[This dates back to a time, in the late 1990s, when I wrote a monthly column for the Newfoundland Telegram about connections between Ireland and Newfoundland, where I had been brought up for a while and visited a number of times since.]
Doesn't it say something about Ireland that I - too all intents and purposes, a 'nobody' - got to interview Ireland's former taoiseach (premier) and current leader of the opposition, Mr. John Bruton, this month? On second thoughts, maybe it says more about Mr. Bruton's feelings for Newfoundland than about the village-like quality of Irish society. For, no matter how skeptical one is of politicians in this age of spin doctors, speech writers and image consultants, it is quite clear that Mr. Bruton's fondness for Newfoundland is what prompted him to make time for this interview.
Mr. Bruton's attraction to Newfoundland dates back to 1976 when, as Minister for Sport, he went to the Montreal Olympics and visited Newfoundland en route, "because I had read about the Wexford, Waterford connection." And it bowled him over! "It was quite an amazing sense of coming home, even though I had never been there before."
He visited Cape Shore, St. Mary's, Branch and Placentia, and found it to be like rural Ireland "in the way people spoke and behaved, and the way they thought."
Then, in 1996 he became the first Irish taoiseach to include Newfoundland (and even Canada) on the annual Taoiseach's North American St. Patrick's Day visit. Mr. Bruton says he chose Newfoundland personally, "because I felt that Newfoundland had been rather neglected by the Irish government. Indeed, when I was received by Mr. Tobin he made the comment that I was all the more welcome by virtue of the fact that I was two-hundred years late." It was about time!
The political dimension was introduced to the relationship when Mr. Tobin came to Ireland (through the door that Mr. Bruton had opened, perhaps) and the two governments signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU).
"We have experienced a lot of the problems that Newfoundland is currently experiencing," observes Mr. Bruton and lists: very high levels of unemployment, heavy degrees of dependency on particular resources, and difficult negotiating over industrial policy. "So I think there are a lot of ways we can help one another," he concludes.
Mr. Bruton believes that tourism should be a focus, "because the palate of European tourists is becoming a bit jaded" and seeks new flavors. "While Newfoundland doesn't offer sun-drenched beaches, it does offer an experience that's very different" from anything currently available. The problem is, of course, lack of regular flights between St. John's and Dublin - a relatively short journey, "almost like not having to go to North America ... to go to North America." (Slogan writers, take note!)
But while most might be attracted to Newfoundland for its fishing and hunting and nature, Mr. Bruton declares: "I have to say that, although I'm a man from the country, I'm not that sort of man from the country. I like my food and drink, with a strong emphasis on the latter. So it's the people that attract me. The 'craic' is extremely good. If you go to Newfoundland you are guaranteed to meet people with whom you'll have a good time... It's up to Newfoundland to get that message across."
The MOU will only work, Mr. Bruton believes, if there is a strong political commitment behind it on both sides. "When I was leaving office as Taoiseach ... I wrote a letter specifically requesting my successor to take a personal interest." He believes the signs are good.
But: "It is very difficult to transfer the success factors of one economy to another. Newfoundland hasn't quite the same room for maneuver as Ireland had in the past .. in the matter of tax breaks, for instance. I think that the most important issues for Newfoundland to address are education and information technology - both of which minimize the disadvantages of being in a peripheral location..."
So, while it was indirectly thanks to Telegram readers (being Newfs) that got me this interview, I am happy to report that Mr. Bruton is an occasional reader himself: "I consult the Evening Telegram on the internet myself regularly and can keep in touch with what's going on in St. John's."