My mother’s greatest compliment about someone in the public eye was that he or she was very ordinary. It was a seemingly odd accolade, but to her, it signified someone humble, who did not expect special treatment or act with arrogance. Had she ever met John Bruton, he would have satisfied her criterion.
In contrast, Alan Dukes used to joke self-deprecatingly that he and Alan Shatter were in constant competition as to which one was the more arrogant and that Dukes always won.
Yet as a gentleman farmer’s son who went on to be a barrister and a successful politician, Bruton was sometimes accused of being born with a silver spoon in his mouth, and therefore out of touch. The accusation seems to have wounded him, judging by some entries in the blog he updated several times every month from October 2009 until last December.
He began blogging after he completed his term as EU ambassador to the United States. Perhaps he felt more free to express his opinions, although he still had significant roles, such as chairman of the Irish Financial Services Centre (IFSC).
The impression you get is of someone interested in everything from desertification in Mongolia to global financial markets
The first thing that strikes you is that the man devoured books. Most were non-fiction, either looking at individuals or periods in history, country profiles, or biographies and autobiographies of everyone from Prince Rupert, leading general on the King’s side in the English Civil War of the 1640s, to Billy Hutchinson, now president of the Progressive Unionist Party. There is a sprinkling of novels too.
The impression you get is of someone interested in everything from desertification in Mongolia to global financial markets. His reviews are mostly confined to books he enjoyed, although there is the occasional acerbic judgment.
There is a lovely photograph from an August 2023 entry, which is captioned “Checking my notes on Tom Garvin’s book [The Evolution of Irish Nationalist Politics] with the help of my granddaughter, Ophelia”.
The photo featuring his young granddaughter shows a cosy, homely space, with bookshelves and piles of books everywhere. Love of his family and his beloved Finola runs like a subtle, warm thread throughout the blog.
Aside from book reviews, the blog is an eclectic mix of descriptions of places he visited, people he admired, commentary on current events, speeches he had given and much more. Poignantly, it features many generous tributes to those who have died.
Predictably, John Redmond features heavily. Bruton has robustly defended Redmond’s achievement of Home Rule for decades. He suggests that Redmond’s decision to encourage Irish men to sign up to defend neutral Belgium in the first World War was much more defensible than the 1916 Proclamation’s reference to “gallant allies”, that is, “Imperial Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Ottoman Empire”. He believes the latter alliances have never been interrogated as they should.
The large number of entries about the EU is also predictable, as are numerous analyses of Brexit. Bruton began to be alarmed as far back as 2012 about the possibility of Britain leaving the EU and was “particularly worried about the effect... on the fragile situation in Northern Ireland.” He foresaw even then that referendums have unpredictable outcomes.
There are interesting nuggets sprinkled throughout, including that George W Bush, who read the Bible daily, may have been able to give Ian Paisley a biblical justification for an accommodation with nationalists. Combined with shrewd, pragmatic political calculations, this gave Paisley the freedom to move.
It is also surprising how much attention he gives to climate change from the very beginning of the blog, and to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In June 2011, he admitted that while his strong personal preference had been for the IRA to disarm as a precondition for entering peace talks, he was wrong, as this approach would never have led to peace. This applied equally to Israel’s unrealistic expectations of Hamas.
Unusually for an Irish politician, Bruton speaks openly about his profound faith in God and advocates for a public square which is respectful of religious belief
The tone throughout is even-tempered, aside from an occasional rebuke. For example, he took Michael D Higgins to task last September for using the National Ploughing Championships as a platform to attack UN policies. Bruton said frostily that Ireland cannot have two foreign policies. (He also wrote a generous review of the President’s book, Reclaiming the European Street.)
Unusually for an Irish politician, Bruton speaks openly about his profound faith in God and advocates for a public square which is respectful of religious belief. He emphasises that “this does not mean that religion should have free rein... Without a constant questioning, faith can become a form of oppression, fanaticism that distorts our humanity.”
He also queries the conformist streak in Ireland, where the immediate reaction to someone questioning the consensus is not to see whether “the dissentient has anything valuable to add” but to look for hidden ulterior motives.
While Bruton might have met my mother’s criterion for being very ordinary, it strikes me that the adjective “undervalued” is even more applicable. Decency, kindness, good humour, intelligence, erudition, commitment to public service, and the hard work needed to bring about a non-violent solution to our troubled island all deserved far more attention in his lifetime.