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Politicians put differences aside to pay tribute to Bruton, who ‘never lost faith in politics’

Ordinary business at the Dáil abandoned as party leaders, Meath representatives and many Fine Gael TDs speak in tribute

Fine Gael cleared the decks and devoted an afternoon to giving their former leader, a much loved, totemic figure within the party, the sort of Dáil send-off they decided he deserved.

In a parliamentary week reduced to two days because of the bank holiday, Wednesday’s long schedule of business was abandoned and a three-hour tribute to former taoiseach John Bruton became the only item on the agenda.

There were raised eyebrows among members of the Opposition, but only in private. There is a decency among politicians from all sides on occasions such as this. They know politics. They respect the parliamentary process. They know how difficult the job can be. It is never the politicians who are surprised when affectionate tributes are paid to deceased parliamentarians by erstwhile rivals who went out of their way in the Dáil to go through them for a short cut.

It was just business, but it was one they both shared.


The announcement of John Bruton’s death on Tuesday clearly hit hard in Fine Gael. The hours of statements in the Dáil on Wednesday afternoon were mirrored by a similar avalanche of statements from their colleagues in the Seanad.

It was an emotional time for them. Their admiration and affection for their former leader and former taoiseach was striking in its intensity, as was the air of sadness across the party benches.

Not least because they were acutely aware that John Bruton’s brother, Richard, was there in the Chamber with them. Richard, a former Fine Gael minister and a parliamentarian who is widely respected among colleagues from across the political spectrum, listened as the accolades flowed for his older and only brother.

When Opposition leaders turned to him at their end of their contributions to offer their condolences, one knew they were sincere and heartfelt. When Richard spoke at the end of the session, voice quivering with emotion, it was a truly poignant moment.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar led the way, noting his predecessor’s “life of extraordinary public service” and the “remarkable legacy” he leaves behind.

The British ambassador, Paul Johnson, watched from the public gallery. He sat next to Sir Trevor Mallard, New Zealand’s ambassador to Ireland.

Some of the Fine Gael TDs listened with their eyes closed. Michael Ring had his hands clasped tightly together, fingers entwined, as if in prayer.

Varadkar said the Framework Document that John Bruton negotiated with British prime minister John Major foreshadowed the Good Friday Agreement. He detested all forms of violence and believed in a shared island where all identities would be respected. “He stood up to those who taunted him for believing in the power of constitutional and democratic means rather than coercion or force. He advocated a new patriotism and opposed narrow nationalism. He was willing to lead, even when it was unpopular.”

In a long political career which had its highs and lows, Bruton “never lost faith in politics”, said the Taoiseach, as many of his parliamentary party members prepare to bail out at the next election.

“While his public persona was often intellectual and serious, as a person he was always good company, funny, witty, gregarious, sociable, self-deprecating, and with a distinctive and infectious laugh.”

That laugh, worthy of its own special tribute session, came in for numerous mentions. The famous Bruton Bray – like a donkey suddenly twigging the punchline of a risqué joke and hee-hawing out a thunderous guffaw with a skittish falsetto whoop at the end.

Fianna Fáil’s Michael McGrath, standing in for the Tánaiste, called Bruton “a towering figure” and “a patriot in the truest sense of the word”.

Green Party leader Eamon Ryan, the third leg in the Coalition stool, waxed nostalgic as he recalled his first sighting of him in the Dáil chamber back in 2002. “I think he was in a white suit ... he stood out, he was a big man, and he spoke with the authority of a former taoiseach. It was STUNNING to watch. God almighty, he was impressive.” As a new TD Eamon will never forget that speech and that white suit. “He could have been a senator in a toga,” he marvelled.

Bruton’s government “probably wrote the rule book on how to run a three-party coalition”, he added.

“That’s right,” nodded Labour’s Brendan Howlin, modestly. He was a member of that Rainbow Government.

“Three isn’t a bad number, it works well,” mused Eamon, dropping a hint. “Three is the magic number, but we’ll see at the election.”

The Sinn Féin benches were packed for Mary Lou McDonald’s speech. Some of the earlier, pointed, comments about Bruton’s abhorrence of political violence and the ultimate vindication of his commitment to achieving peace through democratic rather than violent means gave rise to some rather thin-lipped expressions among the Sinn Féin ranks. Not all their TDs applauded the Government tributes.

Mary Lou, though, delivered a carefully worded and well-pitched reply – even if much of it sounded like she was reading out his Wikipedia bio. She didn’t brush over the fact that she and her party had some very deep political disagreements with John Bruton but “he was a true gentleman and he did this State and the people of Meath some considerable service”.

And while she disagreed with his position on many issues, not least the Easter Rising, “I know that his perspective was sincerely held”.

Ivana Bacik spoke for the Labour Party and Cian O’Callaghan for the Social Democrats. Mattie McGrath and Carol Nolan spoke for the Rural Independents and the various TDs for Meath also had their say. “He never forgot the pot he was boiled in” said Aontú's Peadar Tóibín.

Most of the Independents stayed away, and People Before Profit didn’t attend either.

In truth, after the formalities of the party leaders saying their piece, the session was commandeered by Fine Gael.

Their Kerry TD Brendan Griffin summed it all up by describing the sitting as “the equivalent of a parliamentary wake”. He hoped Richard Bruton would take some comfort and strength from “all the stories and the kind words about your brother”.

Deputy Bruton, who sat pensively throughout the three hours, smiled. His colleagues queued up to talk about his brother, swapping yarns about the John Bruton they knew and loved.

At times it seemed a little self-indulgent. When tributes were taken for former taoisigh Charles Haughey and Albert Reynolds they happened during normal business and were mainly confined to leaders and constituency members.

Minister for Justice Minister Helen McEntee told a very funny story about John Bruton addressing a crowd while standing on a pool table in the Dee Local pub in Nobber.

“They say you should never meet your heroes but ...” said John Paul Phelan.

“Every person he met was like a new person” – Peter Burke.

“It’s a privilege to stand on my feet this afternoon” – Paul Kehoe.

“The two Johns [Bruton and Major] are the forgotten men of the peace process” – Heather Humphreys.

“Honoured and humbled” to speak – Simon Harris.

“Humbled and privileged” – Paschal Donohoe.

Fergus O’Dowd quoted Theodore Roosevelt. Ciaran Cannon quoted Kahlil Gibran.

They talked down the three hours. The Chamber had long since cleared of all but a handful of Opposition TDs.

Richard Bruton spoke with love and warmth about his beloved brother, voice cracking as he delivered his short contribution. “Politics matters because it allows us to do big things and little things that make people’s lives better. John always travelled under the slogan ‘every person counts’.” And while he struggled over the last year or so the acts of kindness he had done for others “were repaid a thousand times over”.

At the end of the three hours the House stood for a minute’s silence. There were tears. Then the misty-eyed Fine Gael TDs left the Chamber.

They did him proud.