The Mr Nice Guy of Irish politics

Sat, Dec 6, 2008, 00:00

IT'S 9.30 ON A frosty Saturday morning and the shadow Finance spokesman is already dishing it like a northside Nigella. At ease in his homely kitchen, levering his hot, freshly-baked brown bread on to the griddle, locating his home-made raspberry jam and rooting around for a little-used teapot. Brandi Carlile (folk-rock diva) is angsting on the music system while he chats about rugby and plants a carton of milk and unadorned pound of butter on the table.

There are no files, papers or economic tomes lying around, no sign of a life outside this calm, domestic warmth. He mentions a press cutting that was framed as a gift from a friend and I ask to see it. "Oh that's in the [Dáil] office. You wouldn't be let bring something like that into the house," he grins. It's not the scene one expects from a 55-year-old currently in the hot gaze of a flailing nation, its first preference for main Opposition leader according to an Irish Times poll, and more than that (by a landslide) if his Budget leaflet-drop in an Artane housing estate later that morning is anything to go by.

"Who's running this country, answer me that?" demands a gruff, burly voter, who miraculously softens: "I'm a Shinner but I tell ya what, I see ya around the place a fair bit and we'll be givin' you a chance the next time". Bruton's easy-going, "sure while I'm here, is there anything on your mind?" approach obviously has a benign effect on people. The eight FG activists out with him are plainly not along for the stereotypical back-slapping or murmurs to "see you right": Bruton does none of that. There's talk instead of his accessibility and lightly-worn intellect.

Was the earlier domestic god persona a set-up for the visiting journalist? "I don't think it would even occur to him or anyone in Fine Gael to do that . . . more's the bloody pity," snorts a close friend.

Anyway, the bread-making schtick is nothing new. "We always made bread at home [in Meath]," he shrugs. He dislikes "bought jam", so he makes his own. Every weekend he takes over the cooking from his wife Sue; this week, it's Moroccan. At his 25th political anniversary celebration, his son John, the eldest of their four children, described him affectionately as "a man whose idea of bliss is listening to Leonard Cohen in the kitchen while hovering over a simmering pot of oriental stir-fry".

In fact, it all squares with the persona that, paradoxically, has dogged him through his political life: that of "nice" Richard Bruton, known for his "nice, decent" image. When Harney's Hairgate presents an open goal for Opposition Rottweilers, he tells an Artane voter, "sure it's not a hanging offence". Too nice by half for a man with leadership ambitions? Well, he wants it. He contested the leadership in 2002, and says now, "if there's a vacancy again, I'll be contesting again . . ."

Was he serious about it in 2002? The question genuinely baffles him. "Enda and Gay [Mitchell] didn't go round beating the bushes and meeting every voter; Phil Hogan and I did. I was the only one who did interviews with Vincent Browne, setting out my stall . . . I don't know what makes you 'serious' . . . I did as much as I thought was appropriate."

At one level, no one argues more persuasively for the retention of Enda Kenny as leader, with repeated reference to his success at "dramatically" broadening the party base. At another, there is no false modesty about his own role in this. "If you look back to where we were in 2002, we had to rebuild our economic credibility and that we have done - and I suppose I've been central to that". But where another pretender might stop right there, he carries on, with scrupulous fairness, to play up Enda's role: "There has been an element of strategy, a corporate approach that has been pursued . . . In ways that you don't see, he is a very good motivator".

THE DIFFICULTY IS those pesky polls . . . and even those devout Fine Gaelers who sense that Enda Kenny lacks the charisma/gravitas/ muscular image to heave that ball over the line. He wonders at people's notion of a "leader". "Everyone said of Brian Cowen 'isn't he the ideal Taoiseach, 'the man', 'the decision-maker who appeared to have an air of strength about him'. Well, they got it . . ." he says, with a cheerful shrug. "Enda is clearly in the chairman-not-the-chief style . . . He's a corporate-style leader; he involves everyone."

But if the floating voter remains unconvinced by him, what's the point? "I'm not saying that Enda is perfect in all his presentation of it . . . We have to work on the strength and perception of him. There is room for improvement . . . I think that people who see him on the small box for 30 seconds don't see the full picture of Enda Kenny. He has to get through an election campaign in a system that is increasingly presidential and you don't have to tell him that . . . And if you look at the big picture, what is the role of a leader?".

