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Tuesday 30 May 2017

A peacemaker at home, abroad and in his party

He used his strong opinions to heal, whether in Northern Ireland, with Britain or in Fine Gael itself

Dr Garret FitzGerald was Taoiseach during one of the country's most difficult times; when the nation struggled with high joblessness and emigration
Dr Garret FitzGerald was Taoiseach during one of the country's most difficult times; when the nation struggled with high joblessness and emigration

HE knew more than most about economic crises -- and he wasn't afraid to offer some words of advice. Dr Garret FitzGerald was Taoiseach for much of the 1980s, when Ireland was experiencing emigration and unemployment on a scale similar to now.

The economic crisis of the time was much worse than he had envisaged when he was first elected Taoiseach in 1981 and although Fine Gael had planned on tax cuts, they were instead forced to introduce a draconian budget almost immediately.

It was this experience, as well as his business background, which made him a voice to listen to during our ongoing economic crisis.

Just last month, he hit out at "celebrity economists who have been seeking publicity" by claiming our problems are so great that we will eventually have to default.

He blasted their "irresponsible statements", saying the damage done by their loose words "has been incalculable".

"It is difficult enough for our own people to distinguish between serious economic commentators in Ireland and irresponsible voices -- it is impossible for foreign observers of our finances to do so," he said.

Despite his harsh words, he was liked and respected by most. He was known simply as Garret, or as 'Garret the good'.

His gregarious nature, notorious ability to talk faster than most people thought possible and 'absent-minded professor' image marked him as an unusual political force that was to endure until his retirement from politics in 1992.

However, he had his critics and some would say he was not a politician at all, despite his political pedigree. Much of his liberal attitude was thanks to his parents.

He was a son of Desmond FitzGerald, who was at one time Minister for External Affairs in the old Cumann na nGaedheal government led by William T Cosgrave. His father fought in the 1916 Rising, was a member of the first Dail after being elected while he was a prisoner, and voted for the Treaty of 1922. He was also the son of a Northern Irish Presbyterian mother, and it was that relationship that made him devote himself to the task of uniting the "two traditions", as he called them.

For years, it appeared Garret FitzGerald had no great interest in following in his father's footsteps. He entered the world of business and, as in-house economist for Aer Lingus, colleagues used to say of him that given a problem which had stumped everybody else, he would lock himself up with it and never fail to produce.

Executives and the workforce alike found him a rather loveable colleague and "a decent boss". But he couldn't resist the lure and eventually succumbed to the temptation of politics.

He was first elected to Dail Eireann in the 1969 General Election, for the Dublin South-East constituency.

However, FitzGerald had said on more than one occasion that he would never have dived into the deep waters of Irish politics if it had not been for the continual problem of the North and the ever-growing death toll, which horrified and shocked him to the core.

He carried those traits of character into his political career and they led him, first, to be the best-known Irishman in Europe when he was Minister for Foreign Affairs under Liam Cosgrave, and then to be Taoiseach, a post he filled for nine months in 1981-82 and again in the second Fine Gael/Labour coalition of 1982-87.

But in his second term as Taoiseach, his inclination to go his own way regardless of advice led him into trouble time and again with veteran members of the party, who complained that he was much more accessible to the younger members than to themselves.

It was also this liberal mind which drove him to concentrate much of his time and efforts on Northern Ireland. Because of his mother, he had an insight into the mind of the majority community in the North, which helped him gain the trust of both sides.

After the 1973 election, Fine Gael came to power in a coalition government with the Labour Party. Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave appointed him as Minister for Foreign Affairs. During that four-year period,

FitzGerald travelled the world and was often derided by Fianna Fail deputies as being the "globetrotting" minister. But those visits served Ireland well and gained us a reputation in international affairs which we had not held previously.

It was during that period, too, that he first began to warn the nation of over-spending. As long ago as l974, he told us that we were then living 10pc beyond our means. There was no precedent for such a rate of overspending, he said.

The warning went unnoticed by all except the administration of which he was a member -- and the steps they took to cut spending led, three years later, to what was then the most devastating defeat ever suffered by an Irish government.

