Opinions & Ideas

Author: John Bruton Page 3 of 61


Valery Giscard D’Estaing, who died last Wednesday, can truly be said to be the architect of the constitutional arrangements under which the EU works to this day.

He was President of the Convention of the Future of Europe, a very large and diverse body, which produced a draft EU Constitution of immense detail . 95% of the content of the present  EU Treaties are drawn from this draft Constitution.

 It was thanks  to his personal leadership and natural authority that consensus, on inherently contentious matters, was achieved.

 I observed his  political skills at work , as one of the nine member Praesidium of the Convention which agreed the drafts he presented.


“Saving the State, Fine Gael from Collins to Varadkar”, by Stephen Collins and Ciara Meehan,  is a good example of a fruitful cooperation between a distinguished academic historian, and an insightful political journalist. 

Ciara Meehan is a reader in history in the University of Hertfordshire. 

 Stephen Collins is a long time political columnist in the “Irish Times”.

 Both have written numerous books separately, but their combined work on this occasion combines readability and rigorous judgement.  It deserves a wide readership.

Although I have spent my lifetime intimately involved with the ups and down of Fine Gael, I learned much that was new to me in this book.

 I had not known, for example, that in forming his government in 1973, Liam Cosgrave offered the Ministry of Finance to Brendan Corish, the Labour Leader, if Brendan Corish would agree to take it himself.

 Corish declined and opted instead for Health and Social Welfare, so Richie Ryan of Fine Gael got the unenviable job of navigating the oil crisis and implementing some very unpopular capital taxes. 

Fine Gael was formed as a political party in 1933.

It was of a merger of the old Cumann  na nGaedhael led by WT Cosgrave, The Centre Party led by Frank McDermott and James Dillon,  and the Blueshirts led by Eoin O Duffy. 

It was agreed between the three merging groups that O Duffy, although not a TD, would be the overall leader. This proved to be a mistake and it is a mystery to me that it was not foreseen at the time.

In making this choice, the new party displayed a lack of confidence in itself and what it had achieved and a desire to associate itself with ephemeral  contemporary political fashions, as  represented by O Duffy. 

In his favour, O Duffy had been prominent in the War of Independence and in the formation of the Garda Siochana. He had had executive responsibility. He had set up a movement and  had shown he could organize political rallies.

 He was seen, according to the authors    

” as a Michael Collins type, someone who could excite the party in the way that Cosgrave could not”. 

 If that was the reason, it was an odd decision, for a party which was, and is, deeply constitutionalist in its convictions and support base.  WT Cosgrave, the state builder, ought to be the iconic figure for Fine Gael, and ought to be its model in choosing a leader, then , now, or in the future. 

The title of this book, “Saving the State” summarizes very well for me  the core value that underlies Fine Gael. 

It is that value that has led it to enter government with its traditional rival, Fianna Fail, a decision that reflects credit on both parties.

The book is full of interesting detail, and brings us right up to the formation of the present government.

It is an insightful and readable account……well worth buying for Christmas, if you like modern Irish history.



I have been asked to speak on the topic of patriotism and to do so with reference to Europe’s Christian heritage.

The first thing I should do is describe what I understand by “patriotism”.

 I understand it to be 

” a sense of national pride and a feeling of love, devotion, and sense of attachment to a homeland and alliance with other citizens who share the same sentiment. This attachment can be a combination of many different feelings relating to one’s own homeland, including ethnic, cultural, political or historical aspects.”

It is not necessarily tied to a particular geographic boundary, ethnicity or language group. 

People can speak different languages but share the same patriotic feelings. For example patriotic citizens of the Republic of India speak many different languages.

 One can share patriotic feeling with people, without necessarily wanting to be part of the same state or share the same citizenship as they do. For example some people in Northern Ireland consider themselves to patriotic Irish people, but do not necessarily want to be part of the Irish state, while others do.

Many consider it is possible to have more than one patriotic loyalty, which can co exist. For example one could be simultaneously a patriotic Catalan, a patriotic Spaniard and a patriotic citizen of the European Union.

In  my past work seeking to build peace in Ireland, I have found it helpful to acknowledge that people can have multiple and overlapping patriotisms, and to design political structures that acknowledge this diversity.

 The structures of the Good Friday Agreement  acknowledge that 

  + some people in Northern Ireland consider themselves to patriotic Irish people, but do not necessarily want to be part of the Irish state,  

  + others feel an exclusive  patriotic attachment to the United Kingdom, 

  + others an exclusive attachment to Ireland, and

  +  yet others can feel both attachments depending on the context. 

Those who favour European unity have long argued that one can have patriotic feelings towards one’s own state, as well as towards the European Union.

 For example, Winston Churchill, when urging support for a United States of Europe in 1946, envisaged

“an enlarged sense of patriotism and common citizenship” 

among Europeans.