It's a circular argument. But Fine Gael have learned the hard way that changing leaders is no trivial matter. "Politics is a team sport and I think that's the essence of political parties. You don't lop off leaders just because poll ratings change. People in retrospect would say that when John [his brother and former taoiseach] was moved, it was just panic that had set in . . . I wouldn't value loyalty quite as high as Brian Cowen does", he laughs wryly, "but I think it's part of the political game . . . I've been playing into a largely open goal at the moment because of the way Fianna Fáil are behaving, so it's not surprising that I'd get high ratings. I don't think I lie awake at night thinking 'always the bridesmaid never the bride'. I think I'm doing well at what I'm doing. That's not to say I wouldn't like to be leader but that's the way the game works."

Does this sound like a man who will plunge the knife in the back of a leader any time soon? Is he too nice, too reasonable, for this particular game? Or has he laboured too long in his big brother's shadow, to the detriment of his own self-belief? It is remarkable how the trajectory of his life has echoed John's, six years his elder. He followed him into economics and politics in UCD, then into Fine Gael and full-time politics, to a point where his advancement depended on his brother's own progress.

He doesn't dismiss the suggestion that his upward mobility might have been hampered by his brother's position in the party. "Maybe there isn't room for . . . I think I've got much more attention obviously since John has left politics. But that's partly because I've been promoted," he says, suggesting that given "the pantheon of stars scattered round the front bench", John had more difficult choices. "But to be fair to John, he did promote me. Maybe the only element was [the leadership contest] in 2002. Some people might have thought it too soon to have another Bruton. Maybe that sore was still open, or whatever the tensions were. I think there would have been an element of that; it was only recent history, it had only been two years since the heave against John and I'm sure that influenced some people where they probably felt 'let's not open those fault lines'."

Might he have been pushier earlier, if John hadn't been leader? "Perhaps. You definitely pursue your politics in a slightly different way". So maybe he is too nice? "Most people will see that there's a certain steel when I've put my mind to things." Like what? "Well, in constituency terms, I'm still here. I've survived a lot of tight scrapes. I've taken quite unpopular stands about the importance of accountability in education, or the idea of paying people to stay at school. I've taken strong positions that were unpopular within the party and stood my ground. I had a considerable role in the position we took on the payment of benchmarking - which I think showed balls in the party. I'm not a pushover by any means - no one would describe me as that", he says, adding: "But you have to get on with life".

What does he think people mean by "too nice"? "I think people have a perception that politics is made up of people that go round stabbing one another in the back and that this is the skill of politics. I don't think there's any proof of that. What is Bertie Ahern's success? He is the quintessential ordinary person. His success was built on ordinariness, on being a nice fellow. He's nice to everyone, even to his most bitter opponents . . . "

But Bertie Ahern is famous - among many things - for showing Albert Reynolds the voting slip for his presidential nominee with Reynolds' name on it, while thinking something else. Was this not backstabbing of a high order? "Not publicly. He pretended he wasn't doing it. The point is what people like . . . " Is Richard Bruton capable of pretending loyalty to someone while traducing them?  "Well, that's not in my make-up maybe.You'd have to go back into the annals of time to see where did that come from."

Not that far. His father, Joseph, an innovative beef farmer who pioneered the move from low-input low-output summer grazing to wintering cattle off the land, is a man who always saw the best in everyone. "That is definitely one of his traits. He never sees someone as conniving or manipulating. He'll be 100 next March, so it certainly hasn't shortened his life. So it's definitely a trait - in some members of the family", he laughs.

He is hugely proud of his father's public service contribution in farming. "He was chair of the NFA [National Farmers' Association] beef committee which then became the IFA [Irish Farmers' Association] and he was also chair of the Port and Docks Board, all voluntary. He was a man who sought solutions rather than conflict. He would have seen a lot of farm organisations blown apart by politics. He fought not to be seen as a political figure, not to be seen as partisan. We would never have been conscious that we were Fine Gael, until John went forward."

