The Irish Times view on John Bruton: a remarkable record of service to the State

Bruton was in many ways a traditional politician, noted for his integrity and hard work and with a strong commitment to developing Ireland’s EU membership

John Bruton’s political life was spent in support of economic stability, social progress and the peaceful resolution of the age-old conflict on this island. Elected to the Dáil in 1969 at the age of just 22, his career was long, varied, productive and impactful, and spanned a period in which the State saw enormous changes, many of them for the better. He played an outsize part in that progress.

Thriving more in office than in opposition, the high point of his career was his time as Taoiseach between December 1994 and June 1997, when Fine Gael, in office with the Labour Party and Democratic Left, oversaw a period of solid economic growth and some social change. His talent was in chairing a diverse Cabinet and ensuring a coherent administration which was in office in the run up to the start of the Celtic Tiger years. He set the template for how a successful Coalition administration should be run, one that was followed by his successors. He changed the way governments were run for the better.

He surprised many by supporting the divorce referendum in 1995, despite his own socially conservative views. And on Northern Ireland, despite suspicion from nationalists of his traditional Fine Gael position, he cultivated a productive relationship with then UK prime minister John Major. The two men launched the Anglo-Irish Framework document in 1995, an important staging point in the peace process. The long road to peace was interrupted by the IRA’s breaking of its ceasefire in 1996 through an attack on Canary Wharf in London.

The Rainbow Government was popular and had a record of solid achievement, but a collapse in the Labour vote in the 1997 general election meant it did not return to office; the era of Bertie Ahern’s alliances with the Progressive Democrats dawned. Bruton was again in opposition, where his lack of political showmanship was again a burden, leading to a series of heaves against him and his replacement in 2001.

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Bruton was in many ways a traditional politician, noted for his integrity and hard work, if lacking a populist streak. Though perhaps unsuited to the deal-making with Sinn Féin and the IRA that the early years of the peace process required, he was right about most of the big things. His commitment to Ireland’s active EU membership, central to our economic progress, continued in the final phase of his career when he served as EU ambassador to Washington, while the prudent control of the public finances which he championed is now showing its value.

It is also perhaps ironic that his death comes after Stormont has been restored by a deal designed to mollify unionism, a tendency for which he had been sometimes criticised. In an era when much of politics is more style than substance, his old-style approach is worth appreciating.