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Garret Fitzgerald: politics for the public good

A singular period in Irish public life marked by visits from Britain's queen and America's president has also seen the death of Garret Fitzgerald, leading statesman and former Taoiseach (prime minister). Noel Dorr, Ireland's former ambassador to the United Nations and London, reflects on Fitzgerald's life and the moral and political example it offers.
Noel Dorr
30 May 2011

The past few years have been a gloomy enough time in public life in the Republic of Ireland - so much so that some of us had begun to lose faith in the capacity of our political system to handle our difficulties. After years of prosperity we have had a severe recession, cutbacks in services and a growing public debt as the state took on responsibility for preserving our banking system and meeting the financial obligations our banks incurred through years of foolish and excessive foreign borrowing. Following a decision to seek a bailout in November 2010, Ireland (alongside Greece and Portugal) now depends heavily on support from the IMF and the European Central Bank.  

In this bleak context, the public mood lightened greatly as a result of a memorable sequence of three events in one seven-day period this May.

It began with the highly successful, four-day state visit by Queen Elizabeth II - the first by a reigning British monarch in the ninety years since the state was established. Her visit symbolised at the highest level the close and friendly relationship which, after a complex historic interaction, now exists between the peoples of Britain and Ireland and between our two states. Three days later Barack Obama celebrated a new-found and surprising ancestral connection with Ireland: the United States president came here, as he said, to find “the apostrophe which had been dropped along the way”. His visit was short but his theme of hope and self-belief, epitomised in his campaign slogan as “yes, we can”, interpreted now by Irish citizens as “yes, you can” - was just what we most needed to hear at this time.  

The third, and for many in Ireland, the most emotion-laden event of these past days, however, was the death and the state funeral of the former Taoiseach, Garret Fitzgerald which occurred between the other two.

It may seem strange to speak of a death and funeral of an 85-year-old as having helped to lift the public mood. But it did. It reminded Irish people of the achievements of a great public figure. Yes, but more than that, as we remembered his personality and his long and active life we came to see again what the life of the good man - in this case the good Christian man - in politics could be. And we needed such a reminder, since we had begun to lose faith in politics and political leaders too, as in so much else in public life in Ireland in recent years.

The esteem and affection in which, in contrast, Garret Fitzgerald was held by Irish people, of all parties and of none, was evident from the crowds along the route of his funeral; and from the fact that some 20,000 people filed past his coffin during the day when it lay in the Mansion House. That affection is perhaps best epitomised in the two-word title which he chose for his last published book - Just Garret. That was how so much of the public in Ireland – and not just those of us who worked closely with him when he was minister for foreign affairs and later as Taoiseach - had come to think of him, particularly over the decades since he had withdrawn from the daily contention of active politics and become a widely respected elder statesman and commentator.

The route to politics

Garret Fitzgerald was born in Dublin in 1926. His father Desmond, whose parents were from Cork and Kerry, was London-born, a writer and a poet of the Imagist school. His mother Mabel, who came from a Protestant Unionist business family in Belfast, became an active Irish nationalist: in London she was, for a time, secretary to George Bernard Shaw and to George Moore. Both parents were with the insurgents in the GPO in Dublin during the 1916 Easter Rising. Desmond, who served several terms of imprisonment for his nationalist activities before the Anglo-Irish treaty, became minister for external affairs, and, later, minister for defence, in the government of the newly established Irish Free State for much of the 1920s.  

Garret himself, the youngest of four boys in the family, grew up in Dublin and graduated in from University College Dublin (UCD) with a degree in history, French and Spanish in 1946. While there he met his wife, Joan, and they married a year later. The couple had a daughter and two sons. Joan was the love of his life, a strong source of judgment, support - and criticism, when necessary - until her death in 1999.

Garret’s first job was with Aer Lingus, the Irish airline established a decade before. There, as he put it in his autobiography, All in a Life, “I set about inventing my work…estimating traffic flows, drawing up timetables, assessing the economic viability of routes and so on.” This laid the foundation for his later prominence as, a - largely self-taught - economist, and his life-long love of statistics and transport timetables, an addiction which bemused his wide circle of friends. Later, he worked as an economic consultant and freelance journalist. For many years he lectured in economics in UCD where he obtained a doctorate. When not in public office he wrote a regular column for the Irish Times for many years and, for a time, he was Dublin correspondent for the Financial Times and an occasional contributor to newspapers in other parts of the world.

