A man of great integrity who was devoted to service of State

 

OBITUARY:DR GARRET FitzGerald, who has died aged 85, was an outstanding minister for foreign affairs who left his stamp on an evolving Europe; a courageous and visionary taoiseach, especially concerning Northern Ireland; and the most intellectual politician in the Ireland of his generation.

He brought a reinvigorated Fine Gael party to new heights of popularity in the general election of November 1982, which have never been matched since, although Fine Gael won more seats in the election just past (76) on a lower lower percentage of the vote (36.1 per cent as opposed to 39.2 in November 1982).

Even before entering active politics, he had far-reaching influence as an economic commentator and analyst. He was listened to carefully by ministers and senior civil servants as Ireland abandoned protectionist policies and prepared for entry into the then European Economic Community.

As an economics lecturer he inspired students to challenge accepted ideas and as a manager in Aer Lingus with a magisterial grasp of statistics he helped the airline expand beyond the conventional routes.

His mind never rested and his ideas on economics, social affairs, education and even religion continued to evolve and spill out in his journalism years after he had left active politics. But at times his restless mind could run ahead of cold reality and he could show surprising naivety in his dealings with fellow politicians. He has been credited with the comment: “That’s fine in practice but will it work in theory.”

It was his ill-fortune that his years at the head of government were marked by serious economic crises that limited his scope to put his radical ideas into practice. The crises also strained relations with his Labour partners but he always dealt with his fellow ministers with courtesy and understanding for their difficulties.

Abroad, especially in Europe, he had an enviable reputation for his vision, grasp of essentials and tough negotiating, which often was not recognised at home. In his dealings with Northern Ireland his leadership was distinguished by his reaching out to the unionist community in spite of numerous rebuffs. Yet his main achievement, the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, was negotiated without the agreement of those unionists and was bitterly opposed by them.

Under his charge in the early 1970s the Department of Foreign Affairs was revitalised and new embassies were opened. A generation of younger diplomats was inspired by his vision of how much Ireland could contribute to as well as benefit from the building of a new Europe.

He had the impeccable nationalist pedigree of having had both parents in the GPO for the 1916 Easter Rising. But they also represented different traditions as his father, Desmond FitzGerald, came from Catholic Munster stock though born and brought up in London; while his mother, Mabel McConnell, was from a Northern Protestant family. They met in London where both were involved in the Gaelic League.

GARRET FITZGERALD WASborn in Dublin on February 9th, 1926, when his father was minister for external affairs. He had taken the pro-Treaty side in the Civil War, while his wife was strongly opposed but not in an active way. The family moved to Bray where FitzGerald recalled distinguished men of letters such as WB Yeats, TS Eliot and Jacques Maritain visiting his father, who had been a poet himself in pre-war London, linked with the Imagist movement.

FitzGerald was educated in Belvedere College, where classmates included two future archbishops of Dublin, Dermot Ryan and Desmond Connell. By the age of 14 he had spent two summers in France learning the language. He was precocious in other ways and campaigned in school against the Nazi persecution of Jews and Christians even before the second World War had begun. He joined the Local Defence Force in 1942, although under age. When he passed his Leaving and Matriculation at 16, he was too young to go to UCD and stayed back for an extra year at Belvedere.

In UCD he studied history, French and Spanish. He also met Joan O’Farrell whom he married in 1947. A student contemporary was Charles Haughey.

While his father wanted him to practise at the Bar, FitzGerald, who had already acquired an encyclopaedic knowledge of airline schedules, applied to Aer Lingus and was appointed an administrative assistant. He was to remain there for 11 years but supplemented his modest salary with freelance journalism for newspapers around the world, especially in the Commonwealth countries. At various times up to 1973, when he became a minister, he was correspondent in Dublin for the Financial Times,the Economistand the BBC.

He campaigned for Fine Gael in the 1948 general election, assuming the party was pro-Commonwealth and sympathetic to Nato, but was disillusioned when the new government led by John A Costello declared a Republic and left the Commonwealth.

