John Bruton

Opinions & Ideas


Photograph Courtesy: Alan Betson/ The Irish Times

Des O Malley was one of the most consequential politicians of 20th century Ireland.

As Minister for Justice from 1970, he defended the institutions of the Irish state, affirming that there can only be only one police or military force that  can act in the name of the Irish people, and those are ones  set up by, and is fully accountable to, Dail Eireann.

 To achieve this he had to display great moral and physical courage, as did his successor as Minister for Justice, Pat Cooney.

His expulsion from Fianna Fail, at the behest of Charles Haughey, forced him into forming the Progressive Democrats. By historical comparisons, this new party was very successful. This showed his skill as a politician, and the way he was able to inspire people.

The most vivid memories I have personally  of Des O Malley,  are of how entertaining, witty and relaxed he was in private company. He had a highly developed sense of humour, and could tell a good story well.

 To all his family, I extend heartfelt sympathy.




The Courts in Poland and Germany have recently challenged to legal foundation of the European Union. 

The essence of the EU is that it is a system of rules, agreed democratically, enforced consistently and interpreted in a uniform way.

The uniform interpretation of EU rules has been ensured by the acceptance by  member states that the final word on what an EU rule or law means, is made by the European Court of Justice, and by it alone.

This is put into effect by Article 260 of the EU Treaty which says;

“If the Court of Justice finds that a Member State has failed to fulfil an obligation under the Treaties, the State shall be required to take the necessary measures to comply with the judgement of the Court.”

The European Court of Justice recently found that recent moves by the Polish Government were in conflict with the principle that the judiciary should be independent of politics.

 Last week the Polish Supreme Court decided that it would defy the European court’s ruling.

This is the road to chaos, and to an end to the EU’s Single Market.

 Poland’s independent Ombudsman put it this way;

“If every EU member state interprets EU law in its own way, we would not have a free flow of goods, capital and services, and much more”.

In a more limited way, the German Supreme Court has also questioned the finality of judgements of the European Court of Justice in the matter of bond buying by the European Central Bank. 

The German Court has long challenged the principle of the primacy of the European Court, but so far has avoided the matter coming to ahead. This ambiguity provides cover for Poland and for others, like Hungary, who might be tempted to defy European Court rulings. Germany should sort this out.

If these Polish and German positions are allowed to stand, they undermine the basis on which the EU is undertaking ambitious joint borrowing for economic recovery, and is setting equally ambitious joint rules to combat climate change.

 If the financial and legal obligations being created by these initiatives cannot be guaranteed to be interpreted consistently across all 27 member states, the initiatives should not go ahead.

At the very least, the proposed EU recovery package for Poland should be suspended. 

Meanwhile, Germany should amend its Basic Law to ensure that it accepts the primacy of European Court rules in matters that come within the competence of the EU. 

All EU states should take this matter up.

In the wake of Brexit, Ireland is making significant sacrifices to stay in the EU Single Market. So Ireland should make it clear it will defend the legal basis of the Single Market in every way it can. 

Countries that do not accept the primacy of the European court of Justice in matters of EU competence should leave the EU.

UK ministers need to read the NI protocol they signed

The UK’s EU negotiator and its Secretary of State for Northern Ireland published a remarkable article in the “Irish Times “ last week .

 They complained of what they called the

 “inflexible requirement to treat movement of goods( from Britain) into Northern Ireland, as if they were crossing an EU external frontier, with the full panoply of checks and controls”.

It appears that they never read the Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol which is part of the Agreement under which the UK withdrew from the EU. For this is precisely what the UK agreed to, in great detail, in the Protocol.

Annex 2 of this Protocol lists the EU laws which are to apply

 “in and to the UK in respect of Northern Ireland”.

The very first item on this very long list is Customs Code of the EU. This is a rigorous code with exacting procedures, as the UK knows well.

 Also listed are EU laws on the collection of trade statistics, product safety, electrical equipment, medical products, food safety and hygiene, GMOs and animal diseases. The list is specific. It refers to each item of EU legislation by its full title. 