JOSEPH'S DETERMINATION to appear non-partisan went so far as declining to canvass for his sons. The family reputation for fair dealing goes back to Joseph's father, Matthew, a tenant farmer living in Cornelstown, Co Meath (where John, the former Taoiseach now lives) who laid the foundation of the Bruton wealth with a talent for identifying good value at a cattle fair. That reputation was credited with keeping Richard in the running for a Senate seat back in 1981; he was on the verge of elimination when a vote came out of the blue from a Clare Fianna Fáil councillor, still appreciative of decent deals from the Brutons.

While Joseph Bruton's household was a disciplined one in which the BBC's World at One got the same attention as the Irish news, the sisters and brothers of his mother, Doris, played as important a role in their formation. "Our mother was probably more attuned to the heartbeat of people than the Bruton side," he says. "She would have been more alert to the things in politics that were backfiring". Her family, the Delaneys of Culmullen, and in particular her unmarried brothers and sister - Ted the farmer, Percy the banker, and Mary, a bountiful Martha Stewart of her time - had an "extraordinary love of children . . . They were the lodestar around which we all circulated. We just loved to go down there". Summers and weekends, they left their father's modern farm to roam Woodtown with gentle, aware, spiritual Ted, who collected the fresh milk from the next farm, and every evening put the sheep's head cooking on the range for the greyhounds while 40 stray cats with no tails hung around the door. Night time was for card games; it's where he learned to play bridge. Greyhound racing at Navan or Shelbourne Park was a weekend feature.

He talks about those days with a wistful intensity. "Talk about values and decency . . . It wasn't anything they said, it was the way they would react to any situation. They weren't out for themselves in any way. They lived their lives to an ethic - not that they wore it on their sleeve - you just had to observe the way they lived."

Doris had three sisters who were Dominican nuns which is why young Richard went to primary school in Cabra. When the boys' school closed, he moved to Belvedere at nine years of age, which he "loved", but it was a logistical treadmill for his parents. At 12, he went to board in Clongowes, where his father and John had been before him. "Clongowes was a wrench, though my memory of it would be a good deal better than John's . . . I would say I made better friends in Belvedere. I've never been wildly enthusiastic about boarding school nor has Sue. She found it very lonely going to Rathfarnham. We didn't send any of our children." But he played cards with the other country boys, developed "a bit of a soccer team", and came out with a five-honours Leaving Cert. Aptitude tests showed a talent for computer engineering but he chose to follow John's lead into UCD - commuting from home via two buses - and got a first every year, and a succession of scholarships. "So I'm good at it", he says with an uncharacteristic burst of cockiness. "Some would say I'm still good at it."

AFTER COLLEGE, HE joined the ESRI, working as a research assistant for Kieran Kennedy, "who had the ethic of being thorough. He was a stickler for saying 'you don't mess with the figures'. That kind of thoroughness can slow you down in politics but in the end, people believe what you say." In 1977, he got a graduate placement through the ESRI at Nuffield, Oxford University, which he found "not that pleasant an environment", but emerged with a masters and a thesis on - surprise, surprise - Irish public debt.

Then a couple of years in PJ Carroll (which came with 160 free cigarettes a week, which he brought down to the Little Sisters of the Poor), and another move to Roadstone. His final job in the private sector was with CRH. "But in terms of corporate advancement, there was no suggestion of a career in it." In the meantime, he had won a seat on Meath Co Council in 1979, edged into the Seanad in 1981 and made it to the Dáil for Dublin North Central in 1982.

Activists (including his wife, Sue) remember that campaign as a bitter battle, following the calamitous tax on children's shoes budget measure proposed by his brother, John. He blithely recalls that Fine Gael came back with more seats than before. "I joined the campaign a week into that election, a farmer's son in an urban constituency and I would never have got elected without the Bruton name, there's no doubt about that. The measure was lost, yes, but people knew they were difficult times and history would say that if that budget had been successful, the public finances would not have been so bad throughout the 1980s."

As for now, he says, "We're on a roll. The diagnosis in 2002 was that we were the porridge on the cereal shelf - it's wholesome and in certain circumstances, is a good thing to have a hot bowl of porridge. But 99 days out of 100, people would go for Crunchy Nut or whatever. Now we're transformed. I think we're going to form the next government. The polls suggest that people are responding to the team. And yes, that's the team that Edna built".