cannot afford to have divergent policies in Northern Ireland issues, one set in the Phoenix Park and another in Merrion Street. That is why Article 13(9) of the constitution is framed as it is.

The State should have a single policy on commemorations.

The Church leaders, who invited President Higgins two months later to Armagh, quoted St Paul

“So the let us pursue the things that make for peace and the building up of one another”.

That is the spirit in which the invitation was issued. That is the spirit in which I hope the President can look at this again. 

THE ANGLO /IRISH AGREEMENT OF 1985……….A PROFOUND IMPROVEMENT IN RELATIONS,

HAS IT BEEN UNDERMINED BY BREXIT?

This book gives a lively account, by one of the leading diplomats on the British side, of the origins and negotiation of the 1985 Anglo Irish Agreement. It is well written and a valuable contribution to history.

 It also gives a searing insight into Mrs Thatcher’s governing style from the perspective of someone who had to work with her. 

Mrs Thatcher had strong prejudices, mainly of an English nationalist kind. Her eventual acceptance of the Anglo Irish Agreement was a case of her even stronger sense of political realism eventually overcoming her prejudices.

 But it was a stormy process. Mrs Thatcher was difficult to brief and hard to keep on topic. David Goodall describes her “eclectic and discontinuous style of argument”, and how she often adopted a “hectoring and tangential mode, both confusing and dominating the discussion”. 

She saw the nationalist minority situation in the Northern Ireland, as similar to that of the Sudeten Germans in pre war Czechoslovakia, hardly a hopeful starting point.  

That she was eventually won around to a more balanced appreciation of the Irish problem is a tribute to the persistence and persuasiveness of Garret FitzGerald, and also of her own Foreign Secretary, Geoffrey Howe.

 Indeed, Howe emerges as an unsung hero of the whole process, along with his Irish counterpart, Peter Barry. These two men, and their officials, kept the show on the road, despite many discouragements, not least the horrifying attempt by the IRA, to murder Mrs Thatcher herself in Brighton on 12 October 1984. That she could agree something as radical as the Anglo Irish Agreement, so soon after this, showed real statesmanship.

Mrs Thatcher liked and trusted Garret FitzGerald. But he had to overcome deep British fears and prejudices. Goodall says Garret was so convinced of his own and his party’s loathing of the IRA, that he could never understand why, in the eyes of many British people including Mrs Thatcher, Irish nationalism as a whole was tainted with the terrorist brush.

Goodall praises John Hume’s “deep strategic thinking” and his reasonableness in public. But he found him unwilling in private to say what  the Irish government might offer unionists as reassurance that they were not being driven down the road towards a united Ireland.

 This Agreement gave, for the first time,  the Irish government a  formal  Treaty based right to put forward proposals on political, security, legal and cross border issues in respect of Northern Ireland. It was given a means of doing this through an Inter Governmental Conference, which was to meet regularly at ministerial level and which was supported by a Secretariat based in Belfast. 

 By agreeing to this, the UK accepted that Northern Ireland was no longer a purely internal British matter. The UK government also pledged itself to make determined efforts to resolve differences that might arise on these proposals from Dublin.   This was an important breakthrough in psychological as well as legal terms. 

It was resented deeply by unionists, but was a necessary step on the road towards acceptance by unionists of equality between the two traditions, without which the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 could never have been negotiated, with the inclusion of unionist political parties.

From an Irish government point of view, the goal of the Agreement was to combat northern nationalist alienation from the state and its security services and this persuade them  to disavow any support for the IRA campaign and support the SDLP rather than Sinn Fein. The Agreement did not achieve this goal at the time, and the SDLP’s political distinctiveness was later blurred by the Hume/Adams dialogue.

At the time of the Agreement , Northern Ireland was under direct rule from London. The UK wanted to devolve powers to a Northern Ireland Assembly, but the SDLP was not willing to participate because of the way in which the power sharing government, established in 1973 at Sunningdale , had been brought down by a Loyalist strike. The SDLP would not re enter the Assembly without stronger guarantees on power sharing and  north/ south arrangements, and it looked to Dublin to get such guarantees for  them, which  eventually came about through the Good Friday  Agreement.  

  The Agreement also contained an incentive to Unionists to share power with the SDLP in a devolved administration because it said that the Irish government would give up its right to “put forward proposals” under the Agreement , on any subjects that were devolved to a  power sharing Administration.  So Unionists had a simple choice- share ministerial power with the SDLP, or put up with Dublin being involved. 

One of the British goals in the negotiation was better cooperation between the security forces and this was to be an important part of the work of the Inter Governmental Conference. Garret FitzGerald’s idea of mixed courts, including judges from the South sitting on sensitive cases involving terrorist offences in Northern Ireland, did not , however , make it into the final Agreement. 

On the long term status of Northern Ireland, the Agreement reaffirmed that a majority, at that time , wished to remain in the UK,  but it  added that if, in future, a majority

 “clearly wish for and formally consent  to the establishment of a united Ireland”

 both governments would give effect to this.

