Opinions & Ideas

Author: John Bruton Page 1 of 69


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.


I was watching MSNBC a few days ago.

The discussion was about why the US was supplying Ukraine with cluster munitions.  These weapons are banned in the US itself. 

If Ukraine uses these munitions on Ukrainian soil, it will be endangering its own children, who may come across some of these explosives , years from now when out playing.

One of the participants on the MSNBC show, New York Times columnist David Brooks, was asked why the Biden Administration was supplying such munitions to Ukraine.  His answer really  startled me.

 It was


So, after a few months of artillery intense trench warfare, the West has run out of supplies of shells and missiles, and cannot replenish its stocks quickly enough. This reveals acute vulnerability.

How on earth did the US, and its European allies, find themselves in this situation?

If munitions have run out after a few months of artillery warfare, that does not bode well for Europe’s capacity to defend itself  in the long term in the event of a wider confrontation with Russia.

It seems as if the West has been taken by surprise by this munitions shortage. There is no excuse for that. There are ample warnings from history.  There is a clear precedent  in relatively recent history for the style of war now being waged in Ukraine …..the artillery  bombardments, followed by assaults on deep entrenchments , that characterised the Western Front in the First World War. Advances could only be made after heavy bombardment of the front line had first been undertaken.

Like the in Ukraine, First World War started out as a war of movement.

The Germans made rapid advances in 1914, until the French halted them on the Marne.  After that the war quickly became a static artillery war, where advances of as little as 100 meters were celebrated as triumphs.

These small advances involved huge casualties among the advancing forces, unless they had been preceded by  heavy artillery barrages , with a calibre of shell which destroyed barbed wire as well as larger fortifications.

 In general terms, casualties among the attacking forces were three times as great as they were among the defenders. That is probably the ratio in Ukraine now too.

It is becoming plain that Ukraine has not sufficient supplies of either the type or amount of munitions required needed to make a big breakthrough and  to preserve the lives of the brave Ukrainian soldiers sent in to attack the Russian lines. Meanwhile, Russia has air superiority, which is more important now than it was in World War One.

I do not understand why the counter offensive was announced at all, without adequate supplies of artillery and munitions already being in place. A worrying lack of strategic foresight is evident.

And the political precedents from World War One is far from encouraging.

Within a couple of months of that war starting ,there was already  an acute shortage of shells and heavy artillery in the British Army . (France and Germany were better supplied.) This situation is described by Lloyd George, in Volume one of the War Memoirs.  He described the War as a war between German  “mechanics” ( ie. munitions manufacturers) and British manufacturers, and  said that ,in 1915, the German “mechanics” were winning.

Radical action was required.  There was an acute shortage of people available to work in Munitions and Artillery factories. State enterprise had to be brought into play because private enterprise was too slow in setting up the required factories.  State owned “Royal Factories” were set up all over these islands, including in Dublin, Waterford, Cork and Galway..

There were not enough men to work in the factories .  So women had to be employed in this dangerous work. The War became an industrial war.

The West is facing similar choices today.  Notwithstanding the fact that the NATO counties, especially the US, out spends the Russians on military hardware by a large multiple, they have yet to mobilize society for the existential struggle which its chosen ally, Ukraine, is undertaking.

But even the opening of the Royal Factories, and the recruitment of thousands of women workers, was too slow in delivering the necessary shells in 1915. This was because there was an acute labour shortage then, just as there is in 2023.

The Daily Mail went on the war path.  There was a political crisis.

The Liberal Government, led by Asquith and supported by the Irish Party, which was committed to Home Rule, was replaced by a coalition of Liberals and Unionists, led by Lloyd George. We are living with the consequences of the munitions crisis of 1915 to this day.

Returning to 2023, the EU may face a similar political crisis because it has not matched its needs with the necessary resources.

 Member governments need simultaneously to ramp up arms production for Ukraine, pour money into the Green deal, provide for the healthcare for an ageing population,  and manage the debt inherited from the Covid epidemic,  while still respecting the Maastricht budgetary criteria.

And if Trump wins the 2024 Election in the US, he may stop supplying arms to Ukraine. Europe will then be alone facing Putin.


I am  sad to learn of the death of my good friend Ben Briscoe.

He was truly a lovely man, kind, open hearted and cheerful. He was admired across party lines.

He was also very courageous, a quality he displayed to the full in the
the 1980s when his independent mindedness was not welcome by his then party leadership.


I have just finished reading a truly excellent book , which I recommend to anyone who is interested in the history of modern France.

It is entitled “France on Trial, the case of Marshal Petain”   and is by Julian Jackson. It is published this year by Penguin books.

It describes the trial of Marshall Philippe Petain, which took place only a few weeks after the war ended, and uses it to do two things

  • look back at the events that led to France’s humiliating defeat in 1940, and
  • look forward to the present day ,to see how France remembers, and commemorates, its behaviour between 1940 and 1945, especially vis a vis Jewish people.