The UK is fully familiar with all the legislation in the Annex, because the UK, as an EU member state at the time, took part in drafting each one of these laws. It also had a reputation as a country that applied EU laws more conscientiously than most. 

These controls have to be enforced somewhere. This can be done either at a land border or at a sea border. 

The UK Ministers , writing in the “Irish Times”, say preventing a hard land border on the island of Ireland remains essential.

 So, if the controls are not to be exercised on the land border in Ireland, where do the UK Ministers propose to exercise them?

The two Ministers make no attempt to answer this question. They offer no constructive suggestions at all, apart from using slogans like “balance” and “flexibility” in the implementation of the very precise laws listed in the Protocol.   

The Ministers do not attempt to deal with the requirements for protecting Ireland’s position as a member of the EU Single Market. They do not deal with the possibility that, if the parts or ingredients, that do not meet EU standards, can come into Northern Ireland, cross the border, and thus become incorporated in an EU supply chain originating here, our position as part of the EU Single Market is undermined. It would not be long before there would be calls from continental competitors for checks on goods originating in Ireland at continental ports and airports. All that would be needed to set that off would be a single event, perhaps to do with a scandal over food standards.

Let us not forget that the current UK government has said that they propose to diverge from EU standards in future. Indeed Boris Johnson said divergence is the “whole point” of Brexit. UK standards may be similar to ours now. That will not be the case five years from now.

At the end of the article, the two Ministers say that, if solutions are not found (although they do not offer any), 

“we will of course have to consider all our options”.

 In diplomatic terms, for British Ministers to use such words, in an Irish newspaper, is menacing . 

A large non EU state is threatening a small EU state, with whom it has a land boundary, with unspecified actions, because of the out working of an international Treaty, to which the larger state freely agreed, less than two years ago. 

Nowhere in the article by the two Ministers is there even a hint that they take responsibility for the Protocol they themselves negotiated. If a business man agreed a permanent contrast a year or so ago, then did not like part of it, and wanted to renegotiate that part, one would expect him to be somewhat apologetic and to offer alternative ways of achieving the goals of the other party. But there was no hint of either contrition, or constuctiveness, in the article of Lord Frost and Brandon Lewis….just menace.

It is clear from the article of the two Ministers that they have no intention of using the grace period as intended by the EU, to allow traders to make adjustments to their supply chains.  They intend to use the time inciting feeling against the EU and endeavouring to pressurize EU states individually, in the hope that the EU will dilute or corrode the legal foundations of EU Single Market, in the interest of domestic UK politics.

There are suggestions that the UK even wants the EU to recognise  the new goods standards the UK will make, as somehow “equivalent” to EU standards, and give them the same rights to circulate in the EU as goods from the 27 EU states, that comply to the letter with EU standards. A dangerous precedent would be set. If the EU conceded this to a country that had left the EU, existing EU members would soon look for their own local exceptions to EU standards, and the Single market would wither away.

Brexit was a British idea. Brexit means border controls. They should deal with the logical consequences of their own freely chosen policies.


Global Britain may mean more global warming. Long distance trade means more  CO2 emissions than buying and selling locally.

 The attempt to defy defy geography in UK trade policy is hard to reconcile with the Johnson government’s other global goal… which is to give a lead to the world on combating climate change, by cutting CO2 emissions,  which the UK hopes will be agreed  at the big conference it is hosting in Glasgow later this year.

One of goals of Boris Johnson’s government is to see the UK play an independent role in the world, reminiscent of its position a century ago, when the UK was seen as a global player, rather than as merely a European power.

 Brexit provides the UK with the necessary independence, both psychological and legal. Its ability of to make its own trade agreement adds an economic dimension to this quest for global relevance. The fact that the first trade agreements the UK has negotiated are with faraway Australia and New Zealand underlines the global dimension.

 But there is a snag.

 Having rejected membership of the EU Customs Union, the UK is now applying to join something called the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for a Trans Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). CPTPP’s members include Japan, Vietnam, Peru, Chile, Mexico as well as Australia and New Zealand…..all countries that border on the Pacific. Replacing trade with the EU with trade with these countries will mean more pollution.