As Pope Francis said in his latest Encyclical;

“ For a healthy relationship between love of one’s native land and a sound sense of belonging to our larger human family, it is helpful to keep in mind that global society is not the sum total of different communities but the communion that exists between them”

In this same Encylical, he warns against

 “hyperbole, extremism and polarisation”

 becoming political tools. Wedge issues in other words.

 He warns against the

 “temptation to build a culture of walls-walls in the heart and walls in the mind”


Patriotism and “nationalism” are not quite the same thing.

 Nationalism is defined as loyalty to a state whose citizens share the same culture, whereas patriotism does not insist on that, as the examples I have cited illustrate.


“Sovereignty” is another concept again. It is a concept developed in the context of the English Parliament wishing to assert absolute power over legislation, originally against the King and more recently against international bodies. 

Sovereignty is about power and its exercise, patriotism is about people and their shared feelings.

I have also been asked to relate this to Europe and its Christian heritage.


 It is fair to say that it is impossible to understand Europe’s heritage without understanding Christianity. From 330 AD up to 1520 AD the political history of Europe was inextricably linked up with its ecclesiastical infrastructure and with the teaching of the Catholic Church.

 Since 1520, that has changed gradually.

 But Christian thinking still influences the shared categories of thought, the shared intellectual and moral framework, through which Europeans, whether believers or not, approach their common problems.

 Without these shared categories of thought, Europeans would have found it much harder to work together, or to have achieved as much as they have achieved together so far, especially in the last 70 years.

The root of this shared European heritage starts in Faith. 

 Faith is a commitment. It is a basis for self respect and respect for others.

The late Pope, John Paul II, in an Apostolic Exhortation in 2003, said he hopeful about many things, praising the openness of European peoples to one another, the growth of a European consciousness and the growing unity of Europe at the time.

 He said 

“There is no doubt that, in Europe’s history, Christianity has been a central and defining element….the Christian faith has shaped the culture of the continent”.

He said

“Europe must recognize and reclaim, with creative fidelity, those fundamental values, acquired through Christianity, of the affirmation of the transcendent dignity of each person, the value of reason, freedom, democracy, the constitutional state and the distinction between political life and religion”.


He wanted Catholics, and Christians generally, to get involved with European institutions to help shape a European Social order, respectful of the human dignity of each man and woman, and thus in accordance with the common good.

Without a reference to its religious heritage, he argued, Europe is disconnected from the source of most of its deeply held shared values, shared values that can give it confidence and courage

 It is for the same reason that  I argued , when I was involved in drafting what became the Lisbon Treaty,  that there should have been a reference to God in the EU Treaty.

 It would have been a reminder of a belief in God shared by Christians, Jews  and Muslims in Europe.


Ladies and Gentlemen, at times, it seems as if relativism has become the real religion of modern man.

 We incline to see no evil, so we don’t have to become involved. 

We think everyone has their own truth and there is nothing that is true for everybody. 

 So we are afraid to say what we believe is right, in case it might give offence. 

I believe that Faith in something that transcends this world is important for the maintenance of social peace.

 It is a basis for standards that can guide our lives, and help us to live peaceably with others.

Morality helps us make a distinction between good and bad, but also, at the margin, between better and worse.

On what basis do we make those distinctions?  

What criteria do we use?  Values are what help us to weigh up our choices, as individuals and in politics, between good and bad, between better and worse.

 All choices involve  a moral element, all choices are an expression of our values.

What relative weight do we put on competing needs and aspirations?

Do we rely on a materialistic interpretation of history, as Leninists did?

Or do we rely on a nationalistic interpretation of what is important, which might oblige us to put our own nation first, whenever a choice has to be made? 

Or do we act in the interests of all mankind, either because we believe that that is a duty imposed upon us by our faith, by God, or because we have simply come to that view ourselves without the aid of religious belief?

Pope Benedict argued strongly that we should draw on our religious heritage in building social consensus, and warned against mere relativism, and against a retreat by believers into the private sphere.

He said;

With our own lack of conviction, we take away from society what objectively speaking is indispensable for it, the spiritual foundation of humanity and its freedom”.

Under the guise of tolerance, relativism leaves the interpretation of moral values to those in power, or to those who hold the temporary majority .

 Religious beliefs provide a basis for respecting other people on an enduring basis.

 They enable us to make good judgements, and if citizens cannot make good judgements, democratic systems will not survive.


I remember an Irish politician, responding to a criticism of his position on a particular issue from a Christian leader, by saying that, as a politician, his book is not the bible, but the constitution.

 A fair statement as far as it went.

 But what values inspire the constitution, and inspire those whose job it is to interpret it?  

Constitutions are verbal formulations, full of competing aspirations, and can be interpreted in various ways.

