Sunday, 24 August 2014


Your correspondent, Justine McCarthy, in your edition of 17 August, gives a classic example of why it is  so difficult to find serious discussion of real choices in the Irish media.   Instead of dealing with the points I made she just wants me “remove the silver spoon and button my lip”.

Because of what she considers to be my personal financial circumstances, apparently I should not express any views at all about current economic choices facing Europe and the rest of the world.
I served as an elected representative for 35 years, much of that at a time when the country was poorer than it is today, so I fully understand the difficult circumstances many families face. I also care about this country.

If we want to preserve our welfare state, we must face facts. 

In the long run, the numbers do not stack up, unless we change things.

Arithmetic is not “right wing”. Burying one’s head in the sand is not ”progressive”.

By facing facts now, one can mitigate hardship, and generate confidence. By maintaining the “tactful silence” that your correspondent favours we do no service to anyone.

When I spoke in New York in 2013, I had in my mind the European Commission Report entitled “2012 Ageing Report...Economic and Budgetary projections for EU 27 (2012-2060)". 

It had been requested by the EU Summit of March 2011.

It covered the sustainability of pension, healthcare, long term care, education and unemployment transfer policies in the 27 EU countries up to 2060, based on current trends and unchanged policies.

It pointed out that the proportion of the population over 65 would rise from 17% to 30% by 2060. Life expectancy would increase from 76 years to 84. But  the working age population in the EU would peak in 2022, and decline thereafter.

In other words, fewer workers would be paying in to support health, long term care, and pension systems for an ever larger number, of increasingly elderly, retirees.

That growing gap could be bridged either by extra taxation, by reduced services, or by extra borrowing. Borrowing would be the best course. But the more one loads up with debt now, the less  one will be able to borrow later on, when this ageing gap will have to be bridged. 

That is why EU leaders focussed on this problem at their 2011 Summit. It is also why Keynesian stimulus is difficult when society is ageing. 

If EU states acknowledge the existence of these looming long term problems in good time, they  can adjust policies gradually. This is the best way to mitigate hardship would certainly come about if the problem is ignored, and then the financial markets suddenly wake up, as they often do, and do not want to lend  . This is partly is behind the need for prudent finance now. 

“Austerity” has become an all purpose term of abuse. Those who use it, should first define it.

I define austerity as spending less than one is earning. At the moment the reverse is still the case.

The government plans to spend more than it will take in next year, to run a (small) deficit. But, under the Fiscal Compact Treaty, negotiated by the Government and approved in a referendum, we are committed to running a surplus from 2018 on, until we halve Government debt as a percentage of our national income. This may well take 10 years, depending on the rate of economic growth.

When I referred to this Treaty based requirement to run surpluses, it seemed to shock some in the media, and even in the Dail, who seemed to be unaware of the contents of the Treaty approved by the Irish people. 

An ageing population, such as we have in most developed countries, means that there is an inbuilt tendency for government spending to rise, even without a policy decision. With no policy change since 2008, by 2013 the number of people of pensionable age increased by 13.5%, and people of that age use more health services. 

The same problem arises in the United States. 

Things have been difficult for many people since 2008. But life will be much harsher in the future, if we refuse to publicly about long term problems like these, because we are afraid, that when we do, we will attract the sort of personalised criticism that your correspondent and others have directed at me.
On the question of banks and bankers, if we do not diagnose our problems properly, we will simply repeat the mistakes again.

I do not believe in over simplifying issues, or in exclusively scapegoating individuals, or a class of people, for the economic downturn.  

Irish bankers are indeed to blame for bad lending decisions, and some for worse things than that. But that is not the whole story. 

The foreign banks, who lent recklessly, through the Irish banks, into the Irish property bubble share responsibility too.  They have not been called to account. So too do the bodies supervising all those banks, here and abroad, including the ECB, who failed to devise policies to detect and prevent bubbles.

Central Banks, like the Fed, who increased global money supply unnecessarily to finance the US trade deficit share blame as well. So does the then Irish Government, which increased spending levels permanently, on the strength of revenues from construction  that they knew were temporary.

Only about a third of the increase in our debt since 2008 is due to bailing out banks, and two thirds of it is due to having maintained spending levels, despite the fact that tax revenue had fallen. 

