Friday 24 January 2020

Bruton generates a mixed reaction from FG

Former Taoiseach John Bruton
Former Taoiseach John Bruton

Fionnan Sheahan

In his 11 years as Fine Gael leader, he was never invited to deliver the oration at Beal na mBlath, the annual pilgrimage of Fine Gaelers and history buffs alike to commemorate the death of Michael Collins. The omission didn't appear to have anything to do with John Bruton's availability. During his time as leader in the 1990s, Bruton used to often holiday on the south-west Cork coastline, being spotted striding through Schull. Party members locally would comment on how he was an aloof figure, who couldn't be relied upon to say hello to passers-by.

Within months of succeeding him as leader of Fine Gael, Michael Noonan was standing at the shrine on a sunny August day in west Cork paying tribute to the iconic figure the party regards as one of its founding fathers.

The gesture spoke volumes of the grassroots view of Bruton and his opinions on the foundation of the State and his latter day thinking on Northern Ireland.

'Orange John' he was cruelly nicknamed. His management of the Northern issue during his time in power was unfairly blamed, in part, for the collapse of the IRA ceasefire. But Bruton was correct in predicting that the peace process could not be solved without engagement with and buy-in from the unionist community.

His stance on the foundation of the State still proves to be contentious, even if it is well rehearsed at this stage. Bruton is not a believer in the "blood sacrifice" of the Easter Rising in 1916 and disagrees with the subsequent turning away from Constitutional methods, through the War of Independence. He believes John Redmond's path of Home Rule would have been a stepping stone to full independence, without the bloodshed. He has forwarded this thesis for many years, but it has struck a chord now as the commemoration of 1916 approaches.

At a time when tensions are again rising in Northern Ireland, his latest reiteration, saying the Rising was "completely unnecessary" has not gone down well within Fine Gael. Ministers have rapidly distanced themselves from his remarks, saying he was merely speaking in a personal capacity.

"The best thing he could do with his opinions is do what Liam Cosgrave has done and keep them to himself," a party backbencher told the Sunday Independent.

Within Fine Gael, there has always been admiration for Bruton's intellect and integrity - if not his style. Even after his tenure as leader, he has flown the flag for the party on a European level in a distinguished manner, representing the embodiment of the party's Christian Democratic ethos.

But the relationship of Fine Gael, right up to Taoiseach Enda Kenny, with its former leader has become particularly strained in recent times. His actions around the abortion legislation last summer were received particularly badly.

Around the time of the publication of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, Bruton publicly stated that the Government plans to legalise abortion were contrary to the Constitutional protection of the unborn.

"I know of no other area of law where a threat of suicide is sufficient to make legal what would otherwise be illegal," he wrote in the Irish Independent last year.

Bruton's position on abortion was well documented for decades. However, the timing of the comments from such an influential figure added to the pressure on the growing number of Fine Gael TDs uncomfortable with the legislation as the threatened exodus from the party was beginning.

The leadership was finally waking up to the fact that TDs would be lost, prior to the departure of Lucinda Creighton and fellow anti-abortion TDs just weeks later.

Bruton's high-profile attendance at a pro-life vigil in Knock, attended by 5,000 people, where he delivered a reading, struck a particularly raw nerve, as the event took place in Kenny's constituency.

The former Taoiseach's intervention was viewed as interference, and comparisons were drawn to his own passing of the divorce referendum against the wishes of the Catholic hierarchy. Notably, Creighton was the only one championing the Bruton cause for the European Commissioner post this summer. Figures inside Fine Gael said it illustrated how irrelevant she has become to party thinking.

Bruton's economic commentary has also become annoying for the Government, as he speaks of 10 more years of austerity when the Coalition is trying to improve voter sentiment. He has also cautioned against the "scapegoating of individuals" and called for the forgiveness of those blamed for the economic downturn.

The emergence of a speech where he appears to scoff at the proletariat for blaming bankers for the crisis will be viewed as less than helpful. But Bruton seems to care little about what his party thinks of him at this stage.

Sunday Independent

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