Of all the skills needed for a life in politics, one of the most difficult to learn is good timing. Richard Bruton is one of Ireland’s most experienced politicians, but has never quite got his timing right.
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Arguably, the timing problems began early – at birth. He is the brother of John Bruton, who is six years his senior and who was prime minister of Ireland between 1994 and 1997, and head of the European Commission’s office in Washington, DC between 2004 and 2009. It is Richard’s misfortune that he is constantly measured against his elder brother’s achievements.
Between them, both Brutons have figured large in the fortunes of Fine Gael, Ireland’s centre-right party, which has long been pitted against Fianna Fáil, Ireland’s other centrist party. In European terms, Fine Gael sits with Christian Democrat parties in the European People’s Party. Fianna Fáil MEPs used to be part of the Union for Europe of the Nations group (UEN), but joined the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe in 2009 as the UEN became defunct.
It has been both Brutons’ misfortune that Fianna Fáil is the superior vote-winning machine. Fianna Fáil has been in government for all but 20 of the 68 years since the end of the Second World War and won most seats in the national parliament at every election from 1932 until a disastrous result in 2011.
It was the financial crisis that brought Fianna Fáil’s supremacy to an end. While Bertie Ahern, the then Fianna Fáil leader, was winning three successive general elections, Richard Bruton and Fine Gael had languished in opposition. But, helped by the credit crunch and the ignominy of a eurozone bail-out, Fine Gael returned to government in 2011. However, Bruton missed out on the top job and is now living out his political career in the shadow of Enda Kenny, whom he unsuccessfully challenged for the leadership of the party three years ago. Despite that challenge, Kenny has made Bruton minister for jobs, enterprise and innovation – a portfolio of great responsibility in a country that is experiencing chronic unemployment. It is also a very difficult position from which to build political capital. Bruton’s target of creating 100,000 jobs by 2016 is daunting, and minor successes on the way are likely to be appropriated by the prime minister. “He is overshadowed in his job. At any job announcements, Kenny is there and he’s the one who makes the speeches,” says one political observer. “And there’s not much Bruton can do since he is the guy who challenged Kenny.”
Bruton grew up on a farm in County Meath, north-west of Dublin, and had a privileged upbringing. He followed his brother to University College Dublin, where he studied economics and politics. He went on to work in the Economic and Social Research Institute, the country’s top economics think-tank. From there he got a place at Oxford University to do a master’s degree, prophetically studying Irish public debt. He has described his time at Oxford as “not that pleasant” and was probably glad to return to Ireland where he took up a job in a cigarette firm, PJ Carroll. He moved after a few years to an Irish cement firm, CRH.
But a career in politics was beckoning. Bruton was elected to Meath County Council in 1979, and in 1981 took a seat in the national parliament’s upper house. His brother John, who had been elected to the Dáil, the lower house of the parliament, back in 1969, was by this time minister for finance. When John Bruton’s budget was rejected in 1982, the defeat prompted a general election, and that was the moment when Richard advanced to the Dáil.
Just four years later, he was in government, as junior minister for industry and commerce. But he was joining the government at the dog-end of the parliament, and the following year Fine Gael was out of office. Richard then became spokesman for enterprise and employment on the opposition benches.
1953: Born, Dublin
1974: Degree in economics, University College Dublin
1977: Master’s degree in economics, Oxford University
1979: Elected to Meath County Council
1982-: Member of parliament
1986-87: Junior minister for industry and commerce
1994-97: Minister for enterprise and jobs
2002: Contests Fine Gael leadership
2010: Challenges Enda Kenny for leadership of Fine Gael
2011-: Minister for jobs, enterprise and innovation
It was not until 1994, after 12 years in parliament, that Bruton could help his party back to power. He was one of the negotiators that put together a rainbow coalition of Fine Gael, Labour and the Democratic Left. His brother became prime minister and Richard was named minister for enterprise and employment. But again, the timing was wrong. Fine Gael held power for only three years. For the next 14 years, from 1997 to 2011, the party was out of office.
His brother was replaced as party leader in 2001 by Michael Noonan, now Ireland’s finance minister, but Noonan stepped down just a year later, after a disastrous election result. In the contest for the leadership that followed, Kenny emerged victorious. If the leadership contest had been held at a later date, then Richard might have stood a better chance. Years later he conceded that “some people might have thought it too soon to have another Bruton”.
As the opposition’s spokesman on finance, he had the chance to make political capital over how the government was mismanaging the economy. He should have done better in the run-up to the 2007 general election. Fianna Fáil scraped back into power. A year later Prime Minister Bertie Ahern handed power to Brian Cowen, the long-time finance minister. “He could have delivered a knock-out blow to the government, but Bruton was unable to put forward a better vision,” says Gary Murphy, head of law and government at Dublin City University.
After the election, the Irish economy nose-dived. Belatedly, Bruton’s reputation was enhanced as he provided intelligent analysis of where the government was going wrong. For months there was speculation as to whether he might challenge Kenny for the party leadership, but Bruton bided his time. His critics dismissed him as “Mr Nice”, lacking the ruthlessness to take the leadership.
It was not until June 2010, after an opinion poll put Fine Gael behind Labour as the biggest party in the state, that Bruton challenged for the leadership. The younger, urban sections of the party backed Bruton, but Kenny had the numbers among the parliamentary party. When Kenny became prime minister after the 2011 election, he could afford to be magnanimous and assigned Bruton a ministerial role.
Bruton’s honesty and good manners in politics is reinforced by an ordinary home life. He is married and has four children, and enjoys music and cooking, especially making jam. His eldest son once described him as “a man whose idea of bliss is listening to Leonard Cohen in the kitchen”.
On the international stage, Bruton has defended the country’s low-tax model for companies in the face of pressure from other European Union member states, saying that “Ireland will make no apology for having a low-tax regime”.
Now aged 60, Bruton is likely to leave any further attempt to dislodge Kenny to the younger, hungrier members of the party. He will have his work cut out to hang on to his ministerial portfolio, since Kenny owes him no favours. If this is as far as he gets in national politics, Bruton can reflect on how he might have reached the top, if only the timing had been different.