Seven lessons for Leo Varadkar from the career of John Bruton

Don’t always take the advice of officials and don’t play into your opponents’ hands are among what his predecessor can teach the Taoiseach

1. How to run a Coalition Government

Former Fine Gael taoiseach John Bruton inherited the system of programme managers and special advisers from the Fianna Fáil-Labour Coalition that collapsed in late 1994 and opened the way for him to form a government. It became a permanent feature of how governments are run and though it was not popular with the Civil Service, it enabled lots of rows to be had between subordinates rather than ministers, helping preserve good relations between the principals.

And this was the key lesson of Bruton’s leadership – he always recognised the interests of his partners, and the need for the largest party to facilitate them. That preserved trust.

This was clearly understood by his immediate successor, Bertie Ahern, who always sought to make space for his partners. The level of trust between the Taoiseach and his Coalition partners at present is not high, and that presents a political danger.

2. Don’t always take your officials’ advice

When Bruton was putting together his first budget as Minister for Finance in 1982, it was against a background of crisis in the public finances. Moreover, Labour ministers were demanding a 25 per cent increase in welfare payments. Bruton proposed extending VAT to clothing and footwear. Initially the plan was to exempt children’s clothes and shoes, but officials objected, as Stephen Collins and Ciara Meehan wrote in their history of Fine Gael, “on the absurd grounds that women with small feet might be able to avail of tax-free children’s shoes”. The budget was defeated and the government fell.


Bruton should have told his officials to get stuffed. Charlie McCreevy did it rather too much, but sometimes it’s required, particularly if you want to push through reform. The Civil Service, an inherently conservative organisation, is always iffy about reform. Often it’s right. But not always.

3. Learn from your mistakes

Bruton’s relations with Labour were very poor during the 1980s Fine Gael-Labour Coalition, and he had an especially testy personal relationship with Dick Spring. There was, as they say, a pair of them in it. After the 1992 general election, Bruton expected that Spring would be available for a coalition with him, a presumption that the Labour leader forcefully disabused him of during a famously acrimonious meeting. By the time the subsequent Fianna Fáil-Labour government collapsed, Bruton knew that he needed to repair relations with Spring and to swallow his antipathy to Democratic Left if he was to form a workable coalition. So he did.

4. Don’t do what your opponents want you to do

In the final phase of Bruton’s leadership of his party, Fianna Fáilers – though Bertie Ahern enjoyed huge political advantages – believed that Bruton would be a formidable opponent in the 2002 general election. He had been a successful Taoiseach, and voters, they figured, would see him as a viable contender. They proceeded to rubbish him at every opportunity. Fine Gael, always willing to turn on itself, decided it agreed, and dumped Bruton for Michael Noonan. “Happy days!” said PJ Mara, Fianna Fáil’s director of elections. “This is the best thing that could have happened for us,” another FF backroomer told me.

5. Get the timing right

Under pressure from his partners, Bruton went for a pre-summer election in 1997. Had he waited for the autumn – as he wanted to – the McCracken Tribunal would have reported into Ben Dunne’s bungs to Charles Haughey; and the payments to another FF minister, Ray Burke, which forced his resignation from Ahern’s government, would have been known. We can’t know if an autumn election would have resulted in Bruton’s re-election as taoiseach; but we do know that an early election didn’t. There’s no easy answer – Enda Kenny went late in 2016 and that didn’t work, and Leo Varadkar went early in 2020 and that didn’t work either. Maybe the lesson is not to obsess so much about timing and concentrate on doing the work to make the Government a success. That was the approach of Bertie Ahern, who won re-election twice.

6. Keep it simple

In that historic, hinge election of 1997, much of the debate was about tax. Economic growth had surged and people believed that the high levels of taxation should be reduced. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil both promised tax cuts. But Fianna Fáil’s was a simple pledge to cut the top and standard rate of income tax; Fine Gael promised a package of cuts and adjustments to bands and thresholds which, though arguably more redistributive, was complex and less easy to explain, and understand.

“It started with tax and it ended with tax,” was The Irish Times’ assessment of the campaign three days after its conclusion. And in the battle over tax, simple won out. It usually does.

7. Be match fit

One final lesson from that 1997 election, which saw Bruton lose power and the country take one route under Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats for a decade, when it might have taken another under Fine Gael and Labour. More than a decade ago, I spoke in depth to many of the protagonists for a book which chronicled the period. The winners and losers both agreed on one thing: Fianna Fáil was hungry, and the Rainbow was tired – tired from the stresses and strains and constant demands of governing.

At the next election, you can be sure that Sinn Féin will be hungry; Varadkar (and Micheál Martin, and Eamon Ryan) need to find a way to make their troops fit and ready for the ordeal of a campaign. Because they sure don’t look like it at the moment.

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Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times