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Sunday 17 November 2019

Obituary: Dr Garret FitzGerald

When Garret FitzGerald was an executive in Aer Lingus his colleagues used to say there wasn’t a problem he could not solve.

Given a problem which had stumped everybody else, he would take it away, lock himself up with it, and never failed to find a solution. It may not always have been the solution best suited to the circumstances, but it was a solution. His colleagues though had one fault to find with him: having made up his mind, it was difficult to make him change it. It had to be proven beyond doubt that his solution was not the correct one. “That took some doing,” recalled one former colleague from those days. Everyone who came in contact with him agreed he was ‘a very decent boss’, and they all recognised that he was the most brilliant star in the Aer Lingus skies.

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 as Taoiseach, a post which he filled for a short ten or eleven months in 1981-82 and again in the second Coalition of 1982. But in his second term of office as Taoiseach his inclination to go his own way, regardless of advice, led him into trouble with the veteran members of the party -­ those who adhered to the more conservative and cautious line of government pursued by Cosgrave.

Those veterans complained he was much more accessible to younger members of the party, especially the female deputies, than to themselves. “Some of those new ones, and especially the women, have the carpet leading to his office worn threadbare,” one oldster complained at the time. People like the Oliver J. Flanagan, Michael Joe Cosgrave and Michael Begley had little time for him. His liberalism was perhaps too advanced for them.

Born the son of Desmond FitzGerald, who was at one time Minister for External Affairs in the old Cumann na Gael government led by William T. Cosgrave. His father fought in the 1916 Insurrection, was imprisoned in the aftermath, was elected to the first Dail as a prisoner, and voted for the Treaty of 1922. He was Minister for Defence in the early thirties when the Offences Against the State and Emergency Powers Act were brought into operation. These were regarded as draconian measures.

For years it appeared that Garret FitzGerald had no great interest in politics. He seemed content to pursue his career as an economist and also was becoming a journalist of international repute for his writing on economic and world affairs. There is no doubt that he was one of our most brilliant economists, even his critics gave him credit for that, but they would add that economists do not make the best politicians. Some of those in his own party who disliked him would say that he was not a politician at all.

He said on more than one occasion, that he would never have dived into the deep waters of Irish politics had not been for the continual problem of the North and the ever growing death toll which horrified and shocked him to the core. His liberal mind was shocked that, after 50 years or more of self government in the South, the cancer of partition was still draining the life blood of the people on both sides of the border.

He had an ethical reason to try to find a solution; son of an Irish freedom fighter, he was also the son of the Northern Irish Presbyterian mother. It was that relationship that made him devote himself to the almost impossible task of trying to unite the two traditions, as he called them. Thanks to his mother, he had an insight into the minds of the majority community in the North. He gained the trust of moderate unionists in a way in which no other southern politician ever did. He optimistically tried to gain the trust of the hardliners and had some small success in doing so. They regarded him with less suspicion than they did any of his predecessors.

While building relations with the Alliance Party and some Unionists during his term as Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dr FitzGerald failed to make any dent in the armor of the DUP leader, Ian Paisley. He was forthright in this condemnation of the actions of some British paratroopers; Paisley defended them, and also tried to put an end to FitzGerald's frequent visits north of the border. Paisley failed, and Dr FitzGerald had frequent contacts with William Whitelaw, then Northern Secretary. It was out of those contacts and the meetings between Liam Cosgrave and the then Tánaiste, Brendan Corish, with Whitelaw that came the ill-fated Sunningdale Pact.

During that four year period in Foreign Affairs, Dr FitzGerald travelled the world and was often referred by Fianna Fáil deputies as being the ‘globe trotting’ Minister. But those visits helped give the country a reputation in international affairs, which it had not previously had. It was during this time that diplomatic relations were established between the USSR and Ireland. It was ironic that ten years later, the Irish government headed by Garret FitzGerald, expelled two Soviet diplomats for unacceptable activities; though these were never set out in detail.

