British considered Bruton ‘as good as it gets’ – state papers

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Former Fine Gael leader John Bruton was “as good a taoiseach as we are likely to get”, according to a senior British civil servant in 1997.

The comment was revealed in state papers declassified and released from archives in London this week.

The former taoiseach was described as “nice, straightforward and violently anti-IRA” by John Holmes, the private secretary to then British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Dick Spring, Labour leader and Tánaiste at the time, was “greener [more nationalist] but not unreasonably so”.

The briefing document was prepared for Blair prior to his first meeting with the Dublin government in May 1997, shortly after Labour’s victory.

“Bruton is as good a taoiseach as we are ever likely to get from a British point of view,” wrote Holmes.

After the Irish election the following month, as a result of which Bertie Ahern became taoiseach, Blair rang Bruton and sympathised at Fine Gael’s loss. Bruton said Ahern was a “pragmatist” and the two men would get on well.

“But he [Bruton] did worry that the Irish government might get too close to Sinn Féin. They were dangerous people and he doubted their sincerity. They would need very careful watching even after a ceasefire,” said a memo for the call.

The papers also reveal that a celebrated message from Blair, warmly praised in Ireland as a peace-process breakthrough, was in fact written as an afterthought by a low-ranking official and not even read by the British Prime Minister, it emerged.

The admission of the British government’s culpability over the Great Hunger in Ireland, when a million starved to death following a failure of the potato crop due to food exports to Britain, was in fact hastily written by an aide.

Private Secretary John Holmes told Blair that he approved the text because the Prime Minister was “not around at the time” the last-minute request was made for a message at a 150th anniversary commemoration in Cork, weeks after New Labour swept to power in May 1997.

Documents reveal Mr Holmes personally approved the text, which described the Hunger as “a defining event” in the history of Ireland and Britain and a “massive human tragedy”.

“Those who governed in London at the time failed their people through standing by while a crop failure turned into a massive human tragedy,” the message read.

Mr Blair was unable to attend the event, and so his words were read by an actor. Nevertheless, the Irish media declared it to be an apology for the Famine and gave it huge coverage. The then Taoiseach John Bruton said: “The prime minister is to be complimented for the thought and care shown in this statement.”

But the offical who cleared the statement later admitted it was “unexceptionable” and not an apology. He said Mr Blair did not challenge him, saying he did not remember any comeback, adding: “Luckily.”

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