Fionnan Sheahan: He proved not all political careers must end in failure
Published 20/05/2011 | 05:00
GARRET FitzGerald's enduring legacy ensures he defies the thesis that all political careers end in failure.
Fine Gael will rightly hail the former Taoiseach as an inspirational leader who influenced an entire generation of the party and left an indelible mark.
But the party's relationship with its former leader has not always been harmonious and views on his impact were often mixed -- although the balance of opinion was positive. Always ahead of the prevailing thinking, he wasn't always valued within Fine Gael.
None questioned his inherent decency and outstanding commitment to public service.
But the failure of Dr FitzGerald's Fine Gael--Labour Party coalition of 1982 to 1987 to deal with the economic problems facing the country has certainly drawn criticism.
Some in Fine Gael feel Dr FitzGerald damaged the party's reputation for fiscal rectitude, which took almost a quarter century to fully recover. This twin-edged view was famously exposed from the most unlikely of sources last year when Fine Gael young buck Leo Varadkar unfavourably compared then Taoiseach Brian Cowen's management of the economy to that of Dr FitzGerald.
"You're a Garret FitzGerald. You've tripled the national debt, you've effectively destroyed the country," the Transport Minister told Cowen.
Within the party, he was disparagingly described as "the sixth Labour member" of the 82-87 coalition.
"Many Fine Gael ministers have said he was too weak with Labour as far as the public finances were concerned," a veteran party backbencher said.
Part of the reason behind the resentment towards Dr FitzGerald was because his independent mindset meant he never held back from criticising the party in his latter days, which was seen as a bit rich given the economic policy failings of the 1980s.
"When Garret FitzGerald left, he wasn't gone. In the recent past, he was occasionally causing some difficulties," a party TD said yesterday.
Dr FitzGerald appeared to be a late convert to the belief that Enda Kenny was Taoiseach material, even though he had given the Mayo TD his first ministerial role as junior minister for education in the 1980s.
But his pride at Fine Gael's return to power and Kenny's election as Taoiseach two months ago was evident.
From the great highs of 1982, when the party secured its highest ever percentage vote and a then record number of seats -- only eclipsed by Kenny this year -- he resigned from the party leadership after defeat in the 1987 election.
During a decade as party leader, he invigorated Fine Gael and made them into a wider-thinking party. He dragged a conservative party into the modern era.
He changed the way in which the party selected candidates and campaigned, bringing in concepts like party branding, opinion polling and high profile leaders tours.
He brought in young and female figures and had no hesitation in promoting them through the ranks.
He founded Young Fine Gael and had a role in the promotion of strong female figures like Monica Barnes, Nuala Fennell, Gemma Hussey and Nora Owen. But his liberal agenda ended up alienating sections of the old guard.
That split within the traditional ranks of the party was sometimes hidden by the fact he brought in a huge number of people into Fine Gael and his personal humility meant there was no bitterness.
"He was divisive in the sense that people didn't agree with him, but they still admired him personally," a party source said yesterday.
In the 1980s, Fine Gael was the law and order party, the green party, the liberal party and the conservative party as he drew in all sorts of ideologies.
Dr FitzGerald defined Fine Gael as the most pro-European in Ireland. He brought that passion to the party and they embraced it. He made Fine Gael engage with the North in a way it hadn't done before and his negotiation of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 was a high point of his term as Taoiseach -- and a precursor of future progress in the Northern Ireland peace process.
He was everything a classic politician in this country was not. He eschewed parish pump localism, avoided nationalism and was a true intellectual. He was the antithesis of Irish political life.
Yet his enigmatic nature drew a devoted following and made him a beloved figure in Fine Gael.
The head-to-head battles with Charles J Haughey through four general elections in the 1980s enhanced his following and gave him cult status in Fine Gael.
At the end of Dr FitzGerald's formal career in Fine Gael, some in the party considered him a failure due to his economic record in the mid-1980s.
But his continued activity meant he became a monumental and respected presence on the political landscape.
He proved he was bigger than politics and held a wider appeal than in Fine Gael alone.