Wednesday, 23 April 2014


I read “The Passage of Power” by Robert Caro, volume four in an eventual five volume life of Lyndon Johnson by Robert Caro, over Easter. I had read two of the three previous volumes , and this is the best so far.
It covers the period from 1960 to early 1964. 

Senator Johnson’s entry to the contest against JFK  for the 1960 Democratic nomination was left too late, and he relied too heavily on influential friends in Congress, whereas Senator Kennedy had already locked up delegates,  one by one, in a professional way and by taking part in the primaries which Johnson avoided because he was too busy as Leader of the Senate..

Surprisingly, Johnson accepted the vice Presidential nomination from Kennedy, and thereby helped Kennedy win a few vital southern states. Without Johnson on the ticket, Nixon would  probably have won Texas, Louisiana and South Carolina, and thereby the Presidency .

As vice President, Johnson had no power, and adopted a policy of staying silent at the relatively few meetings to which he was actually invited by the President. In this way, he gave the President apparent loyalty, but not much real help.

In particular, he was little help to Kennedy, when he could have made a difference, in calming the hawks in Congress, who wanted an invasion of Cuba during the missile crisis.

But when Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, Johnson showed uncharacteristic tact and judgement in the way he took over, calmed the frantic public mood, and worked behind the scenes to maintain the continuity of his predecessor’s team, and policy programme.

He was able to use the aftermath of Kennedy’s death, and his own incomparable legislative skills, to ensure passage of Civil Rights, as well as tax and expenditure cuts, with a speed that Kennedy could never have matched.  

Johnson’s big challenge was getting this legislation, hitherto bottled up in committee by southern Democrat Senators, who totally opposed the very idea of Civil Rights, voted upon. He succeeded in this where Kennedy had failed. When the Civil Rights Bill was finally voted through in the Senate, it had more Republican Senators voting for it than Democrats.

His relationship with John Kennedy has been  good enough, if wary and distant.

But Robert Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson hated one another. This went back to amusing stories Johnson had told about how Roosevelt had fooled, and then dismissed Robert’s father, Joe Kennedy, as Ambassador to London, during World War Two.  Joe Kennedy was an appeaser and was about to back Roosevelt’s opponent in the Presidential Election of 1940, so Roosevelt had to get rid of him, but Johnson took undue pleasure in it.

While John Kennedy could forget this sort of thing, Robert could not.

The book gives an excellent insight into the way a minority in the US Congress can block Presidential business. Stalling legislation in the Rules committee, excessively prolonged hearings, and filibusters were all used by opponents of Johnson’s Civil Rights legislation. Johnson used patronage, emotional blackmail, and threats to overcome these tactics.

He did so because he was deeply committed to racial equality, something his liberal critics could never bring themselves fully to believe.

His own troubled childhood, during which his father lost a lot of money and respect, hardened Johnson for political battles, but also gave him a degree of sympathy for the dispossessed,  that was rare among his colleagues.

Friday, 18 April 2014


Russia’s tactics in Ukraine have torn up the assumptions, on which the relationship between the West and Russia had been based since the end of the Second World War.

Forcible annexations of neighbouring territory, a reality in the 1930’s, are now a reality again, thanks to what has happened in Ukraine.

Power politics and spheres of influence of great powers have replaced international law and respect for sovereignty as the motive forces of European security.

Already, the EU is visibly divided on how to respond, even though international law on this matter is clear.

On the 1 August 1975, the then Irish Taoiseach, Liam Cosgrave was one of the signatories of the Helsinki Final act governing relations between European states. He signed along the United States, all other European countries (except Albania), and the USSR, which at the time encompassed both Russia and Ukraine.

Article one of the Helsinki Final Act said that the signatory states would

“respect each other’s sovereign equality, juridical equality and territorial integrity”,

and that they would refrain from the 

“use of force or the threat of the use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state”.

As a small militarily neutral European state, Ireland has a greater interest, even than has a state which enjoys the comfort of a military alliance, in ensuring that these clear interstate principles are respected.