In the mid-1960s he entered active politics as a member of the Fine Gael party, initially as a member of the senate. From 1969 until he retired in 1992, he was a member of the Dáil for a Dublin constituency.

In 1973 he became minister for foreign affairs in a coalition government led by Liam Cosgrave, just months after Ireland joined the European Eeconomic Community (EEC). This gave him scope to pursue actively the three great concerns of his public life, which continued to preoccupy him when he became Taoiseach in the 1980s.

A triple focus

The first was his commitment to an active role for Ireland in international, and particularly in European, affairs. He expanded the Irish foreign service, undertook a series of official visits abroad, established Ireland’s first bilateral aid programme and set in place and developed a policy of active participation by Ireland in European integration. In 1975 he handled Ireland’s first EEC presidency with notable success: during that six-month term he finalised and signed the first Lomé agreement between the EEC and the ACP (African, Caribbean, Indian Ocean and Pacific) countries and had an important role in ensuring strong EEC support for the revolution which restored democracy to Portugal.  

The second was his concern to promote a more liberal society in Ireland by working to remove those elements in the Irish constitution and legal system which, by reflecting to too great an extent the overly conservative religious views of the Catholic majority in the state, might be considered sectarian.

The third, and perhaps the deepest, was his lifelong commitment to peaceful resolution of the legacy of conflict resulting from the historic complexities of the Anglo-Irish relationship, which, in modern times, took its sharpest form on “the narrow ground” of Northern Ireland. As minister he was actively involved in the Sunningdale conference of December 1973, the first major effort at a peaceful settlement involving the British and Irish governments and three democratic parties in Northern Ireland. This did not succeed but it put in place concepts such as cooperation between the two governments and cross-community participation as a condition for devolved government in Northern Ireland which were to be of continuing importance.  

It was however, the Anglo-Irish agreement he signed with the British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher in 1985 which is now seen as his most significant achievement. It was the outcome of nearly two years of patient and intensive negotiations between the two governments at official, ministerial and prime ministerial level. Though rejected strongly at the time in Northern Ireland by Unionists and Republicans alike, it put in place a structured framework for exchanges between the two governments in relation to Northern Ireland.

Over time this established a level of cooperation and understanding between them which was the first essential step towards the peace settlement now happily in place in Northern Ireland. Poignantly, two days before his death, Garret, though gravely ill, watched on television some significant events of Queen Elizabeth’s state visit to Ireland which was the culmination, at the highest symbolic inter-state level, of what he and prime minister Thatcher had begun a quarter-century before.  

A public legacy

As Taoiseach he led a coalition government for a total of five years in the 1980s. While his government began the effort to cope with the high level of indebtedness it had inherited, differences of approach between the parties which made it up meant that it was less successful than he had hoped in restoring order to the national finances before it lost office in 1987.

The 1985 Anglo-Irish agreement was the focus of much attention in the days following his death but it was his personal qualities and the active role outside party politics which he continued to play in public life until weeks before his death which endeared him to so many in Ireland. He was a member of the Royal Irish Academy and, for many years, chancellor of the National University of Ireland. He continued to write a weekly column for the Irish Times until weeks before he died. He published five books: Towards a New Ireland (1972); his autobiography All in a Life (1991); two books of essays, Reflections on the Irish State (2003) and Ireland in the World: Further Reflections (2005); and what amounted to a second autobiography, Just Garret (2010). At the time of his death he had completed yet another manuscript - a study of Irish education in the early part of the 19th century.

Garret Fitzgerald had a strong and cheerful personality, a boyish enthusiasm for all he did, even late in life, and a rapid-fire way of speaking which was the bane of interpreters at international conferences; he was hospitable to a fault, not least in entertaining a wide circle of friends on holidays in France every year; his “hinterland” of interests was wide - it extended beyond politics to history, theology and a wide variety of other subjects; and he took a schoolboy delight in the display of certain mild, yet ultimately endearing, idiosyncrasies - among them his interest in the lineages of now obscure European monarchies. He was one of the dominant figures of the last half century in Irish political and public life and ultimately, one of the most popular. Ireland is the better for his life. All in all, it might well be said at his passing - we shall not see his like again.  

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