The remarkable thing about the article last week, and others like it, is that the author takes no stand on any issue. She prefers just to sneer, and leave it at that.

For the record, much of the criticism is directed at comments I made for which I was not seeking any particular publicity at all, without a script being issued to the media to get coverage. In New York , I was speaking at a purely private event, and had no notice that my remarks were to be recorded or disseminated. 

But I am happy to take responsibility for what I said.

Friday, 22 August 2014


I wish to pay tribute to the memory of Albert Reynolds, former Taoiseach, who died this Thursday morning. I was deeply saddened by the news.

As a person, he was warm and kind, including to political opponents.
He worked long hours and was accessible.

He was multi talented, being a success in politics, the food industry and in the entertainment world.

He will be missed greatly by his family, friends and political associates. I extend heartfelt sympathy to Kathleen and  all his children.

Albert Reynolds played a vital role in ending the violence in and around Northern Ireland that caused so much suffering to so many people from 1969 to  1997. His particular contribution was negotiation of the Downing Street Declaration of December 1993 which offered a path to political participation to all political forces in Northern Ireland.

In my view, four aspect of the Declaration were particularly important

1.The statement that “problems could only be solved by peaceful and democratic means”

2. The redefinition of Irish self determination as requiring consent from both parts of Ireland.

3. The passage in the declaration where , as Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds asked the people of Northern Ireland to   “  look on the on the people of the Republic as friends”  and committed himself to take steps to that end. This obligation bound his successors.

4. Paragraph 10 which said

                10. The British and Irish Governments reiterate that the achievement of peace must involve a permanent end to the use of, or support for, paramilitary violence. They confirm that, in these circumstances, democratically mandated parties which establish a commitment to exclusively peaceful methods and which have shown that they abide by the democratic process, are free to participate fully in democratic politics and to join in dialogue in due course between the Governments and the political parties on the way ahead.

Full participation in the political process was linked to a “permanent end to the use of and support for paramilitary violence”. This was crucial, but initially difficult to verify.

These elements of the Declaration helped redefine Irish politics, the relations between the communities in Ireland, between North and South and  between Britain and Ireland.

Statement by John Brutom, former Taoiseach.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014


I have just finished reading  “Sleepwalkers, How Europe went to war in 1914” by Christopher Clark, Professor of Modern History in Cambridge.  He describes the statesmen who stumbled into War in 1914 as “sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, yet blind to the horror they were about to bring to the world”.

A web of interlocking commitments, designed to give individual countries security and peace behind their own borders, ended up tumbling the whole continent into War.

Austro Hungary had a defensive pact with Germany. Russia set itself up as the protector of Serbia. France  gave Russia a blank cheque in the Balkans because it needed Russian assurances against Germany. Britain had a rather more vague understanding with France.  It feared any Russian rapprochement with Germany because Russia could threaten British interests in India.
So, when Franz Ferdinand was murdered in Sarajevo by assassins that had come from Serbia, the possibility that all these dominoes might fall in the  direction of war opened up. But it was only a possibility. 

Serbia could have taken resolute action to root out the conspiracy behind the assassins before Austria issued any ultimatum. Austria could have issued a more temperate ultimatum. Serbia could have given a less evasive response.  Germany could have restrained Austria.

Russia could have held back from full scale mobilization in support of Serbia, and France could have made it clear that it did not wish to get involved in supporting a Russian attack on Austria so long as Germany stayed out too. Britain could have said it would remain neutral in a German war with France, so long as Germany respected Belgian neutrality.
The interlocking commitments between countries that led to war were not, according to Christopher Clark, “long term  features of the European system, but the consequence of numerous short term adjustments” made in the immediately preceding years. 

The War was not inevitable, but suited some leaders to pretend to themselves afterwards that it was, so as to avoid facing the consequences of some their own omissions, ambiguities and evasions.
Some of the issues involved are still current.

How does one pursue a criminal conspiracy launched from another jurisdiction? If the European Arrest Warrant was in place could Austria have obtained the extradition of some of the conspirators from Belgrade without threatening war?

Christopher Clark says Austria’s ultimatum to Serbia was milder than the one NATO issued to Serbia in 1999!