 A sense of right and wrong, of better and worse, will inevitably influence how the words in any constitution are interpreted, or the weight that will be given to different parts of a constitution.

 Adherence to a constitution does not, therefore and of itself, remove the necessity to make moral choices. Thus there can never be a complete separation between the work of a state and the religious convictions of its citizens.


 There is, I believe, a need for faith in every one of us, even in those who have never believed in God, or who have ceased to do so.

People do not stop wanting God, because they stop believing in Him.  The enduring hunger for meaning is there still. 

And in the absence of answers, there follows anxiety, depression and a deep sense of being alone.

Of course people have doubts, all people of faith can have doubts 

But as an Irish Archbishop told pilgrims two years ago;

“Faith is not primarily concerned with pinning down certitudes, but rather being open to a sense of wonder and awe, which will cut through our conservative certitudes and our liberal self righteousness”.

Faith challenges both of them….. it challenges conservative certitudes, and it challenges  liberal self righteousness.

 Faith asks us to look beyond our settled opinions.

 It asks us to abandon our lazy relativism, asks us to have the confidence and the courage to distinguish between what is  true and untrue, right and wrong, to recognise that some rights are more important than others and that choices have to be made.


Faith is a gift.

 But it is also a decision. A decision that each one of is free to make, the decision to accept the gift….or not to do so. 

 We must respect the right of others not to believe, or to believe differently to us, but we are entitled to ask respect for our faith too. 

Freedom of speech does not remove the obligation to respect religious symbols that others hold dear. Secularism is not a licence for iconoclasm.


 As I said earlier, Europeans should realize that democracy needs a value system.

 Church and state should be separate, but a democratic state still needs guiding values.

  Without well understood guiding values, majoritarian democracy can easily over reach itself, and descend into tyranny.

As Alexis de Tocqueville, writing about American Democracy in the nineteenth century, said

“Despotism may govern without faith, but liberty cannot” do so.

As Relativism becomes the generally accepted way of thinking, it tends towards intolerance, becoming a new dogmatism.

Because relativism is not subject to some higher order of values, like the doctrine of a religion based on faith, it has no generally accepted basis for distinguishing between the greater and the lesser good, or between the greater and the lesser evil, except by temporary majorities. 

 And majorities can become tyrannical. Intolerant. Myopic.


Let me take the example of human rights……

Is the right to life superior to the right to property?  Is the right to life superior to the right to work?

In other words,is there any hierarchy among rights?

Who is human, and what is the priority among the rights that humans ought to enjoy?

Is a child human before it is born? 

If so, ought that child enjoy any human rights?

Relativism and secularism do not answer those questions for us. 

Religious thinking and teaching does offers clear, sustainable,  logical, and often uncomfortable , answers to deep and difficult questions like these. 

 As we have seen recently, democracy, based on relativism, does  not answer all the questions which society  will have to answer from time to time. 

All it can do is suggestions for the PROCESS of decision making…and offer citizens assemblies and the like, but it does not answer substantial questions, like whether a right to life ought to have priority over other rights.

 So it often just avoids the question.

The argument descends to the level of pure pragmatism at best, and to emotionalism at worst.


To conclude, how can one hope to convince young Europeans of the modern value of their Christian heritage? 

Perhaps we might invite them to ask themselves why so many tourists visit ancient  cathedrals, while they are on holiday, even though they might not go near a church for the rest of the year.

 What draws people to these cathedrals? 

Is it just a sophisticated aesthetic sense, or an appreciation of mediaeval art? That might be true of some of the visitors, but not of all of them.

For a very large number of these tourists, there is something else, unacknowledged but more profound, in the back of their minds, when they visit a Christian cathedral in Europe.

 They want to gain a window into the value system of their ancestors….. a window into the frame of mind of the builders….a window to something that transcends time….that speaks to us about our past and our future.

 Many of them will want understand why, a previous  generation of Europeans, much poorer and  much less numerous than the present one, might have started building a cathedral, that would have taken 100 years to build,  and  that would never see finished in their generation’s  lifetime.  Why?

There is a five letter word that explains that….FAITH.

Faith in God.  

Faith in something greater than today.

Faith in something beyond their own lives, or even beyond the lives of their own great grandchildren. 

Faith in eternal life.

Address by John Bruton, former Taoiseach of Ireland, at a Digital Summit organised by the Danube Institute of Budapest , Hungary on the  subject “Patriotism-the Key to Success in a Globalised Era”.

On 17 November 2020



The US Presidential Election nears an end.

I took a close look at latest IBD tracking poll shows Biden ahead by 49.5% to 44.7%.  This same polling company was one of the few to foresee a Trump victory in 2016 when it showed him ahead of Hillary Clinton by 45% to 43.4%. So this is good news for Joe Biden. Biden seems to have made particular gains in the Mid West and the South by comparison with Hillary Clinton.