Petain was the great French war hero of the First World War, especially through his leadership in the crucial Battle of Verdun in 1916. Through this, he had acquired a God like status.

Petain was long retired from the Army by the 1930’s, and thus  he had no responsibility for the strategic error of the French High Command  that led to the defeat  of May 1940.

This error was sending the French Army deep into Belgium, when Germany attacked that country .  This created a gap in French defences which allowed the Germans to encircle a large portion of the Allied armies from the rear, in the vicinity of Dunkirk.

The consequences of this mistake discredited those who has held office in France in the period immediately before the war.

 This included former Prime Ministers Daladier and Reynaud. Both of these ex Prime Ministers gave evidence in Petain’s trial. So did another ex PM, Pierre Laval, who was later to be tried and executed,  for treason in 1945.

The author says that for Laval

“no cause, however noble, could justify a war”

He had been Prime Minister in the 1930s and wanted reconciliation with Italy.  

During the War he said that he favoured German victory, a matter on which Petain wisely offered no opinion.

 When the Germans surrendered in 1945, Laval escaped to Spain, but Franco did not want him.

According to the author, Laval was then offered asylum by the Irish government, presumably on the Taoiseach Eamon de Valera’s instructions.

I have never read any exploration of this issue in books about de Valera. Laval could have proved an embarrassing guest for Ireland. In the event, Laval opted to return to France and face a trial which he must have known would sentence him the death, rather that live peacefully in Ireland.

 Reverting to the dilemma faced by the French government in 1940, after the shock of the encirclement had worn off, the French Army resisted the Germans bravely and effectively in central France.

But the damage to public morale , caused by the initial defeat , was too deep.

 Could the French Army could have resisted long enough to retreat  With their government to Algeria (technically part of France) ?

Some of Petain’s accusers argued that he should have taken this option, and  have ordered the army to fight on ,rather than seek an armistice from the Germans.

Others criticised him for not joining the Americans when they landed in North Africa in 1942. Instead the authorised the French Army in North Africa to resist the Americans. This was interpreted by many as treason.

How did Petain come to be in charge in late 1940 and thus be in a position to make these choices ?

The previous French Government headed by Paul Reynaud, had retreated from Paris to Bordeaux after the initial defeat in May 1940. But it needed a new leader. It turned to Petain, as an untainted national leader, to head a new Government.

It was almost as if the politicians gathered in Bordeaux felt  they needed the  “Petain magic” to restore France.

This was the hope, on the basis of which the French National Assembly made Petain head of state, soon with unlimited powers.

This was never a viable project.

If Petain had thought things through, he would never have lent himself to such a dubious and hopeless endeavour. His vanity got the better of him. 

Even if Germany had won the war, and had come to terms with Britain, the prestige of Petain would not have sufficed to wipe France’s humiliation away.

How informative were the proceedings at the trial?

With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that were some issues that were explored too much in the trial, and others that deserved more attention.

A big part of the prosecution case was that Petain had been long preparing himself for a French military defeat, and had been plotting  how to exploit defeat to grasp supreme power for himself  There was no evidence to back this.

The issue that got too little attention in the trial, in light of what we now know, was the active involvement of the French police, and of the Vichy government, in the transportation of the Jews to the gas chambers.

Petain’s defence team argued that by taking over the administration, from 1940 to 1943, of a large portion of the interior of the country, Petain’s regime had spared many French people, including French Jews, from the  horrors of  direct German occupation and that this saved lives.   

There is statistical evidence to back this up.

The survival rate of Jews  in France, at the end of the war , was much higher than that of Jews in Poland and the Netherlands, which were directly occupied by the Germans and where virtually every Jew was wiped out.

Another issue that could have got more attention was Munich Agreement with Hitler which sapped French morale.

Many of the themes evoked in this book are current today.

What is treason?

Is it treasonable to make the mistake of backing the loser?

Where is the line to be drawn between a bad political judgement , and treason?

Where is the boundary between making a legitimate political judgement, and betraying a cause that is, or appears, lost?

What constitutes a war crime? That had not been defined at the time.

Who should be the jury in a trial like this?

Petain’s jury consisted one half of serving deputies in the National Assembly, and the other half of recently active members of the Resistance.

This politicised the judicial system in a way that would not be allowed today.

This book also explores the emotions of the French people in the aftermath of an acute crisis. France has emerged as a strong democracy despite the trauma.

For the record, Petain was condemned to death at the end of the trial. But the jury anticipated, correctly, that de Gaulle would commute the sentence.

Petain died peacefully some years later.

The great merit of this book is the human stories it tells so well, prompting the reader to ask how he or she would have reacted if faced with the same dilemmas.


A Forum is taking place on Irish Defence policy this week.