 Apart from Pitcairn Island and its few hundred inhabitants, no UK territory borders the Pacific.

 It is impossible to reconcile the UK government plans to shift its trade to the  Pacific  with its plans to  combat climate change.

 Replacing trade with nearby EU countries, like Ireland and France, with trade with distant Pacific countries, like Australia, Japan, Vietnam and New Zealand , will  increase the overall UK contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, through  the  inevitable extra  CO2 emissions from  long distance shipping and refrigeration.

 The longer the shipping route, the more will be the CO2 emissions. Ships use the dirtiest of fuels. Global shipping already generates as much CO2 as 205 million cars.

 Refrigeration on long sea journeys adds to emissions.

 If it is, for example, UK trade policy to import dairy or livestock products from New Zealand , rather than  from Ireland or France , this  will add dramatically  to the  damage done by trade policy  to the world’s climate.

 The EU needs to point out this contradiction in UK policies to the participants in the Glasgow Climate change conference


The recent  interview of Lord David Frost with Anand Menon of the Think Tank “UK in a Changing Europe” gives some insight into what the current UK Government hope to achieve through Brexit. It is worth watching  on the think tank’s website.

In the interview, Lord Frost explains that, until Boris Johnson came to office, the EU side had felt that the UK had no alternative to a negotiated agreement and that the UK was thus in a weak negotiating position.

His role was to explain, in a speech he gave in Brussels in February 2020 with Boris Johnsons full approval, that the UK was willing to accept a “No Deal” outcome, and on that basis it did have  an alternative to a negotiated agreement with the EU.

 The UK, he said, was willing to bear the costs involved in leaving the EU Customs Union and Single market. But he admitted he did not yet know exactly what these losses and gains would be.

 For him, Brexit seems to be an act of faith.

He was pressed to give more information on the potential benefits of Brexit.

He hoped that, as a result of it, the UK might become a “magnet for investment”, and achieve higher productivity.

Pressed on how this might happen, he said the UK, while in the EU, had got used to having rules set for it by others, and did not think for itself, even in areas where the EU actually imposed no legal restraint on the UK doing things its own way . This argument may have some validity.

 In this sense, Brexit is an internal UK psychological project, designed to free up the way the UK thinks about itself , and about what it can do. If this is so, it suggests that UK political leadership is unable to change UK , without the aid of a self generated external shock, like Brexit. 

Brexit, although decided, continues radically to divide UK public opinion. A deeply divided society is not the best environment for the sort of psychological transformation the Brexiteers like Lord Frost have in mind.

Lord Frost said that, post Brexit, UK citizens would be 

“living in a country where every policy can be changed after an election”.

 This freedom is obviously important to him. But it is hardly consistent with wanting the UK to become a “magnet for investment”. In my experience in Ireland, the best way to attract investment is to have some key policies that attract investors, that do not change after every election (eg the corporate tax rate, or freedom of capital movements).  

As to concrete things that Brexit would enable the UK to do, Lord Frost offered the examples of

  • reform of its agricultural policy
  • changes on state aids to industry
  • changes in immigration policy
  • Freeports.

The direction of UK policy on agriculture is similar to that the EU is taking anyway.

 Freeports seem to divert trade from one place to another, rather than increase it.

It would appear that UK immigration policy is encouraging people from further away to come to the UK to replace immigrants from neighbouring EU countries, who are less welcome now. 

In fact it is hard to reconcile the UK government plans to combat climate change, with its post Brexit policies.

Replacing trade with nearby countries, like Ireland and France, with trade with distant countries, like Australia and New Zealand , is bound to increase the UK’s direct and indirect contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, through extra CO2 emissions from shipping and refrigeration.

Lord Frost is an able man, who presented his case in a friendly way, but I fear neither he, nor his Prime Minister, have even begun to join up their thinking on trade and climate change.