Digging down into the poll, one sees some contrasts. Biden is ahead of Trump among the 18 to 44 age group by 12 points, whereas Clinton won among that group in 2016 by only 6 points.

Trump is beating Biden by 8 points among male votes about the same margin by which he defeated Clinton in that group in 2016. But Biden’s margin over Trump among females is 17 points, whereas Clinton had a margin of victory among females of only 4 points.

 So it is American women who are enabling Biden to do better than Clinton did. The fact that Clinton herself is a woman seems not to have helped her that much.

Biden is doing better than Trump among Americans of all income levels, but Trump defeats Biden among Americans who have only High School education by 55% to 43%, which suggests the divide is not strictly about money. There is a resentment of meritocracy based on academic credentials among those who left school early.

Trump leads Biden by 4 points among Catholics, whereas Clinton defeated Trump in 2016 among Catholics by 7 points. This is notwithstanding the fact that Biden himself is a practising Catholic. Trumps approach to judicial appointments is important here.  There is little sign here of an Irish American Catholic constituency for Biden.

As with Clinton among women voters, the identity of the candidate himself is less important than what he/she is perceived as representing.

Rural dwellers opt for Trump by a margin of 63% to 33%. He led Hillary Clinton by a similar margin among that demographic. Rural voters feel excluded from the national conversation.

Overall the trends displayed in the 2016 Election seem to be being accentuated even in 2020 but with the margin favouring the Democrats this time.

If  Joe Biden wins and  wishes, as he says he does, to unify Americans he will need to reach out especially to the groups of Americans who did NOT vote for him.

But this may not be what his Congressional caucus or his party activists will want him to do


Vernon Bogdanor, Professor of Government in Kings College in London, has recently written a book on a very topical subject, “Britain and Europe in a Troubled World”.

Its publication by Yale University Press coincides with the likely agreement on a new future relationship between the UK and the EU, which the UK recently left.

The first part of the book is historical. 

It shows that the Attlee Labour government in London in the early 1950’s chose not to join the European Coal and Steel Community(ECSC)  because it had recently nationalised the British coal and Steel industry and felt that the ECSC would have too much of a private sector focus. It did not want a continental body telling Durham miners that their coal were surplus to requirements, or too costly.

Churchill favoured a United States of Europe, but with Britain in partnership, and trading, with it, but without being a member itself.

 He saw Britain as most comfortable as sitting in the overlap between three concentric circles –

  • Europe,
  • the transatlantic relationship with America, and
  • the Commonwealth ( or Empire as Churchill would have preferred to call it). 

 Churchill even went as far as envisaging 

“ a sense of enlarged patriotism and common citizenship”

 among Europeans. He was right in this, but the goal is not yet achieved.

Churchill’s  successor as Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, wanted free trade with Europe, but no Customs Union and no political Union. He did not believe the six countries attempting to agree such a Union in 1957 would succeed in their goal.

 But they did succeed.

 Meanwhile the UK was losing its Empire, the links with the Commonwealth were weakening, and the Suez debacle of 1956 had reminded them that their alliance with the US was not based on equality. 

 So, in 1961, Macmillan changed his mind and made what he called the “grim choice”to join the Common Market, only to have the application vetoed by de Gaulle because he felt that Britain was too close the US, and was not wholehearted in its commitment to Europe. 

Eventually another Conservative Prime Minister, Edward Heath did succeed in persuading France to allow the UK to join the European Communities in 1973. In the recent Brexit debate, many Brexiteers claimed that the UK only ever wanted to join a common market, without any political strings. But at the time Edward Heath told the House of Commons in April 1975 that the European Communities 

“were founded for a political purpose, the political purpose was to absorb the new Germany into the structure of the European family”. 

Vernon Bogdanor identifies a number of issues that led UK public opinion to turn away from the EU. notably 

  • the rows about the UK’s financial contribution, 
  • the ejection of the £ from the European Monetary System, 
  • immigration, under the free movement provisions of the EU Treaties and
  • the upsurge in identity politics in the wake of the financial crash of 2008.

He has a final chapter in the book entitled “Never Closer Union” in which he attempts to say what will happen to the EU after Brexit.

 It contains a number of contestable statements like

  • “ few in Europe had heard of Juncker” before he became President of the Commission,
  • Germany has “no desire for fiscal union”, and even that
  • there is a “very real possibility that the EU could disintegrate”.

Of course , nothing can be ruled out but the decision, after the UK had left, to allow the EU to borrow on its own account to boost the  post Covid economic recovery suggest that the European Union is in  much better health than the author believes.

Indeed his sentiments illustrate why Britain was never fully comfortable as a member of the European Union. It had joined with its head, but never with its heart or its imagination. In that sense Brexit was inevitable.


So the EU/UK talks are back on again, after all.

