Wednesday 31 August 2016

Garret was not your normal political animal

Liam Collins recalls an engaging, agreeable character who could on occasion be steely and indiscreet

Published 22/05/2011 | 05:00

There was an other-worldly quality to Garret FitzGerald which was exemplified for me as he boarded his election bus after a late-night political rally in Macroom, Co Cork.

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"Why are they all waving red and white flags?" he asked.

Garret may have been a true blue Fine Gaeler, a statistical wizard and a social reformer, but he didn't have a clue about the passionate attachment to the GAA in rural Ireland, and particularly in Cork.

Indeed, he seemed to find some of the party's more fervent supporters frightening. He was uncomfortable with the tribalism that was the backbone of Fine Gael in many parts of rural Ireland, but the 'backwoodsmen' of the party idolised Garret, because they knew he was something they could never be.

During the elections of 1981/82, I was one of a small media party that followed Garret FitzGerald and his wife Joan as they travelled the highways and byways of Ireland by bus wooing the electorate.

He was an engaging and entertaining travelling companion who loved talking about things other than politics. He didn't seem to realise that he was telling a story against himself when he told us that as Minister for Foreign Affairs the then Taoiseach, Liam Cosgrave, who went home to eat his dinner in the middle of the day with his wife Vera, refused to give Garret his home phone number. He wanted to eat in peace and let Garret take the decisions.

Garret and Joan were a double act. "Garret," she would command, and when she called he came running.

Matters of State might need attention, but Garret's first priority was to keep Joan happy.

A very formidable woman, she obviously knew that if something had to be done and done quickly she had to take charge. They were a very close couple and it was said that if, like Peter Sutherland or Jim Mitchell, you were a favourite of Joan's, you would do well in Fine Gael.

At the time Garret was 'minded' by what were then known as 'The National Handlers' a group which included RTE sports personality Bill O'Herlihy; public relations executive Pat Henehan; Enda Marren, a Dublin solicitor of Mayo origins; Frank Flannery, who was running Rehab; and the late Sean O'Leary from Cork.

For once Fine Gael had a better 'machine' than Fianna Fail, and through ruthless candidate selection and hauling Garret and Joan relentlessly around the country, the party won the election.

There was another occasion during that campaign when Garret FitzGerald landed in Donegal by helicopter, to be greeted and jostled by mobs of H-Block protesters waving black flags. It was turning quite ugly, and it was only with the help of some of his handlers and even members of the media that Garret was bundled into a local hotel.

He looked puzzled when we asked where his personal bodyguard was during this dangerous confrontation.

It transpired that the armed detectives had been sitting in their car at St Vincent's Hospital in Dublin when Garret ran out of the hospital and jumped into the waiting helicopter and was gone before they realised it.

It was a good story -- but just before we were due to send it to the newspapers the Taoiseach, as he was, came down the back of the bus and made a typically Garret pronouncement.

"Of course I can't influence you in any way about what you might write, but I can tell you that if that story is in tomorrow's papers those two detectives will probably lose their jobs, even though it really was my fault." They say you have to have a splinter of ice in your heart to be a good reporter -- for once humanity got the better of us.

But he did want to be Taoiseach, and he had the good sense to leave it to the 'National Handlers' to make that happen.

It was also Garret who presided over the first bank bailout of ICI. Advised by a young economics academic called Patrick Honohan, his government decided to rescue Allied Irish Banks from collapse by buying the insurance company for £1, getting nothing in return. Within weeks the extremely profitable AIB then paid shareholders a fat dividend.

The late John Boland, who was a member of his government, once regaled me about marathon Cabinet meetings that went on for eight or nine hours until everyone was exhausted and bad humoured. The last item invariably was the sacking of postmen, which at that time could only be done by Cabinet decree. Normally this was a rubber-stamp job, as most of them had gone through such a long-drawn out disciplinary process that there was no doubt about their guilt.

But no, Garret insisted that each had to have a fair hearing by the entire Cabinet -- "after all it's a man's livelihood we're talking about", he would say -- and so another hour of tedium had to be endured.

Then, and since, Garret FitzGerald was always compared favourably to his nemesis, Charles J Haughey.

In his speech when Haughey was inaugurated as Taoiseach, Garret spoke about his "flawed pedigree" -- a remark he never fully explained, except to say that he was not talking about the private life of the Fianna Fail leader, which is what most people assumed at the time.

They and their future wives had been at UCD together, and in one other respect they were alike: both had fortunes written off by Allied Irish Banks. But while Haughey was vilified for this act, Garret -- who had over-extended himself buying shares in Tony Ryan's doomed aircraft leasing company GPA -- was regarded as more victim than villain.

Although he was known as 'Garret The Good' and sometimes had the endearing personality of a bumbling academic, there was a steely side to Garret and it was a pity he didn't show it more often when he was in government.

The way he literally shafted the presidential aspirations of Brian Lenihan (Senior) was a case in point. FitzGerald heard about the famous Duffy Tape', an academic exercise in which Mr Lenihan told political researcher Jim Duffy 'off the record' that he had phoned President Patrick Hillary to try to influence him not to call an election and instead ask Haughey to form a new administration.

Some years later, during the Presidential election, FitzGerald got invited as part of the audience for Questions & Answers on RTE and got Lenihan to deny making the phone calls. The rest is history. The Irish Times released the tape, and Lenihan was sacked as Tanaiste and had to go on RTE a second time to tell the nation about his 'mature recollection.'

It handed the presidency to Mary Robinson.

Although he was never ostentatious, Garret did like money. There was the story of how after he retired an Irish-based British newspaper asked him to write an article, but he declined on the basis that he was extremely busy.

"How much did you offer him?" asked the British editor when told of this snub.

"We didn't discuss money," said his Irish sidekick, who believed such things were beneath former Taoisigh.

"Go back and ask him how much ... ." said the hard-bitten Fleet Street hack.

Of course when Garret got a generous fee, he wrote the article.

Although his newspaper columns could sometimes be tedious, he never lost his eye for a piece of good copy, as when he castigated the role of 'celebrity economists' in one of his last columns for the Irish Times.

He wasn't a man you'd have a pint with. Like some of his Fine Gael predecessors, he was more at home in the drawing rooms of Dublin 4 than in the lounge bars of the real Ireland. He enjoyed an odd G&T, but only the one.

Garret FitzGerald was not a normal political animal, but he was interested in power and knew how to use it. He was an agreeable and at times indiscreet companion, who had a natural curiosity about other people. Unlike many of our modern politicians he was not 'one dimensional' -- during his lifetime he had several successful careers, as a statistician, politician, writer and journalist, and seemed to enjoy them all.

Sunday Independent

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