Friends of Bruton recall ‘a man so without guile he’d never have organised a good conspiracy’

Outpouring of praise in recent days is something Bruton never experienced during his political lifetime but that did not dim his enthusiasm for politics

John Bruton was that rare political animal: a visionary who was not afraid to articulate views and policies that did not command majority support but which he felt were essential to voice in the long-term interests of all the people who live on this island.

He did it during the 1980s when he battled as Minister for Finance to get his government colleagues to face economic reality. He did it again as party leader and taoiseach in the 1990s when he argued passionately that any solution to the Troubles would have to recognise the British identity of the unionist population, as well as the Irish identity of nationalists.

For his trouble Bruton was frequently misrepresented by opponents and the media. He was dismissed as a “Thatcherite” in the 1980s for his economic views and dubbed “John Unionist” in the following decade for insisting that the British identity of a million Irish people had to be respected in any lasting settlement.

At the core of his approach to public life was his deeply held Catholic faith, another set of convictions that put him at odds with majority opinion in an Ireland that was secularising at a rapid pace, although it did not prevent him from playing a decisive role in persuading the electorate to accept the necessity of removing the constitutional ban on divorce.


Bruton’s courage in being prepared to lead from the front rather than following the crowd marked him out from most other politicians. Yet looking back after his death this week it is clear that he was ahead of his time on many of the big issues of the day. The outpouring of praise in recent days is something he never experienced during his political lifetime but the criticism did not dim his enthusiasm for politics.

Bruton’s budget of January 1982 which brought down Garret FitzGerald’s minority government is often cited as an example of his political naivety. The memoirs of former Central Bank governor Maurice O’Connell revealed that Bruton initially resisted the controversial plan to put VAT on children’s shoes which led to the budget defeat. What happened was that he was ultimately overruled by FitzGerald, who sided with the Department of Finance officials.

What is less often referred to is his 1987 budget, which marked the end of FitzGerald’s second government. That measure proved to be the foundation for the country’s economic recovery when it was adopted, lock stock and barrel, by Charles Haughey’s 1987 government.

In office in the 1990s, after a unique set of circumstances which saw him become taoiseach without an election, he was presented with the challenge of presiding over a peace process initiated by Albert Reynolds which had created the conditions for an IRA ceasefire.

Bruton had never made a secret of the fact that he rejected the violent convictions of Irish republicanism and saw himself in the constitutional nationalist tradition of John Redmond. That commitment to peaceful means and his acceptance of the need to cherish the two traditions on the island was vital in getting unionists to commit to the process.

His obvious delight at the official visit of Prince Charles to Ireland in 1995, the first by a senior British royal since independence, was, as so often happened, pilloried and misrepresented by his critics. However, his view of the importance of the royal visit was vindicated in later years by the significant role of Queen Elizabeth and King Charles played in promoting political reconciliation in meetings with all strands of political opinion, including republicans.

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson’s reaction to the former taoiseach’s passing reflected the impact that he had on those of the unionist tradition. “John was a gentleman who as prime minister reached out to unionists to try and gain a better understanding of our position and to encourage practical co-operation.”

Recognising his own lack of sympathy with Sinn Féin during his time in power, Bruton made every effort to accommodate the party’s needs. The breakdown of the IRA ceasefire came as a profound shock, but with minister for foreign affairs Dick Spring he worked hard to lay the foundations for its restoration, which had almost come to fruition when he lost office in 1997.

Michelle O’Neill’s generous speech on taking office as First Minister last weekend, with its acknowledgment of the British national identity of unionists, had more echoes of Bruton than the old style republican rhetoric favoured by his opponents.

In a deeply felt tribute his old political colleague and friend Phil Hogan summed up Bruton’s unusual combination of character traits. Firmly-held ideas and principles on the one hand, and an insatiable curiosity fuelled by wide reading on the other. “It added up to a man you could learn from, battle with and cherish. Yes, cherish. Because John Bruton may have been an intellectual heavyweight, deeply embedded in the European project, but he was also a man so without guile that he’d never have organised a good conspiracy. He had no deviousness and – to the end – a buoyant belief in politics and in people.”

Of him it can truly be said that he did the State some service.