Monday, 23 June 2014

IRELAND AND EUROPE....1814, 1914, AND 2014


A commemoration can enable a society, a country, or a school  to reaffirm its separate identity. That can be good, but it can also be bad, if it makes others feel excluded or undervalued. 

The best commemorations are the ones which help us to learn what the past was really like, not just for our own ancestors, but for others, who may have had a different life experience from them, or may even have been their enemies or opponents.

Learning about others, and their life experiences, over the distance of time and geography, is a fundamental part of commemoration, and of education.

All commemoration, like all historical study, should be revisionist...even revising the revisionists themselves!

This year, 2014, is a particularly important year for commemorations.....  1914 saw the start of the Great War at the beginning of August, and the first ever passage in to law, a month later, of an Irish Home Rule Bill.

1814 was also a notable year. France was defeated by the Allies, and Napoleon had to abdicate. The Apprentice Boys were founded in Derry, there was a major fraud in the London Stock Exchange, and the Great Beer flood took place in London, when hundreds of thousands of gallons of beer escaped from a vat and drowned two people....and this old school ,Clongowes, was founded.

In some respects, 1814 and 1914 each initiated a new European order.

The Allied victory in 1814, confirmed a year later at Waterloo, brought into being, at the Congress of Vienna, a conservative inter state system, based on consultations and maintenance of a balance of power. The Revolutionary era, in which France sought to remake Europe by force, was thus ended.   Europe settled into a period of relative peace, and of small,  fairly contained, wars......and era that lasted exactly 100 years, until 1914.
The new European order initiated in July/August 1914 was very different.

A complex set of two rival alliances, designed in the early twentieth century to give participant nations security, became instead a source of massive insecurity.

The rival alliance systems of the summer of 1914 eventually drew all the major nations of Europe (except Spain) into war against one another, all over a quarrel between Austro Hungary and Serbia, in which the rest of Europe had virtually no interest. 

It was a bit like the financial crash of 2008, when complex financial instruments, designed to increase security by spreading risk, actually dragged everybody down. The risk was spread too widely, as were the alliances, and the fragility of the whole inter dependent system was exposed.

The 1914 era lasted 76 years. The Great War that started in 1914 was the source of two other wars, the Second World War, and the Cold War, wars which only unwound finally in 1990.

1814 in Ireland was  the last year of a long war, dating from 1790, in which this country had been intimately involved. A rebellion in 1798, the Act of Union, an undelivered promise of Catholic Emancipation were all outgrowths of that conflict, as was the participation of Irish soldiers in Wellingtons victory at Waterloo the following year. 40% of his “British” army were Irish.

Ireland’s economy had boomed during the war, as it did during the First World War. 

But , once the war ended, the demand for Irish exports of  woollen and cotton goods  fell, as new competitors were able to enter its markets. Bank failures were endemic in those years. Agricultural prices collapsed, and evictions were made easier by a law passed in 1816. The average rent  was £4 per acre, so the annual rent of 15 acres of land would cover the 50 guinea fee to send a boy to Clongowes for a year.  Tithes to the Established church, and other property taxes on tenant farmers, were a heavy burden.

Two years after the first boy entered Clongowes, in  1816-17, there was famine across Europe - a year without a summer- because of the environmental consequences of a major volcanic eruption in Indonesia, which caused an ash cloud across the northern hemisphere. 

Clongowes students, entering the school in 1814, would have aspired to careers in the professions - especially law, which was now open to Catholics. At this time, however, all the senior judicial posts and senior posts in the public service were filled on the basis of political preferment. Catholics could not become a Senior Counsel, or an MP, until 1829. To found the school, the Jesuits were supposed to get a licence from the Protestant Bishop.  They did not apply, but went ahead any way...natural risk takers.

Illiteracy was still very high in Ireland then, though many poor people paid small sums for their children to learn to read and write in “pay” schools - otherwise known as hedge schools.

Education was a denominational battleground, with bible societies opening free schools for the poor in the hopes of conversion; the Kildare Place Society was committed, at least in principle, to non-denominational schooling but this was breaking down, and Daniel O'Connell resigned from their boards, some years later.

So education, at the time of the founding of Clongowes, would have been a priority for the Catholic Church - and especially the creation of an educational infrastructure for those Catholics, who might previously have attended Irish colleges on the continent, as Daniel O Connell himself did. O Connell was able to send his five sons to Clongowes (despite his enormous and chronic debts!) 

