Wednesday 22 November 2017

Review: Just Garret Tales from the political front line by Garret FitzGerald

Liberties Press, €26.99, Hardback

John Cooney

It is almost 24 years since Garret FitzGerald lost the February 1987 General Election to his arch-political foe, Fianna Fail leader, Charles J Haughey. The next month, as Haughey vowed to keep the IMF Scrooges out of Ireland by prescribing economic austerity medicine which FitzGerald had flunked, 'Garret the Good' resigned as leader of Fine Gael, though he stayed on as a Dail backbencher.

Before his retirement from politics in 1992, Garret spent his time scribbling his autobiography, All in a Life, a tome skilfully edited by journalist Louis McRedmond from its original 1,000 to 674 pages.

'FitzGabble' claimed to have handled facts objectively, but made no claim to objectivity in expressing his views on events and individuals.

His core thrust was to explain his achievement in negotiating the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, which he signed with an ashen-faced Margaret Thatcher at Hillsborough Castle, in County Down. The original book also vindicated his less successful efforts to remove sectarian features from the constitution and laws of the Republic of Ireland in his crusade to reconcile nationalists and Ulster unionists.

On balance, it is a fine but detailed autobiography short on pen-portraiture. It began with his recollection, at the precocious age of five, of caustically commenting that Ernest Blythe, a leading politician of the early State, who is now infamously remembered for cutting the old age pension, was a Protestant. Only to be told by his mother Mabel that she, too, was a Protestant. It closed with his ringing affirmation that from the day of stepping down as leader of Fine Gael, he and his wife Joan "lived happily ever after".

Almost 20 years on, and thousands of weighty words in his throbbing, but worthy weekly, Irish Times column and other publications, we are now enticed to purchase Just Garret: Tales From The Political Front Line for our first IMF-EU Christmas collective escapist reading list.

Surprise, surprise. In a fresh introduction, the focus on the North is demoted and elevated is Garret's self-serving back-clapping of his credentials as an economic manager with a social democratic conscience. A statesman who is no FF tribal Brian Cowen.

Of his headship of his second Fine Gael-Labour coalition from 1982-87, he recalls "the circumstances which were difficult and unpropitious -- and which offered me less job satisfaction than I found in my earlier career -- but which was eased by very positive relationships with most of my colleagues and by the chance it gave me to protect the less well-off from the impact of the measures we had to take to save the economy -- something which is sadly not being emulated in the current crisis". No Louis McRedmond's skilful editorship in this rambling passage of self-delusion.

But his constitutional crusade still ranks as number two. Those five years as Taoiseach are recalled for "the opportunity it gave me to initiate the overdue process of substituting a pluralist society for the narrow single-ethos culture that had perhaps been an inevitable inheritance from the national revolution which had been forced on us in the closing stages of the British imperial system".

McRedmond, come back. Garret, old boy, you must rewrite your only new chapter in which you catalogue like a civil servant your consultancy travels, learned lectures and copious publications.

Yes, you keep telling us how much you miss Joan since her death. But you don't write about your feelings on her passing. Yes, you love your children and grandchildren, but you do not bring them to life.

Yes, you admit regret that "after a long life, one tends to be more conscious of one's failures than of one's successes". But you do not admit us to your private reservations. Nor do you tell us what you really think of your political and academic contemporaries.

Dear Garret, your vision of a pluralist Ireland at peace with the North, has been implemented to a large degree by your successors, Albert Reynolds, John Bruton and Bertie Ahern.

Your stock in the pantheon of Irish political leaders is assured. At 84, keep your dedicatory pledge, now this manuscript is completed, to be a more relaxed parent and grandparent in future.

Let the historians enter the frame who will give us their detached assessments of your life and times.

John Cooney is author of Battleship Bertie, Politics in Bertie Ahern's Ireland

Irish Independent

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