On the Ireland Protocol, Lord Frost seemed to blame the EU for an Agreement his Government had negotiated and his Parliament had approved. He even spoke about what he called EU “intervention in Northern Ireland”, as if this was not something his government had signed up to.  This sort of blame shifting is not to the credit of the UK, as a sovereign country. 


The statistical service of the EU (Eurostat) has just published a comparison of consumer prices in all 27 countries of the EU. The survey was done last year.

 The most expensive country in the EU is Denmark, where prices are 41% above the average for the EU as a whole. 

The least expensive is Romania where prices are 45% below the EU average. 

This is a very wide gap between countries in an EU where is there is free movement of goods, people and capital, and a Single Market designed to promote competition, and cross border shopping(including via the internet)

The country with a price level that is nearest to the EU overall average is Italy. Spain’s prices are just 4% below the EU average, Portugal 11% and Greece 14% below.

 Apart from the weather, this explains why these countries are attractive locations for holidaymakers and retired people.

Prices are also much below the EU average in Bulgaria and Poland.

After Denmark, the next most expensive EU countries are Ireland and Luxembourg, where prices are 36%  above the average. Next is Sweden (+30%), and Finland (+26%). 

German price levels are only 8% above the EU average, which means that the cost of living there is much below the Scandinavian countries and Ireland. 

Of course, price levels do not tell the whole story. If wages are higher, the higher prices are more affordable. Indeed higher prices may reflect the cost of higher wages. 


Leaders all over the European Union may be scratching their heads wondering about the motives for Boris Johnson’s behaviour over a Protocol on Ireland, that he was happy with only six months ago.

He is now saying he will 

“do whatever it takes to protect the territorial integrity of the UK”

 from the Protocol. This is notwithstanding the fact that, in Article 1 of the Protocol, which he agreed in 2019, Boris Johnson himself accepted that 

“The Protocol respects the territorial integrity of the United Kingdom”.

 He is claiming, variously, that he did not understand the meaning of what he signed, or that he was coerced by time pressure into it. 

 Every one of the EU laws, which under the Protocol will continue to apply in Northern Ireland,  including the EU Customs Code of 2013,were made when the UK was a voting member of the EU.

 So there is no basis for claiming the UK did not understand what these laws meant. They were involved in making them! You will search for a long time in the British press for an acknowledgement of that.

What of the argument that the UK was under time pressure when it agreed the Protocol?

The problem was that a UK government, of which Boris Johnson was a member, triggered the Article 50 process before it had settled in its own mind the sort of Brexit it wanted. 

The EU would have been willing to extend the two year period, but Boris Johnson rejected that. So if the UK put itself under pressure, the problem was of its own making.

In fact, I believe the UK knew fully what it was doing at every stage, and was guided by short term domestic political considerations, and deliberately ignored everything else. This was its motivation, both when it signed up to the Protocol initially, and when it attempted to renege on it, a year or so later.

Boris Johnson’s motives were to keep the Conservative Party in power, and to keep Scotland in the Union .

He agreed to the Protocol, in the first case, because he wanted to “get Brexit done” and to use that achievement as his platform in the December 2019 General Election. The detail did not matter. This tactic worked magnificently for him, as we know. 


Keeping up a confrontation with the EU continues to work for him up to the present time. It has helped him make gains in this year’s local and by elections. As long as UK relations with the EU are hostile, there will a big vote bonus for the Conservatives in Leave supporting regions.

Confrontation with the EU also helps with keeping Scotland in the Union. 

The row about the Protocol allows the EU to be portrayed as petty, bureaucratic, and obsessed with detail. Of course, this is precisely the detail that enables 27 different countries to have one set of rules. Doing business in Europe would be much more bureaucratic, if each of the 27 countries had its own separate set of rules, on all the any matters listed in the Protocol. 

The more onerous EU border controls are made to appear, the more are Scots made to fear the costs for Scotland of a customs border between it and England,  something that would follow from Scottish membership of a Customs Union with EU.

So the stance of Boris Johnson on the Protocol is power politics in a raw form, and  it is unlikely to change in the near term. 


What happens now?