In 1958 he resigned from Aer Lingus, where he had risen to managerial status, to pursue his journalism, start up an economic consultancy and do part-time lecturing.

His articles on the economy in The Irish Times had become required reading for ministers and senior civil servants, although he had no formal qualifications in economics. He was later awarded a PhD for his thesis on planning in Ireland, which he turned into a book. He also published a book on semi-State companies. In 1959 he was appointed a junior lecturer in UCD, while continuing his journalism and consultancy work.

Politics re-entered his busy life when Declan Costello asked him in 1964 to help in the drafting of the Fine Gael blueprint for The Just Society. In his autobiography, FitzGerald writes that around this time his social ideas had been undergoing something of a revolution. “The conservatism and indeed clericalism of my youth had given way gradually to a much more liberal and progressive outlook. By 1964, instead of rejecting liberalism and socialism, I was concerned to incorporate them into an integrated Irish philosophy of life.”

He was invited to stand for Fine Gael in the 1965 general election in Dublin South-East but reluctantly refused as Joan was unhappy at him entering politics. This did not prevent him standing successfully for the Seanad several months later and he was appointed to the party front bench by the new Fine Gael leader, Liam Cosgrave, with whom he was to have an uneasy relationship in the years to come.

During his four years in the Seanad, FitzGerald promoted Ireland’s entry into the EEC by strengthening his links with influential figures in the European Commission and by frequent visits to Brussels, where his fluent French was an obvious advantage.

The publication of the Humanae Vitae encyclical condemning artificial contraception in 1968 reawakened his interest in theology and he worked with a group of lay Catholics to submit a highly critical report on the document to the Irish bishops. FitzGerald came to believe his previous objections to artificial contraception had been “aesthetic rather than moral”.

In the 1969 general election, he was elected to the Dáil and appointed opposition front bench spokesman on education. Once in the Dáil, FitzGerald was able to display his expertise in all areas and an Irish Times cartoon portrayed a Fine Gael front bench of 24 Garret FitzGeralds.

In 1971 he was promoted to spokesman for finance but his relations with Liam Cosgrave were becoming more strained as the latter suspected the liberal wing of the party, including FitzGerald and Tom O’Higgins, of plotting his replacement. The tensions burst out at the May 1972 ardfheis when Cosgrave turned on what he called the “mongrel foxes” inside the party and warned he would let the “rank and file of the party tear them apart”. FitzGerald, who saw himself as one of the “foxes”, considered leaving the platform in protest but decided against.

Jack Lynch, sensing disarray in Fine Gael, called a snap election early in 1973 but Fine Gael and Labour had been discussing a pre-election pact and this was quickly finalised. As a result, Fianna Fáil was ousted from power for the first time since 1954.

Suddenly FitzGerald found himself in the cabinet and minister for foreign affairs like his father before him. The appointment at first disappointed him as he expected the more senior portfolio of finance, which went to Richie Ryan, but it turned out to be the right one for himself and the country at a time when Ireland was entering the EEC.

THE EEC AND NORTHERN Irelandwere to dominate his life over the next four years. He ensured the first Irish presidency of the EEC in 1975 was a success through careful planning and the motivation of officials and fellow ministers. He organised other small member states to oppose attempts by larger members to introduce a Directoire style of policymaking. He pressed for more use of qualified majority voting, and greater openness with the press, while vigorously defending Irish interests in regional policy and fisheries. His network of contacts and familiarity with the European institutions helped greatly in the tough bargaining sessions.

On Northern Ireland, he was prominent in the lead-up to the Sunningdale negotiations to give a cross-Border dimension to the new powersharing system set up in Stormont. He had already set out his ideas on the subject in his 1972 book Towards a New Ireland.One of his greatest fears was that Britain would be forced by the IRA’s campaign to abandon Northern Ireland and he sounded out Henry Kissinger to bring US pressure on London in case it was tempted in this direction.

FitzGerald found his relations with Cosgrave improved while they were in government and he developed a new admiration for him. This did not include the latter’s decision to vote against his government’s Bill to legalise contraception. FitzGerald even toyed with the idea of resigning over the debacle.

