Brendan Hoban: John Bruton wasn’t an ordinary politician                        

Western People 12.3.2024

As the RTÉ cameras scanned the crowd at the State funeral of the former Taoiseach, John Bruton, it lingered on faces of the great and the good – those expected to be present and a few who seemed out of their comfort zones. Among the latter group was Kevin Myers, once one of Ireland’s most famous journalists and columnists.

Myers was for years synonymous with The Irish Times (IT) where he served a difficult apprenticeship under editor, Douglas Gageby (and later in The Sunday Times).

Myers needed to be supervised as he tended, like Icarus, to sail close to the sun and his columns, unmissable and invariably memorable, often employed a lethal mixture of irony, satire, humour and hyperbole. ‘Taking no hostages’ was a phrase that might have been invented for Kevin Myers. But he was mostly, above all, a lavishly gifted and entertaining writer.

However, Myers became a cropper when he gained an unfair reputation as a ‘Holocaust denier’, an accusation that RTÉ, who used the phrase to describe him on Morning Ireland, later accepted was ‘untrue and defamatory of Mr Myers’ character’ and for which the national broadcaster unreservedly apologised. Strangely, the IT, though it prides itself on reporting matters of national interest, failed to report that story, central as it was to Myers clearing his name.

Myers’ tempestuous years with the IT was to dog his tracks. For example, his long and relentless efforts in keeping alive the memory of the Irish dead in the Great War, lauded by President Mary McAleese in the company of the late Queen Elizabeth during her visit to Ireland, didn’t rate a mention in that paper when an IT journalist received an award from the French government for more recent work in the same area.

According to Myers in his book, Burning Issues, A Memoir of a Life in Conflict, 1979-2020, at the time several people wrote to the IT to protest against Myers not receiving due credit for ‘reclaiming of that part of the history of our country’. None of the letters, Myers writes, were published.

Among the then letter-writers was John Bruton. This may explain why Myers attended Bruton’s funeral and it exemplifies one of the many unexpected and unlikely connections Bruton developed over the years. Myers was surprised and gratified for Bruton’s interest and support: ‘For a former Taoiseach and senior EU diplomat to protest so publicly over a matter unrelated to his own career is almost unprecedented’.

John Bruton wasn’t an ordinary politician, in that even though he clearly was a man of great substance and wasn’t in any sense naïve about the ground-rules of politics, unlike other politicians he didn’t lick a finger and hold it aloft to see what way the wind was blowing before he decided what was right. Everything was considered. He listened attentively to opinion on all sides. And he wasn’t afraid to row against the prevailing current or to change his mind.

It’s very clear now that John Bruton has not been given sufficient credit for his honourable and principled career, at the centre of which was a relentless fidelity to justice and fair play and is probably why, when he discovered Myers’ predicament of having lost his own career, his good name and his position in public life in Ireland  – all, in his own words ‘incinerated beyond recovery’ – that he found himself in Myers’ corner.

Even-handed and fair-minded, Bruton often positioned himself outside the mainstream of popular opinion but he was content to research and analyse issues for himself and to remain true to his own assessment, even if he found himself at odds with policy and party. And at the same time, he could listen to those with whom he disagreed and moderate his opinion.

A committed Catholic, Bruton held firm to the practice of his faith and with pronounced views on social issues yet he threw himself into the campaign to introduce divorce (2019) and, in a last-minute appeal to voters, is credited with swinging the vote in its favour. He was committed to the peace process in the North and made genuine efforts to understand and explain the unionist perspective – and was often reviled for it. Like John Redmond, he was able to work with people with whom he had disagreed or once opposed.

Bruton saw himself in the tradition of Daniel O’Connell and, in particular, John Redmond, the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party in the early decades of the twentieth century. Bruton shared Redmond’s approach to constitutional change ­– effectively, that Irish independence would be more easily achieved politically if the 1916 Rising had never happened.

Bruton was convinced that the resulting violence, loss of life and mayhem that lasted for most of the century was unnecessary and immoral. To re-quote the wise words of Martin Doyle in his recent book, Dirty Linen, The Troubles in My Home Place, ‘If discrimination and domination are bad, does it really have to be said that indiscriminate murder is so much worse?’ It’s a conclusion that Bruton subscribed to and that’s becoming more obvious with the passing of time.

In his biography of Redmond, Dermot Mulready suggests that the ‘principle of consent’ at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement (1998), endorsed by the overwhelming majority of nationalist Ireland, would also have been endorsed by Redmond, whose ‘abhorrence of the notion that Irish self-government might be born in bloodshed and coercion of the unwilling’ led him in the direction of that ‘principle of consent’.

How much so many would have been saved if 1916 had not anointed the violent fall-out from that iconic event, including more recently the thirty tragic and futile years after 1969 when barbarities on both sides of the political divide left more than 3,600 dead and countless thousands maimed.

Not for the first time, did the Irish people pay a needless price for listening to the wrong voices.

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