'A courageous and visionary taoiseach'


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

Former taoiseach Garret FitzGerald has died at the age of 85.

Dr FitzGerald, who had been ill in hospital, 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. But, before entering active politics, he had far-reaching influence as an economic commentator and analyst. 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.

However, 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?”

Born on February 9th, 1926, when his father was minister for external affairs, Dr FitzGerald had the impeccable nationalist pedigree of both parents in the GPO for the 1916 Easter Rising.

Educated at Belvedere College, Dr FitzGerald later attended UCD, where he studied history, French and Spanish. He also met Joan O’Farrell, whom he married in 1947. Another student contemporary was Charlie Haughey.

After four years in the Seanad, Dr FitzGerald was elected to the Dáil in the 1969 general election and was appointed Opposition front bench spokesman on education. In 1971 he was promoted to spokesman for finance and later found himself in the Cabinet and minister for foreign affairs following the snap 1973 election.

He became leader of the Fine Gael party in 1977. When Mr 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.

By the time the next general election was called for June 1981, Fine Gael morale was high and the party machine in top gear as a result of the four years of preparation under the new leader.

The result was a triumph 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 over 50 years. But the new Coalition needed the support of three Independent TDs to get Dr 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 Mr Lynch and Mr Haughey. The new minister for finance, John Bruton, had to bring in a mini-budget in July raising taxes and cutting expenditure.

Dr 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 Pro-Life campaign before the election to hold a referendum to put an anti-abortion clause in the Constitution would come back to haunt him.

The inexperience of the new ministers was exposed in the 1982 budget, which included reductions 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 Sean Loftus voted with Fianna Fáil.

The ensuing election in February 1982 resulted in a slight improvement for 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 murderer Malcolm MacArthur, who had sought refuge with the-then 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 that would involve cutbacks and economic stringency.

Moreover, the “pro-life” amendment which Dr 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.

Dr FitzGerald inherited what he called a “disastrous” situation in Anglo-Irish relations following the breach between Mr Haughey and the-then British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, over the Falklands War and her displeasure at how he had allowed the results of their 1980 summit in Dublin on Northern Ireland to be exaggerated.

However, the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement was the highlight of Dr 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.

Dr FitzGerald’s final 18 months in power were increasingly difficult on the domestic front, however, and he resigned immediately after the 1987 election. He retired from active politics after two years on the back benches, but retirement only meant more time for intellectual pursuits as well as for his family. He also resumed writing his Saturday column for The Irish Times, drawing on a lifetime’s experience in politics and economics to comment on contemporary events.

He was pre-deceased by his wife, Joan, and is survived by his sons, John and Mark, and his daughter, Mary.