By 1977, the coalition, battered by the economic fallout from the oil crisis, the struggle against the IRA and by the collapse of powersharing in Northern Ireland, was exhausted.

When Cosgrave resigned immediately after the coalition’s rout by Fianna Fáil in 1977, FitzGerald was the obvious choice to succeed him. Peter Barry, who considered opposing him, withdrew but told FitzGerald that while he might be a better leader of the Opposition, he (Barry) would be better able to cope with the task of government.

He embarked on his new role with customary enthusiasm, producing a 25,000-word document for his colleagues on his ideas for resolving problems in the social, political and educational areas, among others. He ensured the party would now be firmly behind the “social democratic principles of The Just Society”. He set about a radical overhaul of the Fine Gael organisation, appointing two key assistants, Peter Prendergast and Ted Nealon.

When Charles Haughey succeeded Jack Lynch as leader of Fianna Fáil and taoiseach in December 1979, the stage was set for a confrontation between the two leaders which was to dominate Irish politics over the next seven years. FitzGerald’s “flawed pedigree” criticism of Haughey on the day of his nomination did not strike the right note and FitzGerald subsequently expressed regret, saying it was misunderstood and referred only to what he said was a “flawed political pedigree”.

By the time of the next general election in June 1981, Fine Gael morale was high and the party machine was in top gear after four years of preparation under the new leader. A programme had been agreed with Labour and his whistle-stop tour by train in which Joan took part, galvanised the Fine Gael campaign.

THE RESULT WAS A TRIUMPHfor Fine Gael, which increased its number of seats in an enlarged Dáil from 43 to 65 and raised its vote to its highest level in more than 50 years. But the new coalition needed the support of three Independent TDs to get FitzGerald elected as taoiseach.

The excitement of power quickly evaporated when the incoming government had a look at the public finances inherited from the free-spending years under Lynch and Haughey. The new minister for finance, John Bruton, had to bring in a mini-budget in July, raising taxes and cutting expenditure.

FitzGerald made headlines that September when he announced a “constitutional crusade” for a “genuine Republic” freed from sectarian laws. But a pledge he had given the anti-abortion campaign before the election to hold a referendum to put a clause in the Constitution would come back to haunt him.

The inexperience of the new ministers was exposed in the 1982 budget, which included cuts in some food subsidies and the imposition of VAT on clothing and footwear. The Independents were not consulted beforehand and the government fell when Jim Kemmy and Seán Loftus voted with Fianna Fáil. FitzGerald wrote later that with the announcement of the Dáil vote, he experienced “a moment of total exhilaration” that they would be “going into battle on a budget we could defend with conviction and enthusiasm”. It is unlikely many in his party felt similarly.

The ensuing election in February 1982 resulted in a slight improvement in Fianna Fáil’s position, while Fine Gael had a net loss of only two seats.

The spell in opposition lasted only nine months as the Fianna Fáil minority government gradually crumbled in the face of internal dissension and the Gubu scandal involving the murderer, Malcolm Macarthur, who had sought refuge with the attorney general, Patrick Connolly, who was unaware of his crimes.

Fine Gael and Labour swept back into power in November, with Fine Gael recording its best ever result with 39 per cent of the votes and 70 seats, bringing them within five seats of Fianna Fáil. But the coalition was again faced with a serious situation in the public finances, which would involve cutbacks and economic stringency. Again, this would create strains between the two parties but FitzGerald tried hard to establish good relations with Dick Spring, the new Labour leader, who was younger than the taoiseach’s eldest son.

Cabinet meetings became long-drawn-out affairs that exhausted the participants as FitzGerald tried to ensure there was consensus and not rule by majority. Some ministers complained the meetings were at times like “academic tutorials”. It became all downhill for the coalition following the initial euphoria of regaining office and confirming an Irish Times disclosure that under the former Fianna Fáil government the telephones of two prominent political journalists, Bruce Arnold and Geraldine Kennedy, had been tapped by the Garda.

