Dail remembers ‘modern Irish patriot’ during tributes to John Bruton

John Bruton, who was taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, died on Tuesday.

Picture by Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Former Taoiseach John Bruton, pictured arriving at Leinster House in Dublin in April 2017 to address the Seanad on Brexit.

Former taoiseach John Bruton has been remembered as a “modern Irish patriot” during a series of expressions of sympathy in the Dail.

Mr Bruton, who was taoiseach between 1994 and 1997 and leader of the Fine Gael political party between 1990 and 2001, died on Tuesday in Dublin following a long illness.

On Wednesday, the normal parliamentary schedule for the Dail was replaced with an extended session for tributes.

Politicians highlighted his intellect, sense of humour and distinctive laugh as well as his passion for farming and dedication to his faith.

Mr Bruton was known for his role as head of a “rainbow coalition” alongside Labour and Democratic Left.

He was taoiseach in 1995 when Ireland voted by a slim margin to lift a ban on divorce and for the first official royal visit to the country since the foundation of the state, welcoming then-Prince of Wales Charles.

Born in Dunboyne in Co Meath, the qualified barrister was first elected to the Dail as TD for the county at the age of 22.

He was pivotal in establishing the Northern Ireland peace process alongside then-UK prime minister Sir John Major, with the pair launching the Anglo-Irish Framework document.

He retired from domestic politics in 2004 but served as the European Union’s ambassador to the US until 2009.

The speaker of the house, Ceann Comhairle Sean O Fearghail said it was “profoundly sad” that the Dail had to gather on Wednesday following Mr Bruton’s death.

Describing him as an esteemed taoiseach, Mr O Fearghail said Mr Bruton was a “modern Irish patriot” who gave a “lifetime of sterling service”.

Current Fine Gael leader and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar extended his sympathy to the Bruton family, who he said exemplify positive principles of Irish politics.

He said Mr Bruton led a life of extraordinary public service and had left a remarkable legacy.

“While his public persona was often intellectual and serious – as a person, he was always good company, funny, witty, gregarious, sociable, self-deprecating with a distinctive and infectious laugh.”

He added: “He continued to radiate optimism and confidence, and continued to inspire those around him as he worked to improve the lives of others.”

Mr Varadkar, who counts Mr Bruton as a personal inspiration to enter politics, said the former taoiseach had led a government which allowed the economy to take off “spectacularly”.

He added: “John believed in democracy, and believed passionately that politics was a noble pursuit that could change lives for the better.”

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar paid tribute to Mr Bruton
Stormont Assembly Taoiseach Leo Varadkar paid tribute to Mr Bruton (Oliver McVeigh/PA)

He said his work with the former UK prime minster established elements which later became the Good Friday Agreement.

Mr Varadkar said Mr Bruton was a man of deep personal faith and conviction who “understood the power of forgiveness and compassion”.

He said his role in the visit of then Prince Charles was “an important act of reconciliation”.

Speaking on behalf of the Fianna Fail political party, finance minister Michael McGrath said Mr Bruton was deeply involved in advancing “peace and prosperity” across the island of Ireland and Europe.

Mr McGrath said he was a sincere and active participant in debates about causes he was “never afraid” to speak up for.

John Bruton was taoiseach between 1994 and 1997
John Bruton/Conference speech John Bruton was taoiseach between 1994 and 1997 (Chris Bacon/PA)

He said there were “countless stories” of his personal kindness to colleagues and opposition politicians.

Mr McGrath added: “He was a patriot in the truest sense of the word because he believed in serving all the people of the nation and dedicated his life to the idea that a democratic society must respect diversity of traditions and opinions.”

He added that Mr Bruton would “surely take great pride” in the recent restoration of Northern Ireland’s political institutions.

Green party leader Eamon Ryan shared personal recollections of meeting Mr Bruton, paying tribute to the former taoiseach’s “big thinking” and patriotism.

“He spoke with the authority of a former taoiseach. It was stunning to watch and, god almighty, it was impressive.”

Mr Ryan said Mr Bruton’s relationship with Sir John Major was critical in setting Northern Ireland on a path to peace.

In his contribution to the Dail, independent TD Denis Naughten said Mr Bruton was a “salt of the earth” man who had a love and understanding of farming and rural Ireland.

Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald expressed respect for Mr Bruton’s commitment to public service, but noted her party had “very clear and very important” political differences with the former Fine Gael leader throughout the peace process in Northern Ireland.

She said he articulated his beliefs with passion but added: “I profoundly disagreed with his viewpoints and positions on many issues – not least, our revolutionary history and the Easter Rising in particular. However, I know that his perspective was sincerely held.”

Ms McDonald said her thoughts and prayers were with Mr Bruton’s family, friends and Fine Gael colleagues.

“On behalf of myself and Sinn Fein, I offer today our most sincere condolences,” she said.

Labour leader Ivana Bacik noted that her party’s social democratic and trade union tradition meant it had often encountered difficulties with Mr Bruton’s Christian Democratic beliefs.

However, she said generations had benefited from the policies of the short-lived three-party rainbow coalition government led by Mr Bruton.

Ms Bacik said he played a crucial role in securing the “first great constitutional liberalisation” with the passing of the divorce referendum.

Dick Spring and Sir John Major with John Bruton
Major/Bruton/ Spring Dick Spring and Sir John Major with John Bruton (PA)

Additionally, she said: “I think we can acknowledge that John Bruton’s government played a key role in laying the groundwork for the peace and stability that we now have across this island.”

Former Labour leader Brendan Howlin, who served as environment minister in the rainbow coalition, said Mr Bruton’s character was a critical component for the cohesion and survival of that government.

He said: “He served this nation well. It’s an important place in our history. His family, his county, and his party can be justly proud of his great achievements.”

In a statement, another former Labour leader Dick Spring said he would remember Mr Bruton as a man who loved his family, constituency and country.

Mr Spring, who was tanaiste in that coalition, said Mr Bruton was “someone prepared to give his all in the interests of public service”.