As Taoiseach, I happened to have been invited to address the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on the very day the Assembly was voting to admit the Russian Federation to membership of the Council. I spoke in favour of Russian accession. Russia became a member on 28 February 1996. The Council of Europe is the source of a dense and comprehensive network of treaties on many topics, including human rights. The Council of Europe, and its Treaties, only have meaning to the extent that its members are willing to abide by international law.

The European Union also rests on the foundation of respect for international law. The EU only EXISTS because there is an assumption that international Treaties will be respected in ALL circumstances. The EU has no force to govern its own members beyond the force of international law in the form of EU Treaties.  The European Court of Justice interprets these Treaties and its rulings are accepted by all EU states.

Dividing the EU has been a long standing Russian goal, and President Putin’s aggressive tactics appear to be succeeding in the goal of dividing the EU, in a way that previous Russian efforts have failed.

At one end of the spectrum, countries like Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Spain, Italy and Hungary are relatively accommodative towards what Russia is doing, while others, like Lithuania, Poland, Estonia and Latvia are alarmed and looking for resolute action. The bigger EU states are, painfully and unsuccessfully, trying to balance commercial interests against professed principles
Talks are taking place in Geneva, but one wonders what there is to talk about. The two sides have no assumptions in common, unless of course Russia succeeds in getting the EU to validate what it is doing.

As recently as 1994, EU countries, including Britain and France, reached an international agreement with Russia guaranteeing Ukraine’s frontiers, in return for the non trivial matter of Ukraine abandoning its nuclear weapons, and thereby weakening its deterrent security capacity in an important way. That agreement has now been put in the bin.

It appears to me that the European Union is not only unprepared militarily and economically for what is happening now. It is also unprepared intellectually. Its theory on international relations does not encompass what President Putin is doing.

Putin is moving fast, while Europe is still scratching its head.

If the EU is not to have its policies dictated in the Kremlin, as a result Russian pressure on energy supplies, it needs to make a radical change in its own energy policies.

It needs to build a proper energy union in Europe, independent of Russia, with complete inter connection of its energy distribution grids. That will require a lot of investment, and the diversion of funds from current consumption. 

Monday, 14 April 2014


I was in England last week for some of the celebrations attending the State visit of Ireland’s President Higgins to the United Kingdom.

Although Ireland and the United Kingdom have lived in peace beside one another since 1921, and have both been members of the EU since 1973, this was, remarkably, the first state visit by an Irish Head of State to the United Kingdom. 

The Treaty of  1921, which brought the Irish Free State into existence, accepted the fact of continuing UK jurisdiction over Northern Ireland. The Irish constitution of 1937 also accepted this fact too, but asserted a right to reunification of the national territory which was deemed to include Northern Ireland.  My understanding is that the existence of this territorial claim, which was not pursued in any serious way as a legal claim, was an obstacle in the minds of some Irish leaders to normal state to state relations. They seem to have felt that reciprocal state visits at head of state level would have constituted full acceptance, as of right, of UK jurisdiction in Northern Ireland. 

This barrier was removed in 1998, sixteen years ago, when the relevant articles ( 2 and 3) in the constitution were removed by a referendum vote of the Irish people, as part of the package of measures that made up the Good Friday Agreement.

The coverage of the visit in Ireland was enormous and focussed on President Higgins and the queen and their many visibly cordial interactions throughout the visit.

Unfortunately, in sections of the media in Britain, much attention was focussed on the attendance of Martin Mc Guinness, a former member of the IRA, who now Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland ( which remains in the United Kingdom) at the dinner in Windsor Castle. To my mind, it is unexceptional that Mr McGuiness would receive and accept such an invitation, given the office he willingly holds.

What remains exceptional is the fact that members of Mr Mc Guinness’ party, Sinn Fein, put forward members to be elected as members of Parliament in Westminster, who then refuse to take their seats there(although they draw their pay and allowances). If they attended they could work to affect the legislation that governs their constituents. That is what MPs do. 