The EU has already initiated legal proceedings against the UK. Unless the UK speedily agrees to implement the Protocol, this legal action will be intensified.

 There is a worry that the case might drag on for a long time.  But a long court case, which eventually yielded the right result, would be better than an Economic War.

How might the case develop?

The Withdrawal Treaty says that disputes may be referred to an Arbitration Panel of three independent persons. This Panel must announce its decision within 12 months of its appointment. 

The legal issues are fairly simple, so the decision might be quick.

There are provisions for a fine to be imposed on any party in breach of its obligations.

 It could be up to two years before a fine could actually be imposed. Boris Johnson might even want to drag the whole thing out until after a UK General Election. He might even like to get a second referendum on Scottish independence over with, while the case is still undecided.


Another possibility is that the UK might trigger article 16 of the Protocol. Article 16 allows for safeguard measures where there are

 “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties , that are likely to persist”

 But such measures, and any EU counter measures, would have to be restricted in their scope and duration according to Article 16. Article 16 does not provide for amendments to the Protocol.  So using Article 16 would only kick the can down the road. It would solve nothing.

 Vice President Sefcovic of the European Commission has raised the possibility of trade sanctions against the UK for breach of the Protocol. 

Such sanctions would be designed to persuade the UK to come back into compliance with its Treaty obligations. The EU could impose tariffs or quotas on sectors of the UK economy which depend particularly on EU markets for exports

  Of course, the UK might then retaliate with tariffs and quotas of its own. While these UK sanctions could hit Irish agricultural exports, they would also disrupt the economy of Northern Ireland.  On balance, I think UK would seek other targets. But, in the end, everyone would lose…..a lot.

The best  immediate option for the EU is to concentrate on its court case.

I am confident the Panel would find that the UK is obliged to implement the Protocol as it signed it . It would find that the plain words in the Protocol means what they say. 

A finding from an independent Panel would be more influential, with British and Northern Irish public opinion, than any number of statements from EU leaders.

 This is why I believe the court case is the best course to follow.

 Let us not go back to the trade politics of the 1930’s!


That said, if the court case does not lead to action by the UK to implement the agreed Protocol, either in its present form or as amended by agreement, a trade war between the EU and the UK will eventually take place, with sanctions and counter sanctions. This is inevitable because the EU can only continue to exist if Treaties are respected and acted upon. The EU itself is a Treaty based organisation. So this is literally an existential question for the EU. Without respect for Treaties, there is no EU.

Some historians believe it to be a fixed goal of British policy to maintain division and a balance of power in continental Europe. The very existence of a European Union is, in this analysis, a threat to British security. Some Brexiteers are not satisfied with taking the UK out of the EU. They will not say so publicly, but they would like the EU to break up. This is well understood in Paris and Berlin.

So the argument about the Protocol is about much more than Northern Ireland. It is about the  future of Europe, and this is not a struggle in which Ireland will remain on the sidelines.


As the Covid crisis begins, slowly and uncertainly, to unwind, it may be worth drawing lessons from it.  Such an exercise might tell us  how well our systems  are prepared for  future unexpected events.

It is in the nature of government, that big decisions often have to be taken quickly, with incomplete information. Comment from the media should take that into account.

 A lot has to be taken on trust.

 Even science based decisions leave a big margin for human judgement. The political process has to strike a balance, and be willing to change decisions when the evidence changes. But nothing will work unless there is active buy in by the general public.

 So, for example, the more a country’s disaster preparation plans have been publicly rehearsed and road tested, the more likely they are to work. 

Ireland has some special vulnerabilities. It has benefitted disproportionately from globalisation, and from speedier travel and communications across the globe.

 Being on an island is no longer the disadvantage it used to be.  But nor does it provide all the protection it used to. 

 In one year, we have suffered the largest global epidemic in a century, and its biggest ever cyber attack on an Irish state institution.

 These will not be one off events.

 There are many times more viruses on earth, than there are stars in the universe, and they are mutating constantly. 

 Cyber attacks may be crimes. But they are also a new form of undeclared inter state warfare.  By choice, Ireland has  no military allies, and no counter offensive cyber capacity, that might deter such attacks. 

