Commentary: John Bruton's Ireland demonstrated how government can promote peace and prosperity

Michael L. Davis, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Op Eds

You probably didn’t get up really early on Feb. 10 to watch the livestream from Ireland of John Bruton’s funeral. You may not even know about Bruton, who served as Ireland’s prime minister from 1994 to 1997. That’s understandable. There’s a lot going in the world right now, Ireland is a small place and the 1990s were a long time ago.

But small countries can be important countries. And events 30 years ago still resonate today,

So let me tell you a bit more about Bruton. Not so much to celebrate Bruton — although, by most accounts, he was an admirable man who transcended politics — but what we can learn about how he influenced history.

Bruton’s story offers two things that are important for Americans to understand. First, that a government can be fully engaged with the economy but limited in its reach. And second, that we should never give up on the possibility of peace.

To understand the economics, understand that for more than half his life Bruton, who was born in 1947, lived in one of the poorest countries in Europe. From the establishment of the Republic of Ireland in 1921 until 1991, when the European Union was established, the country’s economy stagnated with high unemployment, negligible growth and economic policies that disastrously shut Ireland off from the global economy.

Bruton and his political allies believed in the talent and character of the Irish people. But they also believed that for Ireland to prosper, it had to open itself up to the rest of the world. They were right. Ireland is now a global hub of multinational business and one of the most successful countries in the world.

Bruton was not an old-school conservative in the mold of Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher. His party, Fine Gael, is labeled center-right, and his governing coalition included left-wing parties. He understood that prosperity comes not from employing top-down industrial policy but from giving the private sector the opportunity to thrive.

Under Bruton’s leadership, Ireland drastically reduced corporate taxes, making it an attractive place for multinational companies to locate, especially from America. It’s a mistake, though, to think of Ireland as simply a tax haven — a place that only looks prosperous because of outsiders using it as hideout from the high corporate taxes in their own countries.

Ireland does, in fact, have very low corporate taxes, but its success also has come because of two other things Bruton considered important: education and trade. Ireland’s commitment to education began in the 1960s but was advanced and supported by Bruton’s government. Today, Ireland has a higher percentage of adults with a postsecondary degree than anywhere else in Europe. Ireland’s younger adults, those between 25 and 34, are even more highly educated and will, no doubt, contribute to Ireland’s future growth.


Bruton was also a huge supporter of the European Union, cementing Ireland’s commitment to the EU. When he left Parliament in 1997, he remained active in promoting the EU, becoming the EU’s ambassador to the U.S. from 2004 to 2009.

Bruton’s example demonstrates prosperity happens when governments view business as a partner and not an ATM. And he truly understood that when governments support basic education and encourage global economic partnerships, people thrive.

Those economic wins alone would be enough to merit a live broadcast of his state funeral, but Bruton’s even greater achievement is in advancing peace in all of Ireland. Bruton left office a few months before the Good Friday Agreement largely ended what the Irish refer to as “The Troubles,” a bloody conflict between Protestant unionists and Catholic nationalists that went on for decades. But without Bruton’s tireless negotiations while he was in office, the agreement might never have happened. Bruton was a tough negotiator with a clear idea of the goal. But he never turned his back. If you called Bruton, he would tell you what he thought and what you should be willing to do. Many of those conversations were tough. But he always took your call.

It’s tempting these days for Americans and Europeans to fall into a kind of cynical despair, thinking that our economies are doomed to stagnation while the world collapses into insoluble conflicts. Of course, we’re right to worry. But Bruton showed that we’re also right to hope.


Michael L. Davis is an economics professor at Southern Methodist University’s Cox School of Business.


©2024 Chicago Tribune. Visit at chicagotribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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