Allies and opponents of all ages and eras join forces to pay tribute to the Dáil’s greatest gentleman

THERE was a genuine sense of loss yesterday as the Dáil said goodbye to one of its greatest gentlemen.

The phoney sentimentality and the revisionist history that often cloys such events were noticeably absent as the chamber realised that the likes of Dr Garret FitzGerald would never grace its corridors again.

Independent TD and former long-serving Senator Shane Ross summed up the late taoiseach well when he quoted Conor Cruise O’Brien’s remark: “He is as nice a person as you can find in politics, but no nicer.”

The point being that while the ex-taoiseach was certainly a deep repository of old-world charm and politeness, he also contained the steeliness needed to rise to the top, and to hold together — for quite some time — a government as divided as the country it was trying to govern during the bleak 1980s.

Two fellow former Fine Gael leaders, John Bruton and Alan Dukes, said Dr FitzGerald had remained very popular and that he would not have been challenged if he had chosen to remain on as head of the party after the 1987 election.

Enda Kenny, the first Fine Gael leader to follow Dr FitzGerald into the office of Taoiseach via the acclamation of the electorate, rather than by the negotiations of politicians, paid the warmest of all the tributes to him.

“If there is any consolation, it is that his leave-taking was as gentle as his life and the way he lived it,” he told a hushed Dáil, after praising his transformative role in North-South and Anglo-Irish relations.

Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams agreed to disagree with the former taoiseach on that aspect of his premiership, but rather concentrated on what he called their shared social outlook, while Fianna Fáil leader and political historian Micheál Martin remembered the “titanic” political struggles between Dr FitzGerald and Charles Haughey that defined an era, noting that even opponents recognised and respected the Fine Gael leader as an “iconic” political figure.

Labour’s Ruairí Quinn, as the senior TD from Dr FitzGerald’s old seat of Dublin South East, was quite right to describe his former constituency friend and adversary as a European and a liberal (well, in Irish terms), although branding him a “feminist” was a bit over the top.

Elsewhere, praise from European Commission President José Manuel Barroso confirmed at least one of Mr Quinn’s plaudits. Mr Barroso said Dr FitzGerald had been a great leader of the Irish people and a committed European.

A Fine Gael successor in the Dublin South East, Lucinda Creighton, gave a gracious and warm assessment of Dr FitzGerald’s abilities and achievements, which was a refreshing sight as so many of the party’s thrusting young things seemed all too keen to junk his legacy in recent years.

One such being Transport Minister Leo Varadkar, who last year launched an ill-advised and unfair attack in the Dáil on the ex-taoiseach’s “botched” political moves of the 1980s and “boring columns in the Irish Times”, which drew withering fire from the party’s wiser heads. Mr Varadkar has been noticeably more respectful since.

At the end of the tributes, which included references to Dr FitzGerald’s hold on the national imagination, ranging from his arch statesmanship to his quirky penchant for wearing odd shoes, the TDs rose in silence, the House adjourned in respect and the tricolour fluttered at half mast over a Leinster House that acknowledged it had lost one of its true legends.

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