John Bruton, taoiseach in the early stages of the peace process, stayed relevant to the end

John Bruton who has just died aged 76  was a slightly accidental Fine Gael taoiseach  during the turbulent political era  of the swing door coalitions of the  1980s and 1990s  which finally ended the long period of Fianna Fail as the natural party of government.

Bruton’s rival Bertie Ahern who  appeared  to be heading to restore  Fianna Fail’s fortunes after narrowly defeating him in 1997, described him as “a natural gentleman. We got on very well.”

John Major  who succeeded Thatcher as British Prime Minister had responded to John Hume’s private overtures to both governments  to  begin what became the peace process.  Of Bruton Major said:

He was a brave and talented Taoiseach who contributed mightily to the early days of the peace process.

“In testing circumstances, he put peace above political self-interest to progress the path towards the end of violence.

“He was a formidable servant of the Irish nation and of peace, and I am deeply saddened at his passing.”

It was the Downing St Declaration made by Major with Ahern’s predecessor as Fianna Fail taoiseach Albert Reynolds  that expressed joint agreement to  the consent  principle for Irish Unity and  helped nudge the IRA towards the first ceasefire.  The 1995 Framework Document Major struck with Bruton and his Labour  coalition partner Dick Spring laid out the structures of what became the  Good Friday Agreement.  But there was much work to do. Unionists bitterly opposed both. And the first IRA  ceasefire broke  down  over the UK government’s insistence of disarmament before negotiations.  It was left  to Tony Blair with Ahern to pick up the pieces.

It was fortunate that Ireland and Britain had thrown up a generation of politicians able to establish easier relationships after the stand offs between Thatcher and Haughey and her disenchantment with the Anglo Irish Agreement she reached with Garrett FitzGerald  in 1985 .   In a sense  though, Bruton’s  and Ahern’s personalities epitomised the differences between the two leading  Irish parties. Where Bruton got there by principle,  Reynolds and Ahern  did  more so  by instinct.

In the event Ahern’s famous flexibility and negotiating skills with Sinn Fein may have served the peace process better than Bruton’s  detestation of physical force republicanism and his conception of the Irish State.

Even within Fine Gael, Bruton  was something of an outlier in  the frankness with which he expressed his belief that the Easter Rising and the  War of Independence were tragically unnecessary to achieve Irish freedom – a view he insisted to the end that has great relevance today.  Why was an IRA campaign  an imperative when Sinn Fein had won an overwhelmingly majority of parliamentary seats? Reynolds even once  jibed about him ,” John Unionist.” In a 2021 blog post Bruton wrote:     


I would argue that there were in fact two Irish civil wars……the first one from 1919 to 1921, and the second one from 1922 to 1923.

The members of RIC, who opposed the IRA, were predominantly Irish (and Catholic too if that matters). Failing to recognise the Irishness of the many natives of this 32 county island, who fought on pro Union side in the War of Independence, is a barrier to reconciliation of all the communities on this island.

hose killed in the first military action of the War of Independence in January 1919,  were members of the RIC, James McDonnell from Belmullet, Patrick O Connell from Coachford Co Cork,  and both were Irish Catholics.

The first magistrate to be killed, Jack Milling from Glasson Co Westmeath, as an Irish Protestant. He was shot through the front window of his house on the Newport Road in Westport Co Mayo, when he was winding up the clock. In his front room. His family subsequently settled in Armagh.

I make these points… as a reminder that if we want reconciliation on this island, we must recognise those born on this island, who profess allegiance to King Charles, who feel British, also have an Irish birthright, and are fully Irish. Some will find it difficult to come to terms with this, but it will have to be done.

Reacting to  the recent failure to reach consensus over  fellow  Fine Gaeler  Charlie Flanagan’s attempts to commemorate the  RIC, he wrote with passion:

The political vandals, who opposed the idea of recalling by name, on a wall in Glasnevin cemetery the people  who died on BOTH sides in the 1919/21 war, were promoting a version of what it is to be Irish, that is deeply exclusionary.  They were saying that , if you supported a continuing link with Britain during the  1919/21 War, you were not Irish and did not deserve to be  remembered by name on a wall. They were telling the Irish people , who fought on the other side,  that they and their beliefs were to be cancelled (to use the modern term.) If this attitude persists we will never have lasting peace  or reconciliation  on this island

Perhaps  he understated valid criticisms of the Provisional Government’s summary executions of jailed anti-Treatyites.

(On the) Second Irish Civil War, from 1922 to 1923…people took the law into their own hands. Order had broken down and, without order, laws cannot be enforced. The longer that continued, the more respect for laws would be eroded.

Something had to be done to restore unitary authority across the full territory of the state. To my mind, the civil war was fought to restore order and thereby make laws meaningful..

This was a brutal and cruel civil war. The anti Treaty forces wanted to bankrupt the Free State by blowing up its infrastructure.. Some of these executions were part of a planned campaign to intimidate the opponents of the Treaty  and get them to give up their armed resistance to it. The policy on executions without trial may have shortened the civil war, but it undermined the case that the Free State was fighting. It was hard to justify and no one was held to account for it.

As a passionate Europhile Bruton served as the EU ‘s ambassador to the United States from 2004.  In 2016 he declared that Brexit  had “ torn up the Good Friday Agreement. ” With the instability that Brexit aggravated, he was no believer in an imminent united Ireland. In a Cambridge seminar  he declared he would    

personally “like to see a united Ireland”, but doesn’t think it’s a “practical proposition in current circumstances, or in foreseeable circumstances”. He believes that citizens in the Republic would not ultimately be willing “to make the sacrifices in terms of lives and money that would be necessary to sustain unity” in the face of “determined” Unionist opposition, and in the event of a border poll people should vote based on realistic predictions of the future, rather than idealism.

The taosieach Leo Varadar wrote in tribute:

“John was one of the reasons I became involved in politics and joined Fine Gael”.    



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