US envoy in early 1990s whose nomination caused controversy

 

William FitzGerald:William H.G. FitzGerald, a Washington-based private investor who was active in philanthropies and served as US ambassador to Ireland from 1992 to 1993, has died at George Washington University Hospital. He was 96.

His appointment to the Dublin post was controversial; gaffes at his Senate confirmation hearings led to calls - principally from Irish-American voices - for the appointment to be withdrawn. In the pre-Clinton era there were fears that the White House cared little for Irish concerns, and some believed the 82-year-old's performance at the confirmation hearings were proof of this.

A Boston native and a 1931 graduate of the US Naval Academy, FitzGerald served in the US navy before attending Harvard Law School and embarking on a business career. He was a navy veteran of the second World War.

He was sponsored for an advisory post in the White House during the Eisenhower years by Senator Prescott Sheldon Bush, grandfather of the US president, who would later appoint him to Dublin. He maintained a friendship with George Herbert Walker Bush and became a donor to Republican Party political campaigns.

He was involved in housing projects in Washington starting about 1940 and later was chairman of North American Housing Corporation, which made modular homes.

From 1958 to 1960 he was deputy director for management of the International Co-operation Administration, which became the US Agency for International Development.

In 1987 he started high school scholarships for inner-city children in the Catholic archdiocese of Washington. He was a senior member of the Order of Malta and a lay religious order of the Catholic church, and also sat on the Catholic Republican committee advising Bush on his campaigns.

His rewards were to include the Dublin ambassadorship; as Conor O'Clery of The Irish Times observed at the time, the move fitted "a White House pattern of using ambassadors as a substitute for an honours system". However, he showed a limited grasp of Irish affairs at the Senate committee hearings to confirm the post, particularly when he commended efforts to promote dialogue and co-operation "between the unionists and the loyalists".

Reaction was swift. "This ambassador should withdraw" said the Irish Voice, while the Echo agreed that the appointment suggested the White House lacked any real interest in Ireland or commitment to Irish affairs. However, in an editorial entitled "Ambassador Who?" it more generously said he was "clearly an exceptionally energetic man for his 82 years" and argued that he should not be judged too hastily.

The appointment was confirmed, and William FitzGerald arrived in June 1992 for what proved a short and quiet term in office.

He became well known as a donor to worthy causes. He was a benefactor of the Naval Academy, where he and his wife started a programme to send midshipmen to postgraduate study. He was a former vice-chairman of the African Development Foundation and at the Washington Tennis Foundation he established a programme to mentor inner-city children.

He was an active tennis player until the age of 93. Indeed one of his first questions on being offered the post in Dublin was whether the ambassador's residence had a tennis court. Alas, there was not, and he suggested he might have to take up golf.

Survivors include his wife of 63 years, Annelise Petschek FitzGerald; two children, Desmond and Anne (Slichter); and five grandchildren.

William FitzGerald: born 1909, died January 5th, 2006