Other threats are more predictable than pandemics and cyber attacks.

 The carbon price Ireland will have to pay will rise inexorably. 

 We have set ambitious climate change targets, but achieving them will mean setting aside money, that might otherwise be used for tax cuts or extra day to day spending, to replace climate damaging infrastructure and  energy sources with climate neutral ones. 

Increased use of renewable energy will place a strain on limited global supplies of lithium and cobalt.  Prices of scarce products will rise. So austerity in the use of energy may become obligatory. That will not necessarily be popular, unless the need for it is explained over and over again.

 Our government can borrow cheaply now.

 But when these loans have to be rolled over, interest rates may have risen. If the interest rate then exceeds the growth rate of our economy, we will be back in the mire of 2010.

 Ireland’s liabilities for pensions and health care will rise steadily anyway, as the population ages, and the working tax base shrinks. I read one economist who calculated that the existing Irish national debt would triple, if predictable pension liabilities were included in the calculation.

All these threats   –  pandemics, cyber attacks, climate and debt –    are unrelated, but more than one of them  could easily become acute at the same time, creating a perfect storm. 

What can we learn about preparedness for multiple crises from Covid experience? 

Plans on paper are not enough. The democracies which had the best pandemic plans on paper, the US and the UK, did poorly. 

Their plans did not survive contact with the enemy.

The democracies who felt threatened for other reasons….Taiwan, South Korea and Israel…. did best. Their plans were not just on paper, they had road tested them in military fashion. 

Only states have the necessary coercive powers to make a fully effective crisis response to most crises.

 But states must work together. Article 196 of the Lisbon Treaty gives the EU power to “support and complement” member states action on “natural and manmade disasters”.  These powers have not been tested. They should be. On cyber attacks, the EU should work closely with NATO, which has the specialist expertise.

The Covid crisis has led to an increased understanding of the vital role of government, at both EU and national level.

 It has also reminded us that government works in silos, some of which are not good at talking to one another.

 Crisis management plans must not be filed away, they must be rehearsed, and talked through, over and over again.


Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist, based in Germany for the last 20 years, and he has written “The Best Catholics in the World, The Irish, the Church and the end of a Special Relationship” which was published recently.

His perspective on the subject is shown in the dedication of the book to his parents, “with thanks for their belief”. 

 Aged 44, he says he is “a member of the last generation to have a full Irish Catholic childhood”.

 He served as an altar boy at Mass in his North Dublin parish, but now admits to having a “shaky grasp on Roman Catholicism”.

This is an honest book and painful reading, all the more so because the author is not fundamentally unsympathetic to Irish Catholicism. He sees that it had given meaning and purpose, to the lives of successive generations of Irish people.

He conducted hundreds of interviews with members of Church, from Cardinal Sean Brady, to the head of the Sisters of Mercy, to the people still active in his own old parish in Edenmore. He draws them out  on their understanding of the events that influenced the decline in practice and faith among Irish Catholics over the past 60 years . He also interviewed victims of clerical sex abuse, inmates in mother and baby homes, and women who lived out their lives in places like the Magdalen laundries. 

Inevitably the picture is selective. The focus is on those who suffered, or were treated unjustly in church settings. 

There is no counter factual in the sense  that the book does not explore what might have happened if these church run institutions had never existed, and people were left to their fate. 

There are no international comparisons either. The book deals with early twentieth century Irish Catholicism, as if it was something completely unique for its time. Many of the abuses and cruelties the book identifies were found in other cultures too. 

 It is hard for a reader to quantify how uniquely “Irish”, or “Catholic”, the problems were. My own view is that none of the abuses cited are unique either the Catholicism or to Ireland.

The author accepts that priests and nuns have taken the blame, not only for the failings of some among them, but also for the failings of wider Irish society. 

 Ireland was much poorer financially when some of the abuses occurred. But lack of money is never an excuse for turning a blind eye to rape or cruelty.