There seems to have been a change in the negotiating method, but the underlying reasons for the UK initiated suspension still remain. A No Deal outcome is still possible.

The UK Prime Minister said last Friday that the talks on a possible trade deal between the UK and the EU were over because the EU was not willing to offer the UK acceptable terms.

 He said that, since the outset of the negotiations, all the UK had ever wanted was the same terms the EU had agreed with Canada.

This was misleading.

The UK asked the EU for a full no tariff deal on all goods and services, whereas, under its deal, Canada still has to pay some tariffs , and has little access for services. 

Canada is an ocean away, whereas the UK has a land border with the EU. The EU and UK economies are so entangled that the UK, unencumbered by EU rules, would be much more of a threat to the integrity of the EU’s single market, than Canada, on the far side of the Atlantic, could ever be.

 That has been explained to the UK over and over again. 

Boris Johnson based his dramatic announcement on Friday on the fact that the European Summit had, on Thursday, dropped the adjective “intensified” in its reference to resumed  trade talks with the UK.  He followed this up by rudely telling Michel Barnier, the EU negotiator , not to come to London for planned talks on Monday.  The UK Minister, Michael Gove then   demanded what he called a “fundamental “  change in the EU’s stance.  

 This all seemed to come out of nowhere. 

There was nothing new in the conclusions of last week’s EU Summit as far as Brexit was concerned. The talks were progressing normally, and had narrowed the issues down substantially.  The European Summit had given the Commission its negotiating mandate on 25th February 2020, and there had been no suggestion of any fundamental change in it since .

 In fact, real progress has been made under that mandate. 

Even Boris Johnson himself admitted on Friday that 

“a lot of progress has already been made , by the way, on such issues as social, security, aviation and nuclear cooperation”.

He could have added that here has also been substantial progress on trade in goods, and some on services. An agreed approach to police cooperation, and to road haulage had  also been reached. The UK and EU positions had also come much closer on the overall governance of a future agreement, including on dispute settlement.

The stand off  about the Ireland Protocol has arisen because  the Joint Committee, set up to work out the implementation of the Protocol, had  not had enough meetings, and started far too late, mainly  because the UK side was not ready.  

So how do we explain Boris Johnson’s dramatic gesture?

 It is about negotiating tactics……and domestic politics.

The UK wants to settle everything else first and leave the most politically visible issue of all, fisheries, to the very end. 

Given that EU trawlers catch more fish in UK waters than vice versa, that sequence would put the EU side on the back foot. The EU prefers to deal with fisheries in conjunction with other open issues, and refuses to be rushed.

Fish is a politically sensitive national identity issue, and there is nothing Boris Johnson would like more than to be able to say that he has settled everything else, and is left defending Britain’s sovereign fishing grounds from rapacious foreigners.

 Standing up to Brussels unifies the Tory Party and distracts from the domestic difficulties about Covid 19.

But  It can also raise unrealistic expectations and lead to accidents.  

The actual cost of bringing about a No Deal Brexit, because of a disagreement over fisheries would be a hundred times greater than the value of the entire fishing industry. This is true for both sides. 

Tough talk now may also make it harder to sell any eventual deal in Westminster, unless it can be radically repackaged.

The UK never really worked out what it wanted to do with its new found freedom after Brexit. Different factions in the pro Leave coalition had different ambitions.

 Some wanted a less regulated economy, some a more regulated one.

Some wanted to government to leave business to do its own thing, others wanted the state to take the lead.

The argument about the EU’s demand for strict level playing field rules goes to the heart of these unresolved dilemmas.

If Boris Johnson gives specific commitments to the EU on the level playing field, he will have to disappoint one section or another of his pro Leave coalition. He will not want to do that.

So he may find it politically easier, in the short term, not to make a deal with the EU, and contrive a situation in which he can blame the EU for that disaster, and thereby avoid dividing his own party.  

Boris Johnson’s focus on a deadline around last week’s EU Summit was a mistake in terms of negotiating strategy. But it might make sense as part of a narrative the end point of which is blaming the EU for a No Deal outcome.

The EU Heads of Government continue to leave the negotiations of trade agreements to the European Commission.  This is to prevent attempts at divide and rule, and is one of the reasons the EU, notwithstanding its tiny budget and lack of military clout, has become a trade super power. Even though the UK was an EU member for 45 years it seems never to have learned that this was one of the reasons for the EU’s success as a trade negotiator.

 So,If the UK continues to insist on  a fundamental change in the EU approach to the negotiation, we are  heading for a No Deal Brexit on 1 January 2021.

This would have dire consequences for the Irish and British economies.  Irish farmers would be shut out of their traditional markets for beef and dairy products .  In this it would be like the Economic War of the 1930’s all over again. British consumers would face higher prices for almost everything, but especially for food. Protecting the EU Single Market in Ireland could become politically fraught.