The pattern was to be repeated four years later when a coalition government led by FitzGerald himself was brought down because of its attempts to impose financial rectitude. But much was to happen in the interval.

The defeat of the Cosgrave Coalition in 1977 led to the resignation of Liam Cosgrave as leader of Fine Gael and his succession in that office by Garret FitzGerald.

But when he assumed the leadership, he found the party completely demoralised. He had to set about rebuilding confidence and to develop, practically from scratch, an electoral machine which would challenge that of Fianna Fail, at that time acknowledged as one of the most streamlined in Europe.

He went about this in a typically energetic way: stumping the country morning, noon and night and gathering about him a group of young and equally energetic men.

While doing his best to retain the allegiance of the old guard of the party, some of whom had no great love for the new methods, he devoted most of his attention to the younger voters and to the women, building up branches of Young Fine Gael in every constituency.

Again, some of the older grassroots supporters took a jaundiced view of this. They did not take to having their power base eroded by the newcomers; nor did they take to their liberal and even radical views.

But his efforts were successful: so much so that when the new leader of Fianna Fail, Charles Haughey, went to the country in 1981 to secure a mandate for his personal leadership, Fine Gael had grown hugely in electoral support. In a working arrangement with the Labour Party, they were able to topple Fianna Fail, leading to the establishment of the first FitzGerald coalition.

It was when Haughey's nomination as Taoiseach was put before the Dail that FitzGerald made a political error that cost him popularity and brought criticism, some even from his own party.

Opposing the nomination, he said that he did so not for any personal reasons but because of Haughey's "flawed pedigree" -- and because of some matters that could not be mentioned in the Dail. It was felt that what he meant was his opponent's political background, but this is not what he said. In 2006 he said he regretted the "badly chosen words", saying he had merely wanted to point out that Haughey was different from previous Taoisigh "in that he didn't have the support of a large amount of his own party". "But nobody noticed that context," said FitzGerald.

Despite the blow to his popularity -- and other blows down through the years -- FitzGerald had the unswerving support of his wife, Joan, whom he married in 1947. She died in 1999 after many years of suffering from crippling arthritis. But during his active political career she accompanied him on all his campaigns, even though she was chronically ill for much of her later life.

She was also by his side when FitzGerald made his second cardinal political error. Prior to the general election which brought him his second term in office, he succumbed to the pressure of the pro-life campaign and committed himself to introducing an amendment to the Constitution to ensure abortion could never be made legal in this country.

Haughey followed suit and, being in office at the time, drew up a proposed amendment -- which was accepted by FitzGerald, apparently without having studied it too closely or having had legal advice.

The ensuing election brought FitzGerald back as Taoiseach, inheriting the Fianna Fail amendment. He had it studied by his new Attorney-General, Peter Sutherland, who advised that the form of words was not suitable to achieve the desired objective.

There was widespread feeling that FitzGerald, as Taoiseach, had reneged on a commitment made while in Opposition. In the event, his revised form of words was not accepted by the Dail, with eight of his own deputies joining Fianna Fail in turning it down.

Throughout the country, Fine Gael was badly split about the whole business, and FitzGerald came in for bitter criticism at his own party meetings. FitzGerald then had the task of healing the split in the party.

But despite all that his opponents said about him, FitzGerald devoted most of his life to the promotion of peace at home and abroad; one of his main objectives was to heal, in as far as he could, old wounds.

He detested violence of any sort and was devastated by the continuing warfare and loss of life in the North. To put an end to this was the major motivation of his political career and whatever the internal strains, he never lost sight of that objective.

Similarly, he strove to achieve peaceful co-existence and co-operation between us and our neighbours in Britain, being convinced that the well-being of both peoples depended on each other.

When he became Taoiseach for the first time, he found a gap between the two governments. His predecessor, Charles Haughey, had met with the then-British premier Margaret Thatcher. At first there appeared to be nothing but sweetness and joy from that get-together, the famous "silver teapot meeting" at which Haughey presented her with a teapot as a present. But things went wrong when it became obvious that Haughey and Thatcher had placed different interpretations on what had been said between them.

