John Bruton remembered in Brussels as ‘committed European’

Bill Clinton says he was grateful for opportunity to work closely with late Fine Gael politician on NI peace process

Former taoiseach John Bruton was a committed European who stood out in his role as the European Union’s ambassador to Washington, according to former colleagues and associates in Europe.

The Fine Gael politician, who also served as vice-president of the powerful centre-right European People’s Party political group, died on Tuesday at the age of 76 following a long illness.

“He had a great passion for public service. He was a man who produced lots of ideas. You would see him writing op-eds, he had very strong views about Ireland, about the EU,” said David O’Sullivan, who is currently the EU’s sanctions envoy.

“He was very pro-EU, he didn’t always agree with everything but he supported the project and felt it was very much into Ireland’s benefit. And he was a very committed European, I must say.”


Mr Bruton served as the EU’s ambassador to Washington between 2004 and 2009, a role Mr O’Sullivan later held.

“When I was in Washington, people still spoke of him with great respect and, I must say, affection,” Mr O’Sullivan said.

“He did a fantastic job, particularly in Washington, of outreach to the Congress, which was something in the past we perhaps had not invested as much in as we should have. That was one of the reasons why John was asked to take on the job and use his great skills as a retail politician to press the flesh on the Hill and make the EU better known.”

Former US president Bill Clinton remembered Mr Bruton as “a good man and a committed public servant”.

Mr Bruton was taoiseach when Mr Clinton visited Derry to encourage the Northern Ireland peace process and made a public address at College Green, Dublin in November 1995. He said he and his wife, former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, were “saddened” to learn of his death.

“His work with John Major to establish a framework was an important step in the path to peace in Northern Ireland, setting the stage for the Good Friday negotiations and an eventual agreement,” Mr Clinton said in a statement.

“I’ll always be grateful for the opportunity to work closely with him and the chance to deepen the strong bonds of friendship between our two countries. My thoughts and prayers are with his family and everyone who loved him.”

Former European Commission secretary general Catherine Day said the news of Mr Bruton’s death had come as “a shock”. She recalled his role as head of government when Ireland held the six-month rotating presidency of the EU in 1996.

“My memories of him was as a very effective leader of an Irish EU presidency when he was taoiseach,” she said.

She recalled him as an unusual pick to be the EU’s ambassador to the United States.

“Interestingly he was a great if unconventional EU ambassador to Washington. It is rare in the EU system to have a politician as ambassador but his appointment was a master stroke,” she said.

“As a former elected politician, former taoiseach, English speaker and with the access Irish politicians have to Congress, he played a very successful role of engagement with US politicians which no civil servant could have played,” she said.

Even if some of the bureaucracy of being an EU civil servant sometimes irritated him he never let it get in the way of making all the right contacts and delivering high-grade political analysis on EU-US relations.”

Fine Gael’s leader in the European Parliament, MEP Seán Kelly, paid tribute to Bruton as a man of “integrity and courage” who was respected within the EU.

“He worked tirelessly on peace and restoration in Northern Ireland. He was a strong European and believed in the value of the EU,” Kelly said.

“In fact, it was on the sidelines of an EU summit that John Bruton and John Major discussed the idea of a talks process that would eventually led to the Good Friday Agreement being achieved.

“So, it is very poignant that his passing follows the restoration of powersharing at Stormont, with all the hope that brings for stability and peace. He leaves behind a legacy to be proud of.”

Stefan Schepers, executive director of the independent tripartite high-level group on trade policy innovation, said Mr Bruton, who chaired the group, believed in the “positive impact which well-balanced trade agreements could have on people” and that he saw them as “a cornerstone of the EU in global affairs”.

Mr Bruton was also the former chairman of the high-level group on Africa and Europe.

“His deep insights into global trade and EU politics helped deepen and widen our discussions and to make them even more useful,” said Schepers.

“Moreover, he was a gentleman in the Irish tradition, always cheerful and with a human touch for everyone.”

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Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O’Leary is Europe Correspondent of The Irish Times

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan is Washington Correspondent of The Irish Times