Is he naïve? Stupid? Unthinking? Callous? Some combination of all of those qualities?
Or is he some kind of visionary, a prophet determined to speak truth to power?
Actually, John Bruton is none of the above. For all sorts of reasons though, he’s a million miles removed from the ordinary struggles of people’s lives. And that removal from other people’s realities has produced a leading public figure who seems incapable of genuinely understanding how most of the world around him lives. He has arrived at the point where it really is impossible to take him seriously any more. And that, in its own way, is a bit of a mini-tragedy.
I wasn’t going to write about John Bruton this week. I had in mind a piece about the miracle of West Cork, a place I wrote about a few months ago in the dead of winter. West Cork is still struggling — I suspect if you lived down here and had to listen to all the ráiméis on the radio about property bubbles, you’d be choking on your coffee — but in the summer the entire place really fights back. The most welcoming people in the world, the most rugged and beautiful coastline in the world, and an idiosyncratic and eclectic cultural scene, all conspire to give West Cork the air of a place that is determined to recover.
Just one example. In February, one of the most famous (and best) pubs in Ireland, Mary Ann’s in Castletownshend, could only afford to open at night, and not every night of the week at that. The other night we had dinner in a packed and buzzy Mary Ann’s (well up to its usual standard) before going on to a smashing concert of classical music in the nearby St Barrahane’s Church, famous as the place where the great Irish writers Sommerville and Ross are buried.
Before the concert, the rector welcomed us, and said he’d normally be asking us to turn off our mobile phones. “I don’t need to, though,” he said, “because there’s simply no mobile phone signal around here.” That, of course, is one of the prerequisites to economic recovery in West Cork, and a lot of rural Ireland, and it’s been far too long coming.
One of the reasons that the basic infrastructure essential to economic recovery has been denied to many parts of Ireland is that our economy was wrecked. Wrecked by irresponsible lending and irresponsible policy — both of them reckless and dangerous to the point of immorality. Bankers, developers, and some politicians all played a huge part in that wreckage.
And then I read in the Sunday Independent newspaper a speech given by John Bruton in which he asserted that there were credulous people in Ireland who believed that bankers were in some way responsible for the austerity we’ve had to endure — just as in the 17th century people blamed witches for everything that went wrong.
At first I thought it was a joke. But there’s a helpful, if very boring, video on the website that captured everything he said. He was speaking in some exclusive club in New York to a group of (it has to be said) not very interested looking lawyers, and a man who looks suspiciously like our esteemed Minister for the Environment Alan Kelly
. It was a bit like that moment in the last US presidential election when Mitt Romney was captured on video saying that his problem was that the poor and ignorant tended to vote Democrat.
I had no sooner read the piece than my phone started buzzing with texts. One friend, who said the speech had “boiled her brain”, described our former taoiseach as a “self-absorbed ass” (and a few more compliments I had better not repeat). Another friend referred to his highly privileged background and a string of recent bonkers speeches.
Somehow or another, those recent speeches escaped my attention. But they’re all there on the web. The 1916 Rising and the War of Independence were unnecessary, and don’t deserve to be commemorated as much as the passing of Home Rule in the British Parliament. John Redmond deserves to be remembered more than the republican generation that followed him (presumably including Michael Collins).
Speeches like that obviously represent a particular historical point of view. They can be agreed or disagreed with from a distance, as it were.
But he’s also on the record as saying that it’s long past time that we stopped asking banks and financial service companies to invest in the tiresome business of complying with regulation. He recently said that we needed to accustom ourselves to ten more years of austerity — a sentiment that chimes with remarks in his New York speech when he implied that health and social protection spending wasn’t sustainable.
When Bruton is questioned about all these things he nearly always refers to context. The context he never seems to pay any attention to is that as a former leader and taoiseach, his words are reported. He can’t just blurt out the first thing that comes into his head and expect it to carry weight. But he does, constantly.
I worked, sort of, with Bruton twice. The first time, when he was a minister, he was an intellectual bully who relied on aggression and dogmatism to win arguments. The second time, when he was taoiseach, he was a conciliator and a pragmatist. In a book I wrote about the time, I recorded my admiration for the fact that he seemed to have learned so much from his political experience.
But throughout all those years there was one characteristic that his friends had to worry about even more than his enemies. He had no critical faculty. If he had an idea on his way into the office, it would be established public policy by the time he got there. And then those around him would have to spend the rest of the day talking him out of the latest madcap idea.
It seems pretty clear there’s nobody around to talk him out of the madcap stuff now. And there’s another complicating factor. All through the years that the great majority of the Irish people were suffering from the effects of failed policy, Bruton was handsomely rewarded to represent the views of the financial services sector through his presidency of IFSC Ireland.
IFSC Ireland is a body that describes itself as non-lobbying and a-political — in its own words it sets out to “promote, network, and engage” (which is a fascinating way to be apolitical and non-lobbying).
In my humble opinion, Bruton was a good taoiseach, who performed considerable national service in a variety of different ways. He was wrongly and unfairly blamed for the collapse of the first IRA ceasefire — in fact he did more than most to wring concessions from John Major in a very difficult negotiating period. And he showed considerable leadership during the divorce referendum that happened on his watch.
So I don’t in any measure begrudge him his success outside politics. I just wish he knew how to exercise judgement. He needs to learn that if you want to be taken seriously, you can’t continuously ignore the reality of people’s lives.
Bruton asserted there were credulous people in Ireland who believed that bankers were in some way responsible for the austerity we’ve had to endure
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