As we see a drift towards a confrontation between Russia and the West over Ukraine, the lesson I draw from this book is that leaders must not just think of the next move, but of the likely counter move, the move after that and so on, bearing in mind that nothing is inevitable until it has actually happened, and that they usually have more choices than they are willing to acknowledge.

Thursday, 7 August 2014


In 2016, there will be extensive commemoration of the centenary of the Rising in Dublin in 1916.

No comparable commemoration is planned for an earlier centenary, that of 18 September 2014, the 100th anniversary of the passage into law of Home Rule for Ireland. 

The events of Easter 1916 inaugurated an armed struggle, with many casualties, which continued until 1923.

In contrast, the enactment of Home Rule was achieved by peaceful parliamentary means, without any casualties.

As it is today, Ireland in 1914 was a divided society, with a majority (mainly of one religious tradition) favouring a large measure of independence, and a strong minority (mainly of another religious tradition) opposing this, and favouring integration in the United Kingdom.

Commemorations should be an opportunity to learn from history, not merely to celebrate one protagonist or another.


Home Rule may have been achieved by exclusively peaceful and constitutional methods, but that does not suggest that those who obtained it, the Irish Parliamentary Party of John Redmond and John Dillon, were mild mannered and non confrontational.

Two previous attempts to obtain Home Rule had failed, one because it was defeated in the House of Commons and another because it was vetoed in the House of Lords. 

To get Home Rule onto the statute book, the Irish Parliamentary leaders had to get a majority for Home Rule in the House of Commons, and simultaneously to get the British constitution changed  to remove the House of Lords power of veto. 

There was a permanent majority against Home Rule in the House of Lords, and the veto could only be removed with the consent of the House of Lords itself. Furthermore, in the House of Commons, the Liberal party, which had been committed to Home Rule under Gladstone, had moved away from that policy under Lord Rosebery and Herbert Asquith. The Liberal Party had first to be won back to a firm commitment to pass Home Rule.

In a masterly exercise of parliamentary leverage and constructive opportunism, Redmond and Dillon achieved both goals, in a very short space of time. 

They withheld support for the radical 1909 Budget, unless and until there was a commitment to remove the Lords veto and introduce Home Rule. They also, in effect exercised pressure on the King, because the Lords eventually only passed the legislation to remove their veto, under the threat of the King swamping the House of Lords with a flood of new Lords.

All this was achieved from the position of being a minority party in the House, albeit a party whose votes were needed to avoid a General Election which the Liberal Government feared they would lose.  Considerable brinksmanship was needed, because, if the Liberals lost the election, the cause of Home Rule would also be lost. Redmond and Dillon did not have all the trump cards. They just played the cards they had very well indeed.

If commemorations are about drawing relevant lessons for today’s generation from the work of past generations, this remarkable exercise of parliamentary leverage, to achieve radical reform against entrenched resistance, has much greater relevance, to today’s generation of democrats, than does the blood sacrifice of Pearse and Connolly.

The subsequent turning away, after 1916, from constitutional methods has obscured the scale of this parliamentary achievement. There may have been a fear that too much praise of the prior constitutional achievement would  delegitimate the subsequent  blood sacrifice


I hope the commemorations in Ireland in the period 1914 to 1923 will allow us to honestly address the following  related questions......
  • Does the use of violence help resolve the problems of a divided society?
  • Were the Ulster Unionists right to threaten violence to resist Home Rule? 
  • And were the men and women of 1916 right to actually use violence to achieve their goal of a 32 county Republic? 

On 1 July this year I took part in a panel discussion with a number of historians, in the Irish Embassy in London, on the topic of the enactment on the Irish Home Rule Bill into law on 18 September 1914. The panel discussion was broadcast on the UK Parliament channel.

When the Home Rule Bill received the royal assent on 18 September 1914, it was the first time that a Bill granting Ireland Home rule had ever passed into law. The struggle to achieve such an outcome had gone on since the 1830’s. Neither Butt nor Parnell achieved what Redmond and Dillon achieved.

The Woodenbridge speech of John Redmond on 20 September 1914, urging Irish men to join the Allied cause in the Great War that had broken out six weeks previously, must be seen in the context that Home Rule had been placed on the statute book just two days previously.