Religious practice was high in Dublin and Leinster, with high mass attendance, had a reasonable infrastructure of churches and clergy, although the churches were probably too small to accommodate everybody on Sunday.

In contrast, in the west of Ireland, where the population density was higher, the church infrastructure, and educational provision, was much less. Illiteracy was still over 80% in Mayo in 1841, whereas it was under 40% in Kildare, which was better than the European average.

But it is important to stress that the motive of the Jesuit Fathers coming here 200 years ago was not primarily educational, political or economic.
 Educational, political and economic uplift for Catholics in Ireland may have been secondary goals, goals to which this school contributed enormously, but the primary goal was religious...eternal not temporal....Aeterna non bring the faith to a young generation of people who, through their example, would bring it to others.

The goals of Jesuit education were clear then, as they are assure each person that he or she is known and loved by God, ought to respond to that,  ought to come to know and understand himself or herself, and  ought to make life’s decisions from the perspective of others, particularly of the poor. 

Jesuit education was, and is, about passing on a faith that does justice in the concrete circumstances of each generation, a faith that helps young people to become men and women for others.

That was true in 1814, was true in 1914, and is true, and even more relevant, today.

The Jesuits who came here had been educated in Sicily and other European countries, and brought a continental, even  a global, perspective the education of Irish Catholics. That was true of schools, founded later by other orders, like Castleknock and Blackrock.

The wider global perspective of Jesuit education remains true today, and explains why so many Irish graduates of this, and other Jesuit schools, have contributed so much to global affairs. Freddie Boland, Paddy McGilligan, Garret FitzGerald and Peter Sutherland spring to mind.

Of course, it was not all plain sailing for Clongowes. 

When the Intermediate Certificate was introduced in 1878, it was to be the basis for state payments to schools on the strength of results in the exam. 
When the first results were published in 1879, the upstart Blackrock College got the best results in the country, followed by Tullabeg (subsequently amalgamated with Clongowes), Castleknock, the Royal College in Belfast, and Foyle College in Derry. Clongowes got an unwelcome wake up cal!

Moving forward from 1814 to 1914, we find a very different Ireland, in a very different world. Europe in 1914 was a vastly richer place. 
In the previous forty years, thanks to dramatic improvements in transport and communications, globalisation, as we would now describe it, had taken place. 

People’s fate in 1914 was dependent on decisions of people thousands of miles away, in ways that could not even have been imagined 100 years previously.
Ireland was the venue of two armed camps, the Irish Volunteers determined to achieve Home Rule, and the Ulster Volunteers determined to defy their own elected Imperial Parliament to prevent it, at least as far as the six north eastern counties were concerned.

John Redmond, who spoke here so eloquently on Union Day on the first of June 1914, was, at the time he was here, engaged in tense and very difficult negotiations to bring the Irish Volunteers under the democratic control of the elected representatives of the Irish people, and avoid an accidental sectarian civil war. He proposed to do so by nominating William Redmond MP(O.C 1873-1876), Joe Devlin MP, and Dr Michael Davitt to a new governing board of the Irish Volunteers. He succeeded in this goal two weeks later.

He was simultaneously negotiating on how Home Rule might be modified to accommodate northern Unionists. 
He succeeded, three and a half months after he spoke here, in having Home Rule passed into law, the only Irish leader to achieve that.....and without a shot having been fired.

He did not achieve a United Ireland, and he was unwilling to use coercion to that end, but those who came after him, using more destructive and coercive methods, have not achieved that goal either. But that is an argument for another time and place.

The international perspective his education here had given him may explain how Redmond saw the issues that were at stake in the First World War. He rejected the notion that the Irish people remain neutral, or try to exploit the position in which the War placed Britain, and its Allies, France and Belgium, which had been invaded. The invasion was accompanied by well documented atrocities. Redmond’s call for Irish people to volunteer in the Allied side was answered by 604 men who had attended this school, 94 of whom were killed.

As we gather here in 2014, we face a world very different to that of 1914. 
This part of Ireland is an independent sovereign nation, with an historically high standard of living. I was surprised to read recently that, despite austerity and high personal and Government debt, and despite the fact that we may not feel better off, consumer spending per head in this state was 40% higher last year than it was in 1997.
But we face a troubled world.

