It is with great sadness that we learn of the death of John Bruton, former Taoiseach and leader of Fine Gael.

Above all, John was a wonderful family man and so we express sympathy to his wife Finola, his children, his grandchildren, his brother Richard, his sister Mary and his many relatives and friends.

John had a distinguished political career as Dáil deputy, government minister, Taoiseach and European Ambassador to the United States, for over 45 years.

The laugh was still there – kind of – when I last talked with John at Christmas. What wasn’t there, those few weeks ago, was self-pity. It had never been part of his make-up and dying wasn’t going to change that. He was still focused on the ideas that had made him such a fascinating politician and so interesting a leader.

He was an intellectual powerhouse in national and international politics during his lifetime.

Better engage

And he learned. He learned as few politicians do. Over the years, for example, he came to realise the need to listen more carefully and better engage with other points of view in order to achieve political objectives. This change eventually brought him to the office of Taoiseach in 1994.

He had always been abuzz with ideas, many of them coming from a conservative standpoint. He still was abuzz with them when he became Taoiseach, but now he had to build a successful partnership government with Dick Spring of the Labour Party and Proinsias de Rossa of Democratic Left. Past political differences were set aside and he developed an awareness of other people’s strengths.

He thrived politically in the office of An Taoiseach. As Taoiseach, he delivered many important social changes where more liberal governments failed - especially relating to the recognition of divorced couples within our laws.

Northern Ireland

His political views on Northern Ireland, whereby he advocated an inclusive and peaceful way forward, by respecting the rights and aspirations of all traditions, often conflicted with views within the Fine Gael party and his coalition partners.

However, these views were sincerely held and were probably strengthened by the terrorist atrocities of the IRA during most of his political life, as well as the deaths of people like his friend Senator Billy Fox, Tom Oliver from County Louth and several policemen. These atrocities left in an indelible mark on his attitude to the rule of law throughout his lifetime.

He demonstrated a curious and unusual duality: firmly held ideas and principles on the one hand and curiosity and wide reading on the other. It added up to a man you could learn from, battle with and cherish.

Yes, cherish. Because John Bruton may have been an intellectual heavyweight, deeply embedded in the European project, but he was also a man so without guile that he’d never have organised a good conspiracy. He had no deviousness and – to the end – a buoyant belief in politics and in people. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.