It seems that, in some way, Sinn Fein do not attend because they do not accept the jurisdiction of the UK Parliament (although they are happy to receive and spend money raised and voted by that Parliament).

If that is the case, they are not accepting the will of the Irish people, who accepted the Good Friday Agreement in full, including the change in articles 2 and 3 and the  renunciation of any refusal to accept UK jurisdiction in Northern Ireland, unless and until the people of Northern Ireland itself decide to join a united Ireland. 

Tuesday, 8 April 2014


I am delighted to speak at the Liberty Forum here in Porto Alegre in Brazil. 

First of all, let me introduce myself. 

I spent 35 years in Irish politics, and 5 years as a diplomat representing the EU in the United States. Now my role is primarily in private business.

I work promoting investment in the Irish financial services industry. Ireland is a major global centre for the listing of investment funds, including many Brazilian funds. We are a global centre for aircraft leasing, for fund administration, and international banking and insurance.

I am also chairman on the European Sustainable Materials Platform, which works to ensure that Europe uses non renewable as sparingly and efficiently as possible.

I wish to talk this evening about the challenge of sustainable economic development, and drawing on the example of what was done well, and less well, in Ireland.

Of course, Brazil is a huge country of 200 million people, and Ireland is a very small one, so comparisons are not exact.  

Brazil is still heavily dependent on natural resource exports, the product of the land and of mines.

10% of the Brazilian state’s revenue comes from mining taxes and levies. Brazil has large unexploited oil reserves.

Brazil is vulnerable to climate change, which is melting the Andean glaciers,90% of which drain into the Amazon. Drought adversely affected hydro power this year. 

Brazil is currently building the third largest hydro power plant in the world and 70% of its electricity already comes from hydro sources.

Brazil’s exports are 11% of its GDP, whereas exports are 100% of Ireland’s GDP. Brazil is still protectionist in some respects. It increased tariffs on 100 products in 2012.
Brazil’s government Debt/GDP ratio is 40%, and most of it is owed to Brazilian creditors. Ireland’s equivalent ratio is 120% and much of Ireland’s government debt owed to creditors outside Ireland.

Brazil has a Fiscal Responsibility Law, enacted in 2000, which ties it to a goal of a 3% primary budget surplus, and to achieving a structural primary balance on its budget. The IMF has found that the Brazilian Government has recently tried to circumvent these disciplines and added
“these actions and policies have started to undermine the credibility of the policy framework and to reverse the downward  trend in the gross debt to GDP ratio”

Ireland, by a Treaty approved in a Referendum in 2012, has committed itself to similar disciplines. Ireland has enacted a similar Fiscal Responsibility Law, and will come under similarly close observation in the years ahead. 

Brazil’s unemployment rate is only 5.5%, as against 13% in Ireland.

Inflation is a problem in Brazil, but not in Ireland.

The reasons for Brazil’s higher inflation rate include
1) the fact that Brazil has an automatic  system of wage and pension indexation, and 2) has a flexible exchange rate, whereby devaluations of the currency can increase Brazilian domestic prices more  easily than is the case in Ireland, which, as a member of the euro, cannot unilaterally devalue its currency.  

Brazil is acutely short of school building and it needs to invest heavily in its ports, airports, and in its electricity grid.  Bottlenecks in these areas are preventing economic development.

It takes an unduly long time to set up a new business in Brazil, 119 days, as against less than 14 days in Mexico and Chile. For ease of staring a new business, Ireland ranks 12th in the world, but Brazil is 123rd.

Enforcing a contract through the legal system in slow and expensive in Brazil. Brazil ranks 118th in the world in a recent survey whereas Korea ranks second, the US 7,th and Ireland   62nd

Ireland ranks  6th, but Brazil is in 80th place in the ranking for protecting investors.


I would now like to say something about some the things Ireland did well, and did badly, which may have relevance to the challenge facing Brazil
Irish economic growth accelerated rapidly during my term as Prime Minister or Taoiseach, from 3.5 in my first year to 11% in my last.