Home Rule was law, but the implementation of it was simply postponed until the end of what most people expected would be a short war.

Redmond’s address to the Volunteers at Woodenbridge was not a naive gesture, but reciprocation of the passage of Home Rule. He wanted to show that the passage of Home Rule had inaugurated a new and better relationship between Ireland and its neighbouring island.

Redmond wanted to show everybody, including Ulster Unionists, that things had changed. Irish men fought in the British Army in the Boer War, notwithstanding Redmond and the Irish Party’s opposition to that war, so those many of those who volunteered to fight in what turned out to be the Great War, would probably have  done so anyway.

Redmond’s Woodenbridge speech was also designed to show  to Ulster Unionists that, in some matters, Unionists and Nationalists were now “on the same side”.

If, Home Rule having been conceded, Redmond had instead still opposed recruitment, he would have handed arguments to those who had opposed Home Rule all along, to the effect that a Dublin Government could not be trusted.

The Woodenbridge speech also stood on its own merits. The unprovoked invasion by Germany of a small neutral country, Belgium,  in order better to be able to attack France, was something that many people at the time, and since, regarded as profoundly wrong and deserving to be opposed.

The case I made in this debate in the Irish Embassy was that Ireland could have achieved better results, for all the people of the island, if it had continued to follow the successful non violent parliamentary Home Rule path, and had not embarked on the path of physical violence, initiated by the IRB and the Irish Citizen Army in Easter Week of 1916.


The use of physical force by the IRA and the Irish Citizen Army in 1916 was not without context.

In their resistance to Home Rule in the 1911 to 1914 period, Ulster Unionists, with the connivance of the Conservative Party, had armed themselves, and  threatened  to use force to resist  Home Rule from Dublin. 
Parts of the officer corps of the British Army, and in particular General Sir Henry Wilson, cooperated surreptitiously on the Home Rule issue with the Conservative opposition, against the duly elected Government, something that goes against all democratic and constitutional norms.

But bad example by ones opponents does not make a bad decision a good one. 

Furthermore, when the decision was made to go ahead with the armed rebellion, Home Rule was already law. It’s implementation was postponed for the duration of the war, but there was no doubt but that it would come into effect once the war was over, either for the whole of Ireland, or, more likely, for 26 or 28 counties.

The irreversibility of Home Rule is well illustrated by a comment that had been made by one of its staunchest opponents, the Conservative leader, Andrew Bonar Law.  He had admitted
 “If Ulster, or rather any county, had the right to remain outside the Irish Parliament, for my part my objection would be met”.

The implementation of the Home Rule Act was irreversible politically and would have come into effect if the violence and abstentionism of the 1919 to 1921 period had not made it impossible. The Lloyd George Coalition Government’s  re election manifesto  in the December 1918 Election stated bluntly “Home Rule is upon the statute book”. There was no going back on it.  

My belief  is that , at that time, instead of launching a policy of abstention from Parliament and a guerrilla war, Sinn Fein and the IRA should have used the Home Rule Act as a peaceful  stepping stone to dominion status and full independence, in the same way as Treaty of 1921 was so used, but only after so much blood had been shed. 

Another important context in which the 1916 decision  must be judged is the Great War,  which was then in progress, in which thousands of Irish soldiers were fighting on the Allied side when the GPO was occupied by force. By occupying the GPO the 1916 leaders took the opposite side in this war to their fellow Irishmen in the trenches.

In proclaiming the Republic, the 1916 leaders spoke of their “gallant allies in Europe”. These allies were the German Empire, the Ottoman Empire and the Austrian Empire.  Although their immediate target was Britain, those, against whom the Irish Republicans went to war ,  included the French Republic, whose territory had been premptively invaded, and occupied by force, by Germany. The1916 leaders were not neutral. They were taking the side of Germany , Turkey and Austria and said so in their own Proclamation.

I argued, in the panel discussion in the Irish Embassy, that, in all these circumstances, this decision by the IRB and the Citizen army to use violence in 1916 was a bad decision.

I said it would have been wiser to have had patience, and adhered to the Home Rule policy, and to constitutional methods.


