In the early years of the last decade, Garret FitzGerald was at a dinner in New York when he spotted his old sparring partner Margaret Thatcher at a nearby table.
They hadn’t seen each other for a while. FitzGerald, with the help of British civil servants and ministers, had persuaded Thatcher, against her better judgement, to sign the Anglo Irish agreement in 1985, something she quickly regretted, and just as quickly said so.
They were both out of power many years at this point, but FitzGerald thought that – half in jest, half in earnest – he should give her a piece of his mind for her lack of support for a Treaty they had both signed in good faith.
“What are you doing now, Garret?”, she asked him as he sat down beside her. “Like you, I’m didactic”, he replied.” As long as I can write and lecture, I’m happy”. And then he had a go at her about the agreement.
As he told this story on Newstalk a few years ago (the clip was replayed during the many hours of tribute following his death today), you got a good sense of what Garret FitzGerald was like to deal with.
In the 1980s, he was rather lazily stereotyped as a kind of absent-minded professor, who wore odd socks at important events, who had fallen into politics and leadership, and was therefore no match for ambitious career politicians like Thatcher and Charles Haughey.
But nothing could have been further from the truth. From his arrival as a senior, serious politician in 1973, when he became Minister For Foreign Affairs, he treated the world as his oyster and those in it as his equals.
He sensed the strengths and weaknesses of opponents early, and exploited both for political advantage. He was never fazed or intimidated by politics, despite the fusty mage people had of him.
It meant that he could wander over to Margaret Thatcher many years after their biggest falling out, and chastise her, almost mock her. He had his faults, like all politicians, but he was no shrinking violet.
His belief in his right to exist as an equal in the world of politics extended to everyone he met. Gemma Hussey, a former minister for education under Fitzgerald, described him as “the first man I met who was a natural feminist”.
Frank Flannery, the Fine Gael campaign manager, said FitzGerald had a more “pluralist, multi-cultural, feminist” view of Ireland than his colleagues.
That devotion to equality – to securing what he called “parity of esteem” for Northern Ireland’s nationalist community - was behind his determination to address the Troubles and his steel in persuading Thatcher to sign the 1985 agreement. In the Republic, it brought us the Constitutional Crusade.
Initially, FitzGerald’s ambition to remove sections of the constitution which he believed might be a barrier to Irish unity – such as Articles 2 and 3, which laid claim to the six counties of Ulster under British rule – came to nothing. Indeed he was savagely attacked for his “free state mentality” by elements in Fianna Fail, who portrayed him as somebody who liked to have his belly tickled by Margaret Thatcher.
Politically, you might even describe his crusade as reckless, but it had a widespread effect. Suddenly, the notion that the constitution might in places be a sectarian document was being discussed seriously and widely; debates, sometimes civilised and respectful, about thorny issues of divorce, contraception and abortion were breaking out in the media and in wider society.
In 1998, 17 years after the launch of the Constitutional Crusade, Ireland, North and South, voted for the Good Friday agreement which, amongst other things, led to the abolition of Articles 2 and 3. On that issue, Garret FitzGerald was a man ahead of his time.
One of the sad ironies of FitzGerald’s death was that for a time on Friday, his passing completely overshadowed the visit of Queen Elizabeth, an event which could not have happened without the energy he brought to attacking the problem of Northern Ireland in the 1980s.
In the end, because his record on the economy – huge deficits and debts – was poor, it is the North which will go down as his greatest political achievement, and as many have pointed out in the wake of his death, it is desperately sad that he could not have been in Dublin Castle last night to hear the Queen say her few words in Irish and then talk of forbearance and conciliation, two of his greatest qualities.
But perhaps his greatest achievement was that so many people liked him. Indeed, they might have liked him even more if they’d seen the side of him recalled on Friday by Maurice Manning, who spoke of FitzGerald’s “huge sense of fun” and his love of partying and socialising.
Mary Robinson, the former president, remembered what a lot of us immediately recalled on hearing of the former Taoiseach’s death, his devotion to his late wife Joan, about whom he would wax lyrical with hardly any encouragement at all.
“He had a great capacity for love and friendship, of his wife Joan and his large immediate family but also of a wide circle of friends, including children, who delighted in his company”, Robinson said.
Ultimately, it seems, most people – maybe even Margaret Thatcher – will recall Garret FitzGerald as a very nice man. After a lifetime in politics, that really is some accomplishment.