 This wording is more nuanced than that of the Good Friday Agreement , which leaves less room for negotiation and preparation for such a radical step, and does not even require formal consultation with the Irish government before a border poll might be called..

Goodall tells his readers that when he first came to deal with the Northern Ireland question,  he thought then that

“the circumstances of Northern Ireland were such as to make it impossible  for it to function contentedly , either as an integral part of the UK tout court , or as part of a united Ireland”

If that was true in 1983, it is unfortunately still true today. 

The “aspirations” of the two communities, which loom large in this and subsequent Agreements negotiated between the two  governments, are fundamentally contradictory.  Both the Good Friday Agreement and the Downing Street declaration talk of respect  for unionist and nationalist “aspirations”,  even though these aspirations contradict one another, and for one to succeed, the other must fail. Perhaps the focus on aspirations of this nature was a mistake

 As long as the unionists and nationalist communities are defined, and described by themselves and others ,  in terms of  their competing and contradictory “aspirations” around the constitutional status,  it is hard to see Northern Ireland, of the island as a whole, “functioning contentedly”, as Goodall put it.  

 Brexit , and the pressure for an early border poll, have combined to sharpen the divide even further. Perhaps it is time for the two governments, and the parties in Northern Ireland,  to  move away from seeing their  task in terms of finessing  two incompatible aspirations for the future, and  decide to focus instead on goals which unionists, nationalists, and the middle ground between,  would be  content to achieve together and be proud of achieving.

It is also worth asking whether Brexit,  by  the resulting Anglo/Irish  political tensions it has brought, and the deep structural divergence it will create between the neighbouring islands, has undone the achievement of 1985.

Book review I wrote for in the “Irish Examiner” 


AUTHOR;           David Goodall
TITLE;             The Making of the Anglo Irish Agreement of 1985
PUBLISHER;     National University of Ireland 
PRICE ;           20  Euros

AFGHAN LESSONS FOR THE WORLD

(U.S. Army Photo by Pfc. Leslie Angulo)

The collapse of the western backed government in Afghanistan is a shock. It has shaken confidence in democratic countries, and changed the balance of power somewhat, as between the United States and China.

 It shows that efforts from the outside to topple regimes, and  to replace them with friendlier ones are more difficult than anyone thought 20 years ago, when the western allies first overthrew the Taliban regime in the wake of 9/11. The aim of capturing Osama Bin Laden was not achieved until much later, and then it was achieved  in Pakistan (an ostensible ally of the United States) , and not  in Afghanistan at all. 

The end of the US intervention in Afghanistan has lessons for those who might wish to undertake similar exercises in Somalia, Libya, Syria, Cuba, Mali or Venezuela. The objectives need to be clear and limited. Local support must be genuine. If one is seeking out terrorist suspects, invasion is not the best way of achieving extradition! Nation building is best done by locals.

 Existing regimes may be oppressive or corrupt, but if they are home grown, and have developed organically from local roots,  they survive better than anything , however enlightened, introduced from outside. 

Conventional military power-boots on the ground and targeted bombing- is of limited effectiveness against networks of fanatics or mobile guerrillas.

 Western countries will now need to reassess their military spending priorities in light of the lessons of the interventions in Iraq, Libya and now Afghanistan

 On this occasion, it is the US and NATO that have the hardest lessons to learn, but I suspect that if China were to attempt a similar exercise in nation building from the outside (say in Taiwan) they would have the same experience.

 The fact that China has had to adopt such extreme measures in Sinkiang to integrate that province into the Chinese social system is a sign of weakness rather than strength. 

Afghanistan is an ethnically diverse society which, despite its diversity and disunity, has been able to resist rule from Britain, the USSR and, most recently, from the US and NATO.  Religion was a unifying factor is an otherwise very divided country.

It seems the Taliban have been more effective in building an ethnically diverse coalition than was the former government in Kabul.  It is not yet clear whether the Taliban will be able to hold that coalition together.

It does seem that the Taliban has, in the past, been able to impose a degree of order in Afghan society, and has been able to punish corruption. It created a form of order in a brutal and misogynistic way, but it did so. Order is something the outgoing government  in Kabul could not provide, even with generous outside help.

 Order, after all, is a prerequisite for any form of stable existence. Furthermore without order there can be no rule of law, and no democracy. Without iy, civil society breaks down. This applies in the West as much as it does in Central Asia.

Order is created by a combination of three essentials- loyalty, acquiescence and fear.  All three elements are needed to some extent. Hamid Karzai could not command these three essentials, it remains to be seen whether the Taliban will do any better

It is hard to assess the effect the Afghan debacle will have on the United States, which has by far the most elaborate and expensive military forces in the world. 

Will there be a change in US strategy? 

There is a strong temptation to turn inwards and reduce commitments to the defence of other countries, including the defence of European countries. From 1783 until 1941 the US tended to remain neutral and rely on the oceans for protection against its enemies.  