At a conference a week ago, I heard a former Czech Foreign Minister say that, following the forceful annexation of Crimea by Russia, Europe’s long era of peace was over. A European order based on the rule of international law was, he felt, in the process of being replaced by one dominated by spheres of influence by stronger over weaker states, not unlike the world before 1914.  But, if that is the way things go, we all will learn that power politics will be a wasteful, unreliable and dangerous way to organise a world, that is now far more interdependent than in any other historic era.

It was a pure accident, a volcano on the other side of the globe, that created the climatic conditions that caused the famine conditions in Europe two years after Clongowes was founded, in 1816/17. There was no warning, and no human action could have prevented it. 
But if Carbon emissions lead to a dramatic rise in sea levels, and in global temperatures, there will have been a warning, and it will not be will not be an unavoidable accident.

And those who will suffer most will not be those who caused the problem, but the poorest people in the world, scraping out a living in the drought prone areas of the world. That is an issue of global justice.

A distorted version of religion, a lack of a better goal in life, and a sense that religious expression is disrespected in some western countries, is leading some young European Muslims to involve themselves in sectarian civil wars in the Middle East. That also presents a different, but real threat to the trusting constitutional order we have become used to in most western countries. And the response to the threat could be as dangerous as the threat itself. 

So, rather than simply retreating into a private world of getting and spending,  I hope that it is to issues like these that today’s and tomorrow’s privileged beneficiaries of a Jesuit inspired education will turn their minds.

  • Constructing and defending a structure of peace in Europe,
  • passing on an undamaged physical environment to the next generation, 
  • reconciling faith and reason, and
  • reconciling a good preparation for the next life with tolerance  compassion and justice for others in this one, these are the challenges I see for the generation of 2014.

They are challenges that are every bit as difficult as those that faced the boys that came here in 1814, and in all the subsequent 200 years of the school.
Will Clongowes, as a Jesuit inspired Catholic school, be here in 2114? 

The buildings will, some of them, still be here for sure, but what else will still be here, of the things we value and celebrate today?
Of course that depends on economic conditions, government rules and so on. Parents will always be willing to pay for the best education they can afford for their children. That’s human nature.  Even Communism in China has not eradicated that! Nor did the secular French Revolution. But that’s not really the point.

The existence of this school, as a Catholic school, inspired by Jesuit values, will depend very much on two things

One,on vocations to the Jesuit order, and/or on the willing commitment of lay people of their lives to the values and beliefs that inspire the Order and

Two, on whether the school can  visibly and effectively contribute to  creating and maintaining in Ireland an atmosphere that reconciles faith and reason, that does not assume them to be in antipathy to one another,  and  an atmosphere that reconciles preparation for the next life, with tolerance, generosity towards, and respect for  others in this life.

Before concluding this address, I would like to acknowledge the value to me, in preparing this speech this morning, of discussions I had earlier in the week, with Professor Mary Daly of UCD, Professor Terry Dooley of NUI Maynooth, and Dr Ciaran O Neill of Trinity College, whose excellent book “Catholics of Consequence” was published by Oxford University Press last week.

I would also like to acknowledge the person who inspired my interest in history , the late Fr Woods SJ. I would also like to remember my Third Line Prefect, Fr Joe Dargan SJ, who sadly died in the last week or so.


An address delivered by John Bruton, former Taoiseach and current President of the Clongowes Union, at the celebration of the 200th anniversary of the opening of Clongowes Wood College, the longest surviving Catholic School in Ireland, by the Jesuit Fathers on 18 May 1814

Sunday, 15 June 2014


It is difficult to understand why David Cameron has decided to expend so much of the UK’s limited political capital in the EU on a bid to stop Jean Claude Juncker becoming President of the European Commission. The timing of his campaign, at this late stage when in the European Parliament  elections are over, is disastrous. 

All the major political parties represented in the European Parliament selected their proposed lead candidates for President of the Commission,  ahead of that election, on the supposition that the lead candidate selected by the party that subsequently won the largest number of seats in the Parliament, would be the one who would be supported for President of the Commission. 

The Heads of almost all EU Governments participated in the selection process of their European party’s candidate. For example, Angela Merkel took part in the selection of Juncker as the EPP candidate at the EPP Convention in Dublin a few months ago.  

If the Heads of Government, who are almost all the leaders of their national parties, had wanted to stop thisprocess, they could have done so......several months ago.  They did not do so. It is too late now. 

