Thursday 18 July 2019

John Downing: 'Is Fine Gael's safe pair of hands the man to defuse the ticking timebombs of climate action and broadband?'

'There are few still active in Irish politics who have been at it as long as Richard Bruton.'
'There are few still active in Irish politics who have been at it as long as Richard Bruton.'
John Downing

John Downing

It is not remembered as the most thrusting comment signalling raw ambition from Richard Bruton.

"In the swag bag of every corporal there is a lieutenant's baton," he said on television when asked about Fine Gael's poor showing in an opinion poll published on the night of June 11, 2010. That low-key remark was how Richard Bruton broke cover and signalled he was mounting his ill-fated challenge against Enda Kenny for the Fine Gael leadership - and it somehow typified his understated approach to politics.

Today, he is due to deliver the Government's strategy to tackle the biggest challenge facing our generation, global warming. In the autumn, he faces into this Government's other major challenge with the finalising of huge contracts for the rollout of rural broadband.

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So just who is this 66-year-old politician who has remained hidden in plain sight for long periods of his four decades in Irish public life? And does he have the ability to deliver enough to get Leo Varadkar and his Government out of trouble on these two headline issues?

Once known as the 'Baby Bruton', he was for a long time overshadowed by his more forceful older brother, John, who served as Taoiseach from 1994 to 1997 as the culmination of an accomplished career. Both brothers had the advantages of growing up on a large farm in Co Meath and an education which included stints at the elite Clongowes Wood College.

But one should not assume the brothers are carbon copies. "Richard is a different type of person to John. He is brilliant academically, good but limited politically, and very deep and extraordinarily stubborn. Once he makes up his mind - that's it," one Fine Gael veteran told this writer soon after that failed heave against Kenny.

There are few still active in Irish politics who have been at it as long as Richard Bruton. He served on Meath County Council from 1979 to 1982 and arrived as a senator at Leinster House in 1981, before finally being elected a TD in Charlie Haughey's stomping ground of Dublin North-Central in February 1982. He has been re-elected for that general area in all eight elections since.

Before politics, he was an economist who worked with the ESRI among others. He is often described by colleagues as "a policy wonk", probably feeding the "good but limited politically" comment cited.

His publications include the 'Irish Public Debt' in 1979, and the ultimate popular page-turner 'Drainage Policy in Ireland' in 1982.

But he has figured on all government teams whenever Fine Gael was in power. In 1986-87, he served as junior minister responsible for energy and in the 1994-1997 rainbow coalition he was enterprise and employment minister. He also got a good vote when he unsuccessfully contested the party leadership after Fine Gael's 2002 electoral meltdown.

When the RTÉ journalist George Lee swept into the Dáil with a by-election win for Fine Gael in 2009, he was being talked about for an economic ministry in the near future, probably even as Finance Minister. Richard Bruton, then party deputy leader and finance spokesman, was not impressed and Lee was very effectively frozen out by long-serving TDs, including Bruton, and, for a variety of reasons, left politics within a year.

By that leadership heave in June 2010, Bruton had gained respect when his warnings about the cost of public service pay "benchmarking" had proved correct. With the economy in the doldrums in summer 2010, as reliability appeared to outweigh more flash attributes, even his low-key personality seemed a plus.

Unlike some of the "rebels" who backed Richard Bruton's unsuccessful heave, he survived on the victorious Enda Kenny's first team, both in opposition and later in cabinet. But he never did get the coveted finance minister's post, which went to the veteran Michael Noonan, who got an unexpected new lease of life in the upper echelons of politics.

Over the last eight years of Fine Gael-led governments, Richard Bruton has served as jobs and enterprise minister from 2011 until 2016 and as education minister from 2016 until 2018.

Fate took a hand in October 2018, when Denis Naughten was obliged to resign as minister for communications, climate action and environment.

This department is one of the Government's most unwieldy and often subject to re-apportioning of sectoral responsibilities and resulting name changes. It was also by then the home of two major ticking bombs: rural broadband and the long-neglected issue of climate change.

Naughten's departure from office, as an Independent and former Fine Gael TD, left a deal of unwanted political fallout arising from a series of meetings between him and the sole remaining bidder for the broadband rollout contract.

At the same time, by the Taoiseach's own admission, Ireland has failed badly to show results on action to deal with carbon emission reductions.

So Richard Bruton will need all his political skills and experience to play through those two nasty ones. Some observers believe he is the ideal person for the tasks, and that his mixture of nerdy tendencies and lower ego settings could prove to be a boon.

This view is buoyed by his performances in recent weeks filling in at Leaders' Questions in the Dáil, when both the Taoiseach and Tánaiste have been absent. His quiet courtesy and understatement sometimes borders on appearing like boring the Opposition into submission.

But from this week on, he will need to do far more than that. Climate change is an issue on which most everyone agrees action must be taken. But often that is where the consensus ends.

Taxes on diesel were what drove the French "yellow vest" protesters to militant action on the streets and highways.

Diesel has long been the beating heart of provincial Ireland, where public transport is poor at best. He must lead a move to electric vehicles and alternative sources of energy.

Change must come gradually with maximum information and the real availability of other options. It will not be easy to win the hearts and minds which may be attracted to predictable opposition cries of "not this policy on climate change and not now".

The farming sector will require particular attention, not least because it has been the cornerstone of Fine Gael support.

Many of the same principles apply to the broadband rollout this autumn. Urban voters look askance at what is being styled a taxpayers' blank cheque to the last bidder standing. Rural voters risk seeing it as just another set of promises with deadlines like previous ones.

There is no shortage of challenges beckoning for this most low-key political veteran. Much will turn on his ability to project sincerity to balance lack of charisma in the coming weeks.

Colleagues will hope reliability will trump all.

Irish Independent

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