Saturday 10 December 2016

We owe Garret our place at heart of Europe

Brendan Halligan

Published 20/05/2011 | 05:00

IT was particularly fortunate for this country that Garret FitzGerald was appointed Foreign Minister in March 1973 as the National Coalition took office just two-and-a-half months after Ireland had entered the European Economic Community (EEC). No other Irish politician of his day understood, as he did, what Europe was about and how it worked.

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He knew intuitively that for Ireland the international centre of power had irrevocably shifted from London to Paris and Bonn and that the Franco/German alliance was central to our future, as well as that of Europe as a whole. He immediately embedded Ireland at the heart of the EEC alongside France and Germany so that we became psychological insiders, unlike either Britain or Denmark. As a result of his strategy we belong at the heart of Europe. From an Irish perspective, this is his greatest legacy.

Under the first Irish Presidency of 1975 he effectively created the European Council as we now know it and forged a completely new relationship between the council and the European Parliament. He added a unique dimension to Europe's relations with its former colonies through the Lome Convention, drawing on our history as a former colony, and placed Europe's relationship with the US on a new footing using his personal connections on Capitol Hill to maximum effect.

But it was as Taoiseach a decade later that he made his greatest contribution to the building of Europe. There was universal agreement at the time that Europe badly needed reform. He appointed Professor Jim Dooge as his personal representative on the committee tasked by the 1984 Fontainebleau Council to review the Rome Treaty and then insisted Dooge should chair it. This was an inspired decision because Dooge was a gifted diplomat and chairman and did the impossible by producing a report that had broad agreement. When it was put to the prime ministers at a subsequent meeting in Milan that they should summon an intergovernmental conference to frame treaty amendments, Garret voted in favour of the proposal to the visible annoyance of Mrs Thatcher. "Garret" she exclaimed, "you can't do this to me." But he had. Ireland voted one way, Britain the other.

He later overcame Mrs Thatcher's opposition to the reforms and it's no exaggeration to say that without his vote at the Milan Council the whole European project would have been delayed and, perhaps, derailed. That single act of statesmanship -- and courage -- is his greatest European legacy.

His motivation for supporting Ireland's accession to the EEC was, in reality, as much nationalist in inspiration as it was European. And he used that forum masterfully for many purposes, culminating in the Anglo-Irish Agreement with the very prime minister with whom he had differed with so strongly in Milan.

The state dinner in Dublin Castle on the eve of his death was the culmination of the peace process he had begun three decades earlier in Sunningdale.

Because he was a realist as well as a visionary he accepted without complaint the limits imposed on a small state in a multi-national organisation, but he sought to prevent large state domination of Europe by assiduously supporting the commission and upholding the "community method" of decision making.

Looking back over the past 50 years, it is clear that Garret FitzGerald was the greatest political figure of the era. A man of multiple personalities he had a multi-faceted career in which Europe was never far from the centre. We were so fortunate to have him.

He will be remembered as a great statesman, a brilliant intellect and, quite simply, a good man. There can be no better tribute to the man who helped make Europe.

Brendan Halligan chairs the Institute of International and European Affairs, of which Dr FitzGerald was president. They were friends for 50 years

Irish Independent

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