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FitzGerald was the best Taoiseach that we ever had

"The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity."

-- WB Yeats

IF EVER a life gave the lie to Yeats's pessimistic interpretation of both human nature and civic engagement, it was that of Garret FitzGerald. He was, I believe, the best Taoiseach we ever had and was, moreover, driven by firm convictions, which he pursued with his own gentle brand of passionate intensity.

Business schools teach that the distinction between leaders and managers is that managers do things right, while leaders do the right things. Leaders also strive to bring potential followers to their point of view.

Dr FitzGerald was a leader who sought to do the right things and in the process brought an often slow-learning population with him.

His principal contributions were to Northern Ireland policy, to the causes of liberalisation and pluralism and to the development of our links with Europe. It can be argued that it is he, even more than Sean Lemass, who was the principal architect of modern Ireland.

He will be remembered principally for his analysis of, and proposed solutions to, the Northern Ireland conflict, a nuanced position that ultimately prevailed over the simplistic pieties that had passed for policy on this island.

It is particularly sad that the timing of his final illness prevented him from participating in the royal visit, the very denouement of the diplomatic normalisation process that he began between the Republic that he loved so much and its nearest neighbour.

The events of this week provide an opportunity to assess the magnitude of his achievements in this regard and to place them in the context of the Eighties when he led our Republic.

One could be forgiven -- in a week when the Queen bowed her head in the Garden of Remembrance, loyalist leaders shook hands with an Irish President and the worst threat from Sinn Fein was that they wouldn't attend a party -- for forgetting how difficult peace-making was in the Ireland whose leadership he assumed in 1981.

It is important to remember that nearly a decade earlier, as Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dr FitzGerald had been one of the architects of the Sunningdale Agreement, the initial brave attempt by the British and Irish governments to offer a peaceful political alternative to sectarian strife.

In 1981, 117 people died violently in the Troubles. The hunger strikes were reaching their tragic climaxes. There were worrying signs that extremism was moving into the mainstream of political thought, North and South. Polarisation certainly was.

In 1981, Ian Paisley's hard-line Democratic Unionist Party became the largest party in local government in Northern Ireland and an IRA hunger striker was elected to the British House of Commons.

Attitudes were also hardening in the Republic. Two imprisoned members of the Provisional IRA, one who died soon afterwards on hunger strike, were elected to the Dail. The troubles even spilled onto the streets of leafy Dublin 4 with a full-blown riot on the Merrion Road in Ballsbridge.

The official position of Fianna Fail, the opposition party, was only slightly more accommodating of the Unionist perspective than were the nationalist extremists.

While condemning violence (although it was only a few years earlier that a FF TD had spoken of the necessity of obtaining bags of guns in pursuit of unity), the party line was hard and simplistic, and ultimately indistinguishable in aims, if not in methods, from that of the IRA.

Simply put, the unionist position was illegitimate, only a unitary state was acceptable and the British should withdraw their administration or declare their intent to do.

Thereafter, according to this fantasy, the previously warring Catholics, Protestants and dissenters would somehow address all of their political differences peacefully. This was as close to kamikaze as you get without an airplane.

The FitzGerald position was consistent and thoughtful. Show firmness in the face of violence, reach out to the other side and try to encourage your own people to see the other perspective. Work for a compromise that recognises and esteems different national aspirations.

Through the years that followed he was confronted with "Ulster says No" to the Anglo-Irish Agreement, Margaret Thatcher's "gratuitously offensive" (his own words) rejection of alternative constitutional arrangements and ongoing terrorism from both sides.

He stayed the course and laid the theoretical framework for the peace process.

Anyone who heard the heart-warming cross-community condemnation of the murder of Ronan Kerr or the reasoned assurances from Sinn Fein and the DUP that peace would not be derailed by a minority of extremists, was actually listening to a script written a quarter century earlier by Garret FitzGerald.

If it had been listened to when it was written in 1973, the latter 25-odd years of conflict and the additional 2,300 deaths which occurred after the collapse of Sunningdale might have been avoided. Seamus Mallon was right about the slow learners.

For many people of my generation, those who emerged into adulthood in the '70s and '80s, the domestic political choice in Ireland looked stark, and at times Manichean. For while his policies and beliefs largely formed his own agenda, Dr FitzGerald's positions were often seen as defined by contrast with those of his great rival, Charles Haughey.

'Garret the Good', as he was parodied, personified probity, decency and honesty, while Mr Haughey was accused of blind ambition.

Their differences on the North were substantial and Mr Haughey was often portrayed as playing fast and loose with that conflict for domestic political gain in the South. It is probably fairer to say that Mr Haughey's opinions were heavily informed by the nationalist environment that he grew up in.

He was slow to abandon a set of loyalties that had, for him and for many others, morphed into eternal principles. Like many others, he failed to recognise the essential moral neutrality of the unionist and nationalist positions.

This, in truth, was the most fundamental political difference between the two men. Dr Fitzgerald wasn't a prisoner of his past. He was a leader. And he led us well.

If all lives were lived so well, the world would be a better place. RIP.

Professor John Crown is a consultant oncologist. He was recently elected to the Senate

Sunday Independent