Thursday 14 November 2019

Farewell, Garret, my good friend

Historians will see the Age of FitzGerald as perhaps even a golden age, writes Ronan Fanning

'It was Garret FitzGerald's cosmopolitanism, to-gether with his charm, which most struck me. It was he who made me feel provincial." So wrote Roy Jenkins, the British Labour Minister and later President of the European Commission, in his review of All In A Life, Garret's autobiography. That was much how I felt in 1973 when I first became close friends with Garret (who was then Minister for Foreign Affairs) and Joan FitzGerald when we were among the guests of Denis Corboy, the head of the European Commission's Dublin office, on holiday in Provence.

Other holidays followed, sometimes in France, sometimes in West Cork, most memorably in the Dordogne in 1982 when Garret's holiday was cut short when the Gubu episode -- the discovery of a murderer in the apartment of Paddy Connolly (Charles Haughey's Attorney General) -- precipitated his immediate return to Dublin. But neither then nor at many dinner parties in the FitzGeralds' Dublin home did my first impression ever fade.

The attribution of cosmopolitanism is in one sense misleading, for he was never infected by those tawdry affectations of sophistication with which it so often goes hand-in-glove, but it was what put Garret FitzGerald in a different league from his political predecessors. They inhabited a world in which politics was overwhelmingly insular and bounded by the horizons of the Border and of the neighbouring island; their obsessions were the multiple expressions of independence, such as neutrality. Garret's world was Europe and his obsession was inter-dependence; he was always sceptical about the morality of Ireland's neutrality in the Second World War, although he was astute enough to deny his scepticism full rein until after his retirement from politics.

Nor did he abide by the traditional trappings of party politics. Disenchanted by the 1948 decision of John A Costello's government to leave the Commonwealth, he severed his ties with Fine Gael, and his admiration for Sean Lemass's endorsement of Economic Development and decision to apply for membership of the EEC even prompted him to vote for Fianna Fail in the 1961 election. Declan Costello's Just Society programme brought Garret back to the fold in 1965 when he was elected to the Senate, but, despite the heroic stature conferred by his then unprecedented electoral success as the leader of Fine Gael in the November 1982 election, he always disliked the right wing of the party and I often heard him joke with Michael O'Leary that he would have been more comfortable as the leader of the Labour Party.

When the age of De Valera came to an end, the clash of the political cultures of inter-dependence and of irredentism was personified by the struggle for power between the charismatic FitzGerald (Francophile, plain-living, academic, economist, and proponent of conciliation with Northern Ireland) and the no less charismatic Haughey (Anglophobic, plutocratic, opportunistic, irredentist and corrupt), a titanic conflict that dominated the political landscape of late 20th Century Ireland much as the conflict between Gladstone and Disraeli had dominated the British political landscape in the previous century.

The next generation of historians may well write of the age of FitzGerald much as their predecessors now write of the age of De Valera. That world revolved around the twin poles of Europe and of Northern Ireland from the moment he became a Cabinet Minister in Liam Cosgrave's coalition government of 1973-77. Garret had expected and hoped to become Minister for Finance, the portfolio he had held in Opposition. Instead he became Minister for Foreign Affairs, a providential appointment both for his own political career and for the future direction of Irish foreign policy. He avoided the worst of the opprobrium attaching to the proponents of the harsh budgetary policies that were an inevitable consequence of the worldwide recession of 1974-75 and was the obvious successor when Liam Cosgrave resigned as leader of Fine Gael in 1977.

1973 was the decisive year in the evolution of inter-dependence and of the corresponding erosion of the Irish obsession with sovereignty. The happy coincidence of Ireland and Britain simultaneously joining the EEC in the same year as the negotiation of the Sunningdale agreement ensured that the first recognition of inter-dependence with Britain in respect of the governance of Northern Ireland marched hand in hand with Ireland's acknowledgement of her inter-dependence with Europe.

