A silent void in space Garret once occupied
Debate and thoughtful discourse is poorer for the passing of one very wise public intellectual, writes NOEL WHELAN
ONE WEEK later, it is still hard to believe that Garret is gone. While many of the reflections on Garret’s life work focused correctly on his political career, his contribution to public life both before and after his time in politics is also worthy of attention. On this page and elsewhere, his passing has left a massive void in public debate.
Garret was much more than a mere commentator or columnist. He was, in the true sense of Judge Richard Posner’s phrase, a public intellectual: a person highly skilled and reputed in a specialist field who constantly made efforts in writing and broadcasting to communicate his knowledge and insights to a wider audience.
What distinguished Garret from us mere pundits was both the quantity and quality of his published work. Garret was not one of those economists who just fired off a salvo and then retreated to their academic eyrie. Week in, week out and in various published works, he laid out systematically the material to support his arguments.
The impact of Garret’s writings was apparent even before he entered politics. One personal example illustrates.
We had a very small library in my old secondary school. Among the books which students were allowed to borrow was a handful on history and politics. The first one I read was the Earl of Longford and TP O’Neill’s official biography of Eamon de Valera. It was a heavy tome but very acceptable reading for a young fellow from a strongly Fianna Fáil house.
The other book I remember borrowing had more risks attached. Indeed I never dared take it out at home. It was Towards a New Ireland, a book written in 1972 by Garret FitzGerald. At the time I was reading it in the early 1980s, he was the leader of Fine Gael. It was a short book (at least by Garret’s standards) which traced the causes of political divisions on the island of Ireland.
In it, he gave his perspective on how those divisions might be resolved. It was a challenging piece of writing and it certainly challenged many of the crude perspectives on the “national” question to which I had been exposed. Garret FitzGerald can claim some of the credit for reconfiguring the debate about Northern Ireland in the Republic and bringing a more realistic and rational assessment of the conflict to a wider audience south of the Border.
Having retired from politics in 1992, Garret made the significant decision to write and publish his memoirs. He was the first senior Irish politician to do so. It was a fascinating first-hand account of how government works – or indeed often does not.
The extent to which he continued to contribute to political debate until recent months is awesome. He offered strong, informed and non-partisan advice on the strategic challenges facing our politicians. One of his most recent significant contributions was to sound alarm bells at the time of the 2002 and 2007 elections about how the manifestos of both government and opposition parties were unaffordable.
Every week he made economics, politics and particularly the significance of demographic change relatively penetrable for a wider audience.
I met him in person for the first time almost 20 years ago when he, politely, edged his way into a late-night session and debate involving young political activists from parties in both Britain and Ireland. And I came across him at conferences, summer schools and political events where he was frequently a contributor, as often on a roving mike from the floor as from the main podium.
At many of these gatherings, I was struck by his generosity and time for anyone who wanted to talk to him. The older he got, the more he appeared to thrive on discussion and debate with young people in particular. It was immaterial to him who he was talking to, he cared only about what they had to say or their reaction to what he had to say.
There have been dozens of stories told in the last eight days about Garret’s love of numbers. I would add two. I, along with the Northern Ireland elections expert Nicholas Whyte rushed out a Tallyman’s Guide to the 2003 Northern Ireland Assembly Elections. Such was the rush that the book contained tables with columns which had not been completed. At the launch, a sharp-eyed photographer captured Garret, with his own calculations, handwriting in the missing figures to his own copy.
My favourite story, however, is one he used to tell against himself. It involved an occasion when he had to overnight in a Rosslare hotel either because he had just missed a ferry departure or because his ferry was delayed until the following morning. Unusually, he found himself in the hotel room with no reading material. Intellectually frustrated, he searched the bedside locker where, apart from the usual Gideon Bible, he could only find two telephone books. This was in the days when the entire Republic’s numbers were encompassed in two volumes.
Putting the Bible to one side, he sat and read one of the telephone books. However, there was an objective to his reading. He was anxious to prove to himself a theory he had that once people from the counties of Leinster gravitated to study or work in Dublin, very many stayed there. By cross-referencing his own detailed knowledge of the concentration of particular surnames in particular counties with a reading of the 01 phone book, he apparently confirmed his theory.
It is the kind of story which, if told to you about Garret, you would suspect as having been made up. I fear we will not be fortunate to see his like again.