During this period, he first began to warn the nation of over-spending. In 1974 he told the nation that we were living ten per cent beyond our means, spending abroad one-tenth more than we were earning. That was a record, even in the global circumstances. There were no precedent for such a rate of external over-spending, he said. The steps taken by the government to cut back on spending led, three years later, to 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 attempt to impose financial rectitude. But much was to happen in the interval.

He became leader of Fine Gael following the defeat of the Cosgrave Coalition in 1977. When he took over he found a completely demoralised party. The extent of the defeat had completely undermined members’ confidence and he set about rebuilding and developing an electoral machine to challenge Fianna Fáil. He went about this in a typically energetic way; stumping the country morning, noon and night. And he gathered about him a group of young and energetic people. While doing his best to retain the allegiance of the old guard of the party, he devoted most of his attention to the younger voters and to women, building up branches of Young Fine Gael in every constituency. Some of the older grass-roots supporters took a jaundiced view of this. They did not take to having their power bases eroded by the newcomers; nor did they take to the liberal and even radical views of the younger people.

His efforts though were successful, so much so that when the new leader of Fianna Fáil, Charles Haughey, went to the country in 1981 to secure a mandate for his personal leadership, Fine Gael had grown so much in electoral support that, in a working arrangements with the Labour Party, they were able to topple Fianna Fáil, leading to the establishment of the first Fitzgerald coalition. He may have been assisted in this by the fact that Fianna Fáil were disunited, and that a sizeable minority were not satisfied with Haughey's leadership.

It was when the latter's nomination as Taoiseach was put before the Dáil that FitzGerald made a political error that cost him popularity and much nationwide criticism which was shared by some members of his own party. Opposing the nomination he said that he did so, not for any personal reasons, but because of Haughey's faulty background and some matters that could not be mentioned even in the Dáil. It was always felt that what he meant was his opponent’s faulty `political' background, but this is not what he said.

In his battle for power Garret FitzGerald had the unswerving support of his wife, Joan. She accompanied him on all his campaigns, despite being crippled with arthritis. The presence of his wife was something new in Irish politics, and some expressed concern, with some critics going so far as to say that he consulted her on every important decision that came up. And this may well have been the case, because Joan FitzGerald was, in her own way, as strongly nationalist and pluralist as her husband.

He was convinced that before any advance could be made towards bringing together the two communities on the island, a truly pluralist society must first be established in the south. But pluralism was a dirty word as far as some of his old-time party members were concerned. It was in pursuit of this objective that, about the time he became Taoiseach for his second term of office, that he announced his ‘Crusade’ to transform society in this part of the country to make it more acceptable to the Northern Unionists. Fianna Fáil threw cold water on the idea and the rest of the country, more worried about falling standards of living and growing unemployment, was not greatly interested in it. The Crusade failed to get off the ground at the first attempt but, when he got the time, Dr FitzGerald returned to the attack.

He was less than six months in office when he came up with a new idea; that of a Forum for a New Ireland. He succeeded in persuading Fianna Fáil to join with him and also got the whole-hearted support of the Labour Party and the SDLP. But both brands of unionists, official and Paisleyite, would have nothing to do with it. What was more disheartening was that the Alliance Party, regarded as the middle-of-the-road party in the North, cold-shouldered the whole idea. But some individual Unionists did make submissions and helped to draw up proposals for better relations between North and South.

Garret FitzGerald's second cardinal political error came prior to the general election, which brought him his second term of office, when he succumbed to the pressure of the pro-life campaign and committed himself to introducing an amendment to the constitution for the purpose of ensuring that abortion could never be made legal in this country. The Fianna Fáil leader, Charlie Haughey, followed suit and, being in office at the time, drew up his proposed amendment which was accepted by FitzGerald, apparently without having studied it too closely, and without taking legal advice on it.

The ensuing election brought FitzGerald back as Taoiseach, inheriting the Fianna Fáil 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 a period of agonising before the law officers came up with what they felt was a proper formula, but it was rejected by the pro-life movement, by Fianna Fáil and by several Fine Gael deputies. There were widespread allegations that FitzGerald, as Taoiseach, had reneged on a commitment made when he was in opposition.