Garret's radicalism, his energy and his extraordinarily fluent French meant that from the very beginning Ireland punched above its weight in Europe, an achievement sealed by the remarkable success of the first Irish Presidency of the European Council in 1975. He was arguably more successful, and certainly happier, as Minister for Foreign Affairs than as Taoiseach. The same was true of Joan, and Garret wrote in his autobiography of how, "from her point of view as well as mine, the years in Foreign Affairs were the high point of our joint career". For it was a joint career and no appreciation of Garret can omit Joan's crucial role as confidante, not least because, as he was the first to admit, her political antennae were always more finely tuned than his.

It was also in 1973-77 that Garret FitzGerald established an intimate working relationship with some of the officials in the Department of Foreign Affairs -- most notably Michael Lillis and Sean Donlon -- who were to play a key role in implementing his Northern Irish policy during his second term as Taoiseach in 1982-87. The culmination of that policy, the Anglo-Irish Agreement that he and Margaret Thatcher signed at Hillsborough in November 1985, will always stand as his greatest achievement

What was unique about the 1985 agreement is that it marked a radical new departure in the Irish government's Northern Ireland policy which, until then, had refused to confront the realities of partition, the existence of which was instead ritually and impotently condemned. This policy had persisted even in 1973 in the fudged device of presenting the different declarations of the two governments on the status of Northern Ireland in separate columns in the Sunningdale communique. The Irish government's declaration -- that there could be no change in the status of Northern Ireland until a majority of the people of Northern Ireland so desired -- was vitiated, moreover, by their legal defence in the Boland case: that the irredentist claims in articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution were unaffected by their Sunningdale declaration. But in 1985, by agreeing to participate in the inter-governmental conference and still more in the inter-governmental secretariat set up in Belfast, the Irish government finally abandoned the sterile strategy of undiluted anti-partitionism and accepted a share of responsibility for the governance of Northern Ireland as it was rather than as they wanted it to be.

Escaping from the past entailed sketching a blueprint for the future. That the Hillsborough blueprint was unacceptable to Unionists was a fundamental part of its strategic dynamic. It was an indispensable precursor to the inclusion of Sinn Fein in the political process and to the dull normality of the recent elections in Northern Ireland. For the historic 2007 power-sharing agreement would never have happened were it not for the DUP's apprehensions that, if its talks with Sinn Fein collapsed, the fallback position of Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern would be a latter-day variant of the 1985 agreement.

Garret FitzGerald's endeavours to make his Ireland less repugnant to Northern Ireland's Protestants also prompted his abortive constitutional crusade of 1981. But his determination to end the identification of the State with the Catholic Church gradually paid dividends and the Church vainly opposed his government's liberalisation of legislation on contraception in 1985. His first referendum, in 1986, to remove the constitutional ban on divorce was defeated, but a second referendum, in 1995, was carried. Although Garret had by then retired from politics, he nevertheless deserves the lion's share of the credit for bringing about the change in the climate of opinion that made possible the ultimate enactment of such a basic human right before the end of the 20th Century.

Even the successful campaign of right-wing Catholic pressure groups to carry the 1983 referendum amending the constitution so as to reinforce the prohibition of abortion reflected their fear of what Garret represented.

So too was what the future Archbishop of Dublin, Desmond Connell, then a Professor of Metaphysics, once said to me in UCD's coffee-room of his former schoolmate in Belvedere: "Your friend FitzGerald is a secularist!" By the illiberal standards of late 20th Century Ireland, so he was. And for that many of us were and will always remain thankful.

Historians will also see the age of FitzGerald -- and it has this much in common with the age of De Valera -- as an age of political integrity, perhaps even as a golden age when contrasted with the age of tribunals and the regime of rampant profiteering that thrived under the logo of the Celtic Tiger.

Hence his nickname of 'Garret the Good', the sneering sobriquet used against him by political opponents and their lackeys in the media. No one would have laughed longer than Garret and Joan at the rich irony that what was initially a term of abuse, had by the time of his death, when public respect for Irish politicians has sunk to an all-time low, become his ultimate accolade.

Ronan Fanning is Professor Emeritus of Modern History at University College Dublin

Sunday Independent

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