Bruce Arnold

Chief Critic of the Irish Independent, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

Government has been inept in its handling of Bruton bid

JOHN Bruton followed an impeccable protocol in putting his name forward for the presidency of Europe. Already a high official within the European Union, he addressed himself to the ambassadors of all 27 member states, asking for their assistance "in conveying a message to your government", that if no serving member of the council of ministers were available, he would like to be chosen as president of the European Council.

It is not clear what protocol was applied to this message when received at the Department of Foreign Affairs, but it was certainly less than impeccable, with the minister making a confused public response, almost certainly before the Government had considered the message sent to it, and Brian Cowen following up with an equally confused response.

He failed to withdraw endorsement of Tony Blair, blundering into a set of mixed messages that seemed to rely on how John Bruton's application might work out with other EU States. Moreover, it was crass in the way it was at odds with the Government's referendum stance, idolising the EU and its senior figures -- with the obvious exception of Bruton.

Taoiseach Brian Cowen clearly spoke without benefit of government decision on how to proceed, which should have been collectively decided. Our strength and clarity was undermined on a key question. It was a mixture of leading from the rearguard combined with more than a touch of "whatever you're having yourself".

Cowen and his Government look stupid as a result, not surprisingly, given the frequency with which this haphazard and undisciplined approach to serious issues emerges from a confused administration.

The application for the presidency was a very serious moment for John Bruton, and he handled it correctly. Had he approached the Government unilaterally, he would have been undermined. The Government's failure to approach him was stupidity. What his future fortunes may be is open to speculation. That he is an outstanding candidate cannot be denied. He is one of the most underrated of the limited band of truly able, even great, figures who have served Ireland in the past half-century. He has done so with flawless integrity. He has great intellectual capacity, combined with wisdom and good judgment. From his maiden speech as Minister of State appointed to Education by Liam Cosgrave, I have witnessed his political career with consistent admiration.

He had to contend with two serious political handicaps not of his making. The first was the engrained prejudice of Fianna Fail, whose resentment of his balanced view of Unionists and Nationalists in the North -- eventually to prove the critical factor in arriving at a settlement -- led to ignorant and prejudiced attacks about the significant contribution he made to the peace process.

Fianna Fail were equally ignorant and prejudiced in seeking to block the passage of the divorce referendum.

Bruton's enlightened views have since become an accepted part of our society, even including the welcome that Bruton gave to Prince Charles on his historic visit to Ireland.

The second, more shameful undermining of his political position, both in ministerial appointments under Garret FitzGerald and then as party leader, both in opposition and as head of government, came from a misguided prejudice against his supposedly right-wing politics and his sense of identity with a largely forgotten Irish Parliamentary Party tradition. Bruton admired John Redmond, whose portrait he had in his office as Taoiseach, rather than that of Padraig Pearse. However, he kept beside it a portrait of Sean Lemass, who he also admired for his reforming spirit.

Combined with the difficult decisions he had to make on the economy and early misfortunes like the tax on children's shoes, he took blame for bringing down the unstable first FitzGerald administration. This had successfully removed Haughey, after his weak first period as Taoiseach.

Bruton went on successfully to lead the rainbow coalition. He gave good government, better than both his predecessor, Albert Reynolds, and his successor, Bertie Ahern.

John Bruton was consistently and unfairly attacked by the media. He did nothing to appease or please them, rather like Sean Lemass. But times had changed, as had standards of truth and fairness.

There was little admiration for his pioneering work with John Major on the North, again a model for what eventually emerged as the solution. Bruton even managed an effective rapprochement with Gerry Adams, undermined by renewed bombing and the murder of Gerry McCabe.

Bruton was responsible for the infant Celtic Tiger when living standards began to rise dramatically. Fine Gael treated him shabbily, removing him from the leadership in 2001 -- orchestrated in a serious misjudgment by Michael Noonan and the late Jim Mitchell -- and this cleared the way for Bertie Ahern's series of irresponsible administrations from which stem the disastrous present state of our finances.

John Bruton stands free of any charge of political deviousness or lack of integrity. He served this country well and equipped himself for the larger office for which he has already submitted an application.

The Cowen government is fumbling for an adequate response.

Fianna Fail is in trouble making sense of its new and largely ridiculous alliance with the European Liberal Party, its MEPs not knowing how to behave or vote, infuriating Guy Verhofstadt by abstaining on press freedom in Italy, a decision that came from Dublin.

Brian Cowen has discovered belatedly that he is torn between Blair and Bruton.

There should be no issue. He should renounce Blair, whose claim is improper on account of the Iraq war. Typically, Cowen has adopted a wait-and-see approach.

He wants a winner. He does not want to do the right thing by Ireland and for this he has been criticised, quite properly, by Enda Kenny, for what is a piece of ineptitude over Blair's candidacy.

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