Opinions & Ideas

Author: John Bruton Page 3 of 69


It looks as if the UK Parliament will endorse the Windsor Framework.  The flexibilities it has introduced into the Northern Ireland Protocol will be  beneficial to people in their daily lives. It will restore good relations between Britain and the EU, something good in itself.

It will not necessarily resolve the crisis in the Good Friday Agreement quickly though. It is not certain that the Executive and Assembly will be restored. The split in the DUP on the Protocol is not healed. There is still a border in the Irish Sea.

For the DUP, taking part in the Executive still means serving in a body in which a Sinn Fein politician will be “First” Minister. In reality, of course, the Deputy First Minister, presumably a DUP member, would have exactly equal power to the First Minister, but it does not look like that, and appearances matter.

We need to keep a sense of proportion. 

Although the Good Friday Agreement is 20 years old, it was only fully operational half the time. When it was operational, the Executive did not really operate on a basis of full collective responsibility, as illustrated in the  “Cash for Ash Inquiry”

Neither the North/South not East/West institutions of the Agreement operated at anything near their full potential. 

The Agreement did provide a pre text in 1998 for paramilitaries to end their violence, which they already knew was getting them nowhere. In that contextual sense, it has brought us peace. But it is hard to say that there has been significant political or cultural reconciliation between the communities because of the Agreement. Arguably the communities are further apart.

The two novelties in the Windsor Framework are the “Stormont Brake”, and the provision of a Green lane for goods destined to stay in Northern Ireland.

The brake has got the most attention.

It is not a veto. It is a mechanism whereby 30 MLA’s can raise a red flag about a new or amended EU law that is to apply in Northern Ireland, and force an examination of it.

Given the negative perceptions of the EU in Ulster Unionist circles, there are worries that this mechanism could be triggered capriciously, as a partisan lever, rather than for practical reasons. 

The Windsor Framework says the brake is only to be used as a “last resort”, and where there is a risk of “significant or lasting damage”. 

These terms are open to varying interpretations, especially if there is a trust deficit between some MLAs and the EU.

It may be that, after a long delay, specific cases, in which the brake has been pulled, will go to international arbitrators, who will then tell us exactly what these terms mean in practice. 

Meanwhile a lot of time will have been lost and business disrupted.

The UK is currently going through a process of deciding which EU laws it will continue to apply in Britain and which it will “restate, revoke or replace”. 

Nearly 3,800 pieces of EU sourced regulation will have to be examined and a decision made on whether to restate, revoke or amend them. Most of this work will take place behind closed doors, and at breakneck speed, because the whole process is supposed to be complete by the end of this year.

The risk of catastrophic regulatory mistakes is enormous. 

The area of biggest concern is food safety.  We all know how food scares can do lasting reputational damage to a country. I hope that the civil service in the UK is sufficiently well staffed to do the job well.

The worry on this side of the border is that substandard ingredients might enter Northern Ireland, via the newly liberalised Green lane, and then find their way into final products, exported from here to continental Europe or further afield. 

This would be especially alarming if food products are involved. 

The combination of a lightly regulated Green lane, with no controls at all on our land border with the UK, mean that the risk is not negligible.

It is true that only goods that meet EU standards will be allowed to enter the EU tariff free under the EU/UK Trade Agreement, and the tariffs can be collected at any time. But once something, that fails to meet EU standard gets into the supply chain, the damage is done.

Detection will be key. One hopes that technologies and artificial intelligence can be used to help in this work. We will need to invest heavily in this.

All in all, the Windsor Framework is a good day’s work. It happened because there was mutual respect between Rishi Sunak and his EU counterparts, of a kind that did not exist between the EU and recent previous UK Prime Ministers. There are valuable lessons to be learned from this.


I have just reread “Revolutionary Iran, a history of the Islamic Republic” by the late Michael Axworthy, who was a leading expert on Iran in the UK Foreign Office.

Iran is home to one of the world’s oldest civilizations. Its population is well educated and instinctively pro Western.  70% of Iranians said in an opinion poll a few years back that they would favour better relations with the West.

The terrorists who attacked the US on 9/11 came from America’s ally Saudi Arabia, and not from Iran.