Professor Tom Sampson of the LSE estimated that the economic cost to the UK of a No Deal would be three times as great as the costs to it of Covid 19. That is a lot.

The Covid effect will be short and sharp, with a quick recovery, whereas the cost of a No Deal Brexit would be slower to emerge, and be much larger, and much more long lasting. Some of this will happen even if there is a deal. But a No Deal will be worse because it will involve tariffs and bad blood..

It is not too difficult now to sketch out how one might  avoid a No Deal Brexit, if that is what the UK really wants.

The Level Playing Field issues on subsidies to industry, and  on differing environmental and food standards, can be settled by agreeing a fast track arbitration system between the EU and the UK. 

Relying on the WTO disputes mechanism is too cumbersome, as we have seen with the long running Boeing/Airbus saga. 

There will have to be an independent and robust system to prevent subsidized or sub standard goods entering the EU market across the Irish border. Trust will have to be built between EU and UK Customs officials. That may take several years.

Obviously there will have to be big changes in EU fishing rights in UK waters, now that the UK has left the EU. But these could be phased in over 15 or 20 years. In any event, the UK would not be able to consume all the fish it could catch in its own waters, and will need to export them to the EU. Free access to the EU market for British fish could be linked to fishing quotas for EU boats in British waters.

Of course, agreeing a Trade deal would not end all controversy.  And a No Deal would not end all negotiation.  Talk would restart after much damage had been done.

In any event, there will be lots of small disputes, not least over Customs checks in Belfast port. With goodwill and patience, these disputes can be settled .  

But , Deal or No Deal,  the EU and the UK will gradually draw further apart, as will Ireland and Britain.

 Irish people will need to pay much more attention to politics in Paris, Berlin and Warsaw, and a little less to the English speaking world. 

This will involve a major psychological reorientation, with profound implications for our educational system.


Brexit is only one of the topics this weekend’s EU Summit has had to address.

Approving the massive 1.8 trillion budget, ensuring that the rule of law is respected by Poland and Hungary, agreeing a line on how to deal with Russia and Turkey, and giving teeth to its climate action plan are also on the agenda. Vital issues are at stake here for all 27 members. 

This reduces the time that can be devoted to the seemingly interminable Brexit negotiations.

On paper the issues to be sorted out on Brexit are manageable. Sharing fishing rights, and policing state subsidies to industry, should not be deal breakers.

The real problem is lack of trust in the seriousness of any commitments the UK might give. There is a sense that the UK is more into the short term optics than the long term substance.

A Trade Agreement between the EU and UK would not be worth the paper it is written on, unless both sides have the same understanding of what the words in the Agreement mean. There also has to be a robust system for mediating and arbitrating disputes, that is consistent with the EU’s global trade policy..

Nobody wants a disruptive “No Deal”.  But a poorly drafted, last minute, Agreement that, within a year, breaks down in a multitude of legal disputes would be no use.

This explains why France is looking for provision for rapid retaliatory action, if the UK backslides on the Agreement. 

It also explains why European Commission is so promptly taking the UK to Court over the Internal Market Bill. 

This Bill, passed by the House of Commons, gives the UK government power to break the Irish Protocol in the Withdrawal Agreement. The EU is suing the UK even though the Bill is not yet law, and the powers have not yet been used. This again illustrates a lack of trust.

The Commission objects a provision in the Internal Market Bill, which gives UK ministers powers to breach the Northern Ireland protocol on state aid and customs duties. Even taking the power to this is seen, in itself, as a breach on the Withdrawal Agreement.

The UK is still be subject to EU law, although no longer an EU member, up to 31 December 2020. During this period, the Commission has the power to use EU remedies to enforce the Withdrawal Agreement. This is what the Commission is doing by taking this case.

It has decided to act straight away, because it believes the UK needs to be made to understand that the EU takes the literal meaning of words in Agreements very seriously.. 

The UK has one month to reply to the notice of proceedings and if its answer is not satisfactory, the Commission can take the next legal step. The end game would be a lump sum and/or penalty payment by the UK imposed on the UK by the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

The EU target is not the detail of the Internal Market Bill, it is the breach of good faith.  Article 5 of the Withdrawal Agreement requires the UK , in good faith,  to take

 “all appropriate measures, whether general or particular, to ensure fulfilment of the obligations arising from this agreement and  refrain from any measures which could jeopardise the attainment of the objectives of this agreement”.

The offending portions of Internal Market Bill do the direct opposite. They take powers to allow the UK NOT to honour Article 5! 

The Commission also  is acting because it has to be seen to enforce Treaty obligations on members and ex members alike. 

Some EU member states (eg. Hungary and Poland) are threatening to breach the rule of law in other matters. So the Commission cannot be seen to let the UK get away with the same thing . It has to be seen to be consistent.