 Class distinctions abounded, and “respectability” was at a premium. This encouraged silence about embarrassing things. It allowed “knowing,” but simultaneously not “really knowing”, that certain things were going on. In a sense, people decided not to “know” things that they had persuaded themselves they could do nothing about.

 In this, the church reflected the evasions of Irish society, just as much as the other way around. But it is human nature that, when failings are finally exposed, the anger is often directed at others, or at the system, rather than channelled into an examination of one’s own assumptions.  

 It is true that Irish society was shaped by strict, and sometimes unforgiving, notions of sexual morality, which were inculcated by the Catholic Church. But such notions were not a particularly Irish, or even Catholic, thing. Victorian morality, and Victorian hypocrisy, was to be found on our neighbouring island, and further afield too. It just survived a decade or so longer in Ireland.

It was Irish families, not Irish priests or nuns, who banished unmarried daughters, when they became pregnant.   

It was cash strapped Irish governments which, in the early years of the state, were content to allow  religious orders to take on the responsibility for running reformatories, and  other institutions to shelter people, whose families  who could not, or sometimes would not, look after them. 

This book is impressionistic rather than scientific. The author allows the interviewees to tell their story. It does not provide a roadmap to redemption for the Irish church, or for Irish society, but it contains some hints.

 Although the author thanks his parents for their belief, he admits that religion was never discussed in his home when he was growing up,” let alone personal faith”. That job was left to the school. 

So it is no wonder that, when the scandals came along, people could stop going to Mass and feel good about it, without thinking what they might be losing. The role played by religious practice in providing guard rails within which one could live a good and sane life had never been discussed, or even put into words, and was thus too easily cast aside.

 As Bishop Paul Tighe told the author, the church discouraged people from asking questions. 

“We became a lazy church, and we are reaping that legacy now” he said.

The author, who lives in Germany, might usefully have studied the Catholic Church there over the last century. That might show whether there are lessons Irish Catholicism could learn, or could have learned. Equally he might have established if the Irish case is really as exceptional, as his provocative book title implies. 

While this book will annoy some people, it may be a spur to the necessary heartfelt and rigorous discussion about the role of faith in our society, a discussion Irish people have been postponing for a long time.

It should also prompt us to ask whether this generation of Irish families, like the previous ones, is also capable of turning a blind eye to family responsibilities. The example comes to mind of elderly relatives and neighbours left unvisited in nursing homes. Now the running of these homes is no longer delegated to nuns, but to for profit corporations!


The President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins has recently published a collection of his speeches entitled  “Reclaiming the European Street, Speeches on Europe and the European Union 2016-20” . The publisher is the Lilliput Press      

Drawing on a lifetime of reading in sociology, philosophy and history, President Higgins makes his case for European unity and for Ireland’s participation in it. 

 As might be expected of a man of the Left, he is critical of capitalism, and sees  state or collective action, whether at national or EU level, as capable of playing a bigger role in helping  the people of Europe to flourish and achieve their potential. 

 For similar reasons he is against what he calls “austerity”, but does not address what is to be done if the interest rate at which a state can borrow becomes unaffordable, which is where Ireland found itself in 2010.

 No politician chooses austerity for its own sake! But sometimes it is necessary to preserve a country’s freedom of action.


 Michael D Higgins was not always enthusiastic about European integration.

 In their introduction to this collection of speeches, his editors, Joachim Fischer and Fergal Lenehan , point out that he campaigned against the Single European Act of 1987, and  also campaigned against the Maastricht Treaty of 1992. 

These two Treaties provided the legal basis for the EU’s biggest achievements, namely the creation of Single Market, and the establishment of the Economic and Monetary Union and the Euro. They also enhanced the role of the democratically elected European Parliament.

 It would have been interesting if the editors of this collection could have elaborated upon President Higgins’ intellectual journey on European integration, from the sceptical positions he adopted in 1987 and 1992, to the more favourable ones he adopts today. President Higgins journey is one many left leaning politicians have followed and it would have been interesting to tease this out.

In an attempt to understand the evolution of his thinking, I reread some of the speeches he made in the Senate and Dail in the 1980’s on moves to closer EU integration. 