One issue being considered ids whether an Irish Peace keeping mission should require the approval of a UN Security Council which would involve a Russian of Chinese veto. I do not believe it should. This should be a sovereign decision for the Oireachtas (the Dail and Seanad)

I really do not think defence policy choices should be put before a citizens assembly, whose conclusions would  acquire an artificial authority that would inevitably hamstring the Dail. We are representative parliamentary democracy so public reps ie TDs and Senators, should take the lead….no body else, neither “experts” nor randomly chosen citizens.

I think Oireachtas approval for an overseas mission should suffice, no need to involve European Council.


The  most worrying development in the world today is the dramatic deterioration in the relationship between the United States and China.

 The US is an established power. China is rapidly catching up. Historic precedents suggest that it is difficult to avoid war where one power is overtaking another. The rhetoric being exchanged between the two countries is becoming ever more heated. These exchanges are inimical to the exploration of compromise.

On the US side, active preparation for rivalry with China is one of the very few things that seems to unite Republicans and Democrats.

President Biden has continued with the Tariffs on Chinese Steel and Aluminium, imposed by President Trump on supposed security grounds.  President Biden has also continued the Trump policy of making it easier for US officials to meet Taiwanese officials, something the infuriates Beijing. Former Speaker Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan led to a suspension of important working meetings, all for the sake of a photo opportunity.

The reason given for the Steel and Aluminium tariffs is that these that these materials might be used in warfare. Allies of the US are being pressured to apply the same policies to China, thereby dividing the world into two hostile blocs.

For its part, China’s navy is using hostile tactics towards US vessels in the international waters of the South China Sea.  An important principle is at stake here. The entire world benefits from freedom of navigation in international waters. Without the freedom of the seas being guaranteed, first by the Royal Navy and later by the US Navy, the prosperity the world enjoyed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries would have been impossible.

China is also launching thousands of cyber attacks every day on Taiwan.

Charles Kupchan, an American expert on international relations , who I came to like and admire during my time in Washington, has issued a stern warning about complacency about the development of a “Cold War” with China ,in the latest edition of the Atlantic Monthly.

The balance of power for the US in a Cold War with China will be very different than the one it had with the USSR. China has four times the US population, whereas the US and USSR had similar populations.

China’s Gross Domestic Product will soon exceed that of the US.  The USSRs GDP was only a fraction of that US.

 China already has a slightly larger Navy than does the US, and Chinese spending on R and D has increased dramatically in the past 10 years.

China is, however and ageing society, whereas the US is not.

China’s birth rate is so low that some speculate that the US population could exceed that of China by 2100AD!

 In that context, I was surprised to read that , at present , a quarter of young Chinese are currently unable to find a suitable job. Chinese local governments have run up big debts building apartment that are lying empty.

Centralised thinking in the Chinese Communist Party has the potential to undermine China’s military efforts by introducing rigidity of thinking. Unlike the US, China’s military has little combat experience. Chinese military spending is 12 times that of Taiwan, but is still much less than that of the US.

The rivalry between China and the US is diverting resources away from cooperative possibilities in areas like climate change, and food insecurity, in which both countries have a shared interest.

The EU, as an ally of the US, is placed in difficulty by the dispute. It shares all the US reservations about Chinese policies on a range of issues. It has said that the Chinese stance on the invasion of Ukraine will be “the determining factor”. That is a clear prioritization, which China should not ignore.

One of the big problems flowing from the present rivalry is a simple breakdown in communications. Cancelled meetings have allowed misunderstandings to increase.

The same event is interpreted differently in Washington to the way it is interpreted in Beijing. Each side sincerely believes its interpretation. Minor issues for one can be seen as hostile signals by the other side, when they were not so intended.

I believe the US and China should consider instituting some sort of “political truce” for a predetermined period.

This should be designed allow a concentration of the formidable diplomatic weight of the two countries on an issue on which they have a shared interest, namely mitigating climate change. Such a signal by the two big powers would prompt the rest of the world to do more.

A “circuit breaker” of this kind is  needed to prevent the current disagreement spiralling out of control.


Tribute by John Bruton, former Taoiseach

I wish to join with hundreds of other present and previous public representatives, of all parties and none, in paying tribute to the memory of former Senator Paul Coghlan, who died last week.
The extent of the heartfelt tributes from members of parties, other than Fine Gael, shows how Paul acted as a politician.
He had a warm welcome for everyone. He understood and valued the sometimes maligned political art of compromise.
A native of Killarney, he was active in promoting the town, and Co Kerry more generally.
He was a Fine Gael member of Killarney Urban Council and of Kerry County Council. This was at a time when Fine Gael had little political representation in Kerry, and he carried the Fine Gael flag proudly. As party leader at the time, I valued this very much especially the fact that Paul stood for
the Dail in 1992.
Paul was a founding director of Radio Kerry, and a Trustee of Muckross House, both of which, in very different ways, improved the quality of life in Kerry.
Paul would not have been able to do all this without the support of his wife Peggy, and all his family.
I extend heartfelt sympathy to them at this very sad time. I will remember him in my prayers.

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