Garret the Good: A gallant statesman

Garret FitzGerald will be remembered best for his massive contribution to public life in Ireland over the past 50 years, writes John Downing

MANY Irish people will remember his public bumbling, fogeyish tendencies with either affection or irritation.

He once appeared in public wearing a pair of shoes that did not match and on another occasion let it slip that he was unsure whether the Cork hurlers wore red jerseys.

But time has taught two generations of Irish people that these traits of Garret FitzGerald belied political skill and steel complementing intellect, energy and stamina.

Even old foes will concede that Garret FitzGerald was a huge and deceptively forceful presence in Irish public life across six decades as a politician, statistician, lawyer, economist, journalist, historian and writer.

He was twice elected taoiseach and was among a handful of people who dominated the Irish political scene from the mid-1960s through to the latter end of the 1980s. And, though he quit elected politics almost 20 years ago, he remained extremely active and influential as a commentator and analyst.

For many Irish people over the age of 50, he will be remembered as the implacable rival of the late Charles Haughey. Other highlights of his long and eventful career include his work for Ireland in the European Union; the quest for peace in the North; an initially ill-starred constitutional crusade for a liberal Irish society; and a constant and frequently unsuccessful struggle to stabilise the Irish economy.

Garret FitzGerald has publicly credited his own very existence to a post- Civil War reconciliation between his mother and father. Both his parents were ardent nationalists and each of them served in the GPO during the Easter 1916 Rebellion.

Desmond FitzGerald was of Kerry stock but had grown up in London and was active in the IRB and the Volunteers. His mother, Mabel McConnell, was of a Belfast unionist family who was converted to the Irish republican cause and preferred the Gaelic form of her name, Maedhbh Ní Chonaill.

As with so many other Irish family and friends, the Civil War bitterly divided the couple. Maedhbh was at serious odds with her husband because, as a minister in the Free State Government, he stood over summary executions and other lethal and draconian measures against their former comrades.

Garret, born in February 1926 in Dublin, would later often say his aim in public life was to facilitate a society where all Irish traditions and viewpoints could co-exist in peace and harmony.

Garret FitzGerald was aged almost 40 when he entered public life as a Fine Gael senator in 1965. He had worked for Aer Lingus from 1947 to 1958, becoming an expert on the economics of transport and — legend has it — reading old timetables for relaxation. He lectured in UCD from 1959 to 1973, while also jointly setting up a business consultancy with the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit.

He met his wife, Joan O’Farrell, while at UCD, which he attended after school in Belvedere College, Dublin, and Coláiste na Rinne in Co Waterford. Initially she thought him too brash and immature but his persistence paid off.

They married in 1947 and they had two sons and one daughter. It was a remarkably happy marriage, persisting through the demands of public life and her serious illness, ending only with Joan’s death in 1999.

Other students at UCD at this time were Charles Haughey and his future wife, Maureen Lemass, daughter of Fianna Fáil stalwart and future taoiseach, Sean Lemass. Both men and their college contemporaries recall that neither Haughey nor FitzGerald had anything to do with one another at that stage. FitzGerald Senior’s record made Fine Gael an obvious choice.

But he was also influenced by the then radical social thinking of another prominent FG politician, Declan Costello, himself the son of a former FG Taoiseach, John A Costello.

Indeed, Garret FitzGerald was first elected to Dáil Éireann in 1969 to John A Costello’s old seat in Dublin South East. But despite his excellent FG pedigree, Garret was no supporter of then party leader Liam Cosgrave.

When Fine Gael and Labour combined to end Fianna Fáil’s 16-year run of power in 1973, Garret paid the price of his opposition to the now Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave. He was not appointed Minister for Finance as he had hoped, given his credentials and his experience as opposition finance spokesman.

However, he made the most of the consolation prize as Minister for Foreign Affairs. He did impressive work in the European Community and under his leadership, Ireland’s first six-month guiding presidency in 1975 was deemed a big success.

