A good and decent man who was never a quitter


Integrity was the word John Bruton chose to wrap himself in when he went before the public to sell his leadership qualities. Even as fought to retain political control of Fine Gael, his focus was on a new government and the glittering prize of Taoiseach. The job was just within his grasp . . . all he had to do was survive.

It was not to be. The miracle that had plucked him from the opposition benches in 1994 and installed him as Taoiseach - without going before the electorate - would not recur. But it was a close-run thing.

Mr Bruton argued strenuously he was best fitted to lead Fine Gael into the next election. He pointed to recent electoral successes. And he railed against the unfairness of having to face two leadership challenges within two months.

It almost worked. Many of those who had benefited from his patronage on the front bench thought of ministerial cars and stood firm. And a sizeable section of the middle ground looked at the greying alternatives on offer and took Belloc's cautionary verse as their guide: "Always keep tight hold of nurse, for fear of getting something worse.'

But the numbers didn't quite stack up. At the death it took the combined strength of Michael Noonan and Jim Mitchell to bring him down, allied to the shadowy promise of a third contender. The Dublin-Munster axis and the promise of a new broom and new jobs were the clinching factors. Even then, there was hesitancy and fear.

Mr Bruton's aggressive fightback had caused some TDs to re-evaluate the simplistic notion that he and his leadership style had caused the party's ills and that his replacement would bring a brave new world.

The public might have "gone off" Mr Bruton and regarded him as lacking charisma and style. But that didn't mean Mr Noonan or Mr Mitchell was invested with those characteristics.

Fine Gael had been in decline ever since the halcyon days of Garret FitzGerald, when the party flirted briefly with social democracy and a liberal agenda became fashionable. Even then, there had been major cock-ups. Mr Bruton had held the Department of Finance when a proposed tax on children's shoes undid the administration. Three years later, he was again controlling the purse strings when Fine Gael and Labour parted company.

The fall of that government in 1987 and the resignation of Dr FitzGerald saw Mr Bruton and Peter Barry lose out in the race for the leadership to Alan Dukes. Three years later, however, the Tallaght strategy and Mr Dukes's strained relations with his parliamentary colleagues caused the wheel to turn.

Mr Bruton emerged as the sole candidate for the leadership. The party was going back to its conservative roots. John Bruton's first election as party leader in 1992 was an unmitigated disaster. The party lost 10 Dail seats and hit a low of 45 TDs, the lowest number since the 1950s.

The disaster was compounded when Mr Bruton and his negotiators failed to cut a deal with Dick Spring and the revitalised Labour Party. Albert Reynolds stepped into the breach and formed the first Fianna Fail-Labour Party government. Naturally, there were rumblings of anger. Support for the party fell to 18 per cent and Mr Bruton's popularity nosedived. But the avalanche had passed. And there was always the prospect that Labour would not be able to take the heat in the Fianna Fail kitchen.

To buy time Mr Bruton set up a commission on the renewal of Fine Gael. When it reported a year later, the verdict was devastating. It found the party "weak, demotivated, lacking morale, direction and focus". It needed radical restructuring. And, reading between the lines, it required a new leader. It took a few months for the "heave" against Mr Bruton to develop. When it did, in 1994, seven members of the front bench put down a vote of no confidence. They were Michael Noonan, Alan Dukes, Jim O'Keeffe, Alan Shatter, Charlie Flanagan, Jim Higgins and Frances Fitzgerald.

When the dust settled, they had lost their front-bench positions and Mr Bruton had been confirmed as party leader.

Mr Bruton's survival was fashioned from a number of strands. The most important was the prospect of securing government positions. Another was a willingness by his colleagues to give a second chance to a decent man who was doing his best. Within months, as the cracks in the Fianna Fail-Labour government became insupportable, Mr Bruton offered Dick Spring and Proinsias de Rossa a new deal. Without consulting the electorate, the rainbow coalition emerged. It confirmed a key lesson of politics: fate is fickle, hang in there at all costs. The position of Taoiseach provided Mr Bruton with a gravitas he had lacked. And he grew into the job, treating his coalition partners with such restraint and consideration that they sought re-election as a unit.

Of course he had problems. His tough stance on the IRA caused Mr Reynolds to describe him as "John Unionist". But his insistence in government on disarmament/decommissioning set the tone for later Fianna Fail/republican negotiations that culminated in the Belfast Agreement. And, as the economy began a slow metamorphosis into the so-called "Celtic Tiger", it was John Bruton who presided over the transformation.

During those years the oxygen of government helped to reinvent Fine Gael's public image. Support for the party climbed steadily and hit 30 per cent in mid-1996. At the same time, satisfaction with Mr Bruton grew to the heady heights of 62 per cent. Since then, the direction has been steadily downhill. Ten years may seem a long time as party leader. But not to the incumbent. Mr Bruton knew in his heart that if he could just hold on until the next election he would become Taoiseach. Lightning could strike twice. Four years at the top and he could happily hand over to a younger man.

But the tyranny of time was also driving Michael Noonan and Jim Mitchell. They couldn't afford to wait. Yesterday, the challenge played out. And a good and decent man became an ordinary party member.