Dr Garret FitzGerald was caricatured as something between a whiz kid and an absent-minded professor.
His enduring legacy will be his contribution to peace in the North following the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement (AIA) with Britain in 1985, formalising co-operation on matters north of the border.
The Fine Gael statesman’s death came at a defining moment for relations between the islands, with the Queen’s state visit to Ireland the culmination of 25 years of work to end the conflict since the AIA.
But his first government as Taoiseach – July 1981 to February 1982 – collapsed following a budget which proposed putting VAT on children’s shoes in the middle of a recession with parents struggling to survive.
University of Ulster politics professor Henry Patterson said his key moment was the AIA.
“He believed in republicanism as an inclusive philosophy and that it had been prostituted by Fianna Fáil and in particular by the IRA,” he said.
“He thought the IRA in Northern Ireland was a symptom of a problem with the relationship of Catholics to the state and that you could not fundamentally resolve the security problem, except through the broader political initiative.”
The treaty gave the Irish Government an advisory role in the North’s government, sparking massive unionist protest, but confirmed there would be no change in the constitutional position unless a majority of its people agreed to join the Republic. It was a forerunner for the Good Friday Agreement which cemented the Irish dimension to power-sharing at Stormont.
Former Fianna Fáil minister and Progressive Democrats leader Des O’Malley said: “The Anglo-Irish Agreement was an extraordinary achievement by Garret FitzGerald...It’s impossible to exaggerate its importance.”
Dr FitzGerald was Foreign Affairs Minister in the Sunningdale talks over power-sharing in the North in 1973.
In a recent radio interview he said he pleaded with the SDLP to agree to offer unionists more than they were getting because of fears of a unionist backlash against the deal, which subsequently happened. He was highly critical of former UK Prime Minster Harold Wilson and claimed Wilson’s position of British withdrawal would have been a disaster.
South of the border, his aim was to “desectarianise” society, introduce social reforms and combat poverty. Despite this, the number of Irish emigrating to seek a better life abroad continued to grow through the grim economic period of the 1980s.
After he lost power in February 1982 following his defeat over VAT on children’s clothes, Dr FitzGerald returned to power later that year but a difficult economic situation led to unpopularity.
In 1983 the electorate voted against his advice to amend the constitution to protect the life of the unborn and three years later rejected the introduction of divorce, though he did manage to liberalise contraception laws.
Fine Gael was defeated heavily in the 1987 General Election. FitzGerald resigned immediately from the party leadership.
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 Ireland.
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.