Dr Garret FitzGerald, 1926-2011

Dr Garret FitzGerald, 1926-2011

Two-time taoiseach Dr Garret FitzGerald, was, unlike probably every other leading politician of his generation, a man completely without guile and cunning.

Even his severest critics – and there were plenty – invariably prefaced their tirades against him by conceding that he was quite the nicest man in Irish politics, earning the moniker 'Garret the Good'.

He had an all-consuming passion for statistics, particularly those relating to opinion polls, and his talkativeness on this subject more than once wrecked a whole day’s schedule, to the consternation of his staff.

As Taoiseach and leader of Fine Gael, he twice presided over a coalition with Labour which was regularly under extreme internal pressure, largely over public spending.

One of his greatest coups was to sign the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement with Margaret Thatcher, which for the first time allowed Irish civil servants in Belfast. It was a breathtaking achievement for a seemingly unsophisticated leader to have induced Mrs Thatcher to agree to this.

During those negotiations he was alleged to have said at one point: “It sounds great in practice but how will it work in theory?”

Dr FitzGerald was born on February 9, 1926, and educated at St Brigid’s School, Bray, and at University College, Dublin.

Before entering politics, he established himself as Ireland’s best-known economist.

Although qualified as a barrister, he never practised law. Instead he joined Aer Lingus where he spent a decade, the story going that when he left he was replaced by four men and a computer.

Ten years of economic lecturing, consultancy and journalism followed. He was the Irish correspondent for many British and international newspapers.

On one occasion when he was foreign minister, a British paper, assuming he was still their “stringer”, asked for an article, which he duly dashed off.

He entered the Dáil as TD for Dublin South-East in 1969, among a clutch of intellectuals with a mission to modernise the economy and liberalise society.

When a Fine Gael-Labour coalition came to power in 1973, Dr FitzGerald was the obvious choice as finance minister. But the then Taoiseach, Liam Cosgrave, was uneasy about his progressive views and so, unexpectedly, he found himself minister for foreign affairs.

He was an enormous success and was liked, respected and admired throughout the chancelleries of the world. He was also a confirmed Francophile. Once a French minister had to ask him, in the middle of a complex technical exposition, to slow down – Dr FitzGerald was speaking in French.

He was one of the first to see that the European Union might be valuable as a means of diluting Britain’s predominant economic influence over the Republic. He always retained his pro-European views, coming out of retirement in 2002 to campaign for the Nice Treaty and again in 2009 for the Lisbon Treaty.

When his party was crushed by Fianna Fáil in 1977, Dr FitzGerald was the natural successor to lead.

In the years that followed, he encouraged younger and more liberal elements to join the party – and it worked. In the 1981 election he became Taoiseach with the support of Labour and independents in a minority government.

His aims – to “desectarianise” (his word) southern society, achieve social reforms and eliminate poverty – were laudable but not fully achieved. He was accused by his critics of embarking on “an intellectual pub-crawl from one idea to another”.

Sometimes this guileless leader was outwitted by the superior cunning of his opponents.

Dr FitzGerald allowed his enemies to crush him over his plan to delete the anti-divorce article from the antiquated constitution.

His period in power was littered with such episodes. Cartoonists who once pictured him as a whizz-kid, now drew him as an absent-minded professor.

In 1982, Dr FitzGerald lost control of government but later that year formed another coalition.

They were some of the most tumultuous months in Irish politics, characterised best by the polar opposite approaches of Dr FitzGerald and his nemesis, the late Charles Haughey.

Dr FitzGerald’s first period at the helm – July 1981 to February 1982 - collapsed because of an ill-judged budget which proposed putting VAT on children’s shoes.

The crisis sparked a scandal of epic proportions with then opposition figureheads, among them Mr Haughey, phoning president Patrick Hillery to ask him to refuse to dissolve the Dáil.

The much more cunning Mr Haughey wanted to take his chance in a Dáil vote for Taoiseach without the need for an election.

Mr Hillery rejected the daring bid and Dr FitzGerald stood down, only to come back stronger, and a degree wiser, at the end of the year to lead until June 1987.

The best that could be said for his policy towards the North was that it was pursued with stability and consistency, producing modestly useful results.

The 1985 Hillsborough Agreement was the product of tortuous negotiation requiring stoic patience from Dr FitzGerald, particularly when he was pressed to react to Mrs Thatcher’s dismissive rejection of the New Ireland Forum report. His silence was the wisdom of a mature politician.

In his first weeks and months in office he had to deal with the IRA hunger strikers’ deaths in the H-blocks. Families of those who died attacked him for not doing enough to support the prisoners.

Following his retirement in 1992, he revived his journalism career in a weekly column for the Irish Times.

It was not always a popular addition. Just last year it was panned by one of Fine Gael’s new blood ministers, Leo Varadkar, who branded his work boring.

In 1993 Allied Irish Banks and the Ansbacher bank wrote off a IR£200,000 debt run up on shares after an aviation leasing firm went bust. The write-down was not made public until 1999 when a tribunal examined payments to politicians but there was no finding of impropriety.

His retirement involved regular media slots, with his number-crunching skills called on at election time, his views often sought on the future of Fine Gael, and as a vocal campaigner for what he believed was right for the country.

Dr FitzGerald married Joan O’Farrell in 1947, and she died in 1999. They had two sons and one daughter.

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