While she did not say so in so many words, Thatcher made it clear that as far as she was concerned she had been misrepresented by Mr Haughey. From then on, relations were cool.

So when FitzGerald became Taoiseach for the first time in 1981, he set out to rebuild the bridge between the two governments. He made it his business to have private meetings with Mrs Thatcher when both were attending summit meetings of the EEC, and visited her in Downing Street.

There were signs that the gap was beginning to narrow a little -- but that first term of office did not last very long and once again Charles Haughey was Taoiseach, even if he was head of a minority government. When the Falklands crisis blew up, Haughey went along with our EEC partners in announcing sanctions against Argentina, but when the British mounted their invasion of the islands, Haughey divorced himself and the government from the operation.

This action caused intense anger in Britain, and no Briton was more angry about it than Mrs Thatcher. Where before there had been a coolness, now there was a definite freeze-up. So when Garret FitzGerald was returned in late 1982, he found relations between the governments practically non-existent.

It was to be a long and uphill fight, in the middle of which were the hunger strikes of 1981 -- and FitzGerald was not slow, as Taoiseach, to criticise Thatcher for her "inflexibility" towards the men who were dying.

But one of his biggest triumphs came when he was an architect of the ground-breaking Anglo-Irish agreement. Signed on November 15, 1985, it gave the Republic a consultative role in Northern Ireland's affairs, while the Irish government accepted that there would be no change in the North's status without the agreement of a majority of its people.

This laid down a building block for what would later become the peace process. However, in the end it wasn't Northern Ireland's issues but the economic crisis of the time which unseated him.

In January 1987, the coalition collapsed after the resignation of four cabinet ministers from the Labour Party. At the time his austerity measures had brought inflation down from above 20pc to 4pc -- but the economy had shown no growth for five years.

Interest rates, at nearly 14pc, were the highest in the western world at the time, and between 1983 and 1987 the national debt grew from £18.7bn to £30.1bn.

The four Labour ministers stepped down after the 11 ministers from Fine Gael voted for cuts of hundreds of millions in health, education and social welfare. The vote came at a time when Ireland had 19pc unemployment, a record in the then- European Community, and 50,000 people had been forced to emigrate to find work.

FitzGerald retired from politics in 1992, but his reputation was tarnished in 1999 when it emerged that AIB and Ansbacher had written off £200,000 of a personal loan in 1993. He had borrowed the money to buy shares in an ill-fated aircraft leasing firm called Guinness Peat Aviation (GPA) after he had been made one of its directors. Its shares later collapsed and he was unable to repay. His Dublin home was sold off to pay off some of the debt, with the remainder written off.

However, there was much criticism at the time, as it was AIB that wrote off the debt -- the same AIB which the Fine Gael/Labour coalition had bailed out in 1984. FitzGerald argued that his personal bailout had happened in 1993, after he had left politics.

He remained vocal on economic issues and, in a major interview to celebrate his 80th birthday, he said he regretted the effects the Celtic Tiger had on Irish society.

"If we had got rich slower, it might have been better because it is very destabilising in a society," he said in 2006, around the same time the housing market began to level off.

"The rich tend to get rich faster than the poor get better off, and therefore the division seems bigger."

Last year, his name was also mentioned alongside major economic issues -- but not in a positive way. Speaking in the Dail, the current Transport Minister, Fine Gael's Leo Varadkar, referred to the explosion in debt under FitzGerald's watch, much to the horror of his party colleagues, who still held their former leader in high regard.

"You're no Sean Lemass. You're no Jack Lynch and you're no John Bruton," he told Brian Cowen in the Dail. "You're a Garret FitzGerald. You've tripled the national debt, you've effectively destroyed the country." Varadkar later apologised.

In recent years he had been writing a newspaper column and appearing on current affairs programmes.

He wasn't afraid to voice his opinion -- even if it descended into a row with those who sat on the other side of the fence.

FitzGerald had always maintained he would continue to work as long as he could.

"I believe if you can still write and talk, then you should contribute something," he said a number of years ago.

He continued to contribute until the end, a giant in Irish political life.

Irish Independent

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