There is another issue that could lead to a problem with the UK Conservative government when it gets down to finalising the text of any Free Trade Agreement with the EU, and having it approved on the Tory backbenches.

This is the continuing role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) after 1 January 2021.

 The rule of the ECJ will still apply to the UK, in the following matters  

  • cases pending at the end of the transition period and  relating to events that took place before that, 
  • cases to do with citizens’ rights, for which the ECJ will remain partly competent;
  • EU budget legislation (‘financial settlement’), that is financial commitments  to which the UK committed when it was an EU member state, 
  • parts of the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland  and
  •  UK army bases in Cyprus 

For Brexiteers, any continuing role for the ECJ is allergic. It is the sort of thing Jacob Rees Mogg railed against when Teresa May was Prime Minister.

In addition, the ECJ will have a role, albeit indirect, in any settlement mechanism  designed to resolve disputes under the Trade Agreement, if there is one.

If there is a dispute, either the UK or the EU may bring the dispute to an arbitration panel. If that does not work, and the interpretation of EU law is at issue, then the ECJ will have to make that interpretation.

This is normal under EU Trade Agreements. It is in Agreements the EU signed with Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova.

 This provision is there to ensure that EU law is interpreted in a consistent way across all agreements involving the EU. There cannot be one law for the UK and a different one for Ukraine.

Although logical in its own terms, this will be a hard sell for Boris Johnson.

His political authority has been reduced by Covid and the restrictions it is imposing on some parts of the UK. Despite his large parliamentary majority, he may even have to seek Labour support to get a compromise with the EU through Parliament.

But, with the UK economy in difficulty, he may have no choice. The stakes are high.


Judge Mary Kotsonouris’ book “Retreat from Revolution, the Dail Courts 1920 to 1924” shows how the rule of law, arguably one of the better inheritances from Ireland’s period as part of the UK, survived the revolution of the 1916 to 1923 period.

Her book shows that Ireland did indeed undergo a revolution in this period.

From 1919 on the old courts system  was progressively undermined, delegitimized, and eventually overthrown. But it was not fully and formally replaced until the enactment of the Courts of Justice Act , under the Free State Constitution,  in April 1924.

For almost five years, the legitimacy of the courts and law enforcement was contested, as one civil war was by followed another. There were Irish people on both sides in both civil wars.

The first civil war , started in 1919 with attacks on Irish born RIC members and Resident Magistrates , was a military struggle, but it was  also a struggle for legitimacy. This war ended with the Truce of July 1921, and the Treaty of December 1921.

The second commenced, after failed attempts at conciliation between pro and anti Treaty forces,   on 28 June 1922, with the shelling of the Four Courts. It ended with the dumping of arms by the defeated anti Treaty forces on 24 May 1923.

The existing legal order, established under the Crown, had worked, more or less effectively, up to 1919.

 But it ceased to function for normal civil cases as early by the end of that 1919. Attacks on Crown appointed magistrates, and on the RIC, meant that Crown system could no longer make and enforce decisions in civil matters. Without an accepted police service to enforce its decisions, no courts system can work.

 The RIC came under such attack that it had to devote all its efforts to its own security and had neither the time, nor the public acceptance, needed to do normal police work effectively.

 But civil war or no civil war, disputes continued to arise about property rights, non payment of debts, wills and many more minor matters.  Some system had to be found to enable such disputes to be resolved. Otherwise people would take the law into their own hands.  For example, many areas of Clare were subjected to martial law because of cattle being driven off land and a general defiance of law during 1919.

 The Dail Courts, whose story is told my Mary Kotsonouris, filled this vacuum for much of the period between 1920 and 1923.

The first step was taken by the Dail , itself technically an illegal body at the time, when it appointed a judge to arbitrate on disputes over land ownership in Mayo in August 1919. In June 1920, it initiated a hierarchy of parish, and county courts with a Supreme Court to hear appeals. While the senior positions in this hierarchy were filled by lawyers, at parish level the Dail Courts were often made up of local clergy and  other citizens of good standing who had no legal training.

 These Dail Courts decided thousands of cases although they were in constant threat of being closed down by the RIC or others who wanted to take the law into their own hands. Its decisions were enforced by the IRA Volunteers.

But then the Dail and the IRA split over the Treaty in 1922.

 The new Free State government wanted to establish a new court system, that respected the constitution of the Free State, and whose decisions would be enforced by the newly created  Garda Siochana and by no one else. Many of those involved in the Dail courts did not accept the Free State constitution based as it was on a Treaty with Britain they rejected.

The Dail Courts had decided thousands of cases and these could not all be reopened. After much debate, a system of registering these decisions under the laws of the new state was devised.

This story is populated with many vivid characters, some now forgotten.  Kotsonouris brings them back to life and could indeed have given us more biographical colour about the individuals involved  here.