The top rate of income tax rose to 65 per cent, a property tax was introduced, unemployment rose, emigration soared to levels not seen since the 1950s and the interest on the national debt threatened to absorb all taxation.

The anti-abortion amendment FitzGerald had agreed to submit to a referendum became a huge embarrassment as, on legal advice – since vindicated by the “X” case – he opposed the wording he had first accepted when proposed by Fianna Fáil. Many in his own party continued to support the wording, which was strongly backed by the Catholic bishops. The amendment was overwhelmingly approved in September 1983 by a two-to-one majority. Another setback was to be the failure of the referendum to introduce divorce in 1986.

The historian Prof Joe Lee has been critical of FitzGerald’s “crusade”, writing that “however genuine his aspiration to greater religious tolerance, his pluralism was too anaemic . . . to rouse mass support”.

FitzGerald inherited what he called a “disastrous” situation in Anglo-Irish relations following the breach between Haughey and the British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, over the Falklands War and her displeasure at how Haughey had allowed the results of their 1980 summit in Dublin on Northern Ireland to be exaggerated. FitzGerald set out to mend the relationship between Dublin and London and to break the impasse in Northern Ireland since the breakdown of powersharing in 1974. The first step was to set up the New Ireland Forum, out of which FitzGerald hoped a nationalist consensus would emerge from which he could negotiate a new agreement with Britain. Personally, he hoped for an agreement incorporating a joint-authority model for Northern Ireland and powersharing, in return for amendments of Articles two and three of the Constitution, but Mrs Thatcher baulked at this.

THE 1985 ANGLO-IRISHAgreement was the highlight of FitzGerald’s second term as taoiseach. For the first time since 1921, a British government gave Dublin a formal consultative role in the affairs of Northern Ireland of concern to the nationalist minority through joint ministerial conferences and a permanent secretariat staffed by Irish officials at Maryfield outside Belfast. The agreement on the status of Northern Ireland recognised that any change could come only with the consent of the majority there.

It was to take another 13 years, however, before the unionists and Sinn Féin could be drawn into the wider Belfast Agreement, but it was built on the foundations of its predecessor.

When Haughey tried at first to undermine the Anglo-Irish Agreement, he quickly realised that international opinion, especially in the US, recognised it as a groundbreaking step to an eventual solution of the Northern Ireland problem and he proceeded to use it himself when he returned to power in 1987.

FitzGerald’s final 18 months in power were increasingly difficult on the domestic front. He bungled a cabinet reshuffle in 1986, which diminished his authority. The divorce referendum was another defeat but his government did get through sensible contraception legislation. When the time came to draft the 1987 budget, the coalition partners recognised, in amicable enough fashion thanks to the good relationship between FitzGerald and Spring, that they had come to the parting of the ways over spending on health and social welfare.

On the personal level, it had been a sad year for FitzGerald. Two of his brothers, Desmond and Pierce, had died in a nine-month period. Another brother, Fergus, had died in 1983. Joan’s health was also a constant preoccupation. She and FitzGerald were devoted to each other. For many years she battled a crippling disease and was confined to a wheelchair, frequently pushed by her husband.

The arrival of the Progressive Democrats was at first seen by FitzGerald as well as many others as a major threat to Fianna Fáil in the 1987 election but the new party’s 14 seats were won largely at the expense of Fine Gael, which lost 19 seats.

FitzGerald believed he no longer had “the physical or moral stamina to provide the kind of dynamic leadership the party would need in order to recover from the defeat that it had just suffered”. He resigned immediately after the election and was lecturing in the US during the campaign to choose his successor, Alan Dukes, who would have been his personal choice.

HE RETIRED FROM ACTIVEpolitics after two years on the backbenches but retirement only meant more time for intellectual pursuits as well as for his family. And in September 1991, he resumed writing his Saturday column for The Irish Times, drawing on a lifetime’s experience in politics and economics to comment on contemporary events.

His column of December 4th, 2004, was an occasion for him to recall 50 years writing for the newspaper, his first fully authored contribution being a letter to the editor, his first full article dating from 1954.