 Yet it is Iran than has had to endure the most severe western trade and investment sanctions over the last 30 years, while Saudi Arabia is courted assiduously by both Trump and Biden Administrations.

Iran was supportive of the US in the wake of 9/11, and allowed US planes to over fly Iran during initial US actions  against the Taliban in Afghanistan  who were sheltering the 9/11 terrorists. Yet President Bush included Iran in the “axis of Evil”  in the speech he gave in response to 9/11. I do not understand why he did this.

This   negative US attitude to Iran may be due to the fact that Israel has developed back channels for cooperation with the Saudis,  while the Iran/Israel relationship is marked by enduring hostility. But the US should consider itself free to develop its own foreign policy without always adopting the Israeli view. In any event, the Israeli position has not been consistent. Israel helped Iran in its decade long war with Iraq.

The policy of sanctioning Iran dates back to legislation passed by the US Congress in 1996, and has become ever more severe since then.

 When one looks at the failure of US sanctions in changing the politics of Cuba, and the continuing failure of US sanctions against Iran, one must question the efficacy of sanctions as  a diplomatic tool.

In recent times the Iranian regime has indeed become more and more oppressive, with liberal us of execution as a means of dealing with opposition.

 But there have been times when the Iranian leadership was open to compromise. Khatami and Rafsanjani were open to compromise, but these opportunities were not taken up in any sustained way by western governments. In the early years after the Islamic revolution, election were somehat free and fair, but the 2009 elections were rigged.

There is a long standing democratic tradition in Iran, dating back to the democratic constitution of 1906.

Unfortunately that 1906 constitution was overthrown in 1908 by the then Shah, with help from the Russians and the British, who felt they could more easily do business with an autocratic regime. A similar exercise in supressing Iranian democracy was undertaken by the last Shah with aid of the British and the Americans in the 1950s. Again the outsiders felt they could get better access to Iranian oil from autocrats than from democrats.

Axworthy deals extensively with long and  bloody war that followed from an Iraqi attack on Iran.

This book filled a major gap in my knowledge of the Middle East, and I recommend it.


We have no choice in the matter,  but the economic cost of cutting climate damaging CO2 emissions is probably being underestimated. 

To achieve our ambitious goals for 2050, we will need to divert money

  • Away from current spending ( eg. consumer goods, healthcare, pensions, travel etc) and 
  • Towards  capital spending ( eg. new forms of electricity generation, renewing the electricity grid, public transport) designed to replace present polluting forms of power generation.

We will simultaneously have to invest heavily in flood and drought prevention schemes to adapt the effect of climate change that is already baked into our atmosphere. 

This adaptation spending will also involve diversion of resources away from current spending. In an era of higher interest rates, government fiscal policy in other areas will have to be restrained so as to release funds for climate related policies. Public opinion will need to be prepared for this.


We are familiar with the environmental costs cause by burning coal, oil and natural gas. We are less familiar with the environmental costs arising from renewable energy systems. 

A few examples

An onshore wind plant requires nine times more mineral resources in its construction than does a gas burning plant producing the same amount of electricity.

Solar and wind power generation will, by 2040, generate an increase in demand for minerals of between 300% and 700%.

Copper supplies will have to double if we are to meet out targets for substituting electricity for hydrocarbon based fuels.

A typical electric car battery  requires 8kg of lithium, 35kg of nickel, 20kg of manganese and 14kg og Cobalt.


Mining, especially open cast mining, is very controversial in the location where the mine is to be located. Legal and other objections are to be expected. Opening mines may take twice as long as expected, and the delays will have to be financed by somebody. Meanwhile there will be supply shortages and volatile prices.

Much of the mining may be in poorer countries. It may damage local water supplies and interfere with local agriculture. Local people will need to be compensated. 

While renewable energy is a good thing. Reducing energy consumption is even better! Conspicuous energy consumption should be penalised.


I wish to express heartfelt sympathy with her husband Tom, with her two children and with her colleagues in the Labour Party on the death of Niamh Breathnach.

She was a Minister for Education who made a real difference to the lives of Irish people, and the benefits of her work endure to this day, notably the abolition of third level fees and the upgrading of Colleges of Technology.

She was an empathetic colleague at the Cabinet table and took  full account of the views of others.


 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.

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