  She shows how order based on law in Ireland was painfully re established  after a bitter conflict, and how the institutions we revere today came into being.  It is well worth reading this book to remind ourselves how fragile in the rule of law in any country.


I was shocked and deeply saddened to learn in the last few hours of the death of my close friend, Tom O’Donnell, former Minister, MEP and TD.

Tom was a man of great warmth and conviction. He retained a youthful enthusiasm for all the causes in which he was involved, right up to end of his life. He never wavered.

To his wife Helen and his son Tomas, and all the O’Donnell family including his nephew Kieran O’Donnell TD, I extend my deepest sympathy.

Tom O’Donnell was born in Limerick on 30 August 1926 and was the eldest of eight children of Patrick and Josephine O’Donnell of Bulgaden, Kilmallock .

 He came from a family with strong political traditions, constitutional nationalist on his father’s side  and  old Sinn Fein on his mothers’ side . Her brother Dick O’Donnell was a Cumann na Gaedhael TD until 1932.

Tom was educated in Cappamore NS, Crescent College, and CBS Charleville. 

He obtained his BA in UCD. He taught in a number of post primary schools in Dublin before returning to Limerick to pursue a political career.  He was active in Muintir na Tire and Macra na Feirme.

Tom O’Donnell was nominated to contest the 1961 General Election on behalf of Fine Gael and was elected to the Dail in October of that year. He was re elected in the 1965 Election doubling his previous vote. In 1969, he headed the poll.

 Again re elected in 1973, he was appointed Minister for the Gaeltacht in the government led by Liam Cosgrave.

He was an outstanding success in this role. He inspired great affection among the people of the Gaeltacht and brought unprecedented attention,at the highest  level,  to them and their needs. He acquired a mastery of the language and conducted all the official business of his Department in Irish.

In the previous 50 years, the Gaeltacht had lost half its population. 

Tom O’Donnell’s  motto as Minister was that   ” without people there would be no Gaeltacht,”. 

So he prioritized bringing employment to the Gaeltacht.  During Tom O’Donnell’s  term of office employment in the Gaeltacht doubled and the infrastructure was dramatically improved, 

In 1979, he was elected to the European Parliament  and served as the spokesman on regional policy for the Christian Democrat Group (now EPP).  He cooperated with John Hume, also an MEP, on a report on  coordinated regional investment  by the EU in both parts of Ireland.

He also served on the transport committee of the European Parliament and was active throughout his career in promoting Shannon Airport.

He stood for the Dail in the 1981 General Election, helping Fine Gael to win two seats in the constituency. He helped the party to hold those two seats in both the General Elections of 1982.

He was re elected to the European Parliament in 1984 and helped bring in his running mate Tom Raftery. 

He retired from politics in 1989.

Tom told me that the “most important and happiest event” in his life was in 1984 when he married his wife Helen. Like Tom, Helen has a deep interest in politics and was active in Young Fine Gael . Tom was very proud when Helen was named Limerick person of the year in 2013 in recognition of her work for tourism.


Democracy rests on trust. So do all other forms of government to some degree. 

I came across the 2020 Edelman Trust Report. It contains some startling and worrying findings.

 It can be found here

It  is worth reading in full.

If the world is to cope with Covid and the economic situation, it needs leadership that people are prepared to trust. 

The Trust Report tells a truly alarming story for those of us who believe in liberal democracy. 

The average level of trust in government in the world is only 49%, but the alarming thing is that there is more trust in government in some autocratic states than there is in democratic ones. 

Against a global average of 49% trust in government, 90% of Chinese and  78% of Saudi Arabians told Edelman that they trust their government.  In Europe the trust in national governments ranges from a high of 59% in Netherlands to 45% in Germany, 41% in Ireland , 36% in the UK,  35% in France, 33% in Russia, down to a mere 30%. Interestingly in India, also a democracy, trust in government is 81%.  Interestingly 61% of Irish people trust the EU, which is well ahead of the level of trust in their national government,

The Survey results suggest that income inequality contributes more to a loss of trust than does insufficient economic growth. But levels on income inequality in India and China are quite high so that is not a sufficient explanation.

There is a slightly higher level of trust in institutions among those with more education. 

But it is not just government that is distrusted in western countries. On average overall, 49% of global respondents say they trust the media, but trust in the media is only 37% in Ireland and France. Yet 80% of the Chinese trust their media!  Given that the Chinese trust their government so much, perhaps it is not surprising that they also trust their government controlled media.

Business is trusted somewhat more than either governments or media are- 58% as against 49%. But again there are stark contrasts. 

82% of Indians and Chinese people trust business, as against only 35% of Russians, 48% of Germans and Irish, and 57% of Italians.

It would be worthwhile to dig more deeply into Edelman’s findings!

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