The former 26 County Taoiseach John Bruton is under pressure to withdraw his comments and step down from the body that advises Irish Presidents following a torrent of false and demeaning criticism against the President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins.
The former Fine Gael leader demanded the President attend a politicised pro-unionist event to commemorate 100 years of Britain’s forced partition of Ireland, and suggested he did not have the “strength of character” to change his mind after his refusal last week.
Following the decision of President Higgins not to attend, Bruton claimed that if he had “fulfilled his obligations under the Constitution”, which he said was to follow the advice of the Dublin government on this matter, he should have agreed to attend the commemoration of the partition of Ireland.
The former Fine Gael leader said this is “one of the most important invitations he would have received as President.”
“It wasn’t an invitation to the opening of a credit union in County Kerry,” he added. “This was an invitation to attend an event which deals with a very difficult issue upon which policy is made by the Government.
“We can’t have two policies on Northern Ireland - one being made by the Government is Merrion Street, and another being made in the Phoenix Park.”
Bruton’s loyalities have long been called into question by republicans, most recently after it emerged from state archives that the British officials once hailed him ‘as good as we are likely to get’ for an Irish leader.
Speaking in Rome last weekend, the President said Bruton’s criticism was “extraordinary” coming from a member of the Council of State.
Speaking from the Vatican, where he had been meeting the Pope, Mr Higgins said the former Taoiseach’s interpretation of the Constitution and the relationship between the government and the President was “unusual” and “unfortunate”, and suggested he withdraw the remarks.
With regard to Bruton’s remarks that the event was not the opening of a credit union in Kerry, Mr Higgins replied: “I think he might (also) withdraw his remarks about the significance of a credit union meeting in Kerry because I can’t think of any more important organisation than the Credit Union movement.
He said there were people who had suggested he had acted outside his remit within the Constitution but added: “I find it very extraordinary coming from a former prime minister, and then a member of the Council of State, who has always been treated with courtesy by me. I am sure that Mr Bruton will want to withdraw his remarks.”
The President says that there has been discussions on the “difficulties” surrounding the invitation since March, which among several issues, was insultingly addressed to “the President of the Republic of Ireland”.
“I’m the President of Ireland, that’s the constitutional position, the legal position,” he said.
“In the week before St Patrick’s Day I addressed these words and said (to the organisers) if these words and this title suggested remain, it may be that I will have to wish you well.”
He said the “title was not a neutral statement politically”. He also pointed to the Treaty negotiations and the contested nature of the partition, and “the issue of coercion” with which the partition was achieved.
In a subsequent statement, Bruton insisted he stood by his initial interpretation of the constitution. However, he was forced into a u-turn after it emerged that his claim that the President had not been in contact the government about the invitation was false.
“I am happy that that is the case and that the matter is now clarified. That said, I still believe to President should go to Armagh next month.”
A poll published by the Irish Mail on Sunday showed overwhelming public backing for the President, with more than 85% of those who expressed a preference saying he was right to refuse the invitiation.
And a range of historians support the President’s decision not to attend, including some supporters of unionism.
Former government adviser, Martin Mansergh, said the move “would have created more division than it would have healed” and would not have been reciprocated by unionists.
UCD academic Diarmaid Ferriter said the decision should be respected, and that the criticism was of it was hypocritical. “I think he has the right to refuse invitations to events that are not seen as shared or inclusive, as is the case with this event, he said.
Trinity College Dublin historian Brian Hanley added: “There is absolutely no way that there could be a non-contentious commemoration of the establishment of Northern Ireland given that it was founded on discrimination and exclusion, backed up by state violence.”
Constitutional experts also condemned Bruton. NUI Galway Professor of Law Donncha O’Connell said he was “clearly wrong” in his belief that the President is “some kind of puppet whose strings are pulled by Government”.
UCC Professor of Law Conor O’Mahony said that he found it “tiresome that every minor controversy about something the President did or said is portrayed as some kind of constitutional issue.
“That’s very rarely the case in reality. Disagree with the president’s stance if you will, but please leave the Constitution out of it.”