The job also brought him his first contact with efforts to resolve the problems of the North. By then violence there was threatening peace across the island of Ireland. FitzGerald built on the work of FF taoiseach Jack Lynch and he helped to negotiate the final phases of the 1974 Sunningdale Agreement which set up a power-sharing government in Belfast and envisaged a Council of Ireland, giving Dublin a formal role in the North for the first time.

Unfortunately, this was wrecked by vehement loyalist opposition.

FitzGerald was closely involved in successive efforts to find remedies for the North. As taoiseach he gave much energy to the issue, setting up the New Ireland Forum and pushing hard in very tough negotiations with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

What emerged was the Anglo Irish Agreement of November 1985 which gave Dublin a consultative role and set up a permanent Belfast secretariat with officials from both capitals. Without the Anglo Irish Agreement, the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and other developments would have been unthinkable. Many argue that this is Garret FitzGerald’s best legacy.

When the FG-Labour coalition was swept from power in 1977, Liam Cosgrave resigned as leader. FitzGerald’s candidacy was immediately promoted by veteran FG Donegal TD Paddy Harte, who described Garret as equivalent to two people, recalling the legend that it took two people to replace him in his old job at Aer Lingus.

FitzGerald set about reorganising the party, hiring a new general secretary, Peter Prendergast, who had huge flair and organisational skills. New people were recruited and with women strongly encouraged to join.

On December 12, 1979, Garret FitzGerald rose to speak on the election of Charles Haughey as taoiseach in place of Jack Lynch. He said Haughey had “a flawed pedigree” and did not have his own party’s full support. The incident showed FitzGerald to be just as tough a politician as any other.

FitzGerald’s Fine Gael continued to gain on Fianna Fáil. In June 1981 he was elected Taoiseach, leading a minority FG-Labour government which only lasted until the following January when a plan to levy VAT on children’s shoes brought it down. Haughey returned as Taoiseach but his administration in turn foundered months later.

Garret FitzGerald returned as Taoiseach in December 1982 and continued to lead the Fine Gael-Labour government until January 1987. FG and Labour, led by Dick Spring, worked well over four years. But the Government persistently bottled out of applying the necessary harsh decisions to overhaul the faltering Irish economy.

Haughey’s FF made reckless and dishonest populist noises from the opposition benches and debt servicing charges mounted, consuming the bulk of Irish taxes. FitzGerald showed himself a poor chairman of inconclusive cabinet meetings, which dragged on for hours.

Overall, the verdict is that FitzGerald’s government reaped the worst of all worlds: unpopularity combined with ineffectiveness.

Similar, problems surfaced over his “constitutional crusade” to laicise Irish society. In fact he conceded a divisive referendum to outlaw abortion in September 1983 — which began a series of related divisive votes which spanned the following 25 years. In June 1986, his referendum to permit divorce was defeated by almost 2:1.

Yet, many of the key aims of that constitutional crusade were achieved by others and by other means in the succeeding two decades. FitzGerald had, with benefit of history, grounds for arguing that he started something which led to success.

FitzGerald was defeated in the election of February 1987. The party he had built up from 43 TDs in 1977 to 70 at the highpoint in 1982 had lost almost 10% of the vote and 19 deputies. There was little consolation in Haughey failing to win a majority and heading just a minority government.

FitzGerald promptly quit as leader and stood down from the Dáil ahead of the 1992 general election. But he continued to write prolifically, research and lecture on all aspects of public affairs.

Over many years the read on Garret FitzGerald could be summed up thus: For opponents, especially those who supported his nemesis Charles Haughey, he was the bumptious, bumbling “Garret the Good”. For supporters — especially those who reviled Haughey — he was a beacon of honesty and integrity.

Time has dimmed that dynamic and led to FitzGerald being assessed more broadly as a man of huge ability, considerable honesty and boundless energy who contributed a whole lot to Irish public life across almost 50 years.

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