FORMER Taoiseach Dr Garret FitzGerald was one of the outstanding statesmen of our time. As evinced by the unprecedented outpouring of tributes from right across the political spectrum, his contribution to landmark developments in Ireland’s recent history has been enormous.
Dr FitzGerald served twice as Taoiseach between 1981 and 1987, as leader of Fine Gael/Labour coalition governments. Throughout his long career, he had a profound influence on Ireland’s membership of the European Union, played a prominent role in resolving the Northern problem, helped forge closer links between Dublin and London, and nurtured the rise of a more pluralist society in the Republic.
As President McAleese succinctly put it, his thoughtful writing, distinctive voice and probing intellect made him “one of our national treasures”. He was, she said, a man steeped in the history of the state, constantly striving to make Ireland a better place for all its people, and a true public servant. His lasting contribution to peace in the North was also acknowledged by Queen Elizabeth II, who aptly described him as “a true statesman”.
Determined in pursuit of his political objectives and a fearless advocate of social progress, he was a radical voice within a deeply conservative Fine Gael party, where he faced an uphill challenge translating his vision into reality in the 1970s and ’80s.
From childhood holidays, he had an instinctive sense of the character of the North, believing in the principle of unionist consent and supporting the strategy of power-sharing. If he had a blind spot it was in relation to Sinn Féin and as events were to show, his opposition to the policy of talking to extremists was misguided.
With both his parents in Sinn Féin during the War of Independence, he was steeped in republican tradition. Through the New Ireland Forum, he sought to unite constitutional nationalists, only to see its recommendations rejected by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. However, by persuading Mrs Thatcher to sign the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985, he effectively secured a role for the Irish Government in the North’s affairs, and laid the foundations for economic progress in the Republic. With Ireland’s economy in tatters in 1987, he offered conditional support in the Dáil to his great rival, former Taoiseach Charles Haughey, thus foreshadowing Fine Gael’s Tallaght Strategy.
He had a profound influence on social change in the Republic. Besides lobbying for the separation of church and state, he spearheaded constitutional campaigns for the introduction of divorce and abortion.
Much loved by the public, he was sometimes portrayed as an absent-minded professor, once wearing odd shoes to a political function. Though deeply honest as a politician, he could also be naïve, such as when Fine Gael imposed VAT on children’s shoes, thus bringing down the coalition.
A genuine polymath, he was a heavyweight statistician and economist. As an academic, he was a lecturer, professor and chancellor of the National University of Ireland. A life-long journalist, he was still turning out books and writing an influential weekly newspaper column in his 86th year.
Above all, he brought to politics such rare qualities as integrity, duty and dedication to public service. Witnessing the recent abuses of the system, it is clear he was in politics for the right reasons. A rare enough occurrence, he left with his reputation unsullied.
Of Dr FitzGerald, it can truly be said he did the state some service. His place in Irish history is secure.
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