I started by conceding that I did not believe that the Home Rule policy would have led to a United Ireland. 
The opposition to being under a Dublin Home Rule Parliament was so strong among Unionists in Ulster that, no matter how hard the Home Rulers might have tried to persuade them, at least four Ulster counties would have stayed out of the Dublin Parliament. The leader of the Irish Party, John Redmond, told the House of Commons that
 “no coercion shall be applied to any single county in Ireland to force them against their will to come into the Irish Government”. 

This was a sensible policy.

Attempts to coerce Northern Ireland into a United Ireland, whether by the attempted incursions across the border in 1922, by the propaganda campaign in the late 1940s, or by IRA killing campaigns in the 1950’s and from 1969 to 1998, have all failed miserably, because they were based on a faulty analysis of reality. 

John Redmond’s policy was one of attempting to persuade Unionist to accept a United Ireland, and his support for recruitment to the British army in 1914 was part of a (probably naive) attempt to persuade Unionists that they would not be sacrificing all their loyalties by taking part in Home Rule.

But, under the Home Rule arrangement, if Ulster counties opted out, they would have continued under direct rule from Westminster. 

There would have been no Stormont Parliament, no “Protestant Parliament for a Protestant people”, no B Specials, no gerrymandering of local government. Stormont was not part of the Home Rule arrangement and it  came about because of the threat posed by the nationalist violence of the  1919 to 1921 period, and because the  abstention of Sinn Fein from the Irish Convention, and of its MPs from parliament after the 1918 election created an opening for it. 

Under Home Rule, there would have been continued, but reduced, Irish representation at Westminster, so any attempts to discriminate against the minority in the excluded area of Ulster would have been  preventable in a way that they were not prevented  Stormont was left to its own devices after 1921. 

The constitutional Home Rule policy would thus have been much better for Northern Nationalists than the policy of violent separatism was to prove to be. Northern Nationalists probably sensed this;  for , while the rest of Ireland was plumping for Sinn Fein in the election of December  1918, the electors of West Belfast chose  Joe Devlin of the Irish Party to represent them in preference to Eamon de Valera of  Sinn Fein.  


The Home Rule path would also have been better because it would have saved many lives throughout Ireland. People who died between 1916 and 1923 would have survived and would instead have contributed to Irish life, rather than to Irish martyrology. 

All things being equal, in my opinion, living for Ireland is better than dying (or killing) for Ireland.

I would emphasise that the waste of these lost lives needs to be weighed, and weighed heavily, in the balance against any supposed advantages secured by the use of force.  
Consider the dead for a moment. 

256 Irish civilians died during the 1916 rebellion, some at the hands of the rebels and many as a result of British artillery designed to expel the rebels from the positions they had occupied. 
These civilians did not have any say in the IRB/Citizen Army action and would all have lived if that action had not take place. We know of the rebels who died, and their deaths have been commemorated repeatedly by the Irish State. Each year the Irish army has a Mass to pray for the souls of those who “died for Ireland “ in 1916.  It is unclear to me whether this formula includes the civilians who did not decide to put their lives at risk “for Ireland”, but who were killed anyway because they were in the wrong place.
153 soldiers in UK Army uniforms were killed. Of these, 52 of the dead were Irish.

These Irish men were acting on the orders of a duly constituted Government, elected by a Parliament, which had already granted Home Rule to Ireland, and to which Ireland had democratically elected its own MP’s.  Did these men “ die for Ireland”? I would contend that they did. But their sacrifice is not commemorated, nor are their souls prayed for, in official remembrances by the Irish state. 

Consider also the dead of the War of 1919 to 1921, and the dead of the civil war of 1922 to 1923.

1200 were killed in the war of 1919 to 1921. Many of these were civilians who had not chosen the path of war. Others were policemen, who had chosen that vocation as a service to their people, and not to become participants in a war. Yet others were supposed or actual informers on behalf of either side.

If, in response to the appeal of the “blood sacrifice” of the 1916 leaders, the Home Rule party had not been rejected by the electorate in the General Election of 1918 in favour of a policy of abstention and separatism, Home Rule would have come into effect, and all those people would have lived.
 Many families of minority religions were made to feel unwelcome in Ireland as a result of the violence, and some left.  Southern Ireland became a less diverse society as a result of the policy of violence initiated by IRB and the Citizen Army at Easter of 1916.

