John Bruton represents Fine Gael values – and those values are in deep trouble
Opinion: No one in Fine Gael seems even slightly uncomfortable that Bruton gets €134,728 from the taxpayer but still works as a well-paid representative for Irish and European interest groups
‘In fairness, John Bruton himself clearly does not see any problem with continuing to draw an enormous public pension while engaging in private work.’ Former taoiseach John Bruton, chairman of IFSC Ireland. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
Three years ago, it seemed obvious that Fine Gael had become the new natural party of government, that it could expect to hold office for the foreseeable future. That’s not obvious any more.
The reasons are embodied in a single figure: John Bruton. The former taoiseach and party leader may no longer hold power, but he represents Fine Gael values. And those values are in deep trouble.
The first value is decorum. Fine Gael sees itself as having a unique record of virtue in relation to the State, a profound respect for public propriety. Imagine, for example, if Fianna Fáil were still in power and a former Fianna Fáil taoiseach were hired to represent a powerful interest group that influences government policy. Fine Gael people would instinctively feel, not that this was illegal or unethical, but that it was bad form. They would point, for example, to Liam Cosgrave and how he has maintained a dignified distance from public life since his period as taoiseach.
They would point out, too, that the taxpayer gives former taoisigh huge pensions precisely so they can afford to live comfortably without selling their skills on the open market. But no one in Fine Gael seems even slightly uncomfortable that Bruton gets €134,728 a year from the taxpayer but still works as a well-paid representative for Irish and European interest groups. No one seems to find it at all indecorous that in his first ministerial post, the tyro Simon Harris, Minister of State at the Department of Finance, has to deal with one of his own party’s grandees, Bruton, who is president of IFSC Ireland.
In fairness, Bruton does not see any problem with drawing an enormous public pension while engaging in private work. That pension is extraordinary by international standards: former British prime ministers get €80,000; former German chancellors get €110,000 but any private earnings are offset against it. But his move from public to private roles does not weigh heavily on his mind. It did not occur to him to notify the European Commission, as he should have done under EU regulations, about his two private jobs after he left his role as EU ambassador to the United States (until the issue was brought to his attention). One of those jobs is with IFSC Ireland. The other is as “senior adviser” to Brussels-based lobbying firm Cabinet DN, which boasts on its website that it offers clients the ability to influence EU institutions and governments of member states (like Ireland presumably): “Drawing on our international staff and our network of advisors . . . we make your voice heard where it matters the most.”
This is one of the ways in which Bruton embodies Fine Gael’s problems: lack of discomfort with his lobbying role illustrates the party’s difficulty in living up to its self-image as the paragon of public virtue.
A second problem is its unwillingness to deal with the ways in which the banking crisis arose as much from Fine Gael’s culture as from Fianna Fáil’s. It suits the party to focus exclusively on Anglo Irish Bank, which can be seen, broadly, as part of Fianna Fáil’s hinterland. But Allied Irish Bank cost the taxpayer almost as much as Anglo and its political colour was much more blue than green. Fine Gael blue bloods like Peter Sutherland and Dermot Gleeson did much to shape its culture.
Now Bruton is one of the most influential voices of the banking and finance industries. The emergence of his private comments last year that “credulous” people blaming bankers for the banking crisis are like 17th century people blaming witches (remarks he has now withdrawn as “loosely worded”) gives us a glimpse of attitudes that are not for public consumption but that still prevail in that world.
Finally, there’s the big problem of Christian Democracy. Fine Gael sees itself as part of the most successful European post-war political movement, the one that forged a workable compromise between market economies and social progress. But Christian Democracy is imploding, sloughing off its interests in social justice and embracing neoliberalism. As Jan-Werner Müller put it recently in Foreign Affairs: “On questions of markets and morality, the Christian Democrats had a prime opportunity to reinvent themselves after the financial crisis: they might have brought back their old ideals of an economy in which the morally relevant unit is a societal group with legitimate interests, not a profit-maximising individual.” Instead, they adopted so-called austerity.
Broken promises Bruton, a profit-maximising individual, embodies this shift, too. In that same speech last year, he described all the major welfare programmes that Christian Democrats helped to build as “completely unaffordable” and predicted that the promises of the welfare state “are going to be broken”.
These values are fine for Bruton, whose pension clearly does not fall into the category of the completely unaffordable. And they’re fine for the powerful clients for whom he lobbies. But they are not fine for a party with ambitions to govern a battered democracy in the coming decades.
The former leader has done his party a last service by embodying in one frame its whole crisis of identity.