This was largely due to a harvesting of the benefits of changes that had been made in the previous 30 years, but which had been prevented  by other factors from yielding their full fruits until my time in office. 
The profound changes for the better, that I refer to here, include
+  a low corporate tax policy (1956),This was initially introduced to promote exports, but now applies to all business. A 12.5% rate applies across the board. It has helped Ireland attract a great deal of foreign investment and thereby become a world leader in pharmaceuticals, medical devices, international financial services and software +  opening up to free trade (1966 to 1973), This policy was not popular at the time and led to job losses in sectors like  clothes and shoe manufacture, but was vital to modernising our economy and attracting foreign investment+  free second level education (1966), Ireland was 20 years behind most European countries in doing this but it was a decision that paid big long term returns, as I expect the improved educational participation brought about by the Braxilian government initiatives will also do+  EU membership (1973),This was a vital decision too. It brought big benefits in terms of access to markets and funds for infrastructure development. But even more important it imposed necessary disciplines on our own policy. We were forbidden by EU rules from subsidizing particular industries, by cheaper energy or current subsidies of any kind. Sometimes it is helpful to have an external agent imposing disciplines like this.+   investment in technological education( 1980’s), The availability of young people with good technological skills was vital in attracting Foreign investment in new business start ups in Ireland+  improved tax collection (1987), This is something in which I was directly involved myself as Finance Minister. We introduced a system of self assessment for income tax, higher penalties for tax evasion, and simplifies tax filing systems. As a result Ireland was number one in the world for ease of tax  collection, whereas Brazil was 150th. The number of hours it takes a firm to meet its tax filing obligations should be kept to an absolute minimum. The tax system should be as simple as possible. VAT should be levied at point of final sale, not at different stages in the value chain+   improved court services(1990’s), This included the setting up of specialised courts with special expertise in different types of the dispute. Ireland’s specialised Commercial Court has been a particular success+   aggressive promotion of foreign direct investment (1960 to date). Ireland’s Industrial Development Agency (IDA) has offices all over the world and has had particular success in attracting a disproportionate share of US investment coming to the European Union market, of which Ireland is an integral part. Were we not members of the EU we would not have been able to attract that investment, because our access to the EU market, and our input to EU rule making , would not have been guaranteed.

On the other hand, the factors which delayed Irish economic growth, notwithstanding the positive factors just referred to, were

+  the oil price shock(1974), This hit Ireland hard because we had few energy resources of our own. Ireland responded to the oil shock and the surge in inflation it caused by mistakenly introducing  food subsidies, price controls and other forms of public spending which proved  to be difficult to dismantle and led to a misallocation of resources+  irresponsible fiscal policies (1977 to 1981),In an attempt to boost the economy the then Government removed property taxes and boosted public employment. This proved to be a disastrously expensive mistake when there was the increase in international interest rates initiated by the US Federal reserve (early 1980’s), +  exchange rate instability(1993).Before the introduction of the euro there was a period of exchange rate instability between the  currencies of  EU states. This led to uncertainty for business, high and volatile interest rates, which delayed the release of the pent up growth potential of the Irish economy+ Another important factor postponing economic growth until 1994/7 was demographic. Ireland had a very high birth rate up to the early 1980s. This kept women out of the paid workforce and added to the cost of education .By the mid 1990s, many of these children were entering the workforce, the birth rate had fallen, and women were freer to enter the paid workforce. As a result the available workforce in Ireland in the mid 1990’s was twice what it had been in the early 1980’s  
It is important to distinguish between growth in an economy that come from a simple increase in the SIZE of the workforce, and growth that comes from increases in the PRODUCIVITY of the workforce.  A good part of Ireland growth in the 1990’s, in contrast to the 1980’s, is due to a simple increase in the number of people available to work.

In Brazil’s case, I have seen figures which suggest that 74% of the recent economic growth here is due to an increased number of available workers, and only 26% to increased productivity of workers.  I believe this was also true of Ireland. Productivity is something upon which we both need to focus.