 One major concern he had then was the effect of the new EU Treaties on Irish neutrality. He opposed confining Irish neutrality merely to military matters. He believed Ireland should be politically as well as militarily neutral. Such a position is not sustainable nowadays. The EU is now adopting common positions on geopolitical issues, on a daily basis. As an EU member, Ireland is not politically neutral. States are now so interdependent, that complete political neutrality is almost impossible. The recent cyber attack shows how we need common defences that work.

 Michael D Higgins was also sceptical about the EU Single Market, and feared it would lead to job losses. These fears have not been realised. The contrary proved to be the case. Employment here is much higher than it as in 1992 when the Single Market was inaugurated.


A clue to the influences that led Michael D Higgins, over the past 20 years, to a more favourable view of European integration may be found in the careers of the people he quotes in the speeches in this book.

The most frequently cited is Altiero Spinelli, author of the European Parliament’s 1984 Spinelli Report, which was the precursor of the Single European Act of 1987. 

Spinelli had been a member of the Communist resistance to Italian Fascism and was imprisoned on the island of Ventotene. There he co wrote the Ventotene Manifesto.

 This Manifesto is mentioned dozens of times in this book.

 Learning from the lesson of the World War, then in progress, the Ventotene Manifesto called in 1941 for a wholly new Europe. It sought 

 “the definitive abolition of the division of Europe into national sovereign states”

 because it was

 “impossible to maintain a balance of power between European states”.

It argued for a revolution, with a goal of the emancipation of the working classes. But, interestingly, it added that  

“the working classes must not be left at the mercy of the economic power  of monopolistic trade unions”. 

This may have been a reference to the corporatist trade unions set up under Fascism, but it could be seen as a general argument against the closed shop.

After the War, Spinelli pursued the goal of European Unity, and supported the unsuccessful attempt to set up a European Defence community in 1954. 

From 1970 to 1976, he was a member of the European Commission, and came to Dublin in 1972 when Ireland was debating whether to join the then European Common Market. On that occasion he met Michael D Higgins, and sought to persuade the Irish Labour Party that support for European Unity should not be left to “conservative” parties. 

Spinelli did not achieve his goal at first attempt, as Labour opposed Ireland joining the Common Market at that time.  But Spinelli left a lasting impression on Michael D Higgins, which is evidenced by the contents of Michael D Higgins speeches over 40 years later.


Another Italian intellectual influence, acknowledged by the author, is the economist Mariana Mazzucato.

 She argues for an “Entrepreneurial State”, claiming that many important technological advances originate in decisions by the public sector, and that economic development cannot be left to the private sector. I agree with this. Indeed free markets themselves can only exist if a state in there to make and enforce rules. 

But when the state itself gets involved directly in managing businesses, it can be slow to adapt to new realities, because of political pressures, including  from monopolistic trade unions, of the kind identified in the Ventotene Manifesto. 

Looking to the future, President Higgins says 

 “EU Institutions must be adequate and sufficient to enable the restoration and protection of social cohesion”. 

This asks too much of the EU.

 The EU is only allowed to spend 1% of EU GDP, and there is no sign that limit will be raised soon. So restoring social cohesion must primarily be the responsibility of member states, which spend 40% of GDP or more, and have the power to levy taxes, in a way that the EU cannot do. 

It is interesting to note that, on the eve of the pandemic, the Economic and Social Research Institute found that income inequality in Ireland was at its lowest level for many years, and 16% below the level it was in 1987. It is notable that this report got little or no coverage in the Irish media.


The President is right when he condemns the 

“uncritical pursuit of ever accelerating growth without consideration of the consequences”.

That must change if we are to meet the challenge of climate change.

 Lower economic growth will mean less tax revenue and less money to spend. Green living will mean more austere living, and a more limited range of choices.

 It is to be hoped that we will take responsibility for this ourselves as a people, and avoid blaming it on external agencies like the EU.

 The issues raised  in this book are important, and  they reflect a serious and engaged mind.

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