LATE last week, a handful of media organisations contacted me with bad news concerning the serious illness of Dr Garret FitzGerald. Fearing the worst, they were preparing appropriate tributes. He was gravely ill, suffering from pneumonia and surviving on a ventilator in hospital.
Subsequently over the weekend, I contacted a family member to receive great news. He had stabilised and was recovering. Tradition of waiting to say nice things about a person only on a posthumous basis is rubbish. Without being morbid, now is the time to acknowledge Garret’s unique contribution to Irish life.
Celtic cubs and those older don’t remember much beyond Bertie Ahern’s era in terms of contemporary political history. They certainly don’t recall the zenith of conflict between Charlie Haughey and Garret FitzGerald between 1979 and 1987. Beyond the usual inherited civil war rivalry, a chasm of real policy differences emerged between FF and FG. These related to opposite perspectives on the economy, ethics in public life, Northern Ireland, Europe, fiscal rectitude and social reform. This was no phoney contrived attrition. Haughey and FitzGerald had mutual disregard for each other. Many never forgave Garret for his Dáil speech in the debate to elect Charlie as Taoiseach — describing him as “unfit” for high office.
Only after 1998 the truth emerged, via tribunals, of the actual extent of Haughey’s lifestyle, benefactors and offshore accounts. Foremost division related to the North. As Minister for Foreign Affairs from 1973-1977, Garret was directly involved in negotiation of the Sunningdale Agreement and power-sharing government, which collapsed. This political structure was not a million miles removed from the architecture of the present multi-party arrangement. Garret’s fundamental approach was to lead nationalism away from outdated concepts of a unitary state for the entire island. He was amongst the first to advocate the principle of unionist consent being fundamental to political progress and settlement.
A focal point of this drive was his espousal of the need to amend Articles 2 and 3 of the constitution. These territorial claims on the northern six counties were a bedrock of republicanism. Critics dismissed FitzGerald as a “sneaking regarder” and a West Brit — betraying the idealism of 1916 and aspirations of Irish sovereignty. Three decades later, his position is adopted as modern consensus. The Anglo Irish Agreement provided a driving force to impel unionists to gradually accept that Belfast was not as British as Leeds or London. This deal came about despite Thatcher previously rejecting the report of the New Ireland Forum with her infamous “Out, out, out” remarks.
This represented a low point of humiliation for FitzGerald as Taoiseach. Yet, along with Peter Barry and John Hume, he reached an accommodation.
The next big clash occurred with his campaign to separate church and state. He believed that modernising Ireland meant a more secular state. The role of the Catholic Church was respected, but no longer central in legislation. He championed reforms in the areas of legalising contraception and divorce. The level of latent authority that was effectively wielded by the church has been forgotten. Before revelations of child abuse by clergy, religious orders and institutions, the hierarchy’s influence was accepted by government ministers. Their views resonated positively in every parish throughout the land. Garret was derided as part of a Dublin 4, liberal clique that undermined the core role of religious identity in Irish life. The initial referendum on divorce was defeated in the mid-1980s. Such resistance now seems absurd.
Public finances throughout the 1980s were appalling. The national debt rose to 120% of GDP. Three general elections (1981-82) in rapid succession mirrored much of today’s topics of fiscal deficits, extra taxation and spending cuts. Garret advocated austerity as opposed to Haughey’s opportunism. The FG/Labour coalition from 1982-1987 failed to achieve balanced budgets. Divisions between FG and Labour caused paralysis in controlling public expenditure. Garret established his reputation as an economist in frontline politics. Expectations were high that he would lift the economy out of a deep recession and malaise. His government did not succeed and ultimately were rejected by voters in 1987.
Parallels may emerge between our present administration and that regime.
Garret’s leadership of Fine Gael had another key tenet, relating to his vision of Ireland’s role within Europe — passionately pro the EU. He led FG into membership of the European People’s Party, with links to Germany’s Christian Democrats. This commitment became a core value for FG. This contributed to Ireland’s EU standing of respect, as a positive participant. Garret’s pals and proteges like Professor James Dooge, Peter Sutherland, Alan Dukes developed important international relationships. Most politicians weren’t unduly bothered about Europe, other than extracting largesse from Brussels.
Garret’s electoral achievement of 39% FG vote was not exceeded by Kenny’s landslide, with 36% (albeit with more seats). Striking difference was FF obtained 43% in the early 1980s. Haughey called Garret “Doctor” FitzGerald to denigrate him as a nutty professor. He’s no rock star. His self-deprecating aura of confusion belies a cunning savvy operator. He is never afraid to take an independent stance, even if it upsets contemporary FG leaders. He has been the master of personal reinvention.
WHEN I left school in 1978 and was farming in Enniscorthy, I decided to join a political party. My family had no previous involvement in politics, just FF voters. Garret FitzGerald inspired me and a whole generation of previously non-political people to join FG, particularly women and young people. In the 1979 local elections, he established that a Young Fine Gael candidate be part of urban councils tickets. I stood, surprisingly won and subsequently ran for the Dáil in the Wexford constituency in 1981. Garret’s impact on FG is profound. The usual mantra in all parties that “No one is bigger than the party” did not apply to him. After he departed the leadership, he cast a long shadow over his successors.
FitzGerald’s accomplishments and interests outside of politics are awesome. Legend relates that in 1969 he was replaced in Aer Lingus by four managers and two computers. No airline timetable escaped his micro management skills as a statistician. His contribution to academic life through universities occurred beneath the radar. His compassion and conviction led him to myriad pro-bono involvements aimed at achieving social justice. Most of all, he is a dedicated family man — always appearing to acquiesce to dictates of his late wife Joan. The legacy of his family speaks volumes.
All of the above doesn’t go close to explaining the respect and admiration that Dr. Garret FitzGerald is held in. His enormous intellect facilitates anyone to agree to disagree with him on any topic. He always plays the ball rather than the man. Garret FitzGerald is a towering role model in terms of personal endeavour and as a public representative. For the newest generation of politicians elected to Leinster House, he provides the template of how to conduct yourself during your career. Let’s wish him a full and speedy recovery so that we can continue to benefit from his experience, wisdom and noble conduct.
Garret, get well soon.
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