They let the campaign go ahead on the basis that the lead candidate was to be the preferred nominee for President of the Commission. They allowed TV debates between the lead candidates to take place, on the assumption that each were the candidates for Commission President.

Personally, I would have preferred if the President was selected by a direct vote of the European people, rather than by this convoluted and indirect method. This would have been better for the independence of the Commission, from both the Parliament and Heads of Government.   But that battle was lost long ago.

I fought for direct election in the Convention, but got no support from any major figure except George Papandreou, then Greek Foreign Minister. Although they constantly complain that the EU is “undemocratic”, no British representative gave direct election any support in the Convention.

David Cameron should remember that this is the third time that a British Government has tried, in a very personalised way, to veto candidates for President of the Commission, the late Jean Luc Dehaene and Guy Verhofstadt were both victims of previous British vetoes, simply because they were people of strong pro European conviction. 

David Cameron’s foolish confrontational tactics will be less successful this time, because now the issue will be decided by qualified majority rather than unanimity, and a veto by a single country is no longer possible.

Cameron says he want to keep Britain in the EU, but his tactics are so divisive that, if he wins it will be at the price of huge ill will in Europe, or if he loses,  it will be at the price of increased anti EU sentiment in his own party and in British society more widely. Either way, he is serving neither his own, his party’s, or his country’s interests.

Monday, 9 June 2014


The terms of reference of the proposed Oireachtas Enquiry into Ireland’s banking crisis have not been fixed yet. 

So it is timely to debate what they should be.

The Taoiseach Enda Kenny said on 14 May

“It will be for the new Oireachtas committee, once established, to submit proposals to hold an inquiry, including draft terms of reference for the Committee on Procedures and Privileges to consider and recommend for approval by the Houses of the Oireachtas. To be effective, the inquiry should have very clear terms of reference.”


In the same debate, the Tanaiste, Eamon Gilmore said
“We all know at this point that the crisis had its origins in an unsustainable property bubble that was fuelled by inappropriate tax incentives. There were several moments when this could have been reined in but it was not. We also know the property bubble was pumped up and driven by bad lending decisions in banks. In effect, what came into being was a toxic triangle between politics, property development and banking. We need to know why this developed as it did and why it was not stopped.”


The Tanaiste continued
“ We also need to know why the problem became a crisis and why a crisis became a disaster. We need to know more about how and when the problems in the banking system were first identified and what was done about them.”
I agree that we do need to know why “a crisis became a disaster”, as he puts it. 


But it is even more important to find out how the crisis might have been prevented from developing in the first place.

 What were the measures that could have been taken to prevent the property bubble?

 Would these measures have been politically feasible, at the time, and if not, why not?


I believe that two obvious sign that a crisis was leading to a disaster were studiously ignored.
One was the fact that house prices were rising far faster than either the rate of increase in incomes or the rate of inflation in other prices, and meanwhile people were getting 100% mortgages. And once that process ended, and house prices were only rising at a rate below that of incomes, borrowers, who had been given 100% mortgages, were immediately heading towards negative equity. That made a “soft landing” inherently unlikely. Why did no one see that?
The other was the huge deficit that developed on the Irish balance of payments. The country was spending more abroad than it was earning abroad. That could only be reversed by (an inherently unlikely) dramatic increase in exports, or by a cut back in imports. The latter could only be engineered by a recession of some kind. It was plain to see that such a recession would render the 100% mortgages unsustainable. Why did no one do the basic arithmetic to work that out.
Both dilemmas were plain to see. But no one saw them. Why?


Professor Nyberg, former Director General of the Finnish Department of Finance who carried out an Enquiry already into this subject for the Government, has expressed scepticism as to whether this further Oireachtas enquiry will discover anything new, that was not included in his own report or the report by Patrick Honohan.

The Nyberg report runs to 172 pages and is available at the website
 Nyberg believes Ireland and the rest of Europe haven’t learned from the lessons of the past. 
He says
“What is being done on the supervisory and regulatory fronts in Europe partly assume that the authorities will always be there preventing or handling a crisis, and we did see, not many years ago, that this is not true. 
“So the question is: why will it be true next time? But that question is not being asked anywhere yet” he says.


The potential value of the Oireachtas Enquiry is that it is being carried out by politicians, not by technical experts. 