In the event, his form of words was not accepted by the Dáil, eight of his own deputies joined Fianna Fáil in turning it down and accepted instead the original formula, put forward by the Haughey administration. The Fine Gael parliamentary party and their supporters throughout the country were badly split about the whole business and FitzGerald came in for bitter criticism at his own party meetings. The veteran Laois-Offaly deputy, Oliver J. Flanagan led the revolt in which he was joined by the former Taoiseach, Liam Cosgrave. After a somewhat vindictive campaign the Fianna Fáil amendment was carried by a two-to-one majority.

FitzGerald then had the task of healing the split in the party. He and those who opposed the Fianna Fáil amendment had been decisively rejected by the people and some of his opponents in the party persisted in reminding him that he had egg on his face and that the party had suffered because of his change of heart. The majority of those critics were opposed to what they called the new liberalism and his leaning towards a pluralist society. The party did not come together in self protection.

Despite all that his opponents said about him, Garret FitzGerald devoted most of his life to the promotion of peace at home and abroad; one of his main objectives was to heal old scores. 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, in this country and in his own party and government he never lost sight of that objective.

Similarly, he strove to achieve peaceful co-existence and co-operation between Ireland and our neighbouring island of Britain, being convinced that the well-being of both people depended on each other and would continue to do so because of our proximity. When he became Taoiseach for the first time he found a gap between the two governments beginning to yawn. His predecessor, Charles Haughey had met with the then British premier, Margaret Thatcher, and at first there appeared to be nothing but sweetness and joy from that get-together, the famous silver tea-pot meeting.

The euphoria did not last too long. A joint communiqué was issued announcing progress on the “totality of relationships” between the two governments. But things went wrong when it came obvious that Charles Haughey and Margaret Thatcher had placed different interpretations on what had been said between them.

When Dr FitzGerald became Taoiseach for the first time he set out to re-build 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 also visited her in Downing Street. There were signs that the gap was beginning to narrow a little, even if Thatcher was still very suspicious of having anything to do with any head of an Irish government. She was deliberately vague in her statements during and after those meetings.

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. The Northern Secretary, James Prior, came up with his proposals for a consultative assembly in the North, but these were dismissed out of hand by Haughey as being a futile exercise. This did not endear him to either Prior or to Mrs Thatcher. Then 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, then in the grip of a jingoistic war fever. And no Briton was more angry about it than Mrs Thatcher. Where before there had been coolness between the heads of the two states, now there was a definite freeze on. The easy British victory in the Falklands did not improve matters; the British felt they had been badly let down by their nearest neighbour and so, when Garret FitzGerald was returned in late 1982 he found relations between the two governments practically non-existent. Again he faced the task of improving matters. It was to be a long and tedious up-hill fight, but it culminated in their first formal and friendly meetings in November 1983.

There were still difference and during the hunger-strikes of 1981 he was not slow, as Taoiseach, to criticise her for her “inflexibility” towards the men who were dying. Failure to resolve that crisis, he said, had strengthened the Provisional IRA and increased the danger of a worsening of violence in the North and in the Republic. But when later the remarks of Michael O'Leary of the Labour Party, then his Tánaiste, that Mrs. Thatcher was uncaring and irresponsible, he said he would not go so far, and would not like to personalise the issue in that way.

In public as in private life, Dr FitzGerald had a charm all his own. And it was this, along with his knowledge of French, and one or two other European languages, that made him such a popular figure and such a success in the various European and world organisations with which he had to deal both as Taoiseach and as Minister for Foreign Affairs. He held the highest offices open to an Irish person in Europe and, according to his European and UN colleagues, discharged each of them with distinction. A dedicated European, he made friendships and contact that stood well to this country, as was evidenced in Ireland's battle against the super-levy on milk.

What was Garret FitzGerald like as a person leaving aside his political image? He was a deeply caring man, one who was willing take all the ills of the world on his shoulders. He was dedicated to peace at home and abroad; hated poverty and destitution and the conditions which caused those evils. And he was as courteous a gentleman as ever entered Irish political life.

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