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Irish president leads tributes to ex-taoiseach John Bruton, who died aged 76

Former Irish premier John Bruton has died aged 76 following a long illness, his family has confirmed (PA)
Former Irish premier John Bruton has died aged 76 following a long illness, his family has confirmed (PA)

Irish president Michael D Higgins has led tributes to former taoiseach John Bruton, who died on Tuesday aged 76.

The former Fine Gael leader from 1990-2001 has been described as “passionately pro-European”, a “committed politician full of ideas and energy”, and “a good man”.

Expressions of sympathy for Mr Bruton were issued from across the political spectrum in Ireland, Northern Ireland and the UK for his contributions to the peace process.

Mr Bruton served as taoiseach from 1994-1997 as head of the “rainbow coalition” government alongside Labour and Democratic Left.

He was taoiseach when Ireland voted by a slim margin to lift a ban on divorce and for the first official royal visit to Ireland since the foundation of the state.

He died following a long illness in a Dublin hospital surrounded by his family, a statement released by Fine Gael confirmed.

Three hours have been set aside in the Dail – the Irish parliament’s main chamber – from 2pm on Wednesday to hear expressions of sympathy, with all other legislative business postponed.

Mr Bruton’s younger brother is Richard Bruton, who is also a Fine Gael heavyweight and a former communications minister.

A statement from the Bruton family, released by Fine Gael, said: “It is with deep sadness we wish to announce the death of former taoiseach John Bruton.

“He died peacefully in the Mater Private Hospital in Dublin, surrounded by his loving family, early this morning following a long illness.

“He was a good husband, a good father and a true patriot.

“We will miss him greatly.

“John is survived by his wife, Finola, son Matthew and daughters Juliana, Emily and Mary-Elizabeth, grandchildren, sons-in-law, his brother, Richard, and sister, Mary, nieces, nephews, many cousins and extended family.”

Mr Bruton was first elected to the Dail as TD for Meath at the age of 22 and continued to rise through Fine Gael until his retirement from domestic politics in 2004.

John Bruton during a speech with then US-president Bill Clinton in Dublin in 1995
John Bruton during a speech with then-US president Bill Clinton in Dublin in 1995 (PA)

He served two terms as minister for finance during the 1980s and as minister for industry and energy and minister for trade.

Mr Bruton later served as the European Union’s ambassador to the US from 2004 to 2009.

Born in Dunboyne in Co Meath, he graduated from University College Dublin (UCD) before qualifying as a barrister from King’s Inns.

After he became taoiseach, one of Mr Bruton’s first policy initiatives was to call for a referendum to change the constitution and allow for couples to divorce in Ireland.

The country voted by a slim margin of less than 10,000 votes to end its ban on divorce in the 1995 referendum.

Later that same year, he welcomed the then-Prince of Wales to Dublin. Charles’s trip marked the first official visit from a member of the royal family since the founding of the state.

He was pivotal in establishing the Northern Ireland peace process alongside then-UK prime minister John Major, with the pair launching the Anglo-Irish Framework document.

Mr Bruton has also long been praised for work within the unionist community.

But at the general election in 1997, Mr Bruton lost to Bertie Ahern’s Fianna Fail.

He stayed as leader of Fine Gael for another four years until he was succeeded by Michael Noonan.

Representatives from across the political landscape have paid tribute to “political giant”.

Mr Higgins described him as a “deeply committed politician”, who demonstrated a lifelong interest and engagement in public affairs and public service.

“His contribution to the Northern Ireland peace process during his time as taoiseach was very significant,” Mr Higgins said in a statement.

“In this work, he brought a particular sensitivity and a generous approach to inclusion with regard to the perspective of the ‘Other’.

“Together with John Major, his overseeing of the development of the Joint Framework Document in 1995 was a pivotal foundation for the Good Friday Agreement.

“It was a mark of John Bruton’s interest in politics that while his term as taoiseach included an emphasis on the local, and in particular the ongoing issues with regard to Northern Ireland, he was always a strongly committed promoter of politics in the European Union.”

He added: “Very open and forthright in his opinions, John had a great sense of humour which was a great help in ensuring a sense of collegiality and that small issues would never be allowed to defeat what was important in relation to the things that mattered most.”

Irish premier Leo Varadkar was also among those to pay tribute to the former taoiseach, saying he was “devastated” by the news of Mr Bruton’s death.

The Fine Gael leader said Mr Bruton was one of the reasons he became involved in politics.

“He was always encouraging and supportive on a personal level, from my time in Young Fine Gael to my time as Taoiseach,” Mr Varadkar said in a statement.

“We kept in touch and his knowledge and experience were particularly helpful during Brexit and during coalition negotiations.

“We last spoke just before Christmas when he was unable to attend the Council of State due to his illness.

“I spoke to his wife Finola and brother Richard this morning to pass on my condolences.

“John was a doer and a philosopher. He was passionately pro-European in government and in opposition, and was well-liked and respected among colleagues in Europe and in the European People’s Party in which he served as vice-president.

“He knew that Ireland’s place and destiny was at the heart of Europe and made the case for it eloquently.”

Irish deputy premier Micheal Martin said Mr Bruton was a “committed politician full of ideas and energy”.

In a statement, Mr Martin said: “It was with great sadness that I learned of the passing of John Bruton.

“A committed politician full of ideas and energy, John worked tirelessly for peace and reconciliation on the island of Ireland.

John Bruton
John Bruton was leader of Fine Gael from 1990 to 2001 (Damien Storan/PA)

“A passionate European and clear about Ireland’s place in the EU, John believed in public service and was a true patriot.

“My deepest sympathies to his wife Finola and all the Bruton family.”

Former taoiseach Mr Ahern said Mr Bruton was “one of the decent people”.

“My view of John is that he was a gentleman,” Mr Ahern told RTE.

“He was always the private man.

“He was leader of the House in government, and I was leader of the House in opposition, way back in the early eighties.

“I worked with them on so many issues over so many years. We got on very well.

“I considered him one of the decent people. His involvement in the North (Northern Ireland) was always genuine.

“He was a totally genuine person and always acted in the interests of the people of the country, of the people of need, and I wouldn’t have a bad word to say about John Bruton.”

Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris said he was sorry to hear about the death of the former Irish premier.

In a statement on X, formerly Twitter, he said of the former taoiseach: “He positively impacted Anglo-Irish relations, and the Framework he agreed with John Major in 1995 was a crucial step in the road to the (Good Friday Agreement).

“My thoughts are with his family and friends.”

IRA Peace Centre Bruton & Major
Former British prime minister John Major with former Irish Premier John Bruton (Phil Noble/PA)

Northern Ireland First Minister Michelle O’Neill expressed her condolences to the Bruton family.

Speaking in the Assembly at Stormont, she said: “I want to pass on my condolences to the family of former taoiseach John Bruton, who we’ve just been notified has sadly passed away.

“To his family and friends, we send them our condolences at this very sad time.”

Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly also expressed her condolences, while speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly Edwin Poots said he will write to the Bruton family to express his condolences.

Former UK prime minister Sir John Major paid tribute to the “brave” and “formidable” Mr Bruton.

“I was shocked to learn of the loss of John Bruton,” Sir John said.

“He was a brave and talented Taoiseach who contributed mightily to the early days of the peace process.

“In testing circumstances, he put peace above political self-interest to progress the path towards the end of violence.

“He was a formidable servant of the Irish nation and of peace, and I am deeply saddened at his passing.”