Politicians can ask themselves the hard political questions, like

1.) Would it have been politically feasible in 2002 or 2003 to prevent the property bubble, by doing things like restricting mortgage tax relief or banning 100% mortgages? How would that have been received by the employment intensive construction industry? How would measures to slow price increases have been received by recent house purchasers?

2.) Would it have been politically feasible in the 2002 to 2006 period to close the balance of payment deficit by fiscal policy, in other words, by running large budget surpluses and thereby deliberately taking money out of the economy? To what degree would the balance of payment have to be out of line, for such  corrective measures to be taken and how might they be explained politically?

3.)  How would the measures that might have been taken to slow down house price increases, or to close the balance of payments deficit, have been received by the electorate? Would they have understood the need for them? If not, how could that be changed?

4.)  If the same conditions were to recur in future, (say in 2030),  and with the benefit of hindsight we now have of the 2002 to 2006 crisis, would it be any easier then to get political support to  take the difficult steps necessary to prevent  the bubble? If not, what changes do we need to make in our political system to ensure that we become less bubble prone?
These are really hard questions that are beyond Nyberg’s competence, but they are not beyond the competence of the elected representatives on the Oireachtas Enquiry.

That is the potential value of the Oireachtas Enquiry.

Sunday, 1 June 2014


Before taking office as the present Foreign Secretary in the Coalition Government in the UK, but after he had ceased to be Leader of the Opposition, William Hague wrote a major biography of a Prime Minister of an earlier era, William Pitt the Younger. It was first published by Harper Collins in 2004.

Pitt, whose father had been Prime Minister before him, became Prime Minister in 1784 at the age of 25 and held that office almost continuously until his early death in 1806. 

How did Pitt manage to become Prime Minister at the age of 25, something that would hardly happen today despite all the emphasis on the supposed youthfulness of our popular culture?

At the time, a person could only become Prime Minister if he had been nominated by the King (George the Third), and the King was determined that the other viable candidate for the job, Charles Fox not get the job.

Pitt had the advantage of being the son of a former Prime Minister, and was already a member of the small aristocratic circle who formed the “electorate”  a potential Prime Ministers had to satisfy in those days. These were all people who knew Pitt personally and did not have to rely for their information about a person’s suitability for office on sound bites, as an electorate must do today.

Politicians generally were younger in those days, many the sons of people who had to vacate their seats in the House of Commons on taking their father’s seat in the House of Lords. 

Pitt had spent much of his childhood honing his oratorical skills and observing his father’s work as Prime Minister, so he was better prepared for the job that his years might suggest.
William Hague’s biography of Pitt is thorough and well written, running to almost 600 pages.

It brings out the extent to which mastering the House of Commons by the power of oratory was crucial in those days.

Equally important was keeping on good terms with the King, and it was the King’s visceral antipathy to Pitt’s rival Fox, that sustained the King’s confidence in Pitt over such a long period. 

Interestingly, the King’s heir, the Prince of Wales, was a strong ally of Fox and if he had came to the throne earlier, Pitt would have lost office quickly.

Pitt also had to make many compromises to keep the King’s confidence.

He was a supporter of allowing Catholics to sit the House of Commons ( so called Catholic Emancipation), the reform of Parliament to broaden the franchise, and the abolition  of slavery . But the King was not in favour of any of these things. So Pitt accomplished none of them during his long period in office. 

His liberalising instinct were also tempered by the forces released by the French Revolution, which threatened to overthrow the entire propertied order throughout Europe.
Pitt was the Prime Minister responsible for pushing through the Union of the Irish and British Parliaments in 1800. 

He had recognised early on that British trade and shipping policies were artificially depressing the Irish economy to benefit British interests and tried in the 1780’s to remedy this by promoting free trade between the two islands. This was frustrated because of opposition from commercial interests in England.  He promoted Union between the two islands partly to get over this. 

He had also hoped that Catholic Emancipation could be more easily conceded in a UK context, where Protestants would not be so likely to be outnumbered, as they would have been in a separate Irish Parliament.  But, after the Act of Union, he failed to promote Catholic Emancipation because of the opposition of the King. He resigned in protest over this but was soon back in office and dropped the matter thereafter. 

Pitt never married, and worked prodigiously hard all his life. He had to do so because he combined the present day offices of Prime Minister and Finance Minister, as well as doing the energy sapping work of mastering a highly indisciplined parliamentary majority. 

His main recreation was consuming copious amounts of port, which contributed to his early death from what was probably an ulcer.