He began the column thus: “Back in the 1930s, when I was eight or nine, I seem to recall helping my next brother, Fergus, to write one or two paragraphs for the Irishman’s Diary miscellany, which I think in those days paid 3 shillings and 6 pence for any paragraph published. And in 1945 as a law student I wrote two letters to The Irish Times’s correspondence column on the role of the king in the domestic affairs of our State.

“But it was much later, on December 4th, 1954, (which, like today, was a Saturday), that my first article was published by The Irish Times. Since then I have written some 1,700 articles for this paper totalling about 2,250,000 words.”

Since that 1991 column, he wrote some 500 more, each about 1,000 words in length. In recent years, he was among the first to point to the problems arising from Ireland’s creeping lack of competitiveness. He also drew attention to the absence of an appropriate sense of individual and civic responsibility, which he believed permeated public and business life and contributed greatly to the current economic crisis.

He pinned some of the blame for this on the Catholic Church which, he argued, had spent much of the 20th century obsessing about matters, such as contraception, which its flock simply ignored. He lamented the absence of church condemnation of white-collar crime such as tax evasion.

He was extraordinarily prolific and dedicated to his column, recalls his editor at the paper, Peter Murtagh, who said he was filled with energy well into his 80s.

“Whenever I called Garret on a Thursday or Friday to find out about his column for the week, I was just as likely to hear that he was at home in Rathmines and was just finishing it, as that he was in Kazakhstan, where he went several times between 1993 and 1995 helping with free trade matters between there, Kirghizia and Uzbekistan. Or he might well be in America or Zambia, speaking at a conference.

“He was extraordinarily well-informed and thorough in his research and analysis and he remained deeply concerned for the wellbeing of his country right up to the end of his life.”

He produced his memoirs, All in a Life, in 1991, all 674 pages of them. It was the first time a taoiseach had written his autobiography and it is an indispensable aid to historians of the period as well as a fascinating account of his own development as a man and a politician. He also became an active chancellor of the National University of Ireland. In 2003, he published a thoughtful study of contemporary problems entitled Reflections on the Irish State.

Although retired from active politics, he took a keen interest in politics right up to the end, campaigning in the second Lisbon Treaty referendum in 2009 through his writing and handing out leaflets on the street as well.

FitzGerald had to deal with some personal as well as public financial crises during his long career. On his first appointment as a minister in 1973, his after-tax income fell suddenly by 40 per cent because he had to give up his work as economic consultant, university lecturer and freelance journalist.

He was obliged to sell his large house on Eglinton Road and move to a smaller one. Several years later, he moved to what became the permanent home on Palmerston Road, parts of which were shared by different members of his family.

A more serious crisis occurred as a result of his association with Guinness Peat Aviation. He was appointed a director of GPA after leaving politics and in anticipation of the public flotation of the company he and others in GPA borrowed substantial amounts of money to purchase shares at a favourable price, which was expected to rise when the company went public.

When the flotation was cancelled, FitzGerald was left owing several hundred thousand pounds to AIB. He sold his house to his son Mark and lived in an apartment in the house but still owed an estimated £230,000 to AIB.

He paid around £50,000 and the rest was written off by the bank.

His friend Peter Sutherland, who was then chairman of AIB, has strongly denied allegations that he had any role in this write-off.

Few politicians who have attained the top rank have had so few political enemies.

“Garret the Good”, the nickname given to him by the journalist John Healy was meant to be ironic (and was employed in sneering terms by Haughey acolytes), but it reflected a truth about him.

He was seen, for all his mistakes, to be a man of the highest integrity, devoted to the good of the State and with an enthusiasm for the rough and tumble of politics that has not been matched since.

He was admired and loved by a wide circle of friends who regularly enjoyed the hospitality of himself and Joan. He showed generosity and compassion to friends in difficult times.

He was predeceased by Joan in 1999 and is survived by his sons, John and Mark, and his daughter, Mary.


Garret FitzGerald: born February 9th, 1926; died May 19th, 2011