Around 4000 Irish people were killed in the Civil War. Like those who were killed in the 1916 to 1921 period, many of these were amongst the brightest talents of their generation.  Ireland would have been a better place if the policy of violence had not caused their deaths.
Violence breeds violence. Sacrifice breeds intransigence. The dead exert an unhealthy power over the living, persuading the living to hold out for the impossible, so that the sacrifice of the dead is not perceived to have been in vain.

In that sense, the policy of violence, initiated in April 1916, led to the Civil War of 1922/3. 

The  earlier deaths of those who occupied the  General Post Office in 1916, seeking to achieve a 32 county Republic, made it harder for those, who occupied the Four courts in 1922, to accept anything less than a 32 County Republic.

Betrayal of the sacrifices of the dead is one of the most emotionally powerful, and destructive, accusations within the canon of romantic nationalism. It exercised its baleful influence in recent times in delaying the abandonment by the IRA of its failed and futile campaign to coerce and bomb Unionists into a United Ireland.  


I believe Ireland would have reached the position it is in today, an independent nation of 26 or 28 counties, if it had stuck with the Home Rule policy and if the 1916 rebellion had not taken place.

Like all counter factual historical arguments, this proposition is impossible to prove.

But, once the Ulster question had been resolved by some form of exclusion, the path towards greater independence was open. The policy of the Irish Party in the 1918 Election was Dominion Status and I believe they would have achieved that. Perhaps they would not have achieved it by 1921, as was achieved in the Treaty of that year, but it would probably have been achieved by the end of the 1920’s, probably from a Labour Government whose policy already envisaged dominion status for Ireland.

Once Ireland had its own legislature in Dublin , it would have been able to avail of the progressive loosening of ties within the Empire, in the same way as the Irish Free State was able to do , for example through the Statute of Westminster of 1931. 

Some might argue that security and defence considerations would have made this unlikely. I doubt that.

If a Conservative dominated Government was willing, in 1938, to hand over the Treaty ports to Eamonn de Valera who, 22 years previously had been an enemy of Britain and declared ally of Germany, it would surely have been willing to place as much trust in a Home Rule Government in Dublin, whose political antecedents had stood with Britain in its moment of greatest threat in 1914.

To say that a decision was a mistake is not to deny the heroism or sincerity of those who made the mistake. Hindsight enables one to see possibilities that were not visible at the time.  But the reality is that, in 1916, Home Rule was on the statute book and was not about to be reversed.

The “Irish Independent”, usually a severe critic of the Irish Parliamentary Party, was unfair when it described the rebellion at the time as “criminal madness”, but if the 1916 leaders had more patience, a lot of destruction could have been avoided, on the road to the same destination, at which we eventually arrived anyway.

Sunday, 3 August 2014


I greatly enjoyed reading  “Fatal Path....the British Government and Irish Revolution 1910 to 1922” by Ronan Fanning, formerly Professor of History in University College, Dublin.

He demonstrates the huge difficulties that had to be overcome in winning Home Rule for Ireland in September 1914.

There was deep seated anti Catholic prejudice to be overcome in both the Conservative and Liberal Parties. There was an underlying assumption in some quarters that the Catholic Irish could not be trusted to govern themselves, or to respect the property  rights of the Protestant minority in Southern Ireland. This prejudice had strong support in the upper reaches of the British Army.

Also ranged against Home Rule were the Ulster Unionists who had armed themselves in the Ulster Volunteer Force, with little or no interference from the Government. Their goal was to prevent Ulster counties coming under a Home Rule Parliament in Dublin, but they were used to resist Home Rule more generally.

A third obstacle was the House of Lords, which had a veto on all legislation, and  where there was an over whelming majority against Home Rule. This could not be overcome unless either

  1. The veto was removed or
  2. Hundreds of new Lords were appointed, who were selected on the basis that they were committed to Home Rule.

Without the threat of force, but relying on skilful and determined parliamentary tactics, the Irish Party, between 1910 and 1914, succeeded in having Home Rule passed and the House of Lords veto removed.

The centenary of this achievement is next month, 18 September. It deserves to be commemorated with more attention than the commemoration of the 1916 Rebellion.