The countries of the European Union will also need to work out what their practical defence priorities are, in light of the Afghan and other recent experiences.. This is a political task of great difficulty because the 27 member states have very different views and geographic imperatives.

ANTHONY EDEN……A PRIME MINISTER IN THE WRONG DECADE

I recently read  “Eden. The life and times of Anthony Eden”  by DR Thorpe.

Anthony Eden was  a brave and effective British Foreign Secretary in the 1930s.

He resigned in February 1938 because the Chamberlain government was not taking a sufficiently robust stand against Mussolini, who had invaded Abysinnia in defiance of the League of Nations. 

He continued to oppose the efforts of Chamberlain to avoid war, by doing business with Hitler and Mussolini over Czechoslovakia.

For a time, Eden was even considered as an alternative to Chamberlain  in the event that Chamberlain was forced to resign as Prime Minister.

An opinion poll take in March 1938 showed that Eden had 38% support as a potential successor to Chamberlain as Prime Minister, whereas Churchill , who did become Prime Minister in 1940, had only 7% support!

This was because Eden had been in the public eye, while Churchill had sidelined himself because of his reactionary views on self government for India.

When Churchill became Prime Minister in 1940, he invited Eden to be his Foreign Secretary. He was thereafter considered to be Churchill’s heir apparent.

Eden played an important role in cementing the alliance with the US, which was important to the eventual victory over Germany.  On the other hand , it was the Soviet Union, which Hitler foolishly attacked in 1941, which did the biggest share of the fighting.

Churchill was reluctant to leave the stage and did not resign as Conservative leader until 1955, when Eden eventually took over as Prime Minister. 

His term of office in remembered for the failure of the Anglo French attack on Egypt in 1956 to prevent the Egyptian government taking over the Suez Canal. 

Oil supplies to Europe came through the Canal , and Eden saw the Egyptian leader, Nasser as similar to Hitler and Mussolini.

 In reality, even if the Canal was nationalised, it would still have been in Egypt’s interest to keep it open to fee paying shipping, including British and French shipping. The Anglo French intervention was really an exercise in the sort of imperialism which the French and the British had conducted for the previous century or more.

 Crucially, the British and French did not clear the attack with the Americans, who  used  massive economic pressure to force the French and British to withdraw. 

This episode showed that European powers , like the UK and France, could not act alone militarily any more.  Whereas in the 1930’s the US was isolationist, in the 1950’s, it wanted to call all the shots. In military terms this remains the case today. Europe depends on America for its defence.

Eden was Prime Minister when the Messina conference met in 1955 to launch what became the European Common Market. Eden sent a representative, but the UK did not commit itself to anything, whereas the other six nations did so, and eventually drafted and signed the Treaty of Rome, the founding Treaty of today’s European Union.

At the time, Eden would have seen Britain as a global player, and not on a par with a politically unstable France or with recently defeated Germany and Italy. One wonders if the present UK government sees things in a similar way to Eden. 

In a way, Eden’s problem was that his view of the world had been shaped in the 1930’s, and he did not adjust to the world of the 1950’s.

HARRY TRUMAN

I have just finished reading “Truman” by David McCullough, a biography of the man who was President of the United States from 1945 to 1953. Truman grew up in a family in western Missouri, near Kansas City, which was beset by financial difficulties which deprived him the opportunity to go to university.

He opened a clothes shop which failed. He worked as a farmer for half a decade, with modest success. He joined the army in 1917 when the US entered the World War, leaving his sister to run the farm on her own.

It was in the war that Truman’s leadership qualities became evident and, on return from the war, he was encouraged to enter local politics with the support of the Pendergast machine, which controlled Democratic Party politics in his part of Missouri. At that time the Democratic Party was dominant in Missouri politics, in marked contrast to the present situation.

Truman was staunchly Protestant in his religious outlook but was able to work well within the Pendergast machine, which was dominated by people of Catholic and Irish ancestry.

Truman, and his family, would, like much of western Missouri, have had Confederate sympathies and one of his heroes was Robert E Lee. But he was the first Democratic President to promote civil rights for African Americans, so much so that he was opposed in the 1948 Presidential Election by a Southern Democrat, Strom Thurmond.

In many ways he was an accidental President. As Vice President, he became President when Franklin Roosevelt, who had just been elected for a fourth term, died. The death was not unexpected, but Roosevelt had done nothing to prepare Truman for his responsibilities. The way in which he was selected by Roosevelt was casual to the point of being irresponsible. Truman proved to be a more straight talking and uncomplicated leader than Roosevelt had been. He was an effective decisionmaker.

One of the attractive things about this book is the way it describes Truman’s daily life. Apart from his time in Washington, he lived with, and in a house belonging to, his mother in law in Independence, Missouri.

He was devoted to his family and much of the material in this book comes from his letters to his wife, daughter and cousins.

Harry Truman was President of the US when it was at the height of its powers. He made sure that the US would play a leading role in containing the advance of Communism and in promoting the Marshall Plan to help Europe recover from war.

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