After very rapid economic growth, from 1994 to 2000,which was based on real improvement in the size and productivity of its workforce, Ireland’s bubble burst in 2008. 
The factors which led to the bursting of the bubble in 2008 originated in the 2000 to 2006 period. 

During that time there was a  credit fuelled construction boom, and a consequent temporary surge in government revenues. Meanwhile wage rates grew, competitiveness deteriorated and the  balance of payments went into the red.

The then Government treated this temporary surge in revenues from the construction boom as if it was permanent. 

It made permanent increases in the level of Government spending, including rates of pay and pensions. This process was particularly marked in the year before the Irish General Elections of 2002 and 2007. The tear before an election is often a particularly dangerous time, when populism rather that wise thinking, dominates the political agenda of both Government and opposition. 

These permanent increases in spending levels proved to be unsustainable when the economy, and government revenues, turned downwards.
Meanwhile, during the construction boom, people in Ireland borrowed money to buy second homes or to pay too much for their primary residence.

The people who borrowed, the Irish banks who lent them the money, and the foreign banks who lent the Irish banks the money, all of them assumed that these inherently temporary conditions were permanent. They were wrong.
This was a major policy failure by the Irish authorities, but also by the international supervisors who allowed international banks to lend so much money to the Irish banks.


Some have asked how it is that, after the crash, Ireland still has the same credit rating as Brazil

Brazil has huge natural resources, which Ireland does not have to the same degree.

Brazil now has a younger population than Ireland has, and therefore has some of that, one off extra human potential, that enabled Ireland to grow so rapidly in the 1990’s.

Brazil has taken important steps to ensure that even the children of the poorest citizens attend school regularly and work hard.

Brazil’s debt to GDP ratio is far less than Ireland’s is.

On the other hand, Ireland has undertaken important reforms recently, and enjoys the stability that comes from being a part of an integrated economic bloc, the European Union. 
Brazil has rigidities in its state system and its wage setting policies that may inhibit development, which Ireland does not have. The indexation of the minimum wages and of pensions reduces the Government’s ability to manage the economy here.

One must also question the authority and wisdom of the rating agencies.
I believe that the rating agencies are followers of fashion, and are frequently wrong in their judgements. 

They sometimes do not look behind the statistics to see the real strengths and weaknesses of different societies. Rating agencies should hire more historians, and the might make fewer mistakes!

And lenders should look at the fundamentals themselves, and should not delegate that role to  rating agencies, who are often superficial and short term in their judgements.


I think it is important to take a long term view, and look beyond the electoral cycle. As Ireland’s story illustrates, decisions taken now can sometimes yield their fullest harvest only after many years. But it is vital that such long term and courageous decisions are taken.
The IMF has estimated that Brazils long term potential growth rate is 3.5% per year. 
But it has said that this can only be achieved if there is increased productivity in Brazil, productivity in Brazil’s use of its labour force, and productivity in Brazil’s use of materials.
 It says that a 3.5% growth rate also requires more investment.

The IMF says that Brazil needs to increase its domestic savings rate, by between 2 to 3 percentage points of GDP, to meet the required investment targets. Otherwise the IMF says Brazil will find itself relying on “more volatile (foreign) sources of capital”.
There are bottlenecks in Brazil’s infrastructure, in its ports, its airports, and its water treatment systems. Unless these are eliminated, Brazilian business will not grow to its full potential. 
Between 1971 and 1980, Brazil devoted 5.42% of its GDP to investment.

But between 2000 and 2010, only 2.32% of GDP went to investment .Of course that meant that more was available for immediate consumption, but there is a price to be paid for that choice.

The Brazilian electorate should be asked what percentage of GDP they would like to devote to investment and if they are happy to live with the consequences of that decision. That is what an election campaign should be about.
Brazil needs to make it simpler, and less costly, to set up a new business and reduce the cost of complying with tax obligations.
Brazil should benchmark itself against other countries which have had remarkable economic success. One such country is South Korea.

The Brazilian economist, Pedro Cavalcanti Ferreira has calculated that
+ if, since 1950, Brazil had had the same investment rate as Korea, it would be  18% richer today than it is, and+ he estimated that if it had made the same educational effort as Korea made since 1950, it would be  40% richer than it is today.
 Calculations like this can never be exact, and Korea is a high anxiety society. The quality of life is probably better here. But benchmarking is useful because it shows that all choices have costs and lost opportunities, and one should debate these choices so one understands them.

It is very important to avoid populism. Populism pretends that protest can be a substitute for policy decisions, that emotional empathy can be a substitute for paying one’s way in a competitive world.

Ireland’s economic growth was delayed by the populist policies of the 1977 to 1981 period.  
Populism directly caused the economic crash in Ireland in 2008, because the Government, in the 2000 to 2006 period, caved in to popular pressures, and increased public expenditure to unaffordable levels, because the money was temporarily available. For populist reason, it failed to stop the credit fuelled party.
It is important to pursue monetary and fiscal policies that are internally consistent.

One should invest in infrastructure improvements that are chosen because they will yield long term returns in economic and social efficiency, and not for any other purpose. Brazil needs to save more if it is to fund its own infrastructural improvements, rather than rely on foreign funds which can be withdrawn at short notice.
Optimism, lively debate and a willingness to change are the ingredients of success. Brazil has these ingredients in abundance, so I am very confident  about the future of this country.

Keynote address by John Bruton, former Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of Ireland at the 27th Forum da Liberdade in the Catholic University in Porto Alegre Brazil at 8pm on 7 April

Thursday, 3 April 2014


I have just finished reading the autobiography of Jack Straw MP, formerly UK Foreign Secretary, Home Secretary, and Lord Chancellor in the Blair /Brown Governments.
The book is entitled “Last Man Standing” in reference to the fact that Jack Straw survived as a Minister through the whole New Labour period in office.
His book is well written and clear, and especially interesting on his, at times painful, family background. 
Although from a relatively impoverished family, he won a scholarship to a boarding school, and subsequently became a barrister.
He then became a political advisor to Barbara Castle, and succeeded her as Labour MP for Blackburn in Lancashire in 1979.
The author’s affection for the Labour Party and for his constituents in Blackburn shines through the whole book. He enjoys constituency work, and , unlike many MPs in safe seats, he returns to his constituency on a regular basis.
Straw is highly critical of the style of governing of both of the Prime Ministers  under whom he served.
Blair bypassed formal Cabinet and Cabinet committee processes.
Straw believes that if these processes were followed, some of the mistakes the Government made would have been avoided because weak arguments would have been properly tested. He also argues that the informal style of governing under Blair delegated far too much freedom to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, and that this worked to the disadvantage of Tony Blair himself.             
Gordon Brown attempted to restore Cabinet government, but was secretive, suspicious and indecisive at key moments.
At the end of his book, Jack Straw calls for legislation to guarantee collective Cabinet responsibility. He is also critical of overly frequent Cabinet reshuffles, a problem that is less severe when there is a coalition government.
He is also critical of Tony Blair’s unquestioning support for Israel, which ultimately led to his downfall. As he puts it, Tony Blair was ”always prepared to give Israel the benefit of the doubt , even when there was no doubt” .
Questioned in the House in 2006, Tony Blair could not bring himself to criticise the disproportionate nature of Israel’s attack on Lebanon , in response to Hezbollah attacks on Israel. Notwithstanding the large number of civilian casualties in Lebanon caused by Israeli firepower, Blair blamed Hezbollah for everything. This was so far out of line with opinion in his own party that it was the tipping point that led to his downfall.
The book is not very convincing on the authors own support, as Foreign Secretary, for the invasion of Iraq. While he makes the valid and often ignored point that everybody, including the Russians and Chinese, believed Saddam Hussein did actually have weapons of mass destruction, it is not clear why more time could not have been given to inspections before launching the invasion. It is also unclear why the UK did not insist on involvement in post invasion planning, as a condition for involvement in the invasion and occupation.
Healthy military alliances, like healthy coalition governments, require often laboriously time consuming